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Consider:

"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"







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Friday, 31 March 2006
Press Notes: Objective Reporting and the Immigration Crisis
Topic: The Media

Press Notes: Objective Reporting and the Immigration Crisis

The Set-Up

Since Just Above Sunset went online in May 2003 the topic of the press has come up again and again. Is the press biased one way or the other, and can the press really be objective - or is that unrealistic? Just what is "fair and balanced" and do you report both sides of a dispute even if one side bases their argument on what is just not so? Should national leaders be excused for saying things that just aren't true, on the record, out of respect or because, well, that was what they said and you should just report it without comment? Do you report on the actual facts that makes the public figure look bad - as if the speaker is cynically lying to make some point, or delusional, or just tired, confused or not that good with words? Would that make you look like you have an axe to grind? There is, it seems, the issue of the fine line between reporting an obvious contradiction and being seen as clearly out to nail some public figure - so you need to be careful. (Joe Conason deals with that issue here at in Salon, Friday, March 31, 2006, saying you really should report the president saying something that is just not so, and is vital, particularly when he's saying it repeatedly.)

And there's the whole issue of war reporting. Should you be objective and not take sides, or should you be what you are, which in our press is being an American who doesn't want to do the nation any harm? How do you deal with that? Just how do report bad stuff, and how much of it, and in what way? How do you report the good stuff when bad stuff is happening - one story from each category, even if there are nine big negative stories and two positive stories that day?

And how do you deal with the commercial aspect of the news? You have an audience that wants to know what's going on, but that includes news of the missing white woman of the month, some fetching sweet kid now missing, and some celebrity news like last year's Michael Jackson trial, and news of murder, mayhem and perverts on the prowl. Add shark attacks, and a long car chase covered live, and all the rest. Add those stories about racial matters, and immigration. Add the economic news for those worried about their jobs, or their portfolios. Add the health and medical news stories. Add the "lifestyle" stories. In the broadcast and cable media you have only so much airtime available between the blocks of advertising, and in print only so many column-inches amid the display ads. Do you give people what's important, when you see it developing, or give people what they want, even if the other stuff is seemingly vital? Often you can do both. Sometimes you cannot. And your audience can change channels, or read some other newspaper or magazine. There go the advertising revenues as your market share drops and you have to lower your rates. What do you tell the corporate shareholders when profits drop? And who is among the survivors in the newsroom when the staff cuts come?

It's a puzzle. And in these pages much of the discussion of the puzzle has included comments, and an occasional column, from Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta. He's been there.

Rick's involvement in the start-up of CNN can be found in Hank Whittemore's CNN: The Inside Story, a book from 1990, on the tenth anniversary of CNN and the transformation of the news business. See the index under Rick Brown, and the photos, even if he doesn't look much like that any longer (he looks better). Rick finished working for CNN in 1985, although he did publish his TV News Journal after that, until 1988. We've known each other since the mid-sixties and I consider him an "old school" journalist sort - one of the guys who actually knows what fair and balanced really means. There are not many of them left.

Of course, he did note this last week in the column where more was said about the press puzzle - "I must confess my role in the creation of the new medium had little to do with editorial matters, but specifically had me inventing the 'satellite desk,' which dealt with how to get all those reports, both live and on tape, back to headquarters so they could be sent back out to the world."

But he knows the players - "Christiane Amanpour herself is one of these bullets-whizzing-by reporters, or at least was when she worked next to me over on the CNN foreign desk" - and a bit of web searching will show that his wife is a person of some consequence at CNN now. She didn't leave.

That quote from Rick was from What journalism is and what it is not. A dialog. - posted June 27, 2004 - on war coverage and balance. In this, 'Maybe a little less of the pervert of the day...' (June 5, 2005), Rick has some things to say on Ted Turner, who didn't think much of the sort of news people were demanding. That was in the news at the time, and it was in the news again this week - Ted Turner blasts the media, Bush - and himself - "There's an awful lot of superfluous news, the pervert of the day and someone that shot seven people at a fraternity party. Who needs it all?"

Rick also had a few things to say on Anderson Cooper, CNN and disaster coverage here, from September 4, 2005, and you know what was happening then in New Orleans. That touched CNN management and their choices. In fact, in The news media wakes up and starts doing its job?, back in July 2004, Rick was saying things like this - "I just so wish we could go back to the days when delivering news was considered a sacred public trust, instead of an opportunity to 'enhance shareholder value' by being the most popular kid in school."

The Issue, One More Time

The whole business comes up again, but this time with one of Rick's friends for decades, CNN's Lou Dobbs.

