Monday, June 16, 2008

Rethinking Russert. Selling Starvation.

By now you've heard about Tim Russert—probably to the point of overkill (no pun intended). Apart from being inherently sad, Russert's sudden death has generational significance. The man was 58. I am 58. Lots of people I know are within a few years of 58. Though there have been recent deaths of men even younger, Russert's shocking demise serves bold-face notice that the Grim Reaper is now stalking Boomers. One by one, give or take a few years or (if we're lucky) decades, we'll all have our turn. Quite possibly, the seeds of the maladies that will kill us are already going about their nefarious business inside our bodies, just as Russert's fatal malaise was silently at work in his coronary arteries.... Now there's a cheery thought going into the new week, huh?

The loss of Tim Russert also represents the end of an era. His Meet the Press was considered a clinic in high-level interviewing as well as a journalistic masterpiece that could be compared, for sheer gravitas, to Cronkite's oeuvre at CBS. Beyond that, Russert's MtP had a certain all-knowing, inside-the-Beltway inflection that we may not see equaled in our lifetime. But again, there's a deeper/bigger meaning here. If you watched the weekend's coverage to any degree, you noticed that many of the longer retrospectives on Russert's place in journalism became, in effect, meditations on the nature and very purpose of the news media. And if Russert was the best at his craft, it must be said that he was the best of a bad lot. Indeed, it could even be said that, as the best in the business, he was by definition the apotheosis of all that's wrong with modern journalism.* Thus one can hope—or at least I do—that these earnest discussions of Tim Russert serve as the springboard for a huge leap forward in the perpetration of daily journalism, especially in broadcast. (But I'm probably just kidding myself.)

To be a bit more specific: If there was one accolade we heard heaped on Russert time and again this weekend, it's that he was a hard-nosed, relentless interviewer—a guy who "wasn't afraid to ask the tough questions." I disagree. Vehemently. It's not that I'm calling Russert a wimp; I do think he was intrepid, as far as he went. He just didn't go far enough. Not even close. Modern journalists as a class simply don't ask tough questions. They probably don't even think of tough questions, because such questions are not in their frame of reference. To the extent that they play devil's advocate, it is only within a narrow range of ideas and possibilities.

That's because, at least here in the U.S., the journalist's brand of so-called toughness is circumscribed by The Given
s: those knee-jerk assumptions about life, truth, morality and justice that "inform" (which is a nice way of saying corrupt) the news. The Givens dictate the way in which any specific event is—and must be—covered and couched in major media. Nor does the problem end (or perhaps I should say begin) there. Long before The Givens exert their corrupting effect on coverage, they have a decisive impact on "news judgment," dictating which items are considered newsworthy to start with. This short-circuits the mere presentation of news that doesn't fit the American consciousness or American journalism's established world-view. All of this (a) robs news consumers of the right to react to stories in a personal manner and/or make up their own minds about what's really happening, and (b) marginalizes and even disenfranchises people who already hold an opposing point-of-view.

Like virtually all of his peers, Tim Russert approached reporting with a distinct sense of What It Means To Be An American (and, for that matter, a journalist). He assumed certain things to be true and certain things to be false, certain things to be good and certain things to be evil. Such prejudgments (as well as entire other categories of value judgments) have no place in honest journalism. Honest journalism has no country, no allegiances, no sympathies. (Obviously the journalist as an individual is going to have such feelings...but they should never be visible in his work.) Honest journalism is amoral. Honest journalism does not assume that the U.S. Constitution is the ultimate, unimpeachable legal and moral authority. (It is simply a document that codifies what we believe—but what we believe is not universal truth, and should not be interpreted or reported as such. Besides, laws change; the Constitution itself changes. Would "ultimate truth" be that malleable?) Honest journalism does not even assume as basic a thing as that "all men are created equal," regardless of what it may say in one of America's founding documents. "All men..." is a philosophical ideal, not a proven, empirical scientific truth. That last thought alone would have major implications for the coverage of civil/gay rights, racism, etc.

