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October 19, 2005

Andrew Heyward: The Era of Omniscience is Over

Guest posting at PressThink, the President of CBS News says: "On most matters there are multiple points of view out there as opposed to a single, discoverable truth." With reactions from Terry Heaton, Andrew Tyndall, Susan Crawford, Tim Porter, Mitchell Stephens and Ken Sands.

In Some Bloggers Meet the Bosses From Big Media (Sep. 29, 2005) I described how Andrew Heyward, President of CBS News, told a group of us that the “illusion of omniscience” was hurting the big news providers. We should drop it, he said. (That’s when Tim Porter and I exchanged glances.)

Omnsicence is of course related to objectivity, and to the silent belief in an Archimedean point for news. Wikipedia calls this “the ideal of ‘removing oneself’ from the object of study so that one can see it in relation to all other things, but remain independent of them.” Archimedes was the guy who said he could lift the Earth off its foundation if he had a place to stand and a lever long enough.

Some call it the voice of god. My term is “the view from nowhere.” Heyward actually spoke against it, which was a first for me in listening to national news executives. He said “omniscence” was outdated; CBS would be better off without it. He talked about news that was more truthful because it was less certain, less definitive, less simple.

There is no Archimedean point; it’s not real. But there are points of view. They’re real. We have to bring that reality into our news, he said, without losing the idea of fairness. Jeff Jarvis called it “a big moment, reflecting a cultural change in meanstream news.” I said it was the surprise of the meeting, “an actual shift in press think” at the top. But all the bloggers had different versions of what he said.

On October 5, the following week, I saw Heyward again at The Media Center’s WeMedia conference. He had read PressThink’s account of the meeting with bloggers at the Museum of Television and Radio. I told him his remarks there were of some importance for those of us who study journalism and critique it. I invited him to re-fashion what he said into a post for PressThink. “Let me see what I have and get back to you,” he replied. I didn’t know if he would, or not.

A few days ago he sent me the text: “Even though my hastily scribbled notes no longer exist, I was able to track down the three points you asked about from our earlier discussion at the Museum — ironically, they were on your blog.

Well, yeah… That’s how we do things, Andrew. You do ‘em, you say ‘em, we write them down, put them in our blogs if they’re interesting to users. Pretty soon lots of people know, and it’s a free-for all!

“You grabbed a few sentences from Terry Heaton citing them. The context was a discussion of ways mainstream broadcast news has to change in response not just to bloggers but to consumers newly empowered to react, interact, and even report.”

Right. And for similar context—Big Media dealing with the newly empowered—see the earlier speeches by Tom Curley, head of the AP, and Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp.

When in 1996 Bill Clinton said “the era of big government is over,” he knew that just saying it wouldn’t reduce the size of any federal program. But it did affect what Democrats in the future could say: “The era of big government is back?” Not likely. I view Heyward’s statement in a similar light. It doesn’t change a thing about CBS News. But it makes it harder to go back.

Clinton actually said, “The era of big government is over.” (Applause.) “But we cannot go back to the time when our citizens were left to fend for themselves.” I think it’s clear: the era of omniscience is over in Big Media. (Applause.) But we cannot go back to a time when truth was left to fend for itself.

What do you think?

After Heyward, six writers with distinct points of view react, so stick around. “I look forward to continuing the conversation,” Heyward said in his note to me. Let’s hope that happens.

Special to PressThink

Oct. 19, 2005

The Era of Omniscience is Over
by Andrew Heyward
President, CBS News

One: Truth is a Plural

We have to abandon any claim to omniscience. Walter Cronkite used to end his broadcast with “That’s the way it is.” Dan Rather pulled that back, appropriately, to “That’s part of our world tonight.” The digital journalist, if he or she were being honest, would say something like “That’s some of what we did our best to find out today.”

This means not just recognizing that on most matters there are multiple points of view out there as opposed to a single, discoverable “truth,” but also — and this is just as important — acknowledging that the world is a complicated place, and the stories and issues we cover are not always reducible to simple, television-friendly explanations.

However, that cannot be an excuse for us to shrug our shoulders and abdicate our core responsibility to strive for the highest standards of accuracy, fairness, and thoroughness. We broadcast to a large and diverse audience, much of which does see mainstream news as “definitive” whether we acknowledge its limitations or not. And we cannot shy away from following the facts—and yes, there is such a thing as a fact—where they take us.

Two: Yes to Point-of-View Journalism

We have to figure out a way to incorporate point of view, even while protecting the notion of fair-minded journalism dedicated to accurate reporting without fear or favor. Put another way, point of view and even bias have to be something we report on even while we fight to recognize it in our own reporting and story selection. This is a really complex and nuanced area, not subject to glib solutions (like “Just acknowledge your own bias and everything will be fine.”).

Three: News Has an Authenticity Problem

We have to break down the tired formulas of television news and find a more authentic way of writing, speaking, and interacting with the people and subjects we report on. Artificial inflections and vocabulary (Pontiff instead of Pope, blaze instead of fire), predictable sound-bites, often-generic video, and stick-figure caricatures of human beings (victim, bureaucrat, cop, businessman, soccer mom) have turned the worst of television news into a kind of newzak— in one ear and out the other. The strongest exemplars of mainstream commercial television news—60 Minutes, CBS News Sunday Morning, the network newscasts at their best—stand out not just by original reporting but also by avoiding these traps. And I’m convinced a consumer-empowered marketplace will reward authenticity over artifice.

Andrew Heyward has been President of CBS News since January 1996, the second-longest of any president in the 47-year history of CBS News. (Richard Salant is number one.)

I asked six writers—friends of PressThink—to react to Heyward’s, “The Era of Omniscience is Over.” Their responses follow.

  • Terry Heaton: “Television news is all about the fine art of selling, and the problem in 2005 is that people are tired of being sold.”

In the consultant-driven homogeneity that is television news, we developed strategies and tactics to “position” anchors as in-charge and the most knowledgeable people in the newsroom. We called it “building the command anchor.”

Thus, the name of the anchor was added to the titles of the network evening news broadcasts. It’s easier to sell a person (or personality) than images of truth, justice and the American way. If there exists in television journalism the notion of omniscience with anchors, the industry itself put it there to assist with marketing.

In James L. Brooks’ 1987 classic film, Broadcast News, William Hurt’s character was directed to help coach Albert Brooks’ character on how to anchor. “Here’s the trick,” he said. “You’ve got to sell it.”

Television news is all about the fine art of selling, and the problem in 2005 is that people are tired of being sold. The dirty little secret is that viewers are increasingly hip to the tired formulas of which Mr. Heyward speaks, and so audiences for news are shrinking. “Revenue isn’t the problem,” I tell my clients. “Audience is the problem. Fix the problem!” I’m always stunned by the unwillingness of broadcasters to speak with people who no longer watch them, but that’s exactly where they need to begin in order to fix the problem.

For example, I was watching one of my favorite shows last night, when the local anchor came on and said, “Another Saturday Night Live comedian is dead. The story at 10.” This is called a “tease,” and it’s the most hated thing about TV news among those who no longer watch. Memo to broadcasters: You can’t get away with this anymore, because if I’m interested, I’ll go to the Internet and not wait until your program.

Of course, the biggest threat to the status quo posed by Mr. Heyward’s propositions is this idea of “point of view” in journalism. Of all of the frauds perpetrated on the American public in the 20th century, journalism’s artificial hegemony — objectivity — is at the top of the list. I believe, as Chris Lasch so eloquently wrote in 1990, that the decline in participation in the political process in the U.S. is directly linked to the rise in the professionalization of the news business. Lasch wrote that argument, not point of view, was what was missing in contemporary professional journalism, and it’s this that Heyward is actually suggesting.

The blogosphere is returning argument to journalism, and it’s scorned by the professionals who buy Walter Lippmann’s self-serving crap that the people need an elite class to lead and guide them. Lippmann is the father of professional journalism, and the apple never falls very far from the tree.

What happens when argument returns to journalism? People get involved, and the democracy thrives. “We’re mad as hell, and we’re not going to take it anymore.”

The sound that Andrew Heyward hears is not that of Pandora’s Box opening; it’s the rush of fresh air that freedom brings with it.

Terry Heaton (POMO Blog) was news director at six TV stations in 13 years; he now does new media consulting, writes essays, and keeps a weblog. He was at the roundtable where Heyward originally spoke.

  • Andrew Tyndall: “That’s-the-way-it-is is more like a reading of the day’s global news barometer than a claim of Olympian knowledge.”

Pride is a sin. For any journalist to claim omniscience would indeed be a sin of pride. Heyward is too hard on Uncle Walter, however, to ascribe such hubris to CBS News’ one-time anchor.

Heyward may construe “That’s the way it is” as a claim to omniscience. I read it another way. And Heyward implicitly acknowledges that much of his “large and diverse audience” agrees with me. We expect the CBS Evening News to be “definitive.”

By the term “definitive” I understand that a mainstream nightly newscast tries each evening to fulfill its part of the following compact with viewers: “If you give us half an hour of your time, we shall make a good faith effort to decide what are the most important national and international developments of the day and to inform you of them. We are the source a citizen can rely on for a baseline of knowledge each evening, so as not to be illiterate in the public square.”

