May 10, 2004
This Summer Will Tell Us If We're Serious: Tom Bettag Brings Realism Before the Tribe of Murrow
The once-mighty tribe of Edward R. Murrow was gathered at the Metropolitan Club in Gotham last week. There was a speech. Tom Bettag (Nightline's producer) came to terms with the tribe's defeat by new owners in the 1980s. He also said: we failed the country in 2001. But there's a chance we can recover this summer, if we don't take our cues from cable.
“Over our dead bodies,” we said. And that’s the path they took. — Tom Bettag.
The intelligencia of television news—plus Geraldo Rivera—gathered at the Metropolitan Club on the East Side of Manhattan Tuesday night (May 4th) to visit with the ghost of Fred Friendly, and hear one of their own give a speech about television news.
But it wasn’t an ordinary speech. It was a lesson in the higher realism.
Tom Bettag, senior executive producer in charge of Nightline and “This Week with George Stephonapolous,” is a man at the top of his profession, much admired by people who know television news. He was speaking to other people at the top of that profession. His platform: this year’s winner of a top award in the profession (the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award) which is named for a giant of the profession, Fred Friendly, former president of CBS.
Friendly—a real person, also an icon in network television—spoke the big language of professional conscience, which he inherited from the most mythic figure of all in network news, Edward R. Murrow of CBS, who passed the baton to Walter Cronkite, who gave it to Dan Rather, who was in the audience at the Metropolitan Club, along with Ted Koppel and many others they call their peers.
As winner of the Friendly Award (past recipients Rather, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Ted Koppel, Bill Moyers, Lesley Stahl, Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer, Don Hewitt and the like…) Bettag got an official share in the inheritance: the public service tradition in television news, American division. But he had to give a speech to get his inheritance. Part of it was about failing the country:
If there were warnings throughout government about al Qaeda, let the record show that on the three network evening news broadcasts that summer and Nightline, the name “al Qaeda” wasn’t spoken––not a single time. The record will show that on the week of August 20, three weeks before the attacks, the story most covered on the three network evening news broadcasts was Gary Condit. It got twice as much coverage as the next story.
Who failed the country? Unquestionably we in the press did:
People were even trying to point us in the right direction. Consider the words of Paul Bremer, then speaking as former chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism. At a journalism conference in February, 2001, after the attack on the Cole and six months before 9/11, he said: ‘The new administration seems to be paying no attention to the problem of terrorism. What they will do is stagger along until there is a major incident…. Maybe the folks in the press ought to be pushing a little bit.
Which is a quote that journalists, in another context, might call a smoking gun. “Now we’re doing stories about who in government is to blame,” said Bettag. “We in the media need to ask ourselves, ‘What’s our excuse?’ Where were we? The attack, after all, didn’t come out of nowhere.”
While we were talking about the death of hard news, about the “national fog of materialism and disinterest and avoidance,” the biggest conspiracy in the history of the country was being hatched. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld says people were running around the Pentagon “with their hair on fire.” National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice says major military options were being drawn up against al Qaeda. But we had decided that there was no real news.
Listening to this were people like Jeff Greenfield of CNN, David Westin, president of ABC News; Geraldo Rivera and Rita Cosby from Fox News; William Small, former president of CBS News; Dave Marash from “Nightline”; Robert Bazell of NBC Nightly News; and many more producers, correspondents and bosses— one’s people, as it were.
Bettag told his people they had failed during the Summer of Threat (on the awareness meter their performance was worse than government’s) but this was not the entire point. Network news has failed the country many times, and if it were a failing operation overall, then the American people would not have turned to the traditional networks—and their anchors—immediately after the planes hit the Towers. But on the whole people did. The cable channels saw their tiny numbers shoot up. The networks held the bulk of the audience.
“Given the choice between one of the three cable-news networks and one of the big three broadcast networks, three out of four viewers chose the broadcast networks––Brokaw, Rather, and Jennings,” said Bettag. Why, if these are organizations in decline?
Here he was on to something about the inheritance. Public trust, which is the real commodity network news deals in, has its own chronometer. Trust can be created by the networks one year, and come into play twenty years later. In crisis moments the whole transaction speeds up, and the business has to know how to react:
Remember how the “believability” rating of the big three networks’ news had dropped from 80 to 60 percent? During the week of 9/11, an unprecedented 89 percent of viewers gave the media a “positive” rating. Networks canceled advertising for days and lost revenue. In return they got back something priceless––the viewers’ trust.
Bettag’s basic description of network news is a master work of rhetoric, and a realist’s view. News on network television is a business— period. Get every other starting point out of your head, he advises. If you begin another way, like “news is a public trust” or “separation of church and state,” you will only confuse things, and delude yourself. “You work for a television company, an entertainment company run by people who may, or may not, give a damn about news.”
Bettag says to young journalists what Noam Chomsky would say: “it’s about the money.” (A phrase he repeats for emphasis.) But this is not a simple observation. For “to be of any use to the company, the loyalty of the newsroom must first be to the viewer, and only second to the business.” There’s the rhetorical switch-a-roo.
The public service tradition, which is the Murrow Tribe’s claim to authority, comes into the news again, but not on the ground floor. “Television company”— that’s the foundation. News is not a raison d’etre for the network, but it can still have a protected space, and the tribe can flourish there. Since for Bettag the news cannot be protected from the business, it will have to be protected by the business. This was an original part of the “gospel of Murrow,” as he put it:
Responsibility can easily be placed, in spite of all the mouthings about giving the public what it wants. It rests on big business, and on big television. It rests at the top… And it promises its own reward: good business and good television.
