Tuesday, May 15, 2007

"You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you an alternate universe."

Earlier I saw a report on ABC World News Tonight that epitomizes everything that's wrong with latter-day journalism, in my view. But before I proceed, I think it's necessary in this case to disclose a bit more about my political leanings than I've tended to. We'll do it in honor of Election Day.*

At the outset, I supported what George Bush was about—or seemed to be about. (There. I've said it.) Especially after 9/11, I guess you'd have to lump me in with those vengeful macho types who wanted to waltz in and shoot up Dodge...or, as one of my editorial acquaintances put it, "just fly B-1s over any country whose name ends in 'stan' and bomb it back to the Stone Age."** It didn't matter to me, then, who was right or wrong, and I didn't really care if, to any degree, we'd "invited" what occurred on 9/11. I saw things purely as a matter of survival—US vs. THEM—and I wanted people like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld front-and-center on behalf of US.

In recent years, however, it's safe to say I've lost just about all of my confidence in, and respect for, Mr. Bush. He has disappointed me gravely, in theory and practice, on more levels than I can enumerate here. My disenchantment is such that not long ago, I wrote a newspaper column in which I suggested that—if and when it's proved once and for all that Mr. Bush knowingly entangled us in Iraq under false pretenses—impeachment would be nowhere near a sufficient penalty. I argued that in light of the colossal loss of life in Iraq, were such a crime on the President's part fully and convincingly documented, I could see a case for invoking the death penalty, even though I am not generally a believer in that ultimate punishment. My editor ended up cutting that last thought as "too provocative and extreme." (He told me, "I'm saving you from yourself here, Steve.") However, if the pointless and premeditated death of 3000+ troops and countless Iraqi citizens would not qualify as mass murder, I don't know what possibly could. In Mr. Bush's home state, they've fried people for a whole lot less.

Having said that....

Tonight's World News report focused on one of Mr. Bush's better-but-lesser-known presidential initiatives, Reading First. Reporter Brian Ross spent 95 percent of his segment, encompassing at least five full minutes—that's a lot, in TV-news terms—documenting chicanery that went on in the administration of the program, including apparent sweetheart deals, no-bid contracts, and what seemed to be, in the overall, an appalling level of cronyism and political favoritism. Then, towards the tail end of his report, Ross said something, in-passing, like so: "...though reading scores have improved nationwide since the inception of the program...."

OK. Let's examine what happened here. Ross investigated a program that—by his own admission—works. It's achieving the results it set out to achieve, at least as judged by its major stated goal, which was helping America's kids to read better. Is that what Ross talks about for five minutes? Is that where he puts his emphasis? No. He introduces the program—which a fair number of viewers probably were hearing about for the first time from Ross, tonight—in terms of its dark side.

But let me be even clearer in making the point. On November 5, 2004, the NBC newsmagazine Dateline ran a "special investigative report" on gastric bypass surgery. The segment was a natural for the show and NBC, inasmuch as the network's lovable Al Roker, The Today Show weatherman, had undergone the surgery and achieved a dramatic weight loss, and now did much of the reporting for the Dateline segment. Before handing off to Roker, anchor Storm Phillips noted that the expected mortality rate for gastric bypass is 1 in 200. (Real-world translation: The survival rate is 199 in 200, or 99.5 percent.) Roker spent a few cursory moments detailing his own success, then quickly found his somber face and segued to the tragic saga of one Mike Butler, who had died following his own gastric bypass. The Butler story, which included the obligatory tearful soliloquies from his young widow, went on to consume roughly 30 minutes of the hour-long broadcast. So what do we have here? In covering a procedure that succeeds, or at least does not kill people, almost 100 percent of the time, NBC and Dateline chose to tell the story through the lens of the .5 percent who suffer tragic results. This may sound pedantic, overly analytical and perhaps even insensitive, but it bears saying nonetheless: Had Dateline sought to equitably and honestly represent the upside and downside of gastric bypass, it would've devoted 1/200th of the show—a mere 18 seconds—to Mike Butler. Because statistically speaking, that's the prominence a single death should enjoy in a fair-minded 60-minute discussion of the risks and benefits of gastric bypass. That Dateline show was a terrible example of "hit man" journalism. Regrettably, it was not an uncommon example.

This is why I often say that all-news stations that use the slogan, "You give us 22 minutes, we'll give you the world," have actually, in most cases, got it precisely backwards. What they more likely give you is the inverse of the world: the equivalent of a photographic negative image.

* Primary elections are taking place in municipalities large and small throughout America today.
** Though let's face it, many such nations have never advanced very far from the Stone Age as it is.


Rowan Manahan said...

Chet Huntley had a great line on why the nightly news was stacked up the way it is: "Stories about banks robbing people cannot be made as 'entertaining' as footage of people robbing banks."

