Monday, August 11, 2008

Breaking (down) the news. To be continued.

The other night I caught an HBO promo for the forthcoming season of Real Time, comedian Bill Maher's refreshingly edgy survey course in the ongoing American experiment. That got me thinking once again about journalism; it also reminded me that when Tim Russert died, I mentioned that I'd be posting further thoughts about Big Media, and I never returned to that theme. That's become something of a pattern for me in recent months, so I figured this would be a good moment to tie up at least one loose end.

If you've been with us for any length of time, you already know that ideologically speaking, I'm no Bill Maher cultist. Though I never miss an episode of Real Time, I'm not someone who buys Maher's rants lock, stock and barrel. There are areas where I agree with him and areas where I vehemently disagree. (That doesn't make either of us "right," by the way.) Regardless, I deem it most unfortunate that Maher couldn't make a cynical observation about 9/11 without losing his original network show (which bore the prophetic title, Politically Incorrect) and putting his very career at risk. And Maher, remember, is not a journalist. If a comedian, of all people, must pay homage to the Givens—i.e., the Authorized View of How Life is Supposed to be Lived and Portrayed in America—that gives you some idea of what well-intentioned journalists* are up against in trying to deliver the news "straight." Some years ago in U.S. News & World Report, columnist John Leo put it this way: "[Journalists] are keenly aware of the conventional narrative line on most controversial and recurring stories. They know how such stories are expected to be handled…." And, he went on, they know the penalties for failing to toe the mark.

This is especially true at the upper echelons of network. Night after night, Big Media's slavish obeisance to the Givens prevents potentially important facts (as well as alternative points of view) from reaching news consumers.

One obvious consequence of this is that the news, as shaped and presented, tends naturally to reinforce the average American's sense of being right about too many things. To approach sensitive issues (and there seem to be more of them all the time) only from that authorized point-of-view assumes not only a sense of omniscience but also a firm handle on (and national ownership of) "objective" morality. As just one offhand example: Why are casualty figures for American GIs covered with a poetic note of sadness...while figures on Al Qaeda operatives killed in a surprise raid typically are covered with satisfication if not jubilation? On what transcendent tablet is it written that we Americans are right
and deserve to live foreverbut our enemies are wrongand deserve to die right this minute, if not sooner?

Similarly, the deaths of our beloved public figures (Ronald Reagan, Johnny Carson) engender profound media reverence, as though the coverage were itself a eulogy. Consider, in contrast, the way the media covered the deaths of Uday and Qusay. See, we don't parade mangled corpses through the streets in this culture; we're too sophisticated for that. We just parade their grotesque death masks across our TV screens for days. One also recalls the unabashedly gleeful media response to the capture of Saddam himself. Is there any circumstance under which you could conceive of a comparable media reaction if a U.S. president were hunted and captured by foreign operatives? (Well, OK, I grant you, if it's the current president, yes. But Clinton?)

What's that you say? Viewers expect the media to give our beloved public figures a nice sendoff? Well that's just too damn bad. News isn't (or at least, shouldn't be) end-user driven. News
As I wrote in my long piece for Skeptic, the moment we give journalists license to cover events sympathetically or skeptically we encounter the problem of what to cover sympathetically or skeptically, where to draw such lines and, above all, who gets to draw them.

The bottom line is that it's inappropriate for a journalist to shape his reporting according to what his audience thinks or feels or prefers, or
worsewhat he believes his audience should think or feel or prefer. Offending viewers cannot matter to a journalist. There cannot be such a thing as good taste in journalism; there cannot be a sense of time and place or decorum. Having millions of viewers turn off their sets or switch to another channel in disgust cannot matter to a journalist. Impractical, you say? What about ratings? Look, if all journalists were "fair and balanced,"** viewers would have nowhere else to switch to. They'd be forced to watch the news andhorror of horrors!think for themselves.

Next time: A more specific accounting of what we should, and should not, expect from honest journalism.

* And it pains me to say that I don't think there are that many well-intentioned journalists anymore.
** I mean the phrase the real way, not the way FOX uses it, which is to say, "We balance out the left-tilting news you see everywhere else...."


Cal said...

I intended to comment on this post, but did not see an area for comment when you first posted it.

I do hope you come back to this topic in some way, because I am interested in your views on this spite of the lack of interest from the other readers.

Steve Salerno said...

Cal, I have since learned--didn't I mention this?--that I inadvertently checked off the option box that says "don't allow comments" when I composed this post. At least half a dozen people brought that to my attention, so I assume there are at least that many people interested in seeing my follow-up. I'll get to it.