October 10, 2003
No Man's Land in Journalism Today
The LA Times intervened in the recall. But it can't say that. Terry Gross took action against Bill O'Reilly. She can't say that. Strange, what's unsayble.
This week, the Los Angeles Times is catching hell for its decision to print accusations of sexual conduct against a candidate for governor in the week before the vote. The LAT’s actions are seen as a late intervention in the race— possibly legitmate, maybe not. But it’s hard to resolve the matter when there is no language of “intervention” available to press thinking, no way to explain yourself in those terms. Listen to this:
“I don’t consider it my business to judge the political impact of what the paper publishes,” says John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times. “That’s up to the politicians. But it is a paper’s job to disclose anything it knows that bears on a candidate’s fitness for office — before Election Day, not after.” I know what he means. You become gun shy if you worry too much about people’s reactions.
But think it through: if the newspaper has a duty to disclose before the vote, the reason has to be that the news in hand might have an effect, might be “relevant” to voters. If that’s the determination made, why does Carroll say his business is not to judge the impact of the paper’s reporting? He must have some business in that area. “It’s relevant and could have an effect,” is a different judgment from “it’s irrelevant and won’t have an effect.” And it leads to a different decision.
With equal or greater accuracy, Carroll could have said:
Yes, we realized this story could have an effect on the race. That is why we published it, so that voters could decide if new facts about Arnold Schwarzenegger changed their view of his fitness for office. We’re not in the business of publishing things that have no impact on the way people think; that’s not effective journalism, and it’s not responsible journalism. But are we at the Los Angeles Times telling you the reader what to think by running the story? I say so emphatically, we are not.
But that would be an attempt to legitimize intervention. If instead you say: “took action? what action? all we do is provide information…” you appear to elude the legitimacy debate, even though critics are screaming for you to join it. And I think Carroll is being elusive in this way.
This week Terry Gross, host of Fresh Air, the popular show heard on NPR stations, was blasted by Fox’s Bill O’Reilly for admitting in her interview with him that she had not treated Al Franken, on a recent book tour, to the same kind of probing and poking she got into with O’Reilly (who is also on a book tour.) He denounced her double standards in a speech, then stormed out of the studio, cutting short what he called an “ambush” interview. Then he raged against Gross and NPR on his web page and TV show, including an “isn’t this outrageous?” exchange with a Republican Congressman, Cliff Stearns of Florida, who said: outrageous, Bill.
Stearns then threatened to look into NPR’s remaining government funding. If you listen to the interview, which is fascinating and brutal, you will discover that Terry Gross had no idea what to say when O’Reilly, sensing a kill, denounced her lack of evehandedness. She tried to come back with, “Al Franken had written a book of political satire,” which, her reasoning went, is different. (How? Is satire harmless? Not of political consequence? Released from full scrutiny because it’s good clean fun? Is Franken not a political figure, as well as satirist, comedian, author?) You have to listen to the tape for how weak this is, though for much of the interview Gross was in good command, and O’Reilly had the weaker answers.
If there was a coherent explanation for why she did a more light-hearted interview with Al Franken, it might go something like this:
I, Terry Gross, think you, Bill O’Reilly, are rather a bully, a touch more than paranoid, and too ready to smear people you don’t like, all of which matters to the public and to my listenership, because you are a best selling author, anchor a top-rated news program on Fox, can be heard on some 400 radio stations (your figure) and you have a lot of power. That’s kind of scary to me and the people who listen to Fresh Air. Al Franken doesn’t scare me, although he can go overboard. You do. So I ask you different questions. Is there anything else I can illuminate for you, Mr. O’Reilly?
But this reasoning—which I actually think is defensible, although it might anger even more people—is unsayable in the public tongue the press has learned to speak. Gross is taking a kind of affirmative radio action here, (whereas with Franken she did not feel the need) but all her profession has to justify this decision is a thin language of information. She could say: look, the rules of any interview permit tough questioning, but then why not be just as tough with Franken?
Fair and balanced, fair and balanced. O’Reilly hammered on that phrase. Gross stammered to explain why her admitedly unbalanced treatment was, in some unspoken moral universe, quite fair. It’s not that she broke the rules of journalism so much as she entered a territory with O’Reilly that is effectively rule-less. This was greatly to his advantage, because he is more ready to blow up her show than she is. The press nether-world can be dangerous.
NPR’s ombudsman calls the Gross interview unfair.
Click here for my later post about John Carroll’s extended explanation of the Schwarzenegger groping stories.
Doc Searles listened to the interview and has an intelligent reaction: “The real conflict here isn’t between left and right, but between two kinds of righteousness. One looks for ‘middle ground,’ as Gross put it. The other fights a ‘cultural war,’ as O’Reilly put it.”