If it bleeds (even 0.5% of the time) it leads. If it thinks, it stinks. And the networks wonder why their nightly news has dropped from a combined audience of 53 million people in 1980 to 27 million now ...

Could it be that there is more than just correlation between producing contentless, contextless, uninforming, unchallenging swill every evening and the humungous drop off in viewers? Could there, just maybe, be a (gasp!) causative link?


Steve Salerno said...

Thanks for coming on-board, Rowan. Another one of my favorite newsroom aphorisms is: "Nobody writes about the planes that land."

Apropos of which, I wrote a very controversial essay about this whole phenomenon--the fact that journalists, generally speaking, cover life in terms of what it ISN'T, thus yielding a negative image of reality--for the Los Angeles Times back on Feb. 21, 2006. Again, one hates to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but it has rather suspiciously disappeared from their archives.

Matt Dick said...


I read a lot of science blogs, as well as skeptical sites -- "skeptic" in this context meaning a person who demands scientific evidence on which to base his beliefs.

One thing the skeptical community is arguing these days is that allowing the uncritical spread of "alternative medicine" is related to (and an indication of) our acceptance of decision-making in absence of evidence. For most of alternative medicine (chiropractic*, homeopathy, acupuncture, etc), there is no evidence that the procedure or modality actually works. There are anecdotes, but anecdotes are the exact opposite of evidence, because of exactly what you describe in this post -- people tend to focus on the interesting result, even if it represents a statistically insignificant percentage of actual results.

I think our society embracing SHAM culture is the same phenomenon as our society embracing non-scientific medical modalities -- we don't seem to actually require evidence in order to change the way we conduct ourselves, even in the most important areas of our lives. It's amazing, but true.


* before anyone who sees a chiropractor starts giving me [anecdotal] evidence of how their back problems were cured by their chiropractor, let me head it off by saying that there actually is some evidence that chiropractic helps bad backs, but the studies that show that to be true also show that chiropractic's efficacy is no better than standard massage, and the complication rates (which include stroke, by the way) are much higher than massage therapy. Aside from lower back pain, chiropractic has been shown to be useless for everything else it is prescribed for. I can provide references should anyone want them -- and they're references to actual studies which have appeared in the best medical journals.

Anonymous said...

On Journalism

I've learned that what's taught in the halls of academia isn't necessarily what's practiced in day-to-day life. When you and Carol Polsgrove taught me good journalism, looking at culture through a broad, thematic lens and connecting the dots, I found that journalism is really knee-jerk stories based on here-and-now information. I don't fault you for that.

For example, from a story covering a seemingly normal housing authority meeting, I discovered two things: 1.) government corruption in a small town, and 2.) a larger human interest story of battered women in a southern Indiana county.

When I presented the stories with research to my editor, he told me that -- and I quote -- "We don't do that type of liberal journalism here." Instead of being the watchdog and alerting the people to the misuse of their taxes and the implication that had on battered women in the area, we ran a front-page story of a lesiban domestic dispute/homocide.

The three weeks of notes I had collected on government corruption and its wider impact conveniently disappeared with the nightly custodial crew.

One a different note, PR folk aren't doing enough to shout the "good" news from the rooftops of their agencies. Although some are using straight-to-reader tools (blogs), they aren't using them enough, and many haven't done the research to understand the core value system of mainstream journalists either. So they strategically use the "wet noodle" method of pitching news without framing it in the values of the Collective's moral sense.

On Bush
Bush just needs to go -- by force or by choice. All of the Bush regime needs to go -- by force or by choice.

Furthermore any statistic that seems to varify any success of any Bush program needs to be scruntized. Anything Bush or any thing his regime cronies say, write or think, needs to be scrutinized. We shouldn't be in this position anyway. But the American people fell for the propaganda of Bush and his religious, family oriented, strict-father, kick-ass mentality.

Interestingly, however, we couldn't have asked for a better example of self-help's results than what we have now. Seems to me self-help's all about ego-centrism -- "What's in it for me." And who gives a damn about anyone else. That's why America is occupying Iraq. That's why we have distoryed any foreign relations the Clinton administration established. That's why America's credibility as a world leader has been seriously damaged.

Reminds me of a lyric in a song by Guy Forsyth... "American is a stupid teenager waving a gun in its face."

[Steve, I'm brushing a wide stroke, but let's face it If the next adminstration is a bad as this one, it'll be time to move to Canada.]

You can listen to the complete song on Gay's MySpace. It's called "Long, long time."

Anonymous said...

If only Canada would let us in! It would not only solve our political and health issues, but global warming problems, too...

Cal said...