See this:

The Twilight of Objectivity
How opinion journalism could change the face of the news.
Michael Kinsley - Posted Friday, March 31, 2006, at 6:08 AM ET SLATE.COM

It opens with the "inside baseball" stuff -
CNN says it is just thrilled by the transformation of Lou Dobbs - formerly a mild-mannered news anchor noted for his palsy-walsy interviews with corporate CEOs - into a raving populist xenophobe. Ratings are up. It's like watching one of those "makeover" shows that turn nerds into fops or bathrooms into ballrooms. According to the New York Times, this demonstrates "that what works in cable television news is not an objective analysis of the day's events," but "a specific point of view on a sizzling-hot topic." Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia Journalism School, made the same point in a recent New Yorker profile of Fox News' Bill O'Reilly. Cable, Lemann wrote, "is increasingly a medium of outsize, super-opinionated franchise personalities."

The head of CNN/US, Jonathan Klein, told the Times that Lou Dobbs' license to emote is "sui generis" among CNN anchors, but that is obviously not true. Consider Anderson Cooper, CNN's rising star. His career was made when he exploded in self-righteous anger while interviewing Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu after Hurricane Katrina and gave her an emotional tongue-lashing over the inadequacy of the relief effort. Klein said Cooper has "that magical something ... a refreshing way of being the anti-anchor ... getting involved the way you might." In short, he's acting like a human being, albeit a somewhat overwrought one. And now on CNN and elsewhere you can see other anchors struggling to act like human beings, with varying degrees of success.

Klein is a man who goes with the flow. Only five months before anointing Cooper CNN's new messiah (nothing human is alien to Anderson Cooper; nothing alien is human to Lou Dobbs), he killed CNN's long-running debate show Crossfire, on the grounds that viewers wanted information and not opinions. He said he agreed "wholeheartedly" with Jon Stewart's widely discussed and uncharacteristically stuffy remark that Crossfire and similar shows were "hurting America" with their occasionally raucous displays of emotional commitment to a political point of view.

But that's just a personal gripe (I worked at Crossfire for six years), easily resolved by a slavish apology. More important is that Klein is right in sensing, on second thought, that objectivity is not a horse to bet the network on. Or the newspaper, either.
This followed by a discussion the problem - the Internet, as "no one seriously doubts anymore that the Internet will fundamentally change the news business." Who is going to pay for "a collection of articles, written by professional journalists from a detached and purportedly objective point of view?"

No one seems to want that now. Boring. And everyone gets the same thing. And people now want something "more personalized, more interactive, more opinionated, more communal, less objective."

Perhaps so.

And there's this on objectivity -
Objectivity - the faith professed by American journalism and by its critics - is less an ideal than a conceit. It's not that all journalists are secretly biased, or even that perfect objectivity is an admirable but unachievable goal. In fact, most reporters work hard to be objective and the best come very close. The trouble is that objectivity is a muddled concept. Many of the world's most highly opinionated people believe with a passion that it is wrong for reporters to have any opinions at all about what they cover. These critics are people who could shed their own skins more easily than they could shed their opinions. But they expect it of journalists. It can't be done. Journalists who claim to have developed no opinions about what they cover are either lying or deeply incurious and unreflective about the world around them. In either case, they might be happier in another line of work.

Or perhaps objectivity is supposed to be a shimmering, unreachable destination, but the journey itself is purifying, as you mentally pick up your biases and put them aside, one-by-one. Is that the idea? It has a pleasing, Buddhist flavor. But that's no substitute for sense. Nobody believes in objectivity, if that means neutrality on any question about which two people somewhere on the planet might disagree. May a reporter take as a given that two plus two is four? Should a newspaper strive to be open-minded about Osama Bin Laden? To reveal - to have! - no preference between the United States and Iran? Is it permissible for a news story to take as a given that the Holocaust not only happened, but was a bad thing - or is that an expression of opinion that belongs on the op-ed page? Even those who think objectivity can be turned on and off like a light switch don't want it switched on all the time. But short of that, there is no objective answer to when the switch needs to be on and when it can safely be turned off.
That is followed by an argument for a post-objective press modeled on the Guardian (UK) and other such papers. Don't hide your point of view. Don't "follow a trail of evidence or line of reasoning until one step before the conclusion and then slam on the brakes for fear of falling into the gulch of subjectivity." Why not go there? Just be "factual accurate," as the truth does matter. People disagree with you? So what? The idea is the reporting is now lively, and the facts are there too. Lou Dobbs, without distorting the facts, makes the issues come alive. Not a bad thing.

Our News Guy Responds

Rick view, via email, Friday, March 31st -
This "objectivity" discussion, taken up here from a fellow ex-CNNer (but one I didn't know; I think I was gone before he started there), can get boringly arcane for people both inside and outside the business, but it seems to be headed for a conclusion that I came to years ago - that journalistic objectivity, long thought to be a cardinal principle handed down by God, comes down to merely a question of marketing.

If your object is to reach the most people with what you think they want and they think they need, is it best to do it by playing to the louts in the cheap seats, as Fox News Channel is often accused of doing, or to play to those folks who want to become familiar with a story without the filter of a reporter's point of view, which is what NPR listeners think they're getting?