In their quest to make such definitive judgments, CBS News must select its choice for the day’s news agenda. Its rundown reflects the relative importance or triviality of the day’s developments, the balance between foreign and domestic, political and social, breaking news and less urgent features. It can signal a crisis by devoting saturation coverage to the day’s top headlines. It can signal a lull by ending its newscast with a heartwarming feature about wild ducks rescued from their diminishing habitat. In Cronkite’s day that same function was assigned to Charles Kuralt.

Such a newscast taps the glass, as it were, to measure the pressure of the day’s events and reports on whether it is heavy or light. “That’s the way it is” is more like a reading of the day’s global news barometer than a claim of Olympian knowledge. Heyward predicts that as CBS News goes digital it will shrink its ambitions from such a daily reading to the less ambitious “that’s some of what we did our best to find out today.” Surely his sights should be set higher than that.

Because broadcast television audiences are in decline, the networks’ half-hour nightly news format is criticized as the anachronistic relic of the legacy medium that created it. “Commodity journalism” is the pejorative for its diminished clout, implying lowest-common-denominator reporting with no value added. The true value of the nightly newscasts was never economic, however; it was always civic. In that sense, commodity is a virtue for news—information uniformly accessible at minimal cost to all members of the democracy, communicated in the vernacular.

In Heyward’s third point (I will leave comments about his second point, on “point of view” to another day), he bemoans the worst of television journalism and, correctly in my view, points to the best traditions of quality at CBS News in avoiding artificiality, predictability, generics and caricatures—newzak as he puts it. To this day, a two-minute produced package on the network nightly newscasts is better written, more densely sourced, more tightly edited, more visually stimulating, contains more background, analysis and context than a comparably-sized report anywhere else on television or in any other medium, for that matter. Perhaps that is why, to this day, the networks’ nightly newscasts still have a larger audience, by an order of magnitude, than any other single news product.

On the one hand, Heyward’s invective against “tired formulas” is stating the obvious: namely that authentic reporting is superior to cliches. On the other, he provides a hint about how CBS News can continue to fulfill its legacy mission, to provide definitive commodity journalism, in a fragmented digital world—how to continue to produce news for a mainstream audience when mainstream media no longer exist.

“I’m convinced a consumer-empowered marketplace will reward authenticity over artifice,” he says. It is an aspiration to be proud of.

Andrew Tyndall is inventor and publisher of the Tyndall Report, which monitors the evening newscasts of the major networks. He has watched all the newcasts of the Big Three networks since 1987.

  • Ken Sands: “The truth is, we’re no longer in control of the information flow.”

Andrew Heyward is correct — mainstream media must change their practices. But it’s going to be difficult because our values have become almost inextricably linked to our practices, which rely heavily on the “broadcast” form of communication.

My experiences in Spokane, for example, lead me to the admittedly sweeping generalization that it might be easier for bloggers to become journalists than for journalists to become bloggers. (Setting aside, for a moment, the pointless “blogging-vs.-journalism debate.)

Bloggers seem to understand intuitively the power of aggregation and synthesis that is central to explanatory journalism. They embrace immediacy and interactivity. News as a conversation is corrected and amended along the way. The collective knowledge of many is more powerful than the skill of a Pulitzer-winning reporter.

Journalists, however, tend to be tethered to a one-to many, “broadcast” form of communication. Instead of being omniscent narrators, we should become the catalysts of meaningful conversations. Any threat to that tether is frightening, though, and journalists typically react defensively. They know how to write a 20 inch story or produce a 30-second TV piece on deadline, but how do you deal with a “story” that doesn’t have a finite deadline, and the readers are the sources, too? The truth is, we’re no longer in control of the information flow. We just haven’t realized it yet.

While I applaud the fact that mainstream media are experimenting with blogging, very few of the MSM blogs take advantage of the potential for immediacy and interactivity. (I also would argue that a certain “point of view” already exists. For example, American media coverage of international news is U.S.-centric to an amazing degree.)

As Heyward suggests, technology finally has enabled a consumer empowered marketplace to begin developing. For decades, the mainstream media virtually ignored the fact that the flood of information had outpaced meaning. People need aggregation, explanation, analysis to have a clear understanding of complex issues. Our daily news reports rarely provide this context, instead focusing on the latest developments of that particular day, or yesterday, in the case of newspapers.

Bloggers, driven perhaps by the same sort of ego that motivates journalists, have graciously volunteered to fill the void. There still is a vital role for journalists who embrace change, who view evolving media as a thrilling opportunity rather than solely a threat to core journalistic values. Many of tomorrow’s journalists may be employed as editors, aggregators, facilitators of conversation.

Newspaper editors in Lawrence, Kan., Spokane, Wash., Greensboro, N.C., and a few other cities have launched trailblazing efforts. The news industry, as a whole, though, is not responding well to the “disruptive technology” that threatens our future relevance. Frankly, I’ve wondered at times whether TV executives even noticed what was happening. Thankfully, Andrew Heyward has demonstrated a clear vision and is in a position to make historic changes.

Ken Sands runs, the online division of The Spokesman-Review newspaper in Spokane, Wash. He’s been at the newspaper in various reporting and editing roles since 1981.

  • Susan Crawford: “Like the last deep chants of a vanishing priesthood.”

The three points that Andrew Heyward made were delivered with firm emphasis and short phrases. He was hunched over the table, looking up at us as he read, and when he was done he leaned back definitively. He had been watching the proceedings with some bemusement, and he knew that he was saying something important.

Heyward understands that framing the discussion as one about how “bloggers” and “journalists” interact is hopelessly shortsighted. The role of media news is under assault from many directions – people don’t trust newspapers or even the evening news the way they used to. He understands that we now live in an age of networks that don’t belong to CBS. And so he is willing to suggest that we are far from the time of a trusted, omniscient Walter Cronkite, and he accepts that an authoritative, smooth-faced news voice no longer resonates with the American public. So he calls for authenticity, acceptance of complexity, and multifaceted coverage.

But he is not willing to acknowledge real changes. Heyward is a very smart man, but he’s being dragged into this new world and his strong beliefs were fixed some time ago. Notice that his three points shore up the role of “real” journalists (“accuracy, fairness, and thoroughness,” “reporting without fear or favor,” “strongest exemplars of mainstream commercial television news”). He believes that journalists will continue to do the job of news reporting, with some tweaking to ensure they’re using colloquialisms and having a point of view. He is willing to take one step down from the pedestal, but he still believes that the pedestal exists and is important. He does not understand that the “people formerly known as the audience” (in Jay’s lovely turn of phrase) now have the upper hand.

Heyward’s remarks came towards the end of a quite polite, almost clubby exchange of views between acceptably middle-aged and well-behaved bloggers and media executives. Most of the bloggers cared deeply about the culture of mainstream media, and were looking for ways to help out. Absent from the room were the twenty-somethings (much less teenagers) who could have brought life to the room via a few rude remarks or stories about their own relationships to “news”. In this context, Heyward’s three points sounded brave.

In the swirling world of bits and constant exponential technological change that exists outside that clubby room, Heyward’s three points may end up sounding like the last deep chants of a vanishing priesthood.

Susan Crawford (Susan Crawford blog) is Assistant Professor of Law at Cardozo Law School, where she teaches cyberlaw and intellectual property law. She was at the roundtable Sep. 28 where Heyward spoke.

  • Tim Porter: “I see the middle beginning to move.”

When people like Andrew Heyward begin playing taps for journalistic omniscience and sounding reveille for incorporating point of view in the news, change is definitely in the wind – but how strong that wind is blowing and in which direction I can’t yet say.

Heyward’s comments represent a growing recognition at the highest levels of the traditional news business that reinvention—from the newsroom to the boardroom—is no longer just a panel topic for the annual conventions. It is mandatory for survival.

Last week, during one of those whither the future of news panels, Susan Golberg, editor of the San Jose Mercury News, a newspaper forced to cut 15 percent of its news staff, agreed when I said the notion of journalistic objectivity was outdated.

And the other day, I wrote about an exchange between Jay Rosen, Melanie Sill (editor of the Raleigh News & Observer) and some readers. It happened on her blog and it was an extraordinary display of communication, albeit defensive, from within the newsroom that would have been unthinkable even two years ago.

We’re witnessing news executives test-driving new ideas and reaching for language that can define new journalistic ventures that still retain what they see as critical values – fairness, completeness, accuracy. Hence, Heyward’s distinction between facts and truth, and his stickiness about “core responsibility.”

The journalists don’t want to give up their journalism, but they’re not yet sure how to remake it with a new set of parameters – questions instead of answers; context instead of competition; the best truth-telling possible instead of just facts.

Change does not come easily to successful people, especially those in rigid businesses like news, which depends on a fixed hierarchy, identifiable rules and a predetermined set of players. Top executives like Heyward don’t suddenly wake up one morning and refute the principles, practices and processes that made them successful. (“Hey, everything I know is wrong!”)

If it is true that change begins at the edges, in Heyward’s comments, Sill’s blogging and Goldberg’s questioning of objectivity, I see the middle beginning to move.

I am optimistic— to a point. This year, I tweaked the American Society of Newspaper Editors for not confronting the reinvention dilemma at its annual convention (and Rupert Murdoch reminded them of their oversight). Suddenly, though, the demise of the news industry is all the rage and you can’t scratch a news executive without uncovering a would-be change agent.

