August 27th, 2007 09:11 EST
The High Cost of Juicing up Journalism - Hot Copy #31
(Transcript of Del Marbrook`s Hot Copy #31, a weekly podcast)
Strange as it might seem, silence is an important element in good journalism, and in these days of Botox journalism it`s in short supply.
Just listen to the Sunday yak television shows. The people being interviewed can hardly get a word in edgewise so eager are the so-called interviewers to interrupt them. These bad manners are fobbed off as efforts to keep the interview on point. In effect, the interviewer is saying, See what a good journalist I am, I`m trying to keep this empty suit from pontificating and dodging my brilliant questions. Yeah sure, the trouble is the empty suit is doing the interviewing. It`s true, people on the spot obfuscate. They evade, they do anything to change the subject. But if you intend to get good answers to good questions you need to listen to the answers, whether you like them or not. Who knows, someone`s evasion may just may be more interesting than your almighty question.
When I say this big-time incivility is bad journalism I`m being a bit misleading. These Sunday yammer mouths are doing what their business bosses want. They`re being told to jazz things up, to create tension, get some controversy going, gin up some excitement. It`s a ratings war, after all. In other words, it`s not so much about informing the viewing public as it`s about selling advertising and getting good Nielsen ratings.
It doesn`t have to be this way. But it`s going to keep on keeping on unless we do more talking about what`s wrong with it. First of all, the air waves on which this cheap incivility is being perpetrated belong to the people, not to the broadcasters. But as a practical matter, unless Congress finds a way to insist on better radio and television in behalf of the people, it`s all going to come down to a matter of brave journalists going to the wall in defense of better journalism. I assure you that every day some journalist is putting his or her career on the line somewhere in the world to serve readers and viewers better, and nine times out of ten this journalist is either being enrolled on someone`s blacklist or being fired outright. This is the sorry state of affairs, but it doesn`t mean any of us who care should give up.
Let me give you an example of how extreme capitalism pollutes journalism. Here are my tongue-in-cheek prerequisites for today`s news anchors:
"An ability to keep it silly and shallow.
"A knack for reacting to events irrelevantly. For example, when the Dow Industrials Average rises, an anchor says, That`s the way we like it, when in fact the S&P 500, of more interest to millions of small investors, has dropped.
"A talent for asking obvious questions and forced jocularity.
"A proven track record of doing no more homework than the average viewer.
"Eighth grade mastery of the intricacies of the English language.
"A good eye (to use baseball language) for signals from the dugout to walk the meaningful financial questions, such as who profits.
"Exhibitionistic compassion with the victims of life`s tragedies.
"A clear understanding that journalism is about show business, not news.
"A demonstrable inability in the era of globalism to determine what is appropriate to national as distinct from worldwide reportage. For example, the hurricane spaghetti on the weather charts clearly show that Hurricane Dean is threatening the lives of thousands of Mexicans in the Yucatan Peninsula, and an American news anchor says, Whew, that was close, meaning that the hurricane has spared the United States. The message is clear that American lives are of more value than Mexican lives, and yet the news organization involves presents itself as a worldwide news service. (It reminds me of my time in the Navy when we would hear from a nearby shore radio station that a hurricane had passed safely out to sea, Â" meaning, You`re on your own, sailors.)