Hey, it's your network to program the way you think you should. I can't tell you what to do, so have at it!

Personally, although I think Lou Dobbs has a right to take the approach he takes, and I find his experiment interesting, I also think he's dug himself into a bit of a hole. For one thing, his show seems to have become the "Illegal Immigration Show," as if that's the only issue worth talking about. For another, there's so much investment on the show in Lou's point of view on this story - which, by the way, I largely disagree with - that I suspect any and all others will get short shrift. But finally, will Lou be sharing his personal views on just this story, or will he soon be telling us which party he wants to win the midterm elections this fall?

(I should say, by the way - just in case Lou Googles himself and maybe ends up reading this - that he is a very nice guy who has been very good to me in the past and that I don't mean any of this as a personal attack, but that we're just noodling here about issues and stuff, if you know what I mean. That said, I'll continue.)

Is being objective just exhibiting bad sense, as Kinsley suggests? I mean, must a reporter be forced to choose sides between Bin Laden and Bush?

I must admit, I would have much preferred that the American networks, including the one I once worked for, not seem to take sides in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. I realize the difficulty of imbedding reporters in the Iraqi military in the way it was done on the U.S. side, but even as the people back home may have wanted all the flag-waving, what they really needed was the unvarnished truth.

I would have liked to have seen, for example, any of the CNN execs, just before hostilities got underway, lead a meeting of anchors and reporters and producers and assignment editors and writers, and ask for a show of hands of those who thought the network should recommend that viewers vote for the Republican candidate in the presidential elections the following year! Okay, now how many of you think CNN should back the Democratic candidate? (I doubt any hands would go up for either of those.) Okay, how many of you think CNN should be cheering on the Iraqis in the upcoming war? And how many think we should be cheerleaders for the American side?

I suppose you might get a few hands on that last one, but merely asking the question might have driven home the point that the most trustworthy reporters are just that - "reporters", not "supporters." But then again, sometimes, just to do your job, it takes more courage than you can possibly muster.

Not that opinion has no place at the networks. Very early in CNN's history, Ted Turner decided to go on his own network's air and give his opinion about something - as I remember, it was against media promoting violence the way it does - and shortly after that, Dan Schorr (he worked for us back then) came on with a rebuttal - an editorial that top producers somehow found a way of allowing very little airplay. Well, the whole thing caused such a fuss that Ted decided to cancel all opinion shows on the network. (This was reminiscent of an incident in early Hollywood history in which studio boss Irving Thalberg sent out a memo banning all minor chords from movie sound tracks because he had heard one in a song he didn't like. Irving's dictum didn't last any better than Ted's did.)

But in fact, I myself find it helpful to hear other people's opinions about issues in the world, and a network with all news and no thinking is even more boring than ... well, than the discussion we're having here!

Is objectivity a rhetorical trick? I find Kinsley's note, that "most reporters work hard to be objective and the best come very close," good enough for me. Having a report presented AS IF it were being delivered by some detached Martian may be the best we can hope for when we go looking for the truth of a matter. And hey, marketing trick or not, even a failed attempt at objectivity works for me better than relying on Rush Limbaugh or the Daily Show to tell me what's happening in the world.

Okay, I may be part of an incredibly shrinking demographic, but I'm pretty sure I will always be seeking out whatever news medium (in my opinion) does the right thing.
So there!

But then, Rick is part of a shrinking demographic - "folks who want to become familiar with a story without the filter of a reporter's point of view."

What demographic has Joe Klein set out to capture, unleashing Lou Dobbs?

As Tim Grieve points out here, a March 28 Public Opinion Strategies poll says we're split just about evenly - half of Americans think immigration is an economic benefit and half think it is an economic threat. Republicans poll about the same as Democrats on seeing immigration and immigrants as a danger. Is it a "serious problem?" Another poll shifts there to Republicans.

Grieve thinks the issue is split on class lines - "Working-class Americans, who find their factory wages or their service sector jobs undercut by new arrivals to the country, see a problem. White-collar Americans, who benefit from the illegal immigrants who accept minimum wages to build their houses, clean their cars and wash their dishes, see immigration as a boon."

If so, CNN is fanning class warfare, of a sort. Unless they're playing with the Tom Tancredo take on it all, which sounds a lot like white supremacy crap - "You have to understand there is a bigger issue here. Who are we? Do we have an understanding of what it means to be an American, even if we are Hispanic or Italian or Jewish or black or white or Hungarian by ancestry? Is there something we can all hang on to? Are there things that will bind us together as Americans?" Well, that what he said to Grieve.

Dobbs and his enabler Klein may be digging a deeper hole than Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, sets out here.

But what is the press supposed to do? And for whom?

Posted by Alan at 21:45 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 31 March 2006 21:47 PST home

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