But this has happened before without noticeable impact. A 25-year campaign for diversity at newspapers still lags its goals. A concerted effort at renewing credibility failed – 45 percent of American still believe little or nothing they read in newspapers (the number for CBS News is 37 percent).

I can guarantee that change, reinvention and innovation will be at the forefront of next year’s convention of newspaper editors. They’ve gotten religion and the choir is forming. That’s a beginning at least.

Tim Porter (First Draft) is a former editor at the San Fransico Examiner who quit to think, blog and consult about the future of newspapers. He was also at the Sep. 28th roundtable where Heyward spoke.

  • Mitchell Stephens: “Let’s not pretend that this business of eradicating omniscience will be easy.”

One wants to celebrate the moment: This is, after all, CBS News — once so serious, so trusted, so earnest, so epistemologically confident, so eager to balance even that which was too multifaceted or too one sided to be balanced, so energetically—with just a handful of notable, even historic exceptions—inoffensive. (For example, the grace, thoughtfulness and conviction with which designated opiner Eric Severeid managed to say approximately nothing.) Now here is this venerable organization’s president, Andrew Heyward, stating, “We have to abandon any claim to omniscience.”

One notes that at almost precisely the same moment the New York Times—the only competition CBS News had for the center of the mainstream in my youth—has made a similar acknowledgement in the old fashioned way: by, on a matter of some constitutional importance, screwing up. One notes (since one is stuck in this locution) that, in a sense, Heyward is calling for a return to the more individual, more outspoken style of journalism characteristic of newspapers in this country until about a century and a half ago.

One could even use Heyward’s note to mark the end, not just in journalism but in the larger culture, of the era of objectivity—when facts were seen as sufficiently discernable to be available to the omniscient; his statement might serve as the death knell for a kind of naive realism that hung on in journalism long after it had expired in art, literature, philosophy and beer commercials.

However, it is hard to make these points without sounding, well, omniscient.

So let’s pat Mr. Heyward on the back for his openness and good sense: It is not easy, while steering such a large organization, to be present-looking, let alone forward-looking. Let’s give some credit to all of those — from bloggers, to Jon Stewart, to a few generations of press critics — who helped demonstrate that the facade erected by our Cronkites and Rathers, our Salants and Heywards – though it was very often compelling and politically valuable — was always too thin and flat and narrow to bear much resemblance to “the way it is.”

Let’s consider what a postmodern journalism might be. (I have some thoughts on the subject, a pdf file.) By all means let’s try a new Evening News that is not so easy to confuse with the Nightly News or the World News Tonight. Let’s hope Heyward will do more than sit a Republican next to a Democrat on the set, call a pope a pope and put more money into the Website; let’s hope that some of this edge and potentially offensive “point of view” will be allowed into the video reports that form the heart of TV news.

But let’s not pretend that this business of eradicating omniscience will be easy. If it ain’t the voice of an omniscient God (omnipresence and omnipotence were lost a while ago to budget cutbacks and the rise of cable) booming out from 57th Street at 6:30, then whose voice or voices is it to be?

Mitchell Stephens is a professor of journalism at New York University. He’s the author of A History of News, and the rise of the image the fall of the word.

My thanks to all participants, and especially to Andrew Heyward.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

UPDATE: A week after this post ran, Andrew Heyward announced that he was resigning from CBS News:

CBS News President Andrew Heyward announced Wednesday morning he plans to leave his post when his contract expires at the end of the year. Heyward will be replaced by CBS Sports President Sean McManus.

“After nearly ten years in this job … it’s time for a change, both for the News division and for me,” Heyward wrote in an e-mail to CBS News staff.

The New York Times article on the change. There was also this from Times correspondent Bill Carter:

Leslie Moonves, the CBS chairman who made the switch to Mr. McManus, had stirred the pot most aggressively by stating last January that he was looking for something radical and even revolutionary to replace Mr. Rather - a move away from what he called the “voice of God” anchor. At one point Mr. Moonves was quoted suggesting that he would like to blow up CBS News entirely.

Yesterday, Mr. Moonves said that comment was never serious and he had made it “out of frustration.”

See this profile of Moonves in the New York Times magazine.

All headings and titles for Andrew Heyward’s piece are my own, not his.

Jeff Jarvis responds: “Here’s hoping that the management and culture of CBS allow Heyward to start enforcing his laws.” CBS News-ers reading this feel free to speak up in comments.

CBS’s ombudsman-like blog, Public Eye, re-prints Heyward’s statements, plus excerpts from this post. Vaughn Ververs writes: “The back-and forth is informative and stands on it’s own. But it is worth noting that you are reading this on Public Eye, a CBS property. That fact alone speaks as loudly as all the comments above.”

I think he’s right. Public Eye is a statement about the twilight of omniscience. Of course, it’s worth noting the president of a network news division just did a guest spot on an independent blogger’s show. Speaks too.

Brian Stelter, the 20 year-old college student who runs MediaBistro’s TVNewswer— and has more blog readers than Brian Williams:

CBS News president Andrew Heyward guestblogs about the future of the mainstream media. It’s a must-read. I wish Heyward had spent more time expanding on number two, “yes to point-of-view journalism.”

Excellent idea for a follow-up essay: what is point of view in TV news? Susan Crawford boils it down at her blog: “What news organizations can do for us is aggregate, judge, visualize, and order — use their expertise to make it easier for us to get reliable news. But that may involve opening up to (and, indeed, encouraging) other sources of information that haven’t been generated by the news organization itself. This will take leadership.”

Related essay: Jay Rosen, “Part of Our World: Journalism as Civic Leadership” (from 1998)

Some years ago, while watching the CBS Evening News, I was startled to hear Dan Rather say, “And that’s part of our world tonight.” Mr. Rather then thanked me for watching, but it was I who wanted to thank him— for frank acknowledgment of what he and his colleagues actually do.

…”And that’s part of our world tonight” is a very civil thing for an anchorman to say. It admits: “This is not the final word, or the whole truth, or a mirror we’ve made, just the best we could do in crafting our nightly report.”

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 19, 2005 1:01 AM   Print


If what Heywood and those reacting to his comments have to say is true, I'm very afraid....

Because I have seen the future, and it looks like FoxNews.

What is most disturbing about Heywood and the other commenters is that none of them seem willing to confront the larger issue here --- that "news" is now simply the content that exists solely to attract audiences for advertisers. We hear all this talk about "the end of omniscience" and "the end of objectivity" not because omniscience and objectivity are bad things, but because they aren't cost effective in terms of maximizing profits. Heywood isn't talking about serving his audience better, he's talking about maintaining double digit profit margins from news divisions.

Call me old-fashioned, but I'm with Lippman on this one; we need a "journalistic elite" that refuses to pander to the prejudices of the audience and pursues a lowest common denominator approach in search of ratings, and that isn't beholden to Rupert Murdoch's or Sumner Redstone's greed and megalomania.

Democracy can only work when there is a common frame of reference in which discussion can take place. We need an "omniscient" media to provide that frame of reference --- and we're losing it.

Posted by: ami at October 19, 2005 5:08 AM | Permalink

As a number of folks have observed, the common frame of reference provided by the media you think would be a good idea has frequently been at odds with the facts. This is only good for those who need a counterfactual frame of reference.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at October 19, 2005 8:36 AM | Permalink

I need a translator, please, to explain exactly or approximately or even roughly what improvements in network news Heyward's comments promise.

I'm not an expert in this field. I quit watching network news when CNN began routinely outstripping the networks, which in my opinion occurred sometime in the 1980's; I haven't seen an entire network newscast in at least a decade and I haven't seen even a portion of one, other than special coverage, in five years or so.

When CNN proper started to rot I went to Headline News to get headlines, and followed up through newspapers on the ones of interest to me. Then Headline News started to go all stupid all the time, but fortunately online news began sprouting coincident to that minor tragedy. Now I don't watch TV or cable news at all other than for documentaries and large, breaking stories; I get everything online except for print sources, mostly magazines and books, that aren't available online.

I'm with Ami on what network news should do, which is to serve as an honest broker of facts. I am not a big-picture person. I am extremely uncomfortable with the application of deconstruction to television news. It strikes me as a dodge. It strikes me as descriptive not of the future of news but of the immediate past and present.

I don't want the Derrida News Network. I'm happy to read the Derrida Tribune, or to collect it, but when it comes to network news, give me the Boddhisatva News Network; I just want to know what happened. If Andrew Heyward wants me back in his fold, all he has to do is report 22 minutes, or whatever it is now, of news as best he can. He cannot compete with the resources available to me — I can find and read smarter and more thorough opinion or expert commentary on any subject faster than he can get it on the air — but he could save me some time.

Unfortunately that doesn't seem to be what he's suggesting, or if it is he didn't couch it in terms I can understand.

Terry Heaton is right about the importance of argument, but what that has to do with a television news process that drove me away by replacing news with argument and air escapes me. Andrew Tyndall's take seems eminently sensible if over-optimistic. Ken Sands slid right out of the realm of television in his opening line, which also strikes me as eminently sensible but not very helpful with respect to interpreting what Heyward said.