And—to be as controversial as possible in order to drive home the point—honest journalism would not assume that the 9/11 hijackers were bad and that the 2973 or so Americans killed that day were heroes or martyrs. If you find that statement repellent and odious, ask yourself this: Did all people everywhere think that 9/11 was a terrible tragedy? No. Certainly not in Tehran or Tikrit or Kabul or Palestinian areas of Jerusalem (and in many other places where they wouldn't admit it, like, perhaps, some Parisian cafes). Don't those people's feelings "count"? More to the point, were the people who celebrated 9/11 "wrong"? Intrinsically wrong? I don't see how anyone can say that. Remember: It wasn't that long ago that Americans danced in the streets after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which took the lives of roughly a quarter-million Japanese civilians (and whose repercussions continue to be felt to this day). The privilege of deciding when slaughter is just does not reside uniquely with Americans. And honest journalism understands that it never gets to decide what's right or wrong. It just reports and tries to illuminate in a fair-minded, unbiased manner. Honest journalism understands that it can't even turn to god/God in its search for answers to today's journalistic dilemmas. The reasons should be obvious, but to belabor that obviousness for a moment: Whose God would it be? The "American Christian" God? Allah? Jehovah? And who says there's a God, anyway?

An old saying in journalism goes as follows: "If a reporter's mother tells him she loves him, he checks it out." Point being, the good journalist makes very few (if any) assumptions about the material s/he's covering, and takes almost nothing for granted.

It's a wonderful, trenchant observation...that hardly anybody in journalism observes or applies nowadays.

More on this next time.


On in the background as I write this is a Lifetime movie, Hunger Point. It chronicles one family's experience with anorexia/bulimia. This is a very sober-minded "message film" that clearly is meant as an attack on the social and cultural forces responsible for the extreme weight-consciousness of our young females. But here's the kicker: Though I'm paying attention with just half an ear as I dive into my Monday's workload, already I've had my concentration broken by ads from three different advertisers pushing weight loss; all three ads were patently and cannily designed to make viewers worry about how they'll look in their swimsuits, come summer. Two of the ads featured rail-thin models, and the other spokesperson is the aptly named pseudo-actress Jillian Barberie, whose Barbie-doll figure is probably unattainable for 97 percent of American women sans surgical intervention. (That's Ms. Barberie at right.)

You wonder: Is there no shame over this at the self-described network "for women"? I say again: Unreal.

* Worse, by being hailed as the gold standard for tough interviewing—this is important—he became a role model for thousands of young J-school graduates who believed that if they simply patterned their journalistic behavior after Russert, they were doing their jobs.


roger o'keefe said...

Steve, I don't know whether or not this is the official kick-off for "Shamblog Mondays," but it's a worthy addition to your body of work nonetheless. I have to say I was thrown for a loop when you made your points regarding 9/11. Then I thought about it and though I'm still not sure I agree, I do see what you're saying. The danger in this kind of thinking (yours) however is the much-maligned climate of moral relativism that afflicts today's America and that I'm pretty sure you yourself have attacked in your blog.

Regardless it's good to see you posting new material again. As usual the thoughts you present about Russert are unlikely to be heard elsewhere in media.

gregory said...

everybody dies, what is the big deal. because he was on tv? because the blow-dried heroes of the industry he was in suddenly, ohmygod, had to confront their mortality? crikey, so much maudlin crap i haven't heard since the last dead president. nice guy. he died. we all do. so what?

Anonymous said...

Steve this probably isn't what you wanted to hear but, if they can look like that gal in the photo then its hard to argue the point!

Steve Salerno said...

Roger: There's a difference between what I say on a blog that is clearly my personal opinion...and what is rendered as "news" by our vaunted media. I also recognize--unlike, I think, many people--that my own deeply held feelings may not tally with universal truth/justice. For example, we were attacked by radical Islam, so--as an American--I want to strike back at, and defeat, radical Islam. That doesn't mean that I assume that we're right and they're wrong. (For all I know they may be "right" in some cosmic religious sense.) It's purely a matter of survival, to me.

Gregory: Not sure I'd be quite that blase about it, but I definitely see your point and I do agree that we spent far too much time in this society lionizing people.

Carl: I can only sigh....

Mike Cane said...

The kind of ideal journalism you describe is what has made newspaper readership and TV news viewership in this country plummet.

I don't want some coiffed pompous eejit sitting behind a desk calling me "the American people," as if this overpaid twit was calling down from the clouds!