I was not a George Bush fan when he was elected. I just thought his mangling of the English language as well as his seemingly anti-intellectual persona was not fitting for someone who wanted to be the Education President. However, I don't think Gore would have been much better. But after 9/11, I was also for finding the evil-doers. (I worked in NYC at the time but was working in mid-town. I had been in WTC 1 many times, with the last being in April '01. Needless to say it's a day I'll never forget. I found the badge that you had to have to go into the building a while back.) And I took a lot of heat from friends and family for it. However, I could only rely on what the media reported and what the Bush administration said the evidence was. But I have to admit I do think your editor saved you from yourself. I don't what the punishment should be for Bush et al., but I'm not for impeachment or worse. I'm just hoping the next 20 months just zoom by so the USA and the world can get on with its business.

That is what is interesting to me about SHAM. It seems the media usually find the opposite of the silver lining in every story. But any quack who has a remedy to cure something, either mental or physical, is taken at face value. The skepticism goes out the window. But maybe bad news is like a car wreck, you just have to watch. And when someone spinning a good tale comes along, many of us are suckers.

Steve Salerno said...

Rodg, your typo--"lesiban"--reminded me of the old joke where a guy asks his sister about some girl who's coming to their party that weekend. The sister says, "Oh, she's very nice. Lebanese." And the guy replies, "Oh, that's cool! Tell her to bring her girlfriend, too!"

As for your skepticism regarding "any program" run by Bush...see, I respectfully submit that what you say here represents the kind of attitude that, in my view, frankly, becomes part of the problem. Once you decide, on some a priori basis, that you can't stand somebody, and that therefore, by definition, everything that person does is tainted... That's the very problem we have with today's media. They already have their minds made up going in, so they cover the event, person, or political party accordingly. I don't think that's fair to the people they cover, and I certainly don't think it's fair to the American public, who deserve honest news (or at least as honest as we can make it).

Anonymous said...


I'm picking on Bush because it's easy. You have to admit, his leadership has be questionable from the beginning. He was appointed to office by the Surpreme Court and at every turn in his tenure, he's acted recklessly and without regard for the well-being of the larger American public. Seems to me it's his way or the highway, and that's just arrogance.

I know this isn't a forum for political discussion, but I wanted to make that point.

As for lesiban It's really "lesbian." Sorry 'bout the typo.

Nice joke, though :-)

Trish Ryan said...

"I'm saving you from yourself, Steve"

Hee. That's kind of funny. We should all be blessed with such eagle-eyed editing :)

Steve Salerno said...

Trish, you're probably familiar with the editing line about "killing your babies"--which means that, as a writer, you're supposed to go back over your manuscript, find all of your favorite lines...and cut them. (Presumably because they're overwritten or self-conscious.) I've had editors who extended that reasoning to "your favorite IDEAS" as well.

Anonymous said...

From Denmark Steve, I like the idea that you bring in more things now from larger society. We are not big Bush fans here but I see your point. American journalism is not journalism at all if you ask me, if they'd done their job originally you might not be stuck in Iraq now!

RevRon's Rants said...

Steve -
In the bypass example, I would think that a prospective patient would want to know the risks, which physicians tend to downplay.

As to Bush, had you (and the rest of the people who supported him) looked at his track record throughout his "career," I don't think you would have signed on to anything he recommended. Let's just say that he's now done to our country what he did to every business he was ever involved in. But this time, our grandchildren are the ones that will have to clean up the mess, rather than his daddy's associates.

Steve Salerno said...

Look, Ron, I just thought we were entering a very dangerous period in world history, and that we needed someone who "wasn't afraid to do what needed doing." Someone who was willing, frankly, to be a bit of a tyrant, if need be; to take the Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry approach to international diplomacy. My basic philosophy is like so: No matter how much effort one invests in "talking" (a la, say, the UN), you are never going to eliminate people of ill will. That's just a given. There will always be sociopaths, and sociopathic regimes...and a sociopath with a WMD is not something we--or our children--can afford to deal with.

Having said that, I didn't want to be ruled by a deceitful, self-seeking moron, either.

RevRon's Rants said...

Or a sociopath with WMD's!

Those knee-jerk reactions will bite us on the butt every time. Frankly, we'd have been better off with a real "Dirty Harry" than with a Maine blueblood cowboy wannabe. At least Harry's heart - small as it might have been - was in the right place. :-)

Steve Salerno said...

Unfortunately our president breached one of Harry's core rules: "a man's got to know his limitations."

Two things about your allusion to Bush being a sociopath.

1. I don't really agree. I think he was just ill-equipped to lead the nation. I think he's basically a frat boy who's lived his life afraid of being discovered for what he truly is (or isn't), and has tried to overcompensate in some rather unproductive ways. He is the Peter Principle at its most apotheotic (and regrettable) zenith.