The stage management of news has reached a new height with CNN`s evening Lou Dobbs Tonight. That said, I admire Dobbs because he talks about the elephant in the room. He doesn`t suffer from lost story disease. He almost single-handedly raised the national consciousness about the disappearing middle class, about the darker aspects of global free trade and a number of other issues. But the Dobbs format troubles me. It`s not so much a news hour as an evening at the improv in which news is reduced to the role of stage materiel. Dobbs reacts to various reports from the field in high dudgeon and stammering exasperation with the knaves and fools in charge. It`s fun to watch. It performs a useful service, a service that was sorely lacking on the airwaves. But it reduces both guests and reporters to stage props. The guests, supposedly invited to the show for their expertise or their interesting viewpoints, are often cut off to make room for Dobbs` irate opinions, which can be refreshing and tedious at once. The reporters, purportedly valued for their objectivity and diligence, are invited in various ways to support Dobbs` views. Some of them are adroit at smilingly avoiding this pitfall, others wittingly accept the invitation to bias, but all of them are palpably uncomfortable, and the viewers see it. This is theater in a time traditionally reserved for news. Dobbs popularizes issues swept under the rug by the others, such as the dismantling of the middle class in order to satisfy global shareholders. He has a preacher`s passion for exposing the callousnessness and dangers of extreme capitalism. But on the other hand, the lack of a willingness to hear guests out while at the same time stressing his willingness to do so, the editorializing conclusions drawn from each report, and the continual invitation to reporters to become co-conspirators in the Dobbsian world view are all troubling. I happen to agree with many of Lou Dobbs views. I admire his gutsiness in looking under the rug. But the mixture of reportage and editorial is not the same thing as a printed editorial page following news accounts. The visual immediacy of television reportage and the interaction with the anchor is made here to blur the lines between report and opinion, and I fear the format will take on a life of its own, in the same way that business interests have clearly trespassed the traditional line between news rooms and business management.
Given this sort of news management and the deliberate effort to trivialize news reportage "I would never accuse Dobbs of trivializing news "journalists are left with very little credibility when they complain of political and corporate spinmeisters. Spin is spin, whether it comes from news organizations or their sources. I think the pervasiveness of spin is part of a much larger picture in which civil discourse has devolved to sound bites and interruptions. The Sunday news spectacle reveals a profession no longer willing to listen, no longer willing to give other people their say, a profession that doesn`t really care what people think but continues to need them as stage props in order to serve the extreme capitalists who sign paychecks. We`re getting the illusion of news, but not the solid information we need to be responsible citizens in a participatory republic. When people being interviewed are reduced to stage props, content is reduced to blather.
There is a parallel from Hollywood where hyperkinetic films pour out, leaving no intervals for insight into character or exploration of ideas. These films are non-stop extrusions of mindless action and special effects. In an authoritarian society where only a few people and their ideas count, this may pass for communications, but in a democracy requiring the ideas and public service of many people it`s a formula for trouble not far down the road. It has an aspect of Roman gladiatorial spectacle staged to distract the populace from rulers` despicable behavior. Between leaders determined to lie and news businesses determined to manage news there is little room for republican (small r) government. It`s an environment better suited to an oligarchic corpocracy, and that seems to be where we`re headed, however much yours truly and Lou Dobbs might fulminate against it.
Interviewers eager to get a word in are not good interviewers. They`re not good journalists. They`re content managers, or, worse, stage hands, and you have to ask yourself who they`re staging the content for.
In ordinary discourse, if you ask a serious question you ought to give the person you ask an opportunity to give you a serious answer before you break in supposedly to keep him on point. But there is no ordinary discourse on television or radio. There Ëœs no discourse. What there is heightening incivility and a refusal, bordering on pathology, to hear the other guy out. A nation full of people who will not hear each other out is bound to end up with the kind of dictatorial regime emerging now in Washington where the government panics us into giving up treasured rights for our own good, the way some parents used to take children to the woodshed for their own good. It wasn`t for anyone`s good, but it was a well told lie. To understand the menace of this phenomenon "which was the Republican Party`s last campaign strategy and is today Rudy Giuliani`s strategy "read Dr. Alice Miller`s trailblazing book, For Your Own Good. In this book she describes how authoritarian societies thrive where children have been intimidated for their own good. This model is the playbook of the fear mongers who try to frighten us into accepting a federal security state with eerie resemblances to Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Loss of civility, a growing intolerance for what other people have to say, and a general rise in the decibel level of radio and television journalism, were all preceded by a visual loudness in print journalism, culminating in the advent of Gannett`s USA Today, a triumph of packaging over content. If I were a moralist I`d say this devolution was driven by greed, but I think the simpler cause has been a conscious decision to maximize shareholder profits at the expense of quality and content. To disguise this decision it was decided to raise the decibel level, package the product in glitz, and focus attention on celebrities, violence and natural disasters, all of which are much cheaper to do than investigating public and corporate misbehavior. In this environment, with the need for greater profits driving everything else, it became a kind of conflict of interest for news organizations to investigate corporate misconduct, since news organizations themselves are for the most part answerable to the business conglomerates that should be investigated.