Your next piece should be a criticism of Edward R. Murrow's "This Is London" broadcasts.

Let's see you raise a defense of the Blitz!

Such distancing of the journo from *his country* allows the rats to let the scoundrels in the country get away with murder -- because the up-in-the-clouds journos regard it with as little emotional impact as God Himself apparently does (which is to say, none!). I want someone who is *engaged* in the damned country he lives in, not someone who thinks he's "above it all."

BTW, although I blogged Russert's death, it was due to the condition that killed him and his shockingly-low age. There's not one alleged journo on TV who I consider a reporter in any sense. The minute people started praising Baba Wawa, I knew the entire game had been corrupted beyond repair or redemption.

Steve Salerno said...

Come on, Mike. You know what I'm saying here. And if viewership/readership is really declining because the news "got too objective," then tough noogies (as we used to say in Flatbush). What's the journalist supposed to do, in your estimation? Pander to his audience? Tell people exactly what they want to hear, and exactly the way they want to hear it? The ridiculous situation we have now--where people listen to the "news" that best fits their ideological bent--is a direct outgrowth of that reasoning. So the neocons watch Hannity whip up racial fear of Obama, and the Kennedy-libs delight in Mo Dowd's latest jabs at Bush's intellect, or lack thereof...and no one really cares anymore about hearing something a tad closer to unvarnished facts, as long as we all get our respective agendas stroked.

That's journalism, to you?

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. I think I'll be addressing some of your questions and qualms next time.

Keith Throop said...

"Honest journalism is amoral."

Isn't the very word honest -- as a descriptive term for what you consider to be proper journalism -- itself a moral category? And if you can speak of honest versus dishonest journalism, how can you say that journalism is amoral?

Steve Salerno said...

Keith, I think what we have here is more a semantic difference than a philosophical one. I use the term "honest journalism" (which, you've made me realize, is confusing) to denote "objective journalism." That is, journalism free of (or as free as possible of) any overlays of moral, national, or political interest.

In theory, when an honest journalist is reporting the events of 9-11, you should not be able to tell whether that journalist is from Kabul or Coney Island. Is that attainable? I don't know. Probably not. But why isn't it worth striving for?

Elizabeth said...

Wow, Steve, welcome back (I hope). Awesome.

And thanks for putting Russert's legacy in a rightful perspective. I'm so tired of hearing how "courageous," "persistent," "relentless" and "grilling" the man was. He was none of these things. He was a perfectly nice guy, judging by opinions of those who knew him (and impressions he left on TV viewers), but (old) Woodward (if even that) he was not. Far from it. "Meet the Press" was more like "Sweet the Press," where old chums came together to chat before leaving, together, for a nice Sunday brunch. No feathers really ruffled (by relentless questioning) and no real answers given -- and all this was alright with Tim.

His death is a loss, no doubt, but the man was no political journalistic hero. (You can bet that if he indeed were one, he'd not be hosting a Sunday political chat show.)

As a aside, good to read you again.

Yekaterina said...

What you said about Americans dancing in the street after slaughtering nearly a quarter million fellow human beings in Japan, (juxtaposed against the celebrations in the street after the 9/11 attack) this should be a cover story for TIME. America, as a nation, needs to look these sorts of truth in the face.

Steve Salerno said...

Incidentally, today’s WebProNews wades into the topic raised last time about who owns blog comments. It could just be coincidence, but based on some of the language used, I gotta believe that the item is rooted in the brief discussion that took place here on SHAMblog. If so, it was nice to be included among "prominent bloggers." Especially since I haven't been blogging of late.

Steve Salerno said...

Btw, Y-kat, thanks for the comment re Time. It has long struck me as self-evident that news (i.e. real news) should not have a nationalist orientation or agenda. And I'm always amazed that I get so much opposition to that. But remember, we live in an era when news divisions often exist under the umbrella of a much larger entertainment division, and must justify their bottom lines (and their place in the schedule) in the same way as some lame sitcom. So as bizarre as this may sound to people who value the search for "true facts," news divisions frequently worry about offending their audiences by delivering news (and certainly opinions) that viewers wouldn't want to hear.

Elizabeth said...

Yekaterina (and Steve), good points.