Why is this so? Because the advertiser is purchasing not only “viewers,” but viewers gathered around something informational, which they must be able to trust, or the whole business breaks down. Advertisers’ needs fluctuate. Certain Americans are more valuable than others as targets for ads. News is different; it values all viewers equally— that is it should. And if it does the networks will have an enduring commodity to sell.
The truth of the matter is that the evening news, the half hour summary of the day’s events, is the most popular program on television year after year. Basically the same news runs simultaneously on three networks, each settling for one third of the audience. No network dares give up its third. Letting the competition divide that audience two ways would be bad business.
And this is easily seen by recalling events on the morning of September 11th, when the secret history between people and their television sets sped up. Imagine yourself the network president who, years earlier, took a public relations hit, and eliminated the costly news division. The financial press cheered you. But on that day of national emergency, after the bombs fell, you and your spouse and everyone else you know clicked right to your competitors. You had no product, no presence in the national ordeal. So do you really have a network?
“Letting the competition divide that audience two ways would be bad business.” In fact, it would end the business. No one in the broadcast networks wants to give up news, because news authenticates television. It also puts the nation into a TV network— branding that is more important than ever, since the network is likely to be owned by a transnational company with global interests and global reach.
It’s all one product, said Bettag about the three evening newscasts. (This is a candid statement.) And network news is still a successful product, he argued— despite cable, despite the rise of Fox, despite local stations doing their own news, despite the Internet, despite the criticism, despite a steadily falling share of the audience, and despite big embarrassing failures like Condit Summer.
But it cannot succeed by selling its viewers short, and this means potential viewers as well as the existing—and aging—audience. Bettag raged against treating the young as a unique category of viewer. “To be loyal to only those viewers dictated by advertisers is to be loyal to no one but the advertisers,” he said. “Madison Avenue would have us discount more than half our viewers. That’s bad journalism, and it also may be bad business.”
We who produce hard news programs have to be clear about why we can’t go down that road. It would be arrogant to ignore advertisers’ needs, thereby shooting ourselves in the foot once more. For many good reasons, we can and should engage young people, but that need not—must not—be at the expense of other viewers. We can attract young people by being outrageous or setting new standards for bad taste, but that’s selling them short. Young people like programs that are smart, creative, original––just as much as, if not more than, older people.
This was Bettag’s message: tough realism for news people (it’s about making money) and for business people (it’s about keeping trust.). His advice to journalists: Make peace with the business; go to war for the viewer. Fight the advertisers off and you obey the bottom line. It’s about the money, never forget that. If you keep the money in mind, you can keep this other thing going, the “gospel according to Murrow,” the public service tradition that draws people into news, which was also the ghost of Friendly (Bettag’s teacher at Columbia J-School) and which was now, officially, his inheritance.
Say what you will about well paid and famous people giving each other awards and clinking glasses with the “competition.” (Bettag: “Over the years I’ve accepted lots of awards…”) It doesn’t bother me, if at the end of the evening someone stands up and tries to tell the truth about television. He did that. The history he told was revisionist. It came to terms with a defeat, and relocated responsibility in the victorious power— “big business.” This defeat came during the 1980s when the news divisions met new-minded owners—Loews and Lawrence Tisch at CBS, Capital Cities at ABC, General Electric at NBC. Bettag describes a rout:
By their standards the networks were fat, lazy, and ripe for the picking. In their world every division was expected to make a profit and they made no exception for news. To the hard news Harrys like me, that was Wall Street greed, pure and simple. We didn’t believe we could meet their requirements. We dug in and acted as if we had some First Amendment right to lose money. “Over our dead bodies,” we said. And that’s the path they took.
In the rout that followed, many of us hard news types lost our bearings. To the businessmen our sputtering, “We aren’t businessmen, we’re news people,” came off as intransigence. One said: “How can I responsibly turn over a budget in the tens of millions of dollars to someone who says he isn’t a businessman?” It was open season on news divisions.
Bettag is saying that he and his colleagues were ridiculously high-minded and drastically out of touch; they were able to demonize “greed,” but too slow to analyze their new predicament. Instead of asking themselves a realist’s question: “can serious news make money for the network, and what does it need from the network to do so?” they just quacked: “news isn’t about making money! how dare you mess with the First Amendment.”
In this they had misremembered history. Edward R. Murrow—the tribe’s founder —had been forced out by business pressures. Fred Friendly resigned in protest over a default in corporate responsibility. It was always about the money, but there happened to be fat years when the networks were making so much money elsewhere they could afford to treat news differently. Once upon a time CBS’s president and CEO, Tom Wyman, said: “I assure you no one in this corporation has the slightest notion that the news division will ever be a profit center.”
By the 1990s that was all gone. News magazines (like 60 minutes, 20/20, Dateline NBC) and the morning shows became the profit centers. “Magazines were so profitable that finance types at the big three networks asked, “Why does the network need hard news at all?’ It was obvious, they argued, that hard news would soon become the exclusive domain of the twenty four-hour news channels.” While that might have happened, it didn’t. Bettag says this was partly because of the stature—indeed, the latent power—of the anchormen, Rather, Jennings and Brokaw.
They held their ground despite huge pressures to do away with the evening news or to turn it into a magazine posing as hard news. Fortunately each has been able to say, “That’s not who I am; if I tried to do that I’d come off as a phony.” The plates of the earth shifted, but the center held. At any number of executive meetings the argument that the anchorman could never be budged carried the day. Those meetings usually ended with someone muttering about “the eight-hundred-pound gorilla.”
