Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The ego has landed.

From time to time hereinafter—begging your indulgence—I'll be tackling issues in journalism and media that, I think, bear directly on the mistaken ideas and assumptions that proliferate in American culture. I could go on about this at length in a theoretical sense, but perhaps it's best to start right off with the example that motivated this post.

CNN's Kyra Phillips, best known for leaving her mic on when she took a potty break during a live speech by President Bush last August, is now, as of this past week, "on the ground" in Iraq—that's how seasoned Big Media types like to put it—and so, like any seasoned Big Media type, she presumes to give us The Scoop. Saturday Phillips informed America and the world that the Iraqis are a "motivated," "optimistic" people. She said they want their country to work. She reported that they're committed to doing their part in the stepped-up enforcement activities (i.e. The Surge), and that....

Folks, this style of on-the-spot, analytical "reportage"—ubiquitous nowadays—is flawed on so many levels that I don't even know where to begin. But as someone who once took pride in the idea of being a journalist, and who for several years actually presumed to teach the craft (in my iconoclastic way) at one of the nation's top J-schools, I'm going to give it a try.

She JUST GOT THERE, for cryin' out loud! How the heck is she qualified to offer grandiose/cosmic pronouncements that sum up the mood of Iraq? If you must, Kyra, tell us that you "met an optimistic person." Tell us that you talked to five people, and most of them "seemed to want the country to work." Just please don't tell us that "the Iraqi people are motivated." You have no informational basis for saying that.

In any case, no matter how many things she sees or how many people she encounters, how will she know that the events she experiences firsthand are truly representative of anything? Maybe she'll just happen to meet the only 10 positive thinkers in Iraq (all of whom, no doubt, read The Secret). This, incidentally, is why I may have been the one practicing journalist in America who didn't like the concept of "embedded reporting" during the opening phase of the war, four years ago. What you get is a lot of little tight-focus glimpses, and tight-focus, by definition, is never the big picture. Great television, lousy journalism. And yet the immediacy of it all, when there are bombs going off and soldiers firing automatic weapons hither and yon, gives the whole thing an impact that is way out of proportion to its legitimate meaning, if it even has any. It's like journalistic porn: Sure it's engrossing, even titillating, but does it tell us anything except that in wars, bombs go off, soldiers shoot guns, and people die? Instead of being reported raw and live from the front, the material should've been aggregated, fed back to somebody at the home bureau(s), organized and assessed, then reported in some overarching, contextualized way. And even that has obvious (and important) limitations in terms of getting at "the truth," due to the innate prejudices and preexisting beliefs of the Big Media types who supply that context. Which brings us to:

Is anecdotal news ever valid anyway (at least as currently perpetrated)? Is a single instance of anything—e.g. something that Ms. Phillips may notice during her trip and later report on—of any value in interpreting Iraq, let alone the world? IMHO, given the tremendous impact that an event acquires merely by being showcased on the news, it's incumbent on journalists to ascertain that any given event is representative of the norm before they put it on television in a story that presumes to capture the "ethos." ("You give us 22 minutes, we give you the world," as the well-known slogan of New York's all-news, WINS-radio puts it.) Don't show us a story about a GI who committed suicide after returning from Iraq (as CNN also did Saturday) unless you've already determined that a fairly large percentage of GIs are committing suicide after returning from Iraq. Because otherwise, that one story, though tragic, means nothing, and tells us nothing. The deeper tragedy here is that many (if not most) journalists do the exact opposite of what I'm recommending: They start from a given premise or world-view—a notion they're trying to sell—and then go out and "shop for" an anecdote that illustrates or allegedly confirms that premise. And/or they may turn to a so-called expert who happens to agree with them.

If anecdotal news has no meaning or validity, then what's the point of even having Phillips in Iraq for a few days, beyond the "One of Our Star Anchors is in Iraq" Factor? Let her stay home and do her hair. I know that I'm going to unleash all sorts of backlash with that comment, which many will deem gratuitous and "unworthy" in a post such as this...but come on, people. Have you seen Phillips and CNN's female anchors as a class? They look like they're on their way to the Oscars. Do you really need to wear multiple strings of pearls to read the news? It's ridiculous. And to me, it only reinforces the sense that too much of today's news is about glamour and entertainment, not, well, news.

More to come on this...and yes, we'll get back, belatedly, to Kevin Trudeau as well. Alas, deadlines (for actual paying work) are getting in the way this week.


Anonymous said...

You touch on an interesting point, Steve. Journalism ain’t what it used to be. What is anymore in this world? We have to understand that the media influences our perceptions of the conflict in Iraq.

This morning on my drive into work, I heard a statistic that only 18 percent of Iraqis have an ounce of confidence in its own fledgling government and the United States’ occupation to bring peace to the region.