Posted by Jay Rosen at October 10, 2003 4:02 PM Print
While I don't really like O-Reilly very much, I'm sick of Terry Gross and the whole NPR "holier than thou" bit. She definately nailed him to the wall, and gave Al a cute little pat on the head. Why? Why not do real interviews with both of them? Too much to lose?
Posted by: Kate at October 12, 2003 11:02 PM | Permalink
Bill O'Reilly stormed out? Did I miss something in the interview available at NPR? Sounds like he continued to answer questions to me after the dust-up.
Posted by: Sandy P. at October 13, 2003 1:36 AM | Permalink
I listened to the interview and missed the walk-out as well. I will say this for a show that is usually boring, often studio-made with recycled material, and usually nothing more than a kiss-up fest a-la Larry King; the O'reilly episode was the best Fresh Air that I've listened to. (I usually change stations when it comes on). NPR would be so much better if they showed a little more gumption. It's not just their holier-than-thou attitude that bothers me, it's the pretend even-handedness. If they simply stated their agenda and asked their questions as suggested (instead of acting as if they sit on the fence), the entire pantheon of shows would be more interesting and less infuriating.
Posted by: Scott at October 13, 2003 6:01 PM | Permalink
His walk-out happens at the 39:00 mark. O'Reilly completes a bitter monologue, ("I think what we know what this is about, Terry...") and suggests Gross needs to find another profession. Then he says, "and that is the end of this interview." Gross: you make a speech and walk out on me?
Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 13, 2003 6:35 PM | Permalink
Actually he didn,t walk out because he did the interview from where he does his radio show.
Posted by: ralph at October 13, 2003 8:06 PM | Permalink
When exactly did the idea of a "neutral press" become dominant? If brain-eating zombies started going on rampages at Little League games, eating the brains of the kids and their parents, would news accounts have to be polite and noncommittal as to whether brain-eating zombies are good or bad?
And why is it the center-left's duty to be "neutral"? Bill O'Reilly has made a career of shouting down interview subjects he disaagrees with, pelting them with ad hominem attacks and just plain nastiness. Now, for 40 minutes or so, Terry Gross measuredly, calmly asks O'Reilly some questions nobody gets to ask on his show, and she's done something wrong? And this triggers a U.S. senator calling for an end to the remaining meager government funding NPR gets? A couple of liberal interviewers and a weekly dose of Garrison Keillor does not a leftist radio network make. Years of program underwriting from GE and the repellent business-news program "Marketplace" alone put such a simple and outdated reading of NPR to shame. But so what if NPR is liberally biased? The VOA and Radio Marti have been right-wing fiefdoms for decades, and they get all their money from the feds. NPR, which isn't a government entity to begin with, gets a small fraction of its funding from the feds and the states these days. Does the honorable senator want to confiscate their computers, lock up the staff and revoke their station licenses while he's at it?
What hard questions is Terry Gross supposed to ask of Franken? Why is it her duty to ask them any more than it is O'Reilly's duty to tear into Dick Cheney or John Ashcroft? People have opinions and convictions. That's what makes them interesting, both as subject and as interviewer.
I agree with you on one thing: it is wrong for the LA Times to claim no malicious intent when it ran the recap of a 2-year-old Premiere magazine story on Schwarzenegger's treatment of women. It would be much healthier if the American press dropped the pretense of neutrality and went back to being brashly, openly partisan, with a great big GOP elephant on News Corp. mastheads, a donkey pin on Dan Rather's lapel, and a woodcut of Augusto Pinochet on the Wall Street Journal opinion page.
The problem isn't media bias. It's the strange compulsion to be ashamed of it that is the problem.
Posted by: Steve Koppelman at October 14, 2003 2:05 AM | Permalink
This is rather rich, actually.
If the LAT felt obligated to "disclose anything it knows that bears on a candidate’s fitness for office — before Election Day, not after,” then why did they fail to report what they knew about Gray Davis since at least 1997? (http://www.dailynews.com/Stories/0,1413,200~24781~1676763,00.html)
As a long-time NPR listener myself, I also feel qualified to offer an alternate bit of speechwriting for Terry Gross:
"I, Terry Gross, do not agree with you or anything you stand for Bill O’Reilly, whereas I and, I believe, a majority of my listenership--certainly my preferred listernship--are rather fond of Mr. Franken. Frankly (no pun intended, Bill), I would greatly enjoy the opportunity to skewer you in this interview, or at the very least give you enough rope to hang yourself. Which I think you'll do because I, Terry Gross, think you, Bill O’Reilly, are rather a bully, a touch more than paranoid, and too ready to smear people you don’t like. And personally, I don't like that. Is there anything else I can illuminate for you, Mr. O’Reilly?"