I think this is accurate, not in the lionization of the anchors but the gorilla part. The public face of the network is a difficult person to fire, unless there’s scandal or disloyalty. The anchors are big figures because they connect big. They have gravitas, almost in the literal sense. They could hold ground at times within the network, and this made a difference in the years when the Murrow Tribe was being routed. But the Summer of Condit was self-defeat. Bettag recalled it:
That summer CNN was preparing to lay off many of its foreign bureau staffers and to launch a new anchor, Andrea Thompson, a star of NYPD Blue and high school dropout.
We who do hard-news broadcasts have discovered the blessings of limited airtime. Having only thirty minutes means we have to set priorities, make choices, make sense. But that summer we bought into the cable agenda. We lost our nerve. We lost our sense of proportion.
That summer hard news demonstrated extraordinary loyalty to the corporation.
This summer, with Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant on trial, but also an election and so much at stake in the world, the descendants of Murrow, Friendly and Cronkite will be tested. “We are lucky to have been given a second chance. This summer people will know us by our actions.” We understand better now, said Bettag. It’s a changed tribe— changed by its defeats.
Today we are news people who understand business. We know “it’s about the money.” We know we have to work and fight to hold our own in a constant but valuable tug-of-war with the business side. We know we need to explain ourselves in a thoughtful but committed way to corporate bosses. There must also be no confusion. We are not business people who understand news. Our first loyalty is to the viewers––all viewers.
And another name for all viewers is the public. In Bettag’s realism there is a place for resistance, for push back by journalists. But he wants to replace “don’t be greedy,” with “don’t be reductive.” He’s on to something when he says to corporate: do factor in the mysteries of trust before you put a value on the news division. He knows that he and his colleagues erred when they ceded the profit puzzle (and its knowledge streams) to the “business side.”
How often has it been asked: Should television news give people what they want or what they need? Murrow Nation got itself lost somewhere in the territory around that question. Bettag points forward. Television news is good business when it puts the interests of a viewing public first. A public has wants, and a public has needs. The point is: who shall interpret them?
After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…
Tom Bettag’s speech at the Metropolitan Club, May 5, 2004. (On winning the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award presented by Quinnipiac University’s School of Communications.)
Novelist and weblog writer Roger Simon comments on this post: “I suspect the press corps didn’t want to believe Islamic fascism was all that bad, wanted to see it as a tiny disgruntled minority, because it went against their multi-cultural premises—wishful ideas that I shared and still share.”
In March of 1966, Friendly argued vociferously to management that CBS had a journalistic obligation to carry extensive live coverage of the first Senate hearings to question American involvement in Vietnam. When the network opted instead to air re-runs of I Love Lucy, Friendly resigned from CBS in protest. (Museum of Broadcasting bio.)
The apparent irony between Edward R. Murrow’s life and the way that he is subsequently remembered today is that the industry that finally had no place for him, now holds Murrow up as their model citizen — the “patron saint of American broadcasting.” (Bio.)
John Moore (from Useful Fools) in comments:
Do we really believe there are only a few people in this country of 300,000,000 with the ability to be a Dan Rather? I’m sure Dan Rather thinks he is special, but I see Dan Rather as no different from Tide laundry soap: he is a brand, and as such, doesn’t have any special insight into the world or greater logical abilities or intelligence than the rest of us….
I know that Sam Donaldson long ago became convinced of his superiority over not only mere mortals, but also over his fellow journalists. Too many journalists who have become brands are as misguided as the many Hollywood stars who imagine their popularity and enormous salaries confer upon them expertise in environmentalism or war or oppression or some other issue.
Posted by Jay Rosen at May 10, 2004 2:10 AM
That the intelligencia of television news--plus Gerald Rivera need be reminded that news is a business is pathetic. This state of affairs can only be due to their long ago arrogation of self-importance and "independence. This was greatly inflated by the vast power first shown in the Vietnam War reporting and Watergate. They don't like to consider themselves mere employees. Some, in fact, are not – they are assets in the sense of being marketing brands.
A truth that many "media personalities" need to understand is the implication of branding. The same applies to others such as Hollywood stars. The popularity of an anchor comes from the development of that person's on-air persona (or print equivalence) as a brand. Becoming a brand is a combination of mostly luck and a little skill, and often a willingness and ability in the field of back-stabbing. The mention of CNN's almost hiring of a high-school dropout as an anchor should make this obvious.
Do we really believe there are only a few people in this country of 300,000,000 with the ability to be a Dan Rather? I'm sure Dan Rather thinks he is special, but I see Dan Rather as no different from Tide laundry soap: he is a brand, and as such, doesn't have any special insight into the world or greater logical abilities or intelligence than the rest of us. I am not interested in being lectured on how I should think by a Tide soap box. Likewise, I really resent it when a Feminine Hygiene Brand like Ted Koppel does it.
I know that Sam Donaldson long ago became convinced of his superiority over not only mere mortals, but also over his fellow journalists. Too many journalists who have become brands are as misguided as the many Hollywood stars who imagine their popularity and enormous salaries confer upon them expertise in environmentalism or war or oppression or some other issue.
The rise of blogging shows that there are many people who are not only capable of investigative reporting but active in doing so, and many, many more who are skilled editorialists. Not that most blogs rise to this level, but enough do to show that for no pay at all, and no journalism training, they are as good or better than the brand-name editorialists and talking heads, and often reporters.