Yet, unlike many in the heartland, or anywhere else for that matter, I have seen pictures of a different sort. Granted, they are the products of military public affairs personnel, but their’s paints a different picture.

Creating pictures in our minds, that’s a fascinating concept. And it’s one the media does all the time. We can’t escape it. So when Phillips starts telling us that all is well – the natives are happy, content, encouraged folk – the skeptics wonder, while the rest of the world take her’s as gossip truth.

Her authority to speak about the general social psychological conditions on the ground is about as good as Pee-Wee Herman’s authority to speak on nuclear physics, or Beavis and Butthead speaking on acceptable teen behavior. Without scientific, sociological surveys – which will never happen – we may never know exactly how Iraqis “feel.”

The embedding has been a problem for me too. From a communication perspective it does exactly what you say, it’s “a lot of little tight-focus glimpses, and tight-focus, by definition, is never the big picture.” You might have some photojournalists complaining about your metaphor, but the bigger issue of framing the conflict in Iraq couldn’t have been put any better.

Maxwell McCombs, a leading agenda-setting theorist, says the prominence of those pictures painted in words and graphics by embedded journalists become our top-of-mind images we perceive about the conflict. It’s no wonder support for a continued military occupation in Iraq has only waned in the past six months. To drive the point even further – of the 400 agenda-setting studies done worldwide, one common denominator always surfaces – how much playtime an issue receives in the news influences the public’s importance placed on it.

Not only is Phillips and other misguided media moguls telling us what to think about, they are also telling us how to think about it. If whatever it is, isn’t a true representation of events happening on the ground, if the media isn’t questioning the government's strategies, informing the public of the whole story, then we are wasting our time watching CNN and NBC’s Brian Williams. Most of our knowledge of current events comes from the news we watch, read or listen to, but my question is simple. Is the news we watch just advertorials to boost ratings because editors and producers fear we’ll turn the channel or stop reading? Or, are those same producers, editors and reporters just not picking up what media researchers are throwing down?

Renee said...

I agree with you Steve, and wanted to add one other thing - is it just me, or do you get the feeling that these embedded assignments are more about the reporter than the reporting - in the sense that the reporter's main motivation isn't to bring 'truth' to the people back home, but rather to be able to have bragging rights to have been there and 'reported' there. I see most of this as an exercise in personal and professional image and ego enhancement. It's about them, not us.

Steve Salerno said...

Oh absolutely, Renee! Absolutely. They're grandstanding, taking center stage, showing off their pivotal role in the unfolding of world events. This goes back to that whole "New Journalism" thing, where editors began giving writers unprecedented (and, really, irresponsible) license to present "the truth" from their unique, highly personal vantage point. Of course, there had always been bias in the news, to some degree--we're humans, and we're going to have biases. But with the advent of the new journalism, the bias for the first time became inseparable from the reporting of the information--the bias became an AUTHORIZED, integral part of the story. In short, the reporter's lens on the story WAS the story. This is why just about every feature in a modern magazine begins with some variant of, "I'm sitting in Dick Cheney's office, watching the sun set, and I notice that he seems agitated, and because of that, now I'm agitated..." To which my customary response is, Who gives a crap if you're watching the sun set, or even if you're agitated? When did YOU become the story?? But that's the journalism we wanted--surveys show that readers love that kind of "color"--and so that's the journalism we get.

Anonymous said...

I think you're losing it, Steve. Did you in class at IU pass out a Guy Talese piece and dote over his craft. How he found a story where no story seemed to be.

If I remember rightly, the piece was about Frank Sanatra, but Frank had a cold, wasn't rehersing, but Guy wrote about his cold and how just about everything in Hollywood stopped because Frank had a runny nose.

It was clearly Guy's perspective.

Peter Jacobi, another professor at IU, in his book, discussed the entertainment factor of writing. It's gotta have a little "e" or no one ain't gonna read it.

Your blog is entertaining at times -- the sarcasm mustly.

And there is also research suggesting that people are getting tired of episodic news and are wanting more thematic news coverage. The Frameworks Institute in DC has cited numerous studies as a way for PR professionals to create better, more compelling material for journalists and readers.

I agree with you that the "I'm- sitting-in-Dick-Chaney's-ofiice watching-the-sun-set" stories are all bias. But all news all the time is bias because no journalist can gather ALL the facts and present a CLEAR picture of anything.

Larger issues of economics, foreign affair, etc. I'm referring too. Maybe your writing friend whose having trouble publishing his book because the research and presentation is so thorough may be an exception. But that's a study -- so it seems -- a tightly-focused portrait of one industry.

Rodger - former IU journalism student.

Steve Salerno said...