I'm an old guy. I may be the oldest person involved in this discussion other than Heyward. I have to ask Susan Crawford — and Heyward, for that matter — what's wrong with Walter Cronkite? Among the many stupid things CBS News has done, exiling Cronkite has to rank in the top five. I don't really care what the brash young folk have to say about network news unless it involves what no one else is telling me, which is exactly what that 22 frickin' minutes will do for me and exactly how it will do it.

I have a similar problem with what Mitchell Stephens says: Let’s give some credit to all of those — from bloggers, to Jon Stewart, to a few generations of press critics — who helped demonstrate that the facade erected by our Cronkites and Rathers, our Salants and Heywards – though it was very often compelling and politically valuable — was always too thin and flat and narrow to bear much resemblance to “the way it is.”

I would settle for "very often compelling and politically valuable" in a heartbeat. In fact, I'm begging for it because it's exactly what we don't have now and haven't had for a very long time. And I see postmodernism more as the proximate cause of the problem than as the solution to it.

Stephens quotes Jonathon Culler in the excellent CJR essay to which he links, and I think Culler got it exactly right: "bad" postmodernism has all but done for television news and it's crippling print news. You simply can't adequately deconstruct an entire range of news stories in 22 minutes; most print journalists either can't or won't do it effectively, and they have a lot more time on their hands.

So I have to ask Stephens too: what will you do with that 22 minutes to make it useful, to make it "compelling and politically valuable" again?

Jay, I started out not knowing even what language Heyward was speaking. Reading the reactions from your other guests solved that problem, and that's what makes this site so very cool. Groovy, even. But it took a lot more than 22 minutes and I still don't know how anyone proposes to fix the network news.

Posted by: weldon berger at October 19, 2005 9:22 AM | Permalink

Jay, a terrific collection writings and ideas. There’s too much here to get to in a single comment, really. But in total, it makes me think of a couple things.

Every one of these writings talks about change that is happening, and change that is to come. It gets me thinking about the timeline of that change—where we were, and what’s happening now. I don’t think I can muddle into the where are we going.

There are many scholars who would say that information management became a feature of institutions and bureaucracies in a big way in the Progressive era, and became more important in the ensuing years. Information management particularly with regard to communicating with the public. It gave power to institutions to operate with autonomy and expertise, and held off public criticism. In this way, big media operates like other bureaucracies, and has for most of the last century.

I’m thinking of Max Weber certainly, and more contemporary scholars like Peter DeLeon, who argued that institutional complexity worked hand-in-hand with information management to make institutions seem too complicated and expert to be vulnerable to public scrutiny.

What’s really interesting, especially in light of the Miller case, is that although journalists and the press have been considered independent of government and bureaucracy (and in fact, prided themselves on that distance) these institutions have become increasingly interdependent on government, and now perhaps behave internally like government bureaucracies.

One thing that both Weber and DeLeon point out is that the public is shut out of debate about the role and work of institutions when complexity, secrecy, and autonomy are the main goals of the institution. And both would argue that democracy functions less well when these conditions exist.

What I find most fascinating is that what caused change is that the institutions lost control of the “presses.” It was always a distribution problem. Who had the power to disseminate information? Big institutions, and not regular people. Now the public has its own press, and it’s kind of a David and Goliath situation. The little people throw rocks and the big guys are shocked that they can be hurt.

Posted by: JennyD at October 19, 2005 9:50 AM | Permalink

I doubt that Walter Cronkite ever considered himself "omniscient", but it would be fair to say audiences found him authoritative, fair and balanced--as was appropriate in an age when the broadcast spectrum was licensed to a very few organizations in exchange for meeting their obligations of public service. It helped that Cronkite was seen as an authentic newsman, backed by editors and producers who were also dedicated to reporting what mattered in our world.

Is it an accident that broadcast news audiences started declining around the time that the networks decided that entertainment values--whether in editorial content or newscaster appearance--would be preferable to gray eminences such as Cronkite? The audience trusted Cronkite.

Broadcasters understand perfectly that the audience wants to trust the team that sits around the anchor's desk. Why else run ads that proclaim your show "the most trusted" in broadcast news? But advertorial assertions that you're trusted and actually getting the audience to trust your silly, blow-dried anchor clowns are two different things.

Frankly, I don't see this as a question of inserting "viewpoints" or getting all humble about "omniscience". Citizens used to get their "viewpoint" news from myriad daily newspapers. Today they get it from blogs. What citizens need is precisely what Hayward seems to be backing away from--a trusted source to judge what events are important and why.

It's a question of competence. Too much of broadcast news is superficial, or pure fluff, or--in the worst case--demonstrably driven by the parent corporation's agenda. It is delivered by grinning idiots who are the last people to inspire trust or respect.

The "personalities" populating broadcast news today are simply inauthentic. A newscaster doesn't have to flog a "viewpoint", but merely be authentically competent. Consider the response to Shep Smith and Anderson Cooper during their Katrina coverage. It wasn't just their emotion that grabbed audiences, it was their authentic, unscripted reporting. And they instinctively understood that it wasn't the "he said, she said" reporting that was the most important part of the story, but the unalleviated human suffering exacerbated by the political bickering.

Posted by: Chiaroscuro at October 19, 2005 10:20 AM | Permalink

This guy has been blogging for abot two weeks now yet he is onto something re teasers and the 'rhetoric of the times is speed' idea.

I have to digest all of the stuff in the post and comments for a while, but I will be back.

Posted by: coturnix at October 19, 2005 11:18 AM | Permalink

" ... news" is now simply the content that exists solely to attract audiences for advertisers."
But that's not a new development. That is what news has been for close to 100 years. I believe it was H.L. Mencken (or maybe Evelyn Waugh ?) who first described the newsroom as "the piano player in the whorehouse."
The piano player's job is get the customers to come in the door; the whores take it from there.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at October 19, 2005 11:52 AM | Permalink

I also attended (and blogged) the 'We Media' conference where the second Heyward-Rosen encounter took place, but I was more struck by the comments made there by CBS digital media king Larry Kramer. While paying lip service to the changes and values that the CBS News boss writes about above, Kramer actually showed that he (at least) is fearful of allowing too much openness to 'infect' CBS. His emphasis on the need for CBS to act as a filter (not to mention a fairly lame attempt at getting hipness credit for offering "Andy Rooney on a podcast') seem to belie the attitude expressed by Heyward.

Posted by: Rory O'Connor at October 19, 2005 12:22 PM | Permalink

But that's not a new development. That is what news has been for close to 100 years.

Steve, I grew up in the era when news was considered a public service by broadcasters (and when anchors were inevitably gray-haired white males).... and perhaps to some extent, print journalism may have been taking some cues from broadcast news during that period.

It was certainly a period when (the best?) publishers seemed to take their responsibilities toward citizens more seriously---or at least saw journalism as a far more "serious" business than it is today.

Posted by: ami at October 19, 2005 12:44 PM | Permalink

I find Ami's comments interesting. He extols objectivity as something that stands outside of commercial considerations, not realizing, apparently, that the rise of "professional journalism" as we now know it was driven from the publishers' offices, not the newsroom. Newsrooms initially fought the shift because it drove the life out of energetic styles. But it was what advertisers demanded. Advertisers didn't want their products associated with yellow journalism and muckraking. So we migrated toward a brand of bland journalism to please advertisers and feed the bottom line. Eventually, after newsrooms had drunk enough of the Kool-Aid, we became downright doctrinaire about the notion and built our cults around the concept. We shut out the audience.

Now news organizations around the world are in trouble because unlike never before, the users, our readers and viewers, have real power. They control when and how they consume news and in what context they frame it or expand it or dismiss it. To ignore that or to pretend that the old standards can survive is suicide.

Yes, our advertisers demand an audience. And we can’t operate a news organization without revenue. So, do we stick with a formula that our audience is rejecting in droves, or do we recognize that users have all power and we serve them better, our advertisers better, and (dare I say it), our democracy better, by tapping that power?

Call it pandering if you like. I call it common sense.

We must build news products that let our audience exercise their control. We must participate with them and we must be honest with them.

Part of that process is being honest with ourselves. We must stop lying to ourselves about omniscience and objectivity. It never existed. It never will. We must fight for honesty and transparency, from ourselves, from our governments, NGOs and sources, and from our audience.

Posted by: Howard Owens at October 19, 2005 1:52 PM | Permalink

Hi, Rory: Thanks for coming by. Could you explain a little more about what you mean: "His emphasis on the need for CBS to act as a filter." On the face of it, saying "we're a filter" is not suspicious to me. But you had something else in mind, yes? I was there but maybe I missed it.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 19, 2005 2:09 PM | Permalink

"...point of view and even bias have to be something we report on even while we fight to recognize it in our own reporting and story selection." - Heyward, above.

"Report on" meaning identifying it among the subjects of the report and their assertions, or identifying it in the reporters? If the latter, this is a revolutionary idea for a dominant media executive, and an idea which I applaud.

Posted by: Trained Auditor at October 19, 2005 2:37 PM | Permalink

> Call it pandering [to audience wishes] if you like. I call it common sense.

> We must build news products that let our audience exercise their control. We must participate with them and we must be honest with them.

If what the audience wants from you is a misleading picture that doesn't challenge their preconceptions, is that what you'll serve them?