For example, why did professional journalists not discover that Kerry was attempting to hide the fact that he was in the Navy during all of his anti-war activities - an attempt which started with an odd date gap in his official biography and was followed with the removal of those dates entirely when his actual records were published? Why did that take the blogosphere?
I don't expect blogging (or its successors) to make a big impact in the evening network news audience for quite a while, although the impact of technology like the internet is hard to predict (who expected that the highest paid medical specialty, radiology, would be outsourced to India?).
I long ago stopped watching the evening news, because it had stopped being "hard news" and instead was somewhere between "news analysis" and "editorial" - if there is a "between" there. I occasionally peek in at the evening news and in the faint hope that it is changed. But usually I find a Tide Box telling me what to think or yet once more reporting on an issue that is utterly trivial to any but those obsessed with those causes universally favored by the mainstream news media.
The daily news agenda is determined by the censors who determine which of the myriad of possible stories to investigate, and which of those to show, and with what emphasis and “angle.” The term "censor" is of course not preferred because of its pejorative association, but it describes one of the main functions of an editor or producer.
The pressure of a half hour show means there must be a censor. The uniformity between the shows is, I believe, not only due to the business strategy of evenly splitting the market (the safe choice) but also the group-think of the censors and the media "intelligencia" in general – the same stories are “obviously” important.
Rupert Murdoch saw an unfilled market niche when he founded Fox News. Anybody who knows Murdoch or who knows people who have worked closely with him (as I do) understands that he is first and foremost a capitalist, with his political views far less important. After all, what conservative would arrange for his network to not cover the amazingly large Hong Kong freedom demonstrations (I am making an assumption here, of course, that Murdoch did indeed make that choice because of his business interests in China).
But Murdoch recognized that there are at least two ways to take market share - copy a successful business (CNN) or create a differentiated business: a network with a conservative slant, genuinely intelligent anchors who sometimes do real field reporting - not the Ted Koppel highly scripted perfect costume and setting performance; unabashed and genuinely felt patriotism; a dash of T&A; and, creative original programming like Oliver North's "War Stories."
The First Amendment anticipated a diversity of viewpoints in the news. Nobody expected a single ”objective” viewpoint, because such objectivity is not within human nature. The news media take’s Heinlein's "Fair Witness" fiction and believe it applies to them.
Fox News is an example of the United States finally acquiring diversity in the news. It should be embarrassing that it took a former Australian to do this.
Not that Fox won't fixate on the human interest story of the day - especially trials, where most of their anchors including Geraldo have training and experience - they haven't just covered trials, they have been "been there and done that". But when breaking news occurs, there is usually already on air an anchor who is capable of thinking his/her way out of a broken teleprompter; an anchor who is at least of reasonable intelligence and has probably worked outside of journalism in the past.
I find it amusing that Geraldo is singled out by Dr. Rosen as not being a member of the "intelligencia of television news." That is especially ironic given the nature of the speech under discussion, because I would be surprised if any professionals doubt that Geraldo understands the position of money in the business. He gave up a lot of it to join Fox.
Geraldo is an unusual individual. He is not an unintelligent person - few unintelligent people get degrees in law. Geraldo is a paradigm breaker. His approach to journalism, and today he is operating as a journalist, is unique and (at least to me) well worth watching.
Of course, like anyone else, I cringe a bit at some harmless exaggerations (in Afghanistan, the famous "died at this very spot" gaffe), but Geraldo deserves a lot more respect than he gets. Just like the rest of "mainstream media," Geraldo has a cause that he favors. But unlike them, he doesn't pretend to be objective. When you watch Geraldo, you know his attitudes and his personal feelings. Furthermore, unlike them, his cause is a non-cynical patriotism, a love of the troops he embeds with, and a genuine, un-nuanced view of the evil we deal.
Furthermore, he feels no pressure to adopt a staid, boring but "gravitas" bearing "professional journalist" guise when on camera. Instead, for once, we have a human being - a rather manic one - who gets excited, gets scared (well, I'm not so sure about that), gets angry, gets proud and is very empathetic.
When I watch Geraldo in a war zone, I call it "Geraldo's Magnificent Adventure" because this man is informing me in a way nobody else does, and frankly, I'm envious of him.
As I say, he is a mold breaker. Whether that will prove a successful business approach is, of course, important. But at least Fox is willing to try the experiment.
If I could pick the newsmen I want to investigate and report on the world, Geraldo would be far above many of the major network personnel. There are some others at Fox (not including O'Reilly) whom I would also choose, because Fox, unlike the mainstream networks, uses people with real world demonstrated as its talking heads, and along with traditional journalists, uses soldiers as its war correspondents (Oliver North, Greg Kelly).
I have hyped Fox here before, because I think they bring a major lesson that journalists need to hear: you pride yourselves in racial diversity in your newsrooms, but you have no diversity in your viewpoint. Fox is clobbering its competitors for exactly that reason. And Fox is owned by a hard headed media tycoon, who wants money, not adulation.
Hugh Hewitt makes an argument that the "bigs" made an editorial decision to not report Sen. Kennedy's controversial statements on the Senate floor, and in doing so engaged in the "pseudo-journalism" Los Angeles Times' John Carroll warned about in his Ruhl Lecture (although he only applied it to Fox News). Hewitt argues this is either an ethical gaffe out of ignorance born from a disconnect with "average America" or an act of political collusion in an ideological conspiracy with the Kerry campaign/Democrats.
I'm not convinced that Mr. Hewitt believes the omitted statements are important information the public needs to know, or important information he wants the public to know.