One thing I have noticed after going back to my formerly native Poland after its rapid transition to free-market economy was the dramatic change in the Polish media. When I left, the socialist propaganda was the norm (it was very reminiscent of the status of the mainstream media in the US today, which is, by and large, the bull-horn for powers-that-be, in my observations). Nowadays in Poland it's indeed survival of the fittest/best informed/loudest and the on-going competition between various media outlets is much fun to watch. The political TV, for one, is like a mortal combat with (metaphorical) blood streaming freely into our TV screens. Politicians and journos go for their respective jugulars, no holds barred. It's quite a spectacle -- and a refreshing one, I must say, because in the process the truth that otherwise would be swept under the carpet is usually (and usually inadvertently) revealed. In comparison, American political TV (network, that is) is very much milquetoast. "Meet the Press" especially, but not only of course. Such an approach to news, considered "controversial" here, is mainstream there nowadays. Will see if it lasts.

And, Steve, not that we want to push the issue, but can we expect your more permanent presence on SHAMblog again?

gregory said...

and if you do get into blogging again, please ditch this cruddy blogger comment system for disqus, ... if you want to see it in action, and see its value, (commenters can comment to each other and the conversation mushrooms) check out this link

and good to get away from the sham stuff, too hard on the head, and into the larger society...


Mike Cane said...

>>>What's the journalist supposed to do, in your estimation? Pander to his audience? Tell people exactly what they want to hear, and exactly the way they want to hear it?

WTF?! Is that the only alternative you can think of?

And please don't lower the field of journalism even further by trying to claim Hannity, Limbaugh, and the stooges of talk radio are somehow "journalists."

There is a TON of slime in this country that doesn't get reported Every Damned Day. You know it and I know it. EVERYone frikkin knows it.

I assert that's because the journos see themselves above it all. They have become an in-bred and inured aristocracy, circle-jerking each other and letting everyone else to rot. (They are not the only cult like this; don't get me started on the "literary" cultists!)

Steve, you should be able to see this for yourself. Where in the MSM do you see any of the topics YOU touch on reported? Go on, submit an Oprah-bashing piece somewhere. See how far it advances your career.

*You* have been engaging the world. You shouldn't be defending those who don't.

And by the way, pal, welcome back! Cracked like an egg! Haha!

Anonymous said...

News and entertainment have become interchangable on television. It is all about the ratings. I do not think television news can be unbiased unless it is "Saturday Night Live," where everyone and thing gets skewered. I do not believe there are unbiased people so how can there be unbiased news? Unless robots start doing the reporting.

Mike Cane said...

Steve: Here's a *perfect* example of what I mean by reporting that's *engaged* with its country.

Both the Daily Mail and the Telegraph have gone out to calculate the true rate of inflation (that their figures differ, doesn't matter; different measuring points).

Where have you seen any *U.S.* newspaper do anything but repeat the crooked figures emailed to them from Washington?

The REAL Rate Of Inflation

Chronicles Of Depression 2.0: #129

Does that help clarify my meaning?

Elizabeth said...

This is a good example, Mike, of the differences between American and European media (not all, of course, but in general between MSM in both geographical areas).

You also say, "(...) the journos see themselves above it all. They have become an in-bred and inured aristocracy, circle-jerking each other and letting everyone else to rot."

Agree. American MSM are, most of the time, nothing more than propaganda tools for the powers-that-be and powers that wanna be; and the major media outlets appear interested not so much in reporting stories that the public wants to hear, but in stories that they, MSM, *think* the public wants to hear -- and these are very different types of stories most of the time.

MSM create their own supply-and-demand cycle and become convinced that they represent the wants and needs of the people. Nothing further from the truth. That's why in our household we are getting rid of the major papers and magazines to which we subscribed for years as they have become simply unbearable to read -- and irrelevant. Not to mention commercialized and dumbed down. A waste of money and time.

Mike Cane said...

I'm constantly astonished that the most up-to-date, truthful, and thorough financial reporting is being done in the British press (specifically the Telegraph). It makes me wonder wtf *our* financial "reporters" are being paid to do.

Oh, wait, that's right. Rupert Murdoch just bought the Wall Street Journal. That answers that!

Steve Salerno said...