Posted by: Anna Haynes at October 19, 2005 4:21 PM | Permalink

Heyward in my interpretation has replied to those who say (and there are hundreds of such statements in the comment threads at PressThink...) "My problem is not with bias, bias is inevitable, but just tell us. Be upfront about it. Stop pretending."

He's saying: that's too simple, too glib. It doesn't help me think through the problem and come up with ideas.

Maybe his fear is that "being upfront," instead of clearing the air, will just become on occasion for more culture war. More ammunition will just mean more attacks.

Another reason may be that it's not clear what kind of disclosure is being demanded, and what kind makes sense. For example, I have a passport and I have been to 20+ foreign countries, which probably puts me in the 98th percentile for globe-trotting among Americans. For knowing my "bias" on things that's at least as important as my being a registered Democrat in New York.

If I'm a CBS producer, and I'm trying to follow the advice, and "be upfront about it," should I disclose what I think might be shaping my view, or what you think counts as a "bias" factor, what the Media Research Center picks out as significant, or what the bias disclosure form says-- or what? Disclosure makes total sense until you actually try to design a policy for it.

This is a really complex and nuanced area, not subject to glib solutions (like “Just acknowledge your own bias and everything will be fine.”)

He's there with: we're not omniscient, we have to stop claiming the view from nowhere, we aren't getting anywhere with objectivity. These are propositions he's come to accept. He has hit that ball over the net.

Then Heyward is saying: the solution that works for individuals--here's who I am and where I'm coming from--does not work for a big news organization. Ready to let go of the old, can't grasp the new system, thinks "show your bias" is just a slogan, not an idea.

Got any better ideas? is what he's saying.

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 19, 2005 4:25 PM | Permalink

Jay, we've covered some of this ground before. It's not outright bias, like you saying you're a registered Democrat. And it's not even that you've been to 20 countries.

It's the way they order the world. The Anchoress did a guest spot on Public Eye, and she tried to get at this. CBS sent a reporter across the nation to explore the thoughts and feelings of Americans about the war in Iraq. She started at a military base with soldiers who support the war. Then the next day or so, to the children of soldiers overseas. The children looked forlorn, their parents were gone.

What the reporter didn't show was children whose parents had returned. She didn't really probe how the children felt about their parents' service. (This according to Anchoress, I didn't see it.)

So what really drives any "bias" here is that the reporter cannot select all the viewpoints of the "group" she's choosing to show in her report. She implies by the report that the subjects and their views are representative of the "group." Maybe there are soldiers who hate the war. Maybe there are children who aren't forlorn. We won't know that.

These are anecdotal reports, these trend stories and thought stories and feeling stories. There's not data to show that they are representative. And this kind of reporting gets repeated a lot with health and personal finance; take one horror story and then as the subhed--"this horrible thing happens to thousands." But in the US population, that's still not a lot of people.

I don't think I'm explaining this very well. It's not that reporters have bias and then ram it into the stories. It's that their bias shows up when they find some one who makes sense to them, and then they broadcast that person's story as though it is the representation of the whole group.

What if news organizations eliminated all these trend reports, and just reported what happened, or stories with roots that were not in feelings or thoughts or attitudes? What would the news look like?

Posted by: JennyD at October 19, 2005 4:46 PM | Permalink

Okay, well "reduce or stop using those forms of news that lend themselves to distortion through personal bias..." (which is what you're saying) is a different idea than "Just acknowledge your own bias."

No documentaries, then?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 19, 2005 4:59 PM | Permalink

But wait, when I watch a documentary, like Frontline, I know in advance by the genre that it's a presentation with a point of view. That these guys have examined the evidence, come up with a stance, and the documentary orders the world so that stance makes sense.

I don't get the sense that the evening news anywhere begins with a genre that allows for point of view. They purport to have no point of view....

Posted by: JennyD at October 19, 2005 5:31 PM | Permalink

I've seen too many "documentaries" that are really nothing more than propaganda for one point of view.... And even if they're produced by people who everyone thinks are educated or "enlightened," they still end up trying to sell me something.

Posted by: Kristen at October 19, 2005 5:53 PM | Permalink

This is Heyward's excuse for punting on getting the truth. More and more, news will be:

"Democrats say the sun rises in the east. But Republicans say it rises in the west. Who knows which is true? Not us here at Anchor McNews, that's for sure."

He said-she said isn't news, it's gossip.

Posted by: Anon at October 19, 2005 5:56 PM | Permalink

Well, if all he meant by "point of view" and figuring out how to incorporate it into television news was more he said, she said, then Heyward's statement is a bust. If that's all he meant. 'Course, could be all you heard.

I've seen too many "documentaries" that are really nothing more than propaganda for one point of view...

Sounds like bad documentaries. But okay, so you are fine with a viewers contract with CBS News that says: "don't make me any documentaries, just do news," right?

Posted by: Jay Rosen at October 19, 2005 6:07 PM | Permalink

"...these guys have examined the evidence, come up with a stance, and the documentary orders the world so that stance makes sense." - (emphasis added) Jenny D, above.

Precisely, that's what documentarians do; it's also what I believe Jay would call a culture warrior's approach to observation and argument. Note however, I think that there are many who consider doucumentaries to be news reports (just delayed, and with bigger budgets).

Scandalously to some, I contend that kind of fitting facts around the policy is also what our dominant media does (in large part). I acknowledge there are (relatively rare) exceptions.

In fact, I do have a better idea.

Posted by: Trained Auditor at October 19, 2005 6:08 PM | Permalink

I've seen too many "documentaries" that are really nothing more than propaganda for one point of view.... And even if they're produced by people who everyone thinks are educated or "enlightened," they still end up trying to sell me something.

Sounds like bad documentaries.

Has anyone ever read a non-fiction book without a point of view? I think its kind of silly to suggest that documentaries shouldn't try to "sell you" their point of view.

Posted by: ami at October 19, 2005 6:50 PM | Permalink

What if CBS News defined its genre this way:

"We report what happened today that we think is important and interesting, and we report what's happening around us that's not maybe so immediate. We make these decisions based on what interests us and what we think will interest you. We report and produce these stories from various perspectives. These are based on how our reporter sizes up the evidence for the story. It's quite possible that someone else would size it up differently. But that's the deal. We bring our own "lens" to the pictures we give to you."

It's quite postmodernist, I think. Sounds like some of the wishy-washy stuff in the academy. But...I suspect it's much truer than the press saying it is objective. I think it also goes farther than saying "we're not omniscient."

Here's what Heyward said:

However, that cannot be an excuse for us to shrug our shoulders and abdicate our core responsibility to strive for the highest standards of accuracy, fairness, and thoroughness. We broadcast to a large and diverse audience, much of which does see mainstream news as “definitive” whether we acknowledge its limitations or not. And we cannot shy away from following the facts—and yes, there is such a thing as a fact—where they take us.

Let's read this right: the core responsibility is to strive for the impossible. What are we as buyers of the news supposed to think? What is Toyota said, "hey we try to make a great car, that's our core responsibility." That's why I think they have lose the idea of fairness. It's impossible. Also thoroughness. They cannot possibly be accurate and thorough doing a trend story based on the viewpoint of ten people. It's not a trend. It's ten people.

Posted by: JennyD at October 19, 2005 7:07 PM | Permalink

Jay, I'm thinking of your "viewers contract" remark/question and also collecting my thoughts on Mr. Heyward's post and other posts....thank you, again, for providing a forum for such thoughtful discussion. (I actually responded quickly about the documentary post by Jenny D as kind of a side note to the main topic ...)

Ami... I've always loved your posts b/c they really put right out there in plain sight EXACTLY what is being discussed so perfectly.

Posted by: Kristen at October 19, 2005 7:09 PM | Permalink

Weldon Berger and I must be contemporaries :-)

But Mr. Heyward needs to take the next step. He's still thinking of the Web as supplement to the program. That's exactly backwards.

The problem is that 22 minutes. There's no way for him to tell me what I need to know, what interests me, about the world in 22 minutes -- especially since I may not be interested in the same things Jenny D and ami are, and he has to serve them too. And "news judgement" becomes a horrible temptation. If we just leave out this teensy little detail our political purposes are served, and we have to cut seventeen seconds off the story anyway...

But Web space is, for all practical purposes, unlimited. For a person with high-speed access the whole newscast is what, a three or four minute download? And hard disk space is really cheap.

What if the reporters were told, "Cover it thoroughly. Do as much as you think is needed to make it clear what actually happened. We'll put it all on the Web, so anybody who's really interested can dig as deep as they like." Then the people running the program can look at that and say, "This is interesting, and that's important. We can summarize on the air, and tell people to look at the Web site for the details. And if it's really important, we can spend more time on it -- other stories don't lose, because they're easily available."

The program becomes an überaggregator, providing what are essentially links -- Glenn Reynolds in living color and surround sound. The "real news" is on the Web. If they got that rolling and nobody else did it, it'd be the most-linked site on the entire Internet by a factor of three.

But I don't think Andrew Heyward is ready to call The CBS Evening News an ad for a blog...


Posted by: Ric Locke at October 19, 2005 9:07 PM | Permalink

Jay: "find a more authentic way of writing, speaking, and interacting with the people and subjects we report on."

Also drop the hyperbole. When I come across a reporter using loaded leverage words, I assume "propaganda" and go for the remote.