But I can't help but wonder if it is not just a business decision to avoid (unnecessarily?) shocking the sensibilities or expectations of brand loyal readers. For example, not only that the "bigs" (including Carroll's LATimes) chose to omit Kennedy's more volatile quotes, but that the quotes chosen by the Wash-in-compost were meant to elicit reflexive nods that come when one's worldview is being reinforced.
Isn't this the nexus of Carroll's pseudo-journalism and Bettag's good business that the "bigs" provide daily? Isn't it this selective, sometimes erroneous reporting with obtuse disconnected corrections, that reinforces the trust of brand loyal readers? How many subscriber sensibilities are likely to be shocked by the omission of Kennedy's more controversial statements?
Is it Carroll's pseudo-journalism or Bettag's good business when Hugh Hewitt (FoxNews, WashTimes, etc.) "reflect" the outrage of their "average America" consumers at the brand loyalty of the "bigs" and over-the-top rhetoric of Kennedy? Are they not reinforcing the trust of their own brand loyal readers/listeners/viewers?
So what have we learned?
1. Carroll, unsurprisingly, gave a hypocritical lecture on journalistic ethics.
2. Bettag's recognition of public service failure in the summer of 2001 was the result of omissions that reinforced brand loyal consumer's worldview.
Why shock the sensibilities with distressing stories about Arab and Persian Islamic extremists plotting a fate for America that is only shared by Israel, when your brand loyal readers expect storylines depicting Arab and Persian victims of Israeli oppression and American globalization/imperialism?
As long as the relative acts of violence by these victims are limited strikes against pseudo-Americans (military, diplomats, tourists) beyond our borders, whose trust is being violated?
How many brand loyal subscribers of the "bigs" are in Iraq today? How much circulation loss is the result of omissions violating a trust to provide a public service.
24th Annual Ralph McGill Lecture
Back in the day of Edward R. Murrow, news was delivered as a public service. Broadcast news divisions, especially, were not expected to make a profit. But after more and more news outlets were concentrated in the hands of publicly traded companies, that changed. The demands of stockholders are such that news organizations are pressed for higher and higher dividends. That means less emphasis on costly news-gathering and more emphasis on delivering a cheap product that news consumers will enjoy.
Sound familiar? Urban legend? Derivative snippets, order rearranged, follow:
News organizations gave up their historic roles as government watchdogs and conduits of critical information to give news consumers what we believed they wanted. Foreign news coverage disappeared from the big threeTVnetworks and shrank on the pages of mainstream newspapers. Neil Hickey, of Columbia Journalism Review, examined the cover stories of time magazine between 1987 and 1997. In 1987, Time had eleven covers relating to foreign news; in 1997, only one.
After all, the united states might have been better prepared for the terrorist attacks of September 11 if the press had done the job it should have been doing in the last decade. As Washington post columnist Richard Cohen recently admitted, he ignored pleas from officials last year to write about efforts to combat terrorism.
Cohen wrote: "I know a guy who was on one of those government terrorism commissions who used to say I ought to talk to him. I never did." I was busy, not just with Bill and Monica but with other things as well. . .Anyway, I never wrote about the terrorist threat to this country. I was negligent. ‘But I was not alone. The press in general did a miserable job preparing the American people for what happened on September 11,’ Cohen said.
After this admission of failure as a conduit of critical information, however, the press emphasizes its self-appointed government watchdog role siding with CAIR, ACLU, HRW, environmentalists, and UN thugs. You see, the government needed to be checked in this war, and the extra-constitutional 4th estate was revving up for the challenge. We were going to fight the war on terror by the media's rules, by golly, win or (if at all possible) lose.
Any signs of patriotism were to be challenged and belittled, any enlistment of American corporations in the war effort were to be met with cries of "profiteering" and "globalization", any increases in law enforcement met with cries of civil rights abuse, and an immediate effort to shift the focus from foreign threats by returning to spreading suspicions of domestic right-wing threats:
For a while after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah federal building in Oklahoma, journalists did follow that crucial news story. Right up until the arrest of Timothy McVeigh. Then, the story lost its glamor. Except for his trial and later execution, we forgot about that major terrorist attack, failing to sustain our coverage of the right-wing hate groups that were briefly highlighted after McVeigh’s arrest. Wouldn’t it be fascinating - And frightening - If the current anthrax attacks are coming from one of those home-crown hate groups?
The media missed the foreign threat because post-counter-revolution, post "New Muckrakers", pressthink is more comfortable reporting the "diseased, hate-filled minds" of Americans, and prejudiced to only seeing the "right-wing" variety.
With the end of "evil empire" (a term that met much media and Left derision and goes back to Kerry's, "I think it is bogus, totally artificial. There is no threat. The Communists are not about to take over our McDonald hamburger stands."), the foreign threat was minimized as only militants, insurgents, guerrillas, or some other moderating descriptor. There was no enemy of serious concern to the Leftist pressthink, and therefore no critical information, that warranted giving over their costly conduits. The government wasn't aggressively protecting us from Islamofacists, so there was no watchdog interests in we as "bad Americans" were mistreating our enemies.
The crimes of Abu Ghraib fit the watchdog model. The murders of Americans and terrorism in Iraq fit the "bad news sells" if presented through a what's wrong with us watchdog's filter. Progress in Iraq is not as newsworthy as the progressives' agenda. There is no reported difference in scale or moral perspective between the suicide bombings, beheadings and mass murders of our enemies and the efforts of our military in pressthink.
Wait, that's not true. For the watchdog, we're worse.