I agree with the contention "it's strange what's unsayable." Heck, just ask Limbaugh about that one. But of course, we can't talk about the legitimacy--or lack thereof--of his position on the media and black quarterbacks in the NFL because it's ... well, unsayable.
Posted by: brian hess at October 14, 2003 2:14 AM | Permalink
(Sorry, Jay. Rereading the whole piece at a saner hour, it looks like we're more or less in agreement except maybe in the conclusion drawn. You seem to think journalistic impartiality is problematic at times. I think journalistic impartiality is something the press should throw away like last month's tuna salad.)
Posted by: Steve Koppelman at October 14, 2003 1:41 PM | Permalink
I was disappointed in Terry for 1) not anticipating the question or the bullying attitude, which she should have had she acquired any familiarity with Blowhard Bill, and 2) not grilling Al Franken in the first place (even though I thought his book was funny, mostly). Obviously it's more fun to have a loose interview with a guy like Franken, but I think he could have handled some hard questioning perfectly well (and there's no way he would have blown a fuse). Then Terry would have been immunized against the accusation that O'Reilly threw at her. She's doing her own side an injustice by softballing them the same way the wingnuts softball their own friendlies.
As far as "holier than thou", how about "actually more accurate than thou" as demonstrated most recently by the PIPA study. In the current environment, any network that actually strives for accuracy will be perceived as left-leaning, simply because all the lock-step marching is being done on the right.
Posted by: John Stein at October 14, 2003 4:13 PM | Permalink
Steve: thanks for that adjustment. Everyone else: I tried to discuss some of the traps and miscommunications involved when the left detects bias and the right detects a different kind of bias, and journalists say, "We're biased? Actually, you're biased and that's why you say that." It's a strange conversation but we keep having it and having it, so it must serve some purpose. The post is called The View from Nowhere and it's here: http://archive.pressthink.org/2003/09/18/jennings.html
Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 15, 2003 6:57 PM | Permalink
Here's another way of thinking about it, although it tends to give you a headache: I know thousands of people (and some of them read PressThink) who are willing to make statements about existing bias in the press, which, they strongly feel, should not be there. I know less than a handful who are willing to make an equally forceful statement about what the bias of the press *should* be, in their view. Why is that? There must be an explanation. Maybe some friendly, intelligent reader knows....
Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 15, 2003 7:03 PM | Permalink
Where is it written there is an equivalency in every interview? The Terry Gross chat with Bill Reilly WAS about his book. That is, it focused on the inconsistencies in O'Reilly's life that made the substance of his new book hypocritical, at best.
What 'toughness' was she supposed to throw at Al Franken? Franken has always been very clear about why he attacks the targets he does. His whole approach to satire is a detached irony that presupposes extremists provide the ammunition for attacks against them. There is no separate agenda.
The same can't be said for O'Reilly. He writes about defending 'the little guy." He says he speaks for fairness and decency. Instead, it's all about Bill O'Reilly. What a tough, stand-up guy he is, how fervant a patriot. And how he bullies and attacks those who challenge the O'Reilly world View.
Conventional journalism hasn't failed. It did its job to reveal the substance of the subject fairly and honestly. Franken is not the moral equivalent to Bill O'Reilly. The interview centered on him, not the yin and yang of contemporary politics. The Liberal Media, whatever that is, didn't undo O'Reilly. No one else defames O'Reilly. He does a good job of that himself.
Posted by: David McLemore at October 16, 2003 12:51 PM | Permalink
"When exactly did the idea of a "neutral press" become dominant? If brain-eating zombies started going on rampages at Little League games, eating the brains of the kids and their parents, would news accounts have to be polite and noncommittal as to whether brain-eating zombies are good or bad?"
Why does there need to be any statement about the morality of the zombies? Isn't it clear? Is it news?
Posted by: smogmonster at October 17, 2003 10:31 AM | Permalink
Something simple, yet devastating....like "have your ideas EVER worked.....ANYWHERE"? But that question will never be asked of a liberal no matter how much evidence that the Great Society is little more than Federal enslavement comes to light because they don't want to hear the answer.
Much of the media bias is bias through omission. Adherents to ideas they DON'T like are DEMANDED to provide "proof." When and if they do, the media folks say it somehow is not "scientific." And since there is no way of getting scientific proof for social phenomenon, they feel they have justified their own beliefs. But......
When was PROOF ever demanded to say that welfare was beneficial to society (even if it is, it isn't justified IMO, but that is another topic)
When we PROOF ever demanded by those who support racial integration? No, everyone was supposed to just accept THEIR worldview.
Plenty of proof to show that BOTH ideas are bad, but even that isn't given any consideration by the media powers that be. No amount of welfare cheats, lost money, declining quality of life, deterioration of neighborhoods (good thing we got rid of those white neighborhoods that were actually SAFE, eh? (rolling eyes) ) seems to "register" with them. Why? Because they are biased and their leftism is a religion to them.