But now let's be fair ourselves here, Mike: What makes financial reporting "up-to-date, truthful, and thorough," in your view? I think a lot of this depends--again--on the eye of the beholder (or maybe the "wallet of the watcher" would be a better phrase). For example, I'm sure I'm not the only one who's somewhat astonished by the fact that--despite gas prices, despite the mortgage meltdown, and despite all the other well-documented foibles of the latter-day American economy--the DJIA isn't really doing badly at all. In fact, it has shown remarkable overall strength in the face of constant bad news and the fear-mongering of the daily media. Now, the Journal gives a lot of weight to the Dow--and to the workings of the upper echelons of the U.S. economy in general--so if you're the kind of person who was just laid off, and whose house was just foreclosed, and who can't afford to look for new employment or housing because you can't afford gas, then you might read the Journal and say, as you've put it several times lately, "WTF??" You'd think the Journal is woefully out of touch and "inaccurate." (Personally, I too have long thought that there should be a statistic on overall financial health that simply lops off the top 10% of everything. I think it would be more accurate for "the average person.") But is it really objectively "wrong" for the Journal to report through a lens in which one of the foremost economic indicators is, in fact, reasonably robust?

Mike Cane said...

>>>the DJIA isn't really doing badly at all

I won't ask you for financial advice! You like this trend?

The DJIA was doing just peachy keen the last time it crashed too!

Speaking of crashes ...

Read some of my Depression 2.0 blog posts. Or cut to the chase, and read Ambrose Evans-Pritchard's columns.

Mike Cane said...

I press further.

CBS Reporter: Watching US Media “Would Drive Me Nuts”

And finally, the state of the nation’s media has a new, and perhaps unexpected, critic: Lara Logan, chief foreign correspondent of CBS News. Logan recently appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.

Jon Stewart: “Do you watch the news that we’re watching in the United States?"

Lara Logan: “No. No.”

Jon Stewart: "Do you see what we’re hearing about the war? Do you—”

Lara Logan: “No."

Jon Stewart: “So we might actually know everything.”

Lara Logan: "If I were to watch the news that you’re hearing in the United States, I’d just blow my brains out, because it would drive me nuts.”

Democracy Now!


RevRon's Rants said...

"But is it really objectively "wrong" for the Journal to report through a lens in which one of the foremost economic indicators is, in fact, reasonably robust?"

Only if the Journal were presenting itself as a forum of interest to a broad spectrum of Americans (it's not). The Journal is targeted toward that "upper echelon," comprised of individuals who actually believe that the performance of their individual portfolios is in sync with the well-being of the overall citizenry (it's not).

Just as Hustler appeals to a specific sector of society, and holds little interest for the majority, WSJ exists to satisfy the fantasies of its own specific sector, its offerings alternately absurd or even obscene to those not within its target audience.

And as to the integrity of journalists overall, our own government ensured many years ago that the "news" we view and read isn't particularly threatening to the status quo. The "discretion" afforded JFK's dalliances was in response to the clearly stated policy of locking offending journalists out of the loop. Same thing happening today with "embedded" journalists in Iraq. And I won't even get started on the manufactured stories that came out of Vietnam, as well as the real stories that never got told (and never will).

RevRon's Rants said...

I think it only fair to consider the individual journalists' perspective, as opposed to the all-encompassing view of the industry. A journalist knows that his or her survival - professional, and even literal - depends upon acquiescence to the realities of their profession.

An "honest" journalist may well not survive the ratings battles when pitted against the purveyors of more palatable pablum, and a journalist embedded within a combat unit would be a fool to publish articles that accurately describe the unit's actions in wartime. The viewing public would be outraged, the military would be forced to take some kind of disciplinary action (a la Lt. Calley and My Lai), and the combat forces might, at the very least, "ease up" on their efforts to protect the journalist during incursions.

We get the news - and the government - that we demand, even if our demands appear somewhat passive, such as by changing the channel, or buying more copies of "People" than we do "US News & World Report," or choosing Rush over "The McLaughlin Report."

To quote Pogo (as I have done in the past), "We have met the enemy, and he is us."

Mike Cane said...

Uncover the truth, win a free trip to sort-of-suicide.

Jackals: 1
Us: -1

Elizabeth said...

Chris Hedges wrote an excellent column, "The Hedonists of Power," in which he puts Tim Russert's contributions to journalism in the right place (and then some):