Professor Rosen, this is a bit off topic, but I find many Americans asking this, and believe it should be examined by journalists and us, their customers.
An Indian gentlemen yesterday told me that we didn't see the real gore of war. His conclusion was that our media is hidingthis because, had it been shown, we would have never invaded Iraq. His analysis is incorrect, but to support his assertion he pointed out that in his part of the world, all of the gore was shown. This is true in most of the world.
Americans, on the other hand, face censorship.
If an Iraqi child dies as a result of our gunfire, we should see the horror, because there is real information in photos and videos of the event - not the dry information that a child was killed (sad in itself) - but the powerful message of what such a death looks like and means.
If a person jumps from a burning World Trade Center and is instantly transformed into a bloody hunk of meat, that is also important information, but it is censored, leaving to mere misleadly undramatic words.
When an American is beheaded, let us see the full horror, not a censored version.
Why is a profession censoring the true nature of violence from the most effective media for delivering that information: photographs and video.
The American public should not be uniquely incapable of dealing with reality. Consistently censoring it leads to a disconnect in the minds of relatively safe Americans from the violence so common in much of the world. Furthermore, it is an example of the power of a monopoly which can and does withhold an important truth in context - the real nature of violence no matter who commits or suffers it.
Our public should not be pampered - if the rest of the world views this information on their normal television news, why not Americans? Is it any wonder why Americans have trouble understanding other cultures and their reaction to the War on Terrorism? Our media is letting us down.
It would appear that American journalists are inappropriately sensitive, hiding too much important information in its most effective form behind the following admonition from their Code of Ethics:
Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
As a business proposition, somebody could set up an "it bleeds" channel (if distribution would carry it). This already exists in the Video-Tape/CD/Internet world).
Unfortunately, that would be pandering to the violence, not spreading useful information in the appropriate context. It's initial watchers would certainly include many curious Americans, who have not before seen what the world sees routinely, but ultimately it would become a product consumed by some of the sickest in our society. Furthermore, it would not reach most citizenry, who need to see the information in context to help form their understanding of the nature of the world we live in, the horros mankind is capable of, the true consequences of violence, and the kind of heroism, suffering, brutality and butchery that is going on every day.
Shielding Americans to this information is, in a way, like Holocaust denial.
On a completely off-topic subject that deserves discussion... I wonder how many Americans realize that the Code of Ethics for professional journalists has nothing (that I could find) requiring journalists to even take into account damage to their country (not politicians) in deciding what to report and how.
Finally... a couple of procedural points:
I don't have an editor to read and proof this, and have to get back to my day job, so please excuse typos and grammatical mistakes.
I probably will post this on my own website.
PressThink: An Introduction
We need to keep the press from being absorbed into The Media. This means keeping the word press, which is antiquated. But included under its modern umbrella should be all who do the serious work in journalism, regardless of the technology used. The people who will invent the next press in America--and who are doing it now online--continue an experiment at least 250 years old. It has a powerful social history and political legend attached...
The People Formerly Known as the Audience:
"You don't own the eyeballs. You don't own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don't control production on the new platform, which isn't one-way. There's a new balance of power between you and us." More...
Migration Point for the Press Tribe: "Like reluctant migrants everywhere, the people in the news tribe have to decide what to take with them. When to leave. Where to land. They have to figure out what is essential to their way of life. They have to ask if what they know is portable." More...
Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over: "Here is one advantage bloggers have in the struggle for reputation-- for the user's trust. They are closer to the transaction where trust gets built up on the Web. There's a big difference between tapping a built-up asset, like the St. Pete Times 'brand,' and creating it from scratch." More...
"Where's the Business Model for News, People?" "It’s remarkable to me how many accomplished producers of those goods the future production of which is in doubt are still at the stage of asking other people, “How are we going to pay our reporters if you guys don’t want to pay for our news?'" More...
National Explainer: A Job for Journalists on the Demand Side of News
This American Life's great mortgage crisis explainer, The Giant Pool of Money, suggests that "information" and "explanation" ought to be reversed in our order of thought. Especially as we contemplate new news systems. More...
The Beast Without a Brain: Why Horse Race Journalism Works for Journalists and Fails Us. "Just so you know, 'the media' has no mind. It cannot make decisions. Which means it does not 'get behind' candidates. It does not decide to oppose your guy… or gal. It is a beast without a brain. Most of the time, it doesn’t know what it’s doing.." More...
They're Not in Your Club but They Are in Your League: Firedoglake at the Libby Trial: "I’m just advising Newsroom Joe and Jill: make room for FDL in your own ideas about what’s coming on, news-wise. Don’t let your own formula (blog=opinion) fake you out. A conspiracy of the like minded to find out what happened when the national news media isn’t inclined to tell us might be way more practical than you think." More...
Twilight of the Curmudgeon Class: "We’re at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they’re giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening." More...
Getting the Politics of the Press Right: Walter Pincus Rips into Newsroom Neutrality "The important thing is to show integrity-- not to be a neuter, politically. And having good facts that hold up is a bigger advantage than claiming to reflect all sides equally well." More...
A Most Useful Definition of Citizen Journalism "It's mine, but it should be yours. Can we take the quote marks off now? Can we remove the 'so-called' from in front? With video!." More...
The Master Narrative in Journalism: "Were 'winning' to somehow be removed or retired as the operating system for news, campaign reporting would immediately become harder to do, not because there would be no news, but rather no common, repeatable instructions for deciding what is a key development in the story, a turning point, a surprise, a trend. Master narratives are thus harder to alter than they are to apprehend. For how do you keep the story running while a switch is made?" More...
