Topic: The Media
Press Notes: Objective Reporting and the Immigration Crisis
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.
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 -
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."
And there's this on objectivity -
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 -
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?