Posted by: Fen at October 19, 2005 9:28 PM | Permalink

That's why I think they have [to]lose the idea of fairness. It's impossible. Also thoroughness. They cannot possibly be accurate and thorough doing a trend story based on the viewpoint of ten people. It's not a trend. It's ten people. - JennyD

Excuse me? Perhaps I'm hearing wrong but are you saying CBS (or any news reporting organization should give up on fairness and thoroughness? Because it's not possible?

Or are you suggesting that trend stories are a pointless waste of time? Because in that sense, I agree. At best, they're cheap anthropology. But I don't get the idea that's what Heyward was talking about.

Media objectivity hasn't been taken serious as a journalistic standard for some time - except to media critics as key elements of strawman arguments. Reporters, like anyone else, live in the world, and can't help but be affected by it.

But I don't think we can conflate the old bugaboo 'objectivity' with accuracy, fairness and thoroughness (and I might add honesty.) Those aren't just journalism's goals, they're things we all should strive for in just living.

It's not easy, sure. But nor is it impossible. Journalism can not possibly tell the whole/complete story in one neat pile. By it's nature, journalism tells the small bits that unfold day-by-day. And we do that best by striving for factual, fair reporting.

Perhaps the absence - or downplaying of those elements that's what inspires fear in ami's heart for the future of news. For without them, we lose the frame of reference and become a lot of noise. Or Fox News.

Posted by: David McLemore at October 20, 2005 12:37 AM | Permalink

Ric has seen the light at the end of the tunnel, IMO. Once-over-lightly in broadcast time, all sources and elaborations available in depth indefinitely on the Web. With some forum for manageable interactivity.

The business model may not allow it to be concentrated in the same way as Big Broadcast News, but informationally that would work and make everyone happier, including the culture warriors, since shaping, editing, and selecting/excluding would become more transparent and deliberate.

Posted by: dilys at October 20, 2005 6:34 AM | Permalink

Sorry to be talking so much, but I'm still thinking about this:

Let's think about fairness and thoroughness for a moment. Take the recent "60 Minutes" piece on Louis Freeh and the book he wrote. That's the story. Freeh and the book. Seems like a fair a story. A man in a high place wrote a book. Here's why. Here's what he's doing now. Interview friends, enemies for background and thoroughness and fairness.

But no. That's not fair. Now the subjects of the book need equal time. Fair, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. This all takes place after (and perhaps because) 60 Minutes gave rebuttal time to Bush people when Richard Clarke was interviewed.

So is 60 Minutes fair and thorough? Clearly that depends on who you are. Is it a news outlet? Or is it a series of documentaries? I don't think documentaries are meant to be "fair" necessarily. The are meant to build a case for a particular truth. Take any documentary Bill Moyers might do about the chemical industry. Is it fair? Not if you work in the chemical industry.

But that might be okay. Could anyone watch the Bill Moyers documentary and not realize his stance toward the chemical industry? Would the audience take it as truth?

I find it interesting that Heyward believes his audience thinks his newscasts are "definitive." I wonder why he thinks that.

Sometimes I think if all news outlets took a stance and admitted it, we'd live in a world Fox News. But more often I think that a better form would emerge out of dialectic of oppositional reports. The facts might be what's in common, and the point of view is everything else. I don't know...

I also think about the level evidence required in journalism versus, say, science or academic scholarship or statistical studies. I find that as an academic, I can't get away with the kind of throwaway lines or thin evidence I used to squeeze into my journalism.

Posted by: JennyD at October 20, 2005 8:21 AM | Permalink


That's not fair. Now the subjects of the book need equal time.

A quick thought about the Fox slogan "Fair and Balanced."

Granting equal time to all sides of an argument is what the "balance" refers to. "Fair" is a different activity--namely avoiding distortion or caricature when representing someone's position, not taking it out of context.

Posted by: Andrew Tyndall at October 20, 2005 10:31 AM | Permalink

Steve Lovelady writes "I believe it was H.L. Mencken (or maybe Evelyn Waugh ?) who first described the newsroom as 'the piano player in the whorehouse.' The piano player's job is get the customers to come in the door; the whores take it from there."

I've never been to a whorehouse but it seems like the purpose of the piano player would be to entertain the customers as they wait for a whore.

More accurately, the person who "gets customers" for whores is a pimp, right?

So what then, in this metaphor, is the function of the news organization?

Posted by: laurence haughton at October 20, 2005 11:28 AM | Permalink

As I read the metaphor, the news organization is the whorehouse itself.
The piano player (the news and opinion columns) supplies the customer his ostensible excuse for dropping by.
"I come here for the piano-playing."
Once he's there, however, it's the advertisers (the whores) that vie for his attention, and it's hoped he will buy something. Indeed, in anticipation of same the whores have already paid the bordello a cut of their anticipated take.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at October 20, 2005 12:30 PM | Permalink

When I read Heyward's post, I had no idea what his point was. But no matter. Fortunately, we have people like Tim Porter, who can condense the contents into digestible bullet points, to-wit:

1. There is "no single discoverable truth". Well, no duh, as my son says. You will never get the "truth" from a single source. If you're interested in "truth" you need to be like Diogenes.

2. Journalists must "figure out a way to incorporate point of view". Journalists already incorporate POV, they just need to tell us what their POV is so we can make an assessment of what they are telling us.

3. TV news must become more "authentic". This is what TV news does best. Think of any written report you have read concerning the JFK funeral, Challenger explosion, "shock and awe" initial coverage of Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina (until the sob sisters took over) and compare it with what you saw on TV. TV does this sort of thing best, but leave nuance and analysis to others. In other words, TV news should know it's place.

Posted by: kilgore trout at October 20, 2005 2:20 PM | Permalink

(Didn't realize how much I'd written until I previewed it... will keep future postings shorter!)

TerryHeaton said “…unwillingness of broadcasters to speak with people who no longer watch them, but that’s exactly where they need to begin in order to fix the problem.” In Problem Solving 101, you learn that misunderstanding the problem results in wrong or incomplete solutions. Sounds simple but then you look at the huge number of “News Blogs” created by the news networks and you see this in action. Yes, they provide a place for viewers to sound off or go to get more commenting from anchors, etc., but so what? Do networks think these "solutions" will increase viewership? They’re more optional side bars to real “news” and will not affect my viewing habits b/c they don’t help to fill in news coverage gaps. For example, Jay, when you wrote your “Open Letter to CBS” on Public Eye, you offered CBS a chance to advance my knowledge, my understanding of the whole Rather/Mapes affair. CBS, their culture, certainly played a role in it and that’s news to me. It would have furthered the story to get answers to your questions from the leadership at CBS but they took a pass. And b/c of that decision, as a potential viewer I decided that I would not waste my limited viewing time on CBS products. I mean, what do they offer that sets them apart?

Another Terry Heaton comment: “What happens when argument returns to journalism? People get involved, and the democracy thrives.” I firmly believe that. You can say what you will about Fox News, but there’s a reason it’s found viewership. People want and need to see more than one side of an argument (and only those facts that support it as well as the selection of stories to begin with). And they don’t want and need it b/c they “don’t want to be challenged” or they’re automatons, etc. People want and need argument b/c argument, opposing or different points of view, further knowledge and understanding and I think most people inherently want that (plus it can be entertaining). The viewership spoils will go to the news outlet who is victorious in figuring out how to present this in their pages or in a half-hour time slot.

Ken Sands talked about, “The collective knowledge of many is more powerful than the skill of a Pulitzer-winning reporter,” and “People need aggregation, explanation, analysis to have a clear understanding of complex issues.” I know Susan Crawford talked of this, too. I read Instapundit, Kausfiles, Drudge, etc., precisely because I can go fairly quickly to several spots each day to get an overall picture of what’s happening around the country/globe. It’s an efficient use of my news gathering time. If I want more depth, I’ll pursue those stories via links they openly provide. For me, spending an hour watching a 60-minutes type story, when the producers won’t even post somewhere full videos or entire transcripts of the interviews is a waste of my time. Now, if they provided full transparency, and offered 15 minutes of the next program rebuttals of the prior segment then maybe I’d watch.

Posted by: Kristen at October 20, 2005 2:20 PM | Permalink

"any documentary Bill Moyers might do about the chemical industry. Is it fair? Not if you work in the chemical industry."

It has nothing to do with those working for the chemical company. It has to do with the practices of the entity. It's fair to expose the truth whoever happens to be o the take. That's what journalism is supposed to do.

Posted by: Bill at October 20, 2005 2:40 PM | Permalink

If I interpret the rhetorical question about Moyers and the chemical industry, the presumption was that Moyers would lie like a rug.
If you were in the chemical industry, that would strike you as unfair.
If you were a liberal journalist, that would probably strike you as a good idea.
You know, like booby-trapping trucks which refused to blow up in accordance with the documentary's plot line.
It's all POV.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at October 20, 2005 3:38 PM | Permalink

Let's not forget, this is not entirely a voluntary change of heart by Andrew Heyward.
He's under specific instructions from his boss, Les Moonves, who's the head of all of CBS, to "blow up" the CBS Evening News and "re-invent" it as something else.
That doesn't mean it's not a good idea. It just means it's not Heyward's good idea.
And Richard -- the booby-trapped GM trucks were NBC's work, not CBS's. Mike Gartner, head of NBC News, lost his job over that little stunt, even though he was unaware of it. He's now in Iowa, where owns and runs a minor league baseball team, and watches the corn grow.