He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User "Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin. Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in." More...
Users-Know-More-than-We-Do Journalism: "It's a "put up or shut up" moment for open source methods in public interest reporting. Can we take good ideas like... distributed knowledge, social networks, collaborative editing, the wisdom of crowds, citizen journalism, pro-am reporting... and put them to work to break news?" More...
Introducing NewAssignment.Net: "Enterprise reporting goes pro-am. Assignments are open sourced. They begin online. Reporters working with smart users and blogging editors get the story the pack wouldn't, couldn't or didn't." More...
What I Learned from Assignment Zero "Here are my coordinates for the territory we need to be searching. I got them from doing a distributed trend story with Wired.com and thinking through the results." More...
If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue: "Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world." More...
The View From Nowhere: "Occupy the reasonable middle between two markers for 'vocal critic,' and critics look ridiculous charging you with bias. Their symmetrical existence feels like proof of an underlying hysteria. Their mutually incompatible charges seem to cancel each other out. The minute evidence they marshall even shows a touch of fanaticism." More...
Rollback: "This White House doesn't settle for managing the news--what used to be called 'feeding the beast'--because there is a larger aim: to roll back the press as a player within the executive branch, to make it less important in running the White House and governing the country." More...
Retreat from Empiricism: On Ron Suskind's Scoop: ""Realist, a classic term in foreign policy debates, and reality-based, which is not a classic term but more of an instant classic, are different ideas. We shouldn't fuzz them up. The press is capable of doing that because it never came to terms with what Suskind reported in 2004." More...
Karl Rove and the Religion of the Washington Press: "Savviness--that quality of being shrewd, practical, well-informed, perceptive, ironic, 'with it,' and unsentimental in all things political--is, in a sense, their professional religion. They make a cult of it. And it was this cult that Karl Rove understood and exploited for political gain." More...
Journalism Is Itself a Religion: "We're headed, I think, for schism, tumult and divide as the religion of the American press meets the upheavals in global politics and public media that are well underway. Changing around us are the terms on which authority can be established by journalists. The Net is opening things up, shifting the power to publish around. Consumers are becoming producers, readers can be writers." More...
News Turns from a Lecture to a Conversation: "Some of the pressure the blogs are putting on journalists shows up, then, in the demand for "news as conversation," more of a back-and-forth, less of a pronouncement. This is an idea with long roots in academic journalism that suddenly (as in this year) jumped the track to become part of the news industry's internal dialogue." More...
Two Washington Posts May Be Better Than One: "They're not equals, but Washington and Arlington have their own spheres. Over the newspaper and reporting beats Len Downie is king. Over the website Jim Brady is sovereign. Over the userï¿½s experience no one has total control. There's tension because there's supposed to be tension." More...
Laying the Newspaper Gently Down to Die: "An industry that won't move until it is certain of days as good as its golden past is effectively dead, from a strategic point of view. Besides, there is an alternative if you don't have the faith or will or courage needed to accept reality and deal. The alternative is to drive the property to a profitable demise." More...
Grokking Woodward: "Woodward and Bernstein of 1972-74 didn't have such access, and this probably influenced--for the better--their view of what Nixon and his men were capable of. Watergate wasn't broken by reporters who had entree to the inner corridors of power. It was two guys on the Metro Desk." More...
Maybe Media Bias Has Become a Dumb Debate: "This here is a post for practically everyone in the game of seizing on media bias and denouncing it, which is part of our popular culture, and of course a loud part of our politics. And this is especially for the 'we're fair and balanced, you're not' crowd, wherever I may have located you." More...
Bill O'Reilly and the Paranoid Style in News: "O'Reilly feeds off his own resentments--the establishment sneering at Inside Edition--and like Howard Beale, the 'mad prophet of the airwaves,' his resentments are enlarged by the medium into public grievances among a mass of Americans unfairly denied voice." More...
Thoughts on the Killing of a Young Correspondent: "Among foreign correspondents, there is a phrase: 'parachuting in.' That's when a reporter drops into foreign territory during an emergency, without much preparation, staying only as long as the story remains big. The high profile people who might parachute in are called Bigfoots in the jargon of network news. The problem with being a Bigfoot, of course, is that it's hard to walk in other people's shoes." More...
The News From Iraq is Not Too Negative. But it is Too Narrow: "The bias charges are getting more serious lately as the stakes rise in Iraq and the election. But there is something lacking in press coverage, and it may be time for wise journalists to assess it. The re-building story has gone missing. And without it, how can we judge the job Bush is doing?." More...
The Abyss of Observation Alone. "There are hidden moral hazards in the ethic of neutral observation and the belief in a professional 'role' that transcends other loyalties. I think there is an abyss to observation alone. And I feel it has something to do with why more people don't trust journalists. They don't trust that abyss." More...
"Find Some New Information and Put it Into Your Post." Standards for Pro-Am Journalism at OffTheBus: "Opinion based on information 'everyone' has is less valuable than opinion journalism based on information that you dug up, originated, or pieced together. So it’s not important to us that contributors keep opinion out. What’s important is that they put new information in. More...
Out in the Great Wide Open: Maybe you heard about the implosion of Wide Open, a political blog started by the Cleveland Plain Dealer with four "outside" voices brought in from the ranks of Ohio bloggers: two left, two right. Twelve points you may not have seen elsewhere." More...
Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media: "What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entreprenurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never." More...