BTW, if you want to see more bias of Terry Gross, compare her interviews with Grover Norquist with Paul Krugman
[Gross]"Is cutting taxes almost like a religion with you?"
Note, she does not ask of the Leftist she interviews (Krugman): "Is government spending almost like a religion with you?"
Paul Krugman (39 minutes).
Posted by: Scott in Texas at October 19, 2003 1:22 PM | Permalink
Scott-in-Texas's post pretty well takes care of itself, so I won't pile on. But I wonder how "have your ideas ever worked anywhere" would apply as a test to running up an unparalleled federal deficit, cutting taxes on the top 1/2%, rewarding political supporters with no-bid contracts, inventing Orwellian titles (Clean Skies, etc.) for other political favors, outing NOC agents as payback, and the many other instances of malevolence and incompetence we've seen during the past three years.
How long before we conclude that the current administration is about three things: rewarding your friends and punishing your enemies, lying about what you are doing, and getting re-elected? Krugman sees this in its most general and direct terms. Norquist is interested in continuing the sales job and smokescreen. If there was a good idea there, it's been destroyed by the PR job and Nixonian tactics of the administration.
Why should Terry Gross or anyone else pretend that there's a clean slate when the interview starts?
Posted by: GT at October 21, 2003 9:12 AM | Permalink
Yeah, GT, running up huge deficits by spending hundreds of BILLIONs of dollars that the Federal government was never intended to is something that should be looked at. Those who warned about Entitlement programs were right - they are going to break us and until they do, enslave us. Thanks to government spending, we are rapidly becoming a socialist state which, to bring things around again, does not work (simple question: "has this ever worked"?)
Norquist outed Gross as a Leftist when he didn't let her little slip pass unnoticed about identifying with the government and not the people. In the mind of people like Gross (and GT, apparently) government can never do without one dime it is spending currently and if the programs don't INCREASE....increase faster than inflation even, they they deem that as "cuts." How very Orwellian indeed (though to see true Orwellian speech, look at anthing pertaining to "Diversity" (aka "Kill Whitey") programs.
Bush and Co, with their support of war for Israel's benefit (War on Iraq) and opposition to making only SOME of the BILLIONS for Iraq loans (why is that?) sure don't make me a fan, but to say all this started 3 years ago is absurd when you consider illegally obtaining 900 FBI FILES (!!!!! Where are you on that, eh, GT?), Travelgate, renting out the Lincoln bedroom, selling a plot in Arlington cemetary, taking money from China, etc..... do you REALLY want to make this sound like it started with Bush?
Posted by: Scott in Texas at October 21, 2003 8:03 PM | Permalink
The basic thing there that no one has really talked about, the elephant in the room, if you will, isn't Gross's bias in the interview. That's a given.
Posted by: eric at October 22, 2003 10:51 AM | Permalink
FWIW, I listened to the O'Reilly and Franken interviews and agree with the original poster, Kate. I have always like O'Reilly if, for no other reason, that he is one of the few people who challenges Political Correctness and other sacred cows of the Left. But O'Reilly sounded like a bit of an ass to begin with even if he WAS right about the interview and Gross' clear bias.
Posted by: Scott in Texas at October 23, 2003 8:25 AM | Permalink
I don't think that Terry Gross said anything wrong to Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly was just "working the ref." He specializes in outrage and intimidation and he was trying to intimidate Terry instead of just answering the questions.
Terry started off her interview with Al Franken by asking what he was being sued for and Franken laughed and explained the situation, explained the charges and even explained the complaints Bill made about the picture on the jacket of the book. So Terry started off asking Franken about the charges O'Reilly made against Franken, just as she started off asking O'Reilly about the things Franken said about O'Reilly. Each man had a chance to respond, to explain the situation and to give his own point of view.
But whereas Franken just laughed and used the opportunity to tell some jokes against himself, O'Reilley's voice was choked with emotion practically from the first question. He was
And finally the tone turned accusatory: 'How
Look, I don't feel sorry for either one of these people. O'Reilly got grilled because he said things that weren't true, and someone called him on it. Terry got flack because she is embarrassing this guy on a national radio show. Yeah, he could have handled it better, but -- hey, this stuff goes with the territory. If ya dish it out, ya gotta be prepared to take it.
But having the ombudsman say that Terry Gross was unfair to Bill O'Reilly? Please! The fact that Bill O'Reilley is acting like an eight-year-old with hurt feelings does not make Terry Gross a monster nor an unethical journalist. Let's get a reality check, people! The dispute between Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly is news (especially when they drag it into court) and Terry Gross has every right to cover it.
Posted by: Margaret Tucker at October 23, 2003 9:35 AM | Permalink