Posted by: Steve Lovelady at October 20, 2005 4:44 PM | Permalink

Sorry to have been gone for a while, Jay -- but I've been busy blogging the latest on "information warfare' and the emerging Able Danger controversy, which I suspect we'll all be hearing a lot more about in the coming weeks. Anyway, in response to your question from yesterday:

'Could you explain a little more about what you mean: "His emphasis on the need for CBS to act as a filter." On the face of it, saying "we're a filter" is not suspicious to me. But you had something else in mind, yes? I was there but maybe I missed it.'

Let me answer by citing the context: Larry Kramer of CBS digital was extolling his company's efforts to change and enter the new information age by citing such lame efforts as the pseudo-blog Public Eye, while at the same time defending the lack of true openness there and elsewhere at CBS. He explained that not only PE but CBS in general won't really embrace true transparency, real access for citizen media, etc. and proclaimed that society needs professionalism, verification, and 'filtering' to protect us from all the dangerous amateurs -- er, viewers and users -- out there who are desirous not only of consuming but actually creating what Kramer would undoubtedly call 'content.'

In other words he defended the dying status quo, the 'necessity' of credentials, and the priesthood of professionals at the CBS seminary. And as you and others have been writing for some time, journalism is not (to quote Jeff Jarvis's elegant phrases) 'an official act, a certified act, an expert act, a proprietary act. Anyone can do journalism."

But Larry Kramer gave the distinct impression that he feels it should be reserved for a special few.

Posted by: Rory O'Connor at October 20, 2005 5:24 PM | Permalink

Steve. I wasn't referring to a specific network, but to a practice.
Dan Rather.
The Audi scheme where the spontaneous acceleration had to be forced by adding a pump to the transmission and not telling the viewers.
A number of practices of the Detroit Free Press during the Central American wars of the Eighties.

Nice to see the big guy got his papers on the exploding truck.
That he didn't know about it means he didn't do it. Which means somebody else or elses did. Which punches up the numbers beyond his sorry-ass self. The question is why he had a staff who would do this and what he would have done had GM not decided to fight back. And whether other items like this happened where the victims didn't have GM's pocketbook and legal staff.
When it comes to trust, how many of these does it take to ruin it?
Works for me.
Full disclosure. An honest but completely incompetent reporter made my daughter look like a fool, and the AP picked it up. It did go national and there was a rumor that Leno had mentioned it without names. It wasn't her fault but he declined to check out the other party's story, taking his word for the source of the problem. Turns out the guy lied.
The story was rowed back in the usual muted fashion.
The good side of it was that the issue was such that probably three hundred of the locals discovered that the Flint Journal was a waste of time.
Always a silver lining.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at October 20, 2005 6:06 PM | Permalink

"the presumption was that Moyers would lie like a rug."

No. The presumption by those of us with our heads in the sunlight is he would expose the truth hidden by the liars running the company. Check your head.

Posted by: Bill at October 20, 2005 8:01 PM | Permalink

It's amazing how these folks grab onto some infraction and extrapolate it out across all news outlets and reporters. It's absolutely breathtaking. Truth is not relative.

Posted by: Bill at October 20, 2005 8:05 PM | Permalink

Bill, I think you're close to the point: We don't know if CBS' behavior exemplified by its "60 Minutes" story on G.W. Bush's National Guard service is exceptional or representative. We'd like to know.

Posted by: Trained Auditor at October 20, 2005 8:23 PM | Permalink

Bill, do you mean truth isn't relative? Like absolute truth?

I would disagree. Truth, like fairness, is relative. So is thoroughness, and balance. All the things that CBS strives for are, in fact, relative.

Take, for example, evolution and intelligent design. Neither are facts. But both are truths, depending on who you are. The evidence behind them may hold different weight, particularly given an individual's perspective. But if, say, a school were to be striving to be thorough, fair, and balanced, it would need to teach both.

Here's a case where having a perspective, stance, point-of-view, even bias, is beneficial. If we say that the we as a nation believe that majority rule is truth, and if the majority of us believe that evolution is the greater truth of explaining human origins, then we can easily dispense with intelligent design in classrooms. (Okay, so we might have a fight on our hands first, but you get my drift.) But striving for fairness and balance in this situation would lead to a different outcome that would probably result on both truths being taught in school.

Even our belief in democracy is, perhaps, a perspective. There are some people in the world who might not think it is the best form of government currently available. There are some who might think human rights are not valuable. I personally would disagree, but they would argue that their beliefs are truth.

(You know, rereading this makes me realize I need to get out of the academy for awhile.)

Posted by: JennyD at October 20, 2005 9:00 PM | Permalink

Bill. How many infractions consititute a free pass?
When are we peons allowed to be skeptical?

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at October 20, 2005 9:38 PM | Permalink

So, Richard, how many infractions convict all of journalism? One, apparently, is enough for you.

How fortunate for you to work in a business where there are never any mistakes made, no incompentence or sloppiness and where ethical lapses never occur.

Bad things happen in journalism. That's a fact. As Steve Lovelady mentioned, there are severe consequences for those responsible for the flaming Chevy story or other journalistic sins. But you see it as evidence of systemic failure.

Are we ready to throw out the justice system because there are corrupt judges?

Posted by: Dave McLemore at October 20, 2005 10:41 PM | Permalink

JennyD striving for fairness and balance doesn't mean you can't point out one side is full of crap. Or bad science. Or point out that the scientific community holds that the theory of evolution has been demonstrated satisfactorily over the eons to be considered fact.

All ideas are not equivalent. Because someone believes something is true does not make it so. Are you saying reporters can't report things that way?

Posted by: Dave McLemore at October 20, 2005 11:20 PM | Permalink

Hard to tell where to go with Dave's metaphor.
We have some input into who our judges are. There are appeals. There are professional conduct boards--by whatever name.
Journalists get hammered if they get caught and if their bosses think they did something wrong. "Wrong" being flexible.
There are only severe consequences for those who got caught.
And even then....
I said nothing about throwing out the system. I said I don't trust it. There are too many times the guys got caught. Since journalists are, or were until the blogosphere got going, the only people who know when they screw the pooch, there isn't much likelihood, or wasn't, of us knowing when we were being put on. How many times did the journos jerk us around and we never knew? Of course, the people who were screwed by the journos knew, but their sole option was to write a letter to the editor for him to practice wastebasket bank shots.
I've tried. The last time, and it was long ago, I wrote to the editor so that it got run, the bastard turned it around so I said the opposite and I looked like a moron.
So, tell me, how many screwups does it take before we peons are allowed to be skeptical?
Now, if you call the readers catching on as the equivalent of throwing out the system, that's your problem.
If journalists could stop making stuff up, that would help.
I don't like egregious errors as happened to my daughter. I was really pissed when the assholes failed to correct it but simply came up with new information without exactly addressing the point that my daughter had nothing to do with it. That's a famous old trick, the rowback, isn't it?
I don't see me throwing anything out. I see me waiting for the press to get it right. Consider, I don't just read. I'm a citizen trying to find out what I should be doing and the institution that's supposed to tell me what's going on can't be trusted.
I'm not the one who has messed up.
I'm one of the ones who noticed.
You're not in a position to shoot the guy carrying that particular message any longer.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at October 20, 2005 11:23 PM | Permalink

"Truth, like fairness, is relative"

I vehemently disagree. It's a constant. Not seeing it has no effect on the factual truth. It remains what it is regardless of who sees it, or not.

In this vein one side's "fair airing" can be broken against the fulcrum of truth as the facts support it. Ignoring it won't make it any less valid. I see a lot of that sort of thing around here.

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 12:11 AM | Permalink

Hey Aubrey do they teach you how to make a paragraph up there in Michigan? Who the hell could read that puzzle?

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 12:12 AM | Permalink

You're right, Richard. It was a bad analogy. Let's say because Crown Victorias have a tendency to burst into flames after a rear-end collision, do you give up on Ford? Or simply stay away from the Crown Vics?

Or do you say how can I trust all car manufacturers?

When can you be skeptical? Whenever you want. You don't want to believe? Don't. But that doesn't mean journalism is routinely, systematically and intentionally wrong.

The news is out there. You're free read it, analysis it, believe what you want and curse the rest. You always have been.

Posted by: Dave McLemore at October 21, 2005 12:13 AM | Permalink

And Maclemore GETS it.

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 12:14 AM | Permalink

Here's the problem: "Crown Victoria's have a TENDENCY to burst into flames." According to whom? What evidence backs that up? Is it enough evidence for you to prove this as fact? Is this just a truth that you believe?

Here's a problem: "Women are not capable of being full participating citizens." According to whom? Me? A Saudi prince? What evidence does either of us have to back that up?

Here's another a problem: "All these hurricanes are being caused by global warming." Is there evidence to say that as truth? How about the weather experts who say hurricane amount and intensity runs a 30-year cycle, and we've been due for this since the late 1990s? Or do you just ask SIPI scientists?

In each of these cases, truth is relative. Depends on who you are.

In the case of the Crown Victoria, the journalist must make a value judgment, must choose and judge. I don't know if it's bad, but it happens.