"Mr. Spin," I don't know that I have time today to address your comments in the depth they call for--these topics are quite literally the makings of a book in their own right (if not several books). But you are painting with waaaay too big a brush here. There is a huge difference between having an interesting and original take on a story--a take that is borne out, in the end, by the facts you present--and simply and gratuitously injecting yourself in the story and exploiting your nominal subject in order to make a priori points that YOU wanted to make about life and living, etc. Gay Talese was, first and foremost, a phenomenal reporter; so was Tom Wolfe (the two of them, along with our late friend Hunter Thompson, probably being the foremost early practitioners of the new journalism).

Talese's eye for detail--detail about HIS SUBJECTS, not himself--was uncanny. The story I handed out, which showed how virtually an entire wing of the entertainment industry shut down because Sinatra had a cold, stood on its own merits, whether or not Talese was in it. Though I admit that I'm not a great fan of TNJ, what I object to mostly are the bastardized versions of what true geniuses like Talese and Wolfe were trying to do--where so many writers today (indeed, almost ALL magazine writers) haphazardly throw themselves into the story and, in effect, make almost every story an autobiographical essay (regardless of what their supposed topic is). When there are more details in a given story about the writer's reaction to a situation--than the situation itself--then you know you've got a journalistic problem. You've also got a lot of hubris. I think the height of this was that Tom Junod piece a few years back where he got turned down for an interview with some world-class rocker (the name escapes me), so he simply wrote up the story AS IF he'd interviewed the rocker, and incorporated that approach right into his lede, which, of course, gave him the flexibility to place whatever (made-up? fabricated? exaggerated? self-important?) details in the story that HE wanted there! Kind of like, "This is the way I think the interview would've gone if he HAD talked to me..."

How is THAT journalism??

Anonymous said...

Okay... point taken! I'll go home and dig out the Talese piece and read it again.

I needed you to elaborate more...


Steve Salerno said...

Actually, Rodg, now that I think about it, the Talese piece I gave you guys to assess may have been the piece he wrote ABOUT the writing of the Sinatra piece--the one that focused more on his journalistic methods. So it's an interesting read nonetheless, but since it's more of an essay (about the state of journalism) than a feature article, per se, I'm not sure it's as germane as I first thought it would be. Please bear in mind, by no means am I saying or even implying that journalists should NOT write first-person essays; lord knows I've done many dozens of them. I'm saying that you shouldn't write an essay that masquerades as an article.

Paulette said...

With some caffeine in my system I realize this isn't your most recent blog but wished to say something anyway.

While I agree with several of your points hasn't journalism always involved "embedded" reporting? Although I question Phillips' credentials I do believe it is important to have journalists (real reporters) in the countries the US is occupying.

Also, I find that European news agencies cover events from Iraq & Afghanistan unlike the Americans, which means they do so objectively. Their accompanying film footage even *looks* different to me than that of their US media equals.

I much prefer BBC coverage to anything I've seen by American media.

Kevin Sites' coverage (I believe for Yahoo) I felt was really weird. As you mention - like journalistic porn. I have no idea how popular Sites' stuff is. I can't get engaged enough to study what he is doing. I'm immediately turned off by it.

I've rarely ever watched CNN except at my grandparent's or dad's place. I think they used to have an old style New York journalist on several years ago. He to me felt like the last of a dying breed - the real deal. But not *pretty* enough for tv.

I cannot help but wonder how exactly did Kyra get this assignment? I can't imagine anyone really believing that she is qualified in any true sense.

As a talking head & one who has been courageous enough to take us with her to powder her nose she is like many of her colleagues - cute & weak bladdered. I think one needs stronger stuff than that for Iraq coverage even with the advance in adult diapers.

Another news agency did an entire show, several months ago, on GI's & suicide. I believe it was HBO? Sorry I can't remember.

Steve Salerno said...

Thanks for joining the discussion, Paulette.

My main gripe against the news--and I say this as someone who has perpetrated journalism for the past 25 years--is that the way it's currently approached (and even taught in j-schools), I seriously doubt its ability to deliver to its audience any meaningful information about life. I believe I mention in this very post (it's early yet, and I haven't had my caffeine) the famous motto of the all-news radio station: "You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world." In truth, today's news provides the audience with a negative image of the world--the OPPOSITE of what life really is. Now, if the news-meisters just admitted that, that would be one thing. But the news ends up giving us its negative image of reality, framed as reality. (Most planes land uneventfully. The vast majority of Iraqis--and U.S. soldiers--are NOT blown up each day. Very few people actually go hungry in America. Almost all products work as advertised, and almost NO kids are abducted each year... Is that the collective impression you get from the news? Etc.) And that, to me, is a problem.

Though I have a feeling that our politics might not agree, Paulette, I think we should agree on the goal of having honest, objectively valid news. Right? (I wrote a very controversial essay on this for the Los Angeles Times last October, but it seems to have been purged from their archives for some reason, or else I would've linked it.) Anyway, I'll be posting more on this theme in the months ahead--not that that's supposed to make anyone's day, exactly, but hey...it's my blog, right? ;)