2. Even if he IS a sociopath, my belief--in those days--was that he was OUR sociopath, by George (as it were), and at a certain point issues of right and wrong palled before the simple imperative of survival. I wanted my kids and grandkids to grow up, and--as I noted in a previous post for which I took a LOT of heat--if that required the "King Herrod" school of foreign relations, so be it. I'm not sure I feel that way at the moment--but I still think it may very well come to that. Nor am I so sure we won't hear once again from our "friends" in the former USSR, either, before all is said and done.

RevRon's Rants said...

1) He leads the nation much like he led the companies he "ran." Considering the damage he wreaked upon employees and - especially - stockholders, while reaping great benefits for himself, I hold to the sociopath diagnosis.

2) After 9/11, my son got caught up in the "defend my country" frenzy, and actually considered enlisting. Knowing how Bush, Cheney, and Rummy operated, I told him that if he tried to enlist, I would duct-tape his arms & legs, put a gag in his mouth, and smuggle him into Canada. While I wanted to see the perpetrators brought to justice as much as anybody, I knew darn well that Bush wouldn't do anything about the main source of the terrorists' funds, or the country that had bred them. The Bush family and the Sauds have been in bed together for far too long for that to ever happen. I knew, even then, that Bush's response would be either a convenient grandstand or a diversionary attack more highly favored by his long-time handlers.

Unfortunately, most people vote for a personality - even one concocted from whole cloth by PR people - rather than looking closely at the individual's accomplishments. Had Bush's actual resume been read by the majority of citizens, I honestly believe that "hanging chads" would never have been an issue, Bin Laden would be dead or captured, and the rest of the world would have a much deeper trust and regard for Americans. Who knows... there might even be 3,000 or so more Americans alive today,,, perhaps even 6,000+.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a bleeding heart liberal who hates all things Republican. I just want to see some semblance of balance and honor returned to this country.

Steve Salerno said...

Ron, I can't argue with a lot of your reasoning. My only question is whether we've reached a point in world affairs (and America's relation to same) where we're dealing with situations that have essentially made reasoning (and fair play, and "leadership," and all of the grandiose ethics that form the bedrock of this great democracy, or once did, in any case) irrelevant. We can debate what brought the wolf to the door last time, as well as whether one or the other political regime or course of behavior is more likely to bring the wolf to the door next time...but if the wolf is actually THERE, NOW, we have to deal with the wolf. That's all I'm saying. That's not an apologia for what Bush has done. It's more of a general statement. If somebody's going to come out of this mess alive, I want it to be me and the folks I love. How best to achieve that?

RevRon's Rants said...

For starters, real control of our borders, rather than political posturing while silently nodding to the special interests who prefer to have an unfettered flow of immigrants.

Then, how about not doing the kind of things that help the radical Imams recruit terrorists? How about air drops of food and supplies to the most ravaged areas, rather than bombs? If the poor and displaced are fed by Americans, they wouldn't be so quick to believe that we are "crusaders," as the insurgents tell them. In short, less saber rattling, and more of that "compassionate conservatism" that was all the rage a few years back.

If we ever get to bring our troops back from Iraq, we could really enhance border security - assuming, of course, that the construction companies & sweatshop owners don't get their version of "immigration reform." And that would be a bigger step toward keeping us sage than our present method, which is like standing on an ant hill, stomping on individual ants. Just a thought...

Anonymous said...

Rev, you and your bleeding heart friends are what got us into this mess, if we'd taken the stronger stand that MacArthur and like minded generals wanted to take we would or at least could own the world right now and write our own ticket. Instead we have to depend on our so-called allies to pitch in while our troops fight a half-assed war and snipers pick us off from broken down buildings we should've bombed to smithereens.

RevRon's Rants said...

I kinda figured you'd chime in with the "nuke em all" attitude, Carl. If you knew me at all (beyond your assumptions), you'd know that I'm far from being a bleeding heart liberal. But neither am I a neocon cowboy who goes off half-cocked, then whines because the rest of the world doesn't fall in line.

And for the record, the far right is what got us into this mess in the first place. Until the CIA orchestrated the coup d 'etat in Iran that placed the Shah in power, the Iranians didn't give a hoot about us. And if we hadn't paid to train Osama or supplied weapons & a knowing wink to Saddam, he wouldn't have ever been anything more than a mid-level strongman in Iraq's eternal civil war.

Suggest you read your history before recommending that we continue to follow the same path that got us here in the first place.

Anonymous said...

I don't know who coined the phrase yellow journalism but it was true then and it's still true, if not truer, now. IT's all about sensationalism and celebrity and shock value and the opposite of real thinking. I laugh when I hear them use the word analysis. Most of what the media presents under the guise of analysis is actually the total opposite of analysis. It's just mindless trend chasing and a lot of belaboring the obvious.