October 31st, 2006 06:29 EST
Self-congratulatory Journalism - Hot Copy #9
This is Hot Copy, and I’m Del Marbrook.
Historians would know for sure, but I’d be willing in my ignorance to make a small wager that a self-congratulatory society is unhealthy. Sure, we’re always selling each other snake oil, and maybe in a market economy it’s unavoidable, but too much of anything has got to be bad.
You remember President Bush telling FEMA Director Michael Brown, “You’re doin’ a heckuva job, Brownie,“ while New Orleans was drowning right in front of them? The President then went on to say—how many times is it now?—that everything’s going just swell in Iraq.
The spectacle of a bunch of suits who have just stepped out of private planes and helicopters standing around slapping each other on the back and telling each other how wonderful they are in the midst of human misery signaled to the country that something had gone badly wrong.
Unfortunately the press corps didn’t pick up on that signal until a relative newcomer, Anderson Cooper, followed his gut and interrupted Senator Mary Landrieu’s grotesquely inappropriate litany of praise for all the officials who had done next to nothing to relieve New Orleans of its pain. Here’s what Cooper said:
Excuse me, Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting. I haven't heard that, because, for the last four days, I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi. And to listen to politicians thanking each other and complimenting each other, you know, I got to tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated.
And when they hear politicians slap -- you know, thanking one another, it just, you know, it kind of cuts them the wrong way right now, because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours. And there's not enough facilities to take her up.
Do you get the anger that is out here?
And with that burst of spontaneity Anderson Cooper changed the course, at least for now, of American television, and possibly print journalism as well. The media had become the ugly toady of power and privilege, and Cooper was saying, in effect, Excuse me, you turkeys, for breaking into this photo opportunity, but there’s real suffering out there, in case you care.
Videotaping and writing about a gaggle of stiffs congratulating each other for once more horn-swoggling the people, with the media’s slavish help, have become all too familiar. The staged event is cheap to cover—it doesn’t cost much logistically or intellectually—and its inevitable corollary is the way television pats itself on the back again and again for the wretched job it’s doing.
You have noticed this, haven’t you? Your instructors are talking about it to you, aren’t they? You have heard them say, The best news team in television, the best commentators, the best... blah, blah, blah. We’re sick of it. If they were so good, why weren’t they questioning the premises for the Iraq war instead of beating the war drums? If they were so good, why weren’t they able to find anyone to calculate that the war would cost, not the $50 billion that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld estimated offhandedly, but as much as the two-trillion-dollar cost we now calculate. That’s right. Two trillion dollars, $6,300 a year for every single taxpayer in the country. And rising every day. Where was this self-congratulatory press when we really needed a discussion about cost and just who would foot the bill? Was it so hard to discover that we would pay the bill by indebting our great grandchildren to China? What was so hard about figuring that out?
Night after night this self-congratulatory electronic press trots out the same tired experts from the same handful of hothouses to explain everything under the sun to us when we know perfectly well that some of these experts now telling us how badly things have gone wrong were the same ones who were telling us three years ago how invading Iraq was a good thing, a smart thing, a visionary thing. Where is their shame? Where is the shame of the hack editors and producers who drag these talking heads out of their cubicles to tell us what to make of things? Can you honestly say you have ever been enlightened by one of those retired generals explaining the war to you? Can you honestly say you’ve learned something useful? Of course not, because above all they’re taking care of number one. They’re not going to offend anybody who might butter their bread for them. They’re not going to criticize their former buddies and bosses. They’re just going to find ways to repeat themselves, when they haven’t said anything insightful in the first place.
This isn’t journalism. It’s theater. It’s cronyism. And above all, it’s cheap, because it doesn’t cost anywhere near as much as getting fresh facts and perspectives.
But, you know what, it’s a lot better than it was three years ago. It’s a lot better than it was before Anderson Cooper spoke for the entire population when he suggested to Senator Landrieu that maybe there was a slight disconnect between herself and reality.