For all his inveighing against the corporate sellout of the middle class, this is not a situation Lou Dobbs has addressed. CNN is, of course, owned by the Time Warner conglomerate.
We have arrived at the intersection of corporate interests, a lively capitalist marketplace, and the constitutionally sanctioned function of a free press, and market interests are choking off intelligent discourse of the issues confronting us. If this were not the case, the public would have been adequately warned of the dire consequences NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement, might have on the Mexican farm economy and the U.S. middle class. It would not have been left to the prophetic presidential candidate Ross Perot to warn of the giant sucking sound he famously predicted, meaning jobs would be exported en masse to other countries. Instead, the press would have done its job and thoughtfully explored the possible consequences rather than simply reporting the debate between Mr. Perot and such critics as then Vice President Al Gore, who staunchly defended NAFTA and is now celebrated as the man sounding the loudest alarm about global warming while his judgment regarding NAFTA and his mismanagement of federal government reorganization seem forgotten.
Let me approach this burgeoning predicament from another angle. We are suddenly overtaken by the sub prime mortgage lending crisis. World financial markets have become volatile. Market analysts expect central banks to intervene, to loosen up credit so that big business can continue its spree of mergers and acquisitions and finance some that have already taken place. In other words, they`re clamoring for a bailout, not of people about to lose their homes but of Wall Street manipulators. The press hops on the bandwagon, behind the news curve as usual. The crisis is reported as if the press had been on top of it all along, but in fact nobody was on top of it except a relatively handful of Wall Street profiteers packaging substandard mortgages and selling them.
Finally, on August 19th, Roger Cohen, an International Herald Tribune columnists, wrote an op-ed essay appearing in The New York Times that explained the nature of the crisis, why it happened, how it affected the innocent, who profited. In another words, Cohen did what should have been done by the huge media establishment long ago. It wasn`t Cohen`s job to do it earlier, so he gets nothing but praise for elucidating matters now. But there was no excuse for the media failing to investigate the phenomenon and warning the public. The housing boom that was fueling the economy and prompting President Bush to boast about the success of his policies was engineered by bad loans. The boom was based on a scam. And once more the press is reporting it as if it had known the situation all along. Every single major news organization in this country owes every single citizen an apology for this failure to undertake diligent journalism. There were warning signs. Some of them were even reported. But nobody bothered to construct the big picture and to keep it in front of the public until it was understood. Just as Ross Perot had been a voice in the wilderness, when a revealing discourse could have been conducted, so the sub prime lending mess was allowed to fester until it was too late for informed public opinion to discipline the politicians, who, given their way, would hand everything over to corporate lobbyists. But the official line of Big Media is that they did all they should have done when it`s obvious that if that were so the public would have understood the underlying issues instead of being ambushed by a seesaw financial market, a massive credit crunch, and more than a 1.1 million foreclosuers prdicted in the next six years. The press has behaved like a defense lawyer claiming that the prosecution can make only a circumstantial case that ithe press didn`t do its duty. Self-appointed guardians of public morality ought to be able to say more for themselves than that the operation was a success even if the patient died.
We`d all be a lot better off if the press spent more time listening, less time interrupting and managing the news, and a lot more time silently poking into records. Almost every nasty piece of misconduct and scam under the sun leaves both a money trail and a paper trail. The question is whether Big Media has the integrity to follow those trails. In a capitalist society our only remedy is greater morality and ethical responsibility among the capitalists. We can`t cure the disease with government controls, because the cure would be worse than the disease. But we must stop pretending that we have a free and responsible press when the evidence is clear that we have a press grievously wounded by unmitigated greed. Whenever we talk about maximizing profit the presumption is always that these efforts should be pressed to the limit. Never mind if it costs jobs. Never mind if it causes human misery. Never mind if it diminishes the press we need to keep us free. That`s the discussion we must have.
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