Notes and Comment on BlogHer 2005 "I think the happiest conference goers at BlogHer were probably the newbies, people who want to start blogging or just did. They got a lot of good information and advice. Some of the best information was actually dispensed in response to the fears provoked by blogging, which shouldnï¿½t be avoided, the sages said, but examined, turned around, defused, and creatively shrunk.." More...
Top Ten List: What's Radical About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The weblog comes out of the gift economy, whereas most of today's journalism comes out of the market economy." More...
A Second Top Ten List: What's Conservative About the Weblog Form in Journalism? "The quality of any weblog in journalism depends greatly on its fidelity to age old newsroom commandments like check facts, check links, spell things correctly, be accurate, be timely, quote fairly." More...
Blogging is About Making and Changing Minds: "Sure, weblogs are good for making statements, big and small. But they also force re-statement. Yes, they're opinion forming. But they are equally good at unforming opinion, breaking it down, stretching it out." More...
The Weblog: An Extremely Democratic Form in Journalism "It's pirate radio, legalized; it's public access coming closer to life. Inside the borders of Blogistan (a real place with all the problems of a real place) we're closer to a vision of 'producer democracy' than we are to any of the consumerist views that long ago took hold in the mass media, including much of the journalism presented on that platform." More...
No One Owns Journalism: "And Big Media doesn't entirely own the press, because if it did then the First Amendment, which mentions the press, would belong to Big Media. And it doesn't. These things were always true. The weblog doesn't change them. It just opens up an outlet to the sea. Which in turn extends 'the press' to the desk in the bedroom of the suburban mom, where she blogs at night." More...
Brain Food for BloggerCon: Journalism and Weblogging in Their Corrected Fullness "Blogging is one universe. Its standard unit is the post, its strengths are the link and the low costs of entry, which means lots of voices. Jounalism is another universe. Its standard unit is "the story." Its strengths are in reporting, verification and access-- as in getting your calls returned." More...
Dispatches From the Un-Journalists: "Journalists think good information leads to opinion and argument. It's a logical sequence. Bloggers think that good argument and strong opinion cause people to seek information, an equally logical sequence. What do the bloggers bring to this? My short answer to the press is: everything you have removed."More...
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes "Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers 'replacing' the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.."More...
Raze Spin Alley, That Strange Creation of the Press: "Spin Alley, an invention of the American press and politicos, shows that the system we have is in certain ways a partnership between the press and insiders in politics. They come together to mount the ritual. An intelligent nation is entitled to ask if the partners are engaged in public service when they bring to life their invention... Alternative thesis: they are in a pact of mutual convenience that serves no intelligible public good." More...
Horse Race Now! Horse Race Tomorrow! Horse Race Forever!: "How is it you know you're the press? Because you have a pass that says PRESS, and people open the gate. The locker room doors admit you. The story must be inside that gate; that's why they give us credentials. We get closer. We tell the fans what's going on. And if this was your logic, Bill James tried to bust it. Fellahs, said he to the baseball press, you have to realize that you are the gate." More...
Psst.... The Press is a Player: "The answer, I think, involves an open secret in political journalism that has been recognized for at least 20 years. But it is never dealt with, probably because the costs of facing it head on seem larger than the light tax on honesty any open secret demands. The secret is this: pssst... the press is a player in the campaign. And even though it knows this, as everyone knows it, the professional code of the journalist contains no instructions in what the press could or should be playing for?" More...
Die, Strategy News: "I think it's a bankrupt form. It serves no clear purpose, has no sensible rationale. The journalists who offer us strategy news do not know what public service they are providing, why they are providing it, for whom it is intended, or how we are supposed to use this strange variety of news."More...
He Said, She Said, We Said: "When journalists avoid drawing open conclusions, they are more vulnerable to charges of covert bias, of having a concealed agenda, of not being up front about their perspective, of unfairly building a case (for, against) while pretending only to report 'what happened.'" More...
If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus: "Maybe irony, backstage peaking and "de-mystify the process" only get you so far, and past that point they explain nothing. Puzzling through the convention story, because I'm heading right into it myself, made me to realize that journalism's contempt for ritual was deeply involved here. Ritual is newsless; therefore it must be meaningless. But is that really true?."More...
Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials: "No one knows what a political convention actually is, anymore, or why it takes 15,000 people to report on it. Two successive regimes for making sense of the event have collapsed; a third has not emerged. That's a good starting point for the webloggers credentialed in Boston. No investment in the old regime and its ironizing." More...
Philip Gourevitch: Campaign Reporting as Foreign Beat: "'A presidential election is a like a gigantic moving television show,' he said. It is the extreme opposite of an overlooked event. The show takes place inside a bubble, which is a security perimeter overseen by the Secret Service. If you go outside the bubble for any reason, you become a security risk until you are screened again by hand."More...
What Time is it in Political Journalism? "Adam Gopnik argued ten years ago that the press did not know who it was within politics, or what it stood for. There was a vacuum in journalism where political argument and imagination should be. Now there are signs that this absence of thought is ending." More...
Off the Grid Journalism: “The assignment was straightforward enough,” writes Marjie Lundstrom of the Sacramento Bee, “talk to people.” When a writer dissents from it or departs from it, the master narrative is a very real thing. Here are two examples: one from politics, one from music. More...
Questions and Answers About PressThink "The Web is good for many opposite things. For quick hitting information. For clicking across a field. For talk and interaction. It's also a depth finder, a memory device, a library, an editor. Not to use a weblog for extended analysis (because most users won't pick that option) is Web dumb but media smart. What's strange is that I try to write short, snappy things, but they turn into long ones." More...