And the reason that what Cooper did resonated so powerfully with the industry and its customers is that we all knew, instantly, that we had been watching this kind of sleight-of-hand until it had made us sick. Cooper simply spoke for all of us, and it could no longer be ignored. Shortly after that incident his own network, CNN, began to find some backbone. It began to ask spunky questions about the war, about politics, about the way our lives get messed up while the people who messed them up stand around and tell us how swell everything is.
You can look at what Cooper did in several ways. You can say he lost his cool and crossed the line into editorializing. You can say he merely pointed out the elephant in the room. You can say he engaged in populist journalism. Or you can say, as I do, that there are times when a journalist must say, Excuse me, sir, or madam, but this dog won’t hunt no more.
Remember, always remember, a dysfunctional, dishonest government didn’t get that way by itself. It got that way because you, the Fourth Estate, let it get that way. That’s why watching the same fatheads who condoned the Iraq war three years ago blabbering knowledgeably on television now about how badly it has gone is so frustrating. And it’s dishonest. It should be pointed out that they’ve changed their tune, and they should be asked why their personal journey from one viewpoint to another should not be held up to public scrutiny, inasmuch as they’ve been marketed to us as experts. But instead, night after night, they’re invited to yak knowingly while most of us remember what they said three years ago, even if the hapless TV anchors don’t. This isn’t journalism. It’s putting on the dog. It’s a game to convince you that you’ve learned something when you haven’t.
You are discussing all this in your journalism classes, right?
And are you discussing the make-nice, aren’t-I-cute behavior of the television anchors whose artful and more often awkward asides regularly cross the line from reportage to commentary to editorial? For example, the other day I watched a financial reporter say that the Dow Industrial Average had peaked at 12,000 points. Oh that’s nice, that’s what we like to hear, said the anchor. She could have said, What about the S&P 500 or Nasdaq? She could have asked if this means that the market had fully recovered from the 2000 recession. She could have said any number of helpful things, but instead she chose to be a silly cheerleader.
Now let’s turn to an equally difficult issue. If you aren’t discussing these questions in your journalism classes, if you aren’t exploring the reasons for these shortcomings, well then, as good journalists you need to ask yourselves why. And, more important, you need to ask your instructors and professors why. What, you may say, are you kidding, and risk bad grades and not getting their recommendations? Oh sure. And you’d be right to react that way. But still, if we’re going to have a decent Fourth Estate, the kind that makes the republic work, we’re going to have to face these issues and ask why they’re not being faced.
We’re going to have to look at the realities of the media industry, where newspapers are cutting back their staffs and using more and more canned reportage and punditry, more and more cheap infotainment, where networks are reducing the air time for news and cutting back on news coverage in the interests of their shareholders. And if your instructors are not helping you delve into these questions, then you need to raise questions about why they’re not helping you. The answers won’t be hard to find, I assure you. Money is the reason. The schools need the goodwill of the industry, of its shareholders. But that doesn’t justify them in not preparing you for the harsh realities of the industry, does it?
And this leads us directly to one of the toughest and most unasked questions in all of American journalism. Here it is. What is a moral profit margin? That’s right, when have you ever heard that question raised and seriously addressed in the popular media? Overwhelmingly the proponents of globalization, with all its competition, would answer the question by insisting that business must take all the profit it can get, and then some, in order to compete, and that might mean you will have no pension or health benefits. And when I say business, of course I include your future employers, the media. And if that definition, already widely popular, is accepted, it might mean the country won’t have much of a middle class to buy what business is selling. This is the question that will shape your lives. It is the question that will determine what kind of journalism you practice, what kind of journalism your bosses will let you practice.
I think you get the drift. I think you see why it’s not exactly the hottest topic in the media or journalism schools. But if you’re not thinking about it, you’re not thinking well enough to be good journalists, and maybe your should ask your school for a refund.
You have been listening to Hot Copy, and I’m Del Marbrook. If you’d like to know more about what I think, go to www.djelloulmarbrook.com.
To find out more about Saraceno, visit www.delmarbrook.com or www.myspace.com/delmarbrook