Posted by: JennyD at October 21, 2005 7:46 AM | Permalink

Bill. You got any more concerns than paragraphing?

Now we know that my being skeptical is not throwing out the entire system.

The problem for the journalists is that so many of them have screwed up one way or another that a great many people stopped trusting them.

The way to fix that is to be squeaky clean for a long time. But screwing up as with Rather, or Tailwind, or any number of other examples, is part of what journalists do on purpose. It's one thing to be incompetent, as in my daughter's situation. It's another to start out to lie. We can accept a certain number of accidental failings. The clear lies are far more ominous, and, added to the frequent accidents, don't help.

I should say that, from time to time, a study will ask people who've been in the middle of something so that they actually knew what happened whether the media got it right. Almost never get it right, according to the folks in the middle of it.

How many people are going to suffer severe penalties for getting the NOLA reporting wrong?
Part accident, part a matter of accumulating things to blame on Bush. Or all accident. Either one doesn't do you guys much good.

What are you guys going to do to earn trust?

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at October 21, 2005 8:43 AM | Permalink

That's better. Now concentrate on the critical thinking aspect.


In those cases truth is NOT relative. The sources are quoting their own BS. The idea is to cut though the BS, not subscribe to it, or not know it from truth.

i.e. Hurricanes
"Is there evidence to say that as truth?"

Yes, there is. I'm a scientist myself. Nothing is absolute or total but the trail is certain. One side tells you clear-cutting is good for forests and helps fish. Scientific evidence and the experts say the opposite. They are correct and the timber industry shill is wrong. That's the difference with facts and truth versus BS from paid shills. You don't seem to know the difference and hold fast to the "he said she said" cluelessness some journalists, and a lot of the citizenry, obviously have.

Truth, and the preponderance of evidence that leads to it, remains constant even if you refuse to see it. Eyes open wider please.

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 5:03 PM | Permalink

"The problem for the journalists is that so many of them have screwed up one way or another that a great many people stopped trusting them."

These examples are as rare as a successful self-published book. Why your daughter is newsworthy escapes me.

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 5:07 PM | Permalink

Bush's numbnuttedness on every issue stands on its own. No has to make any of it up. It's reality.

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 5:12 PM | Permalink

I just loaded "clear-cutting is good for forests and helps fish" into Google and got 0 results.

Who are you quoting Bill?

I loaded "clear-cutting is good for forests" and got 204 results. This was number 1: "Longtime forestry feud shows signs of healing
2 eco-groups endorse clear-cutting as way to create healthy forests" Denver Post May 2, 2004; Page A-01 Section: 1A SECTION
Article ID: 1202106 -- 1655 words

I have not read the article but the headline implies there "may" be an expert or a scientist that thinks differently than you suggest.

I am not a scientist. But I would like to know what kind of scientist are you?

Posted by: laurence haughton at October 21, 2005 6:12 PM | Permalink

Pardon me. That didn't come out right. It reads like I don't respect your point of view which I do.
I meant which of the sciences is your specialty.

Posted by: laurence haughton at October 21, 2005 6:20 PM | Permalink

Fisheries biologist: Federal. Who would you suggest knows more? Me or you?

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 7:38 PM | Permalink

Here's on for you.

Misleading propaganda by the government under this biased, and incompetent leadership. Proof positive.

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 7:44 PM | Permalink

Refer to the industry shills part of my thesis on truth and, no, no one in the scientific community focused on this issue disagrees with me. Those connected to the timber business would though and they control this administration flat-out.

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 7:48 PM | Permalink

Knows more about what Bill? Fisheries? Incompetence? Leadership?

I've studied and written on "The Psychology of Incompetence" and have been published in 26 countries on leadership issues.

But as for your statement that "no one in the scientific community disagrees with you" I take you at your word.

Posted by: laurence haughton at October 21, 2005 8:18 PM | Permalink

The subject matter we were discussing: Clear-cutting forests helps fisheries and is beneficial to forest health. As an expert in covering the biology of incompetence you should be well-versed in this administration's many foibles. Unless of course you share them.

Don't take my word read the literature and see for yourself. I didn't spend 20 years on the ground investigating this issue not to know anyhting about it on the backside.

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 9:41 PM | Permalink

This is one blase unprofessinal bio/fact page. Who the hell could tell anything valid about you or your credentials from this?

Posted by: Bill at October 21, 2005 9:45 PM | Permalink

I still want to know what these various philosophical expositions translate into in practical terms: how will the newscast be different? And will whatever that difference is make it better?

I took a look at the amount of traffic the top news sites get. In May, the most recent month I could find, Yahoo News and MSNBC topped the list with nearly 24 million visitors— the two have been slugging it out for the top spot all year. CNN was next with slightly less than 20 million, then AOL News with 17 million, Gannett and the New York Times with 11 million, Knight Ridder, Tribune Newspapers and USA today with 9 million, ABC News with 8 million, the Washington Post and Google News with 7 million, and at 5 million were Fox News, CBS, the Beeb, World Now and Hearst.

The third-ranked CBS evening news, on the other hand, draws 30 million viewers a week.

Yahoo News is a content aggregator. For all practical purposes, so is MSNBC, drawing from the NBC newscasts, the MSNBC cable shows, Newsweek, and syndicated news items from, among other sources, the Washington Post. CNN has its 24-hour coverage, such as it is, to draw on. AOL is an aggregator as well, with links out to all the major news sources. The Times has an enormous amount of content online, Gannett aggregates news from all of its papers plus other sources, as do Knight Ridder, the Tribune papers and Hearst. The Post generates its own content, Google is an aggregator. The sites at the bottom, Fox, the BBC and CBS news, are largely dependent upon their television content to stock the web sites. The BBC, with radio and tv, is in the bottom tier as well.

So if you go by the rankings, more content from more sources means more visitors. For CBS, more content means higher expenses because, unlike the aggregators and MSNBC and CNN, they don't have all that much content at their disposal. They'll have to pay for it, either by increasing their own internal production, which seems unlikely, or by buying it from elsewhere. MSNBC and CNN have the additional advantage of driving visitors to their websites 24 hours a day, while AOL has its captive subscriber base; how can CBS possibly match that? How can CBS leverage the web without creating an entirely new news infrastructure, which costs money, which they don't want to spend; they'd rather tweak the format and presentation.

The problem with network news isn't that it pretends omnisicence or doesn't incorporate sufficent points of view: it's that it's stupid. If Heyward hasn't read "Bad News," the book from his former senior Europe correspondent, Tom Fenton, he should: it's the well-documented story of how CBS and the other networks have strangled their overseas bureaus and in the process, bred an entire generation of reporters (and future anchors )with almost no in-depth experience of the larger world while at the same time depriving viewers of the benefit of that experience and the coverage that drove it.

And that's just one facet of the stupidity. So far as I can tell, incorporating "points of view" and pushing the idea of multiple truths, which I take to mean multiple interpretations of facts, is a substitute for actual reporting, which is expensive and requires intelligence. It's a lot easier, for instance, to do a story on welfare reform that says what a particular aspect of it is intended to accomplish and then hit up Howrd Dean and Ken Mehlman for comment, and maybe interview a few welfare recipients, than it is to sit down with a few telephone books worth of data and see what is actually happening. You get points of view with the former approach, but you don't learn much about anything other than the points of view.

The evening news is supposed to deliver a 22 minute digest of the day's important news. The networks do an increasingly bad job at that.

Jon Stewart is very far from the first person to mock television news, but there's a world of difference between what he's mocking, which is woeful, generic stupidity, and what Saturday Night Live's Weekend Update was mocking back in 1975, when the big joke was "Francisco Franco is still dead," which was in part a dig at NBC's Garrick Utley, who spent a lot of air time musing about the significance of the passing of the last formally Fascist dicatator, and in part a dig at the networks in general for dragging out Franco's not quite dead body whenever they had a few minutes to fill. Thirty years later, that reporting and those reporters represent a now-unattainable level of sophistication.

If Heyward wants "authentic" voices, he needs to hire smart people and give them the depth and breadth of experience through which authenticity is created. The just-passed generation of anchors, Jennings, Brokaw and the increasingly peculiar Rather, enjoyed that experience; the next generation for the most part don't because the opportunities weren't there when they were coming up through the ranks. And no amount of philosophising and tinkering will turn callow talking heads into authentic reportorial voices; if you want good reporting you need reporters who have the experience, intelligence and sophistication required to build faith in their own judgement (to be distinguished from an overblown sense of importance), and I think the lack of that is as much to blame for the "he said-she said" brand of journalism as any yearning toward a mythical objectivity.

Posted by: weldon berger at October 22, 2005 6:37 AM | Permalink

Bill. You don't know why my daughter was newsworthy. So? The local paper thought she was.
You might want to ask them.

The point is that the experience of how my daughter was treated by the Flint Journal has reinforced my skepticism. It's not about newsorthiness. It also reinforced the skepticism of several hundred people who were involved and knew better.

I have absolutely no idea how you're going to convince anybody that it was a non-event and we're supposed to trust, trust, trust.

You might also want to contemplate probability theory. What's the likelihood this doesn't happen very often?

Posted by: Richard Aubrey at October 23, 2005 7:58 PM | Permalink

From the Intro