Monday, December 28, 2009

'And the terrorists get the ball on the 20...' Or, the media and the meta?

Anchors and reporters at my local ABC affiliate, WPVI-6, were uniformly giddy yesterday because the Eagles pulled out Sunday's football game in the final seconds, thus remaining positioned to finish the season next week atop the standings in their respective NFL division. The coverage on all of my local stations is, of course, unabashedly favorable to the Eagles and their star players (just as the coverage on your local station is unabashedly favorable to your team and star players). The stations cover tailgate parties as straight news and later file post-game reports from neighborhood bars where obviously hammered fans are given precious air time to slur and stammer their appreciation for the Birds. If it's an away game, grinning correspondents are there to greet the bus or plane upon the team's return; if it was a win (which has mostly been the case, this season), top performers are greeted as authentic conquering heroes.

This, of course, is a far cry from honest journalism...but it is sports, after all. We understand this. And it's hometown sports, which means we wouldn't have it any other way. Fans expect this kind of fawning coverage (yes, even in notoriously ornery, front-running Philly), and a station that took a more objective approach to local teams would quickly lose market share to other stations that don't. Hell, you'd have picketing outside the studio, and sports jocks hung in effigy at the top of the museum steps that Rocky so famously ascended. But like I say...this is sports.

It shouldn't be that way in
coverage of world affairs.

This occurs to me as I watch the continuing media hand-wringing over the would-be plane bomber, Abdullahmatoullahballoulah, or whatever the hell his name is. You or I might scream at the set, Hang the SOB! You or I might think that what he tried to do on that plane is unconscionable, and there's simply no room for argument. Of course the episode should be reported cynically. The bastard was trying to kill us!

That's OK because we're private citizens voicing
individual views. The media, on the other hand, should not cover the story that way. The media shouldn't have a home team or a "house view." The media are required to seek the "meta view." No matter where they live or draw their paychecks.

To their credit, and with the notable exception of FOX and MSNBC, which do not report the news, the other major media outlets are gravitating towards a more nonpartisan, CNN-style lens on world events (i.e. the sort of multinational coverage that used to get people so up in arms over the likes of Peter
Arnett and Christiane Amanpour). But when there's a crisis, or even a perceived crisis, journalists unfailingly close ranks around Old Glory. They cover the story as if there's only one "right" way of reporting it or even seeing it, especially if American lives are lost or were merely put at risk. In my view, that's just wrong. Terribly wrong. And it's wrong in this case even if people picket the station and hang studio executives in effigy. Fairness and honesty must trump ratings. This bomber thinks he has a legitimate gripe against us; he was willing to give up his life to prove it. Al Qaeda members think they have a legitimate gripe against us. The state of Iran thinks it has a legitimate gripe. North Korea has any number of gripes. Others in the Muslim world, even in so-called friendly states like Pakistan (and, as we recently saw, Norway), think the U.S. could use a good slap upside the head, though they may feel the need to be more circumspect in saying so. It's not up to the media to decide who's right and who's wrong.

Now, I suppose we could say, Let's make it simple: We'll take an enlightened, Gandhi-esque approach and demand that our media come out staunchly in favor of life. This would, by its very nature, justify the negative media coverage of all the Abdullahmatoullahballoulahs of the world, who are trying to kill people. So far so good.

Except...such an approach has implications.

A firm and unwavering stance that upholds the sanctity of human life would require the news media to officially condemn capital punishment, because once you start parsing categories of "just" and "unjust" killing, you run into all sorts of problems. (Not the least of which is, who gets to make those calls?) Similarly, though there are lingering issues having to do with the moment when life begins, the media would almost surely have to oppose abortion in concept. And the media would absolutely have to oppose wars, all wars, even the ones we're fighting and winning. There would be no triumphant footage of troops taking Baghdad or vanquishing fortified Taliban operatives. Journalists couldn't make exceptions for self-defense, either, because once you open the door to killing in self-defense, you in essence have justified 9/11: Terrorists would argue that their actions are in reprisal for many years of U.S. tyranny; they're defending themselves, their homelands and their religions. This would also mean that journalists could make no distinctions between cops who kill killers and killers who kill cops, between husbands who beat their wives to death and wives who finally take a meat cleaver to their abusive husbands.

See, it's not that easy. You start making exceptions, qualifying things, and pretty soon you've got the kind of journalism we get from FOX and MSNBC.

International affairs isn't a football game. There's no home team. And there shouldn't be.

P.S., 8:39 p.m. Tuesday. The vanity piece ran in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. Nice presentation.


roger o'keefe said...

Simple question: Whose side are you on?

Steve Salerno said...

In this case...journalism's.

Markus said...

So Steve, you're upset that journalists are not being objective about a terrorist trying to blow up a plane of your fellow citizens?

Anonymous said...


He's on the side of peace, truth and justice.

I didn't get a chance to wish you guys merry xmas and a wonderful happy new year. Lets have many more blogs and comments.


Steve Salerno said...

Markus: Question for you--would it be covered the same way in, say, Palestine? Or Tehran? Journalists have an obligation to see stories through a more universal lens. That's all I'm saying. They can be personally upset, as most of us would be. It just shouldn't intrude into the coverage, and it certainly shouldn't cause them to filter out elements of the story in order to serve/satisfy "an American perspective."

RevRon's Rants said...

While it might sound like you're going off the deep end on this one Steve, I have to agree with you. But come to think of it, I've been known to go off the deep end once in awhile, too. :-)

I'm as outraged at the horrors inflicted by terrorists as anyone, and I've been known to cry for blood. But I think it should be up to me to decide what angers me, without the news reports trying to guide my decision. Give me the facts and let me decide. My decision will quite likely be biased, but the responsibility for that bias is mine alone.

Of course, there are parties (most with 3-letter initials) who simply couldn't tolerate unfiltered, objective reporting. For example, we were collectively outraged when Saddam invaded Kuwait, and our outrage was very much encouraged by the media. As a nation, we got up on our hind legs, pounded our chests, and kicked some butt. We felt good about it, too.

I wonder how anxious we would have been to attack if it had been made widely known that prior to his invasion of Kuwait, Saddam informed the US State Department of his intentions, claiming that Kuwait was stealing Iraqi oil, and that the response he got from State was that the US had no interest in Iraqi border issues. In essence, we gave him tacit permission to invade, then attacked him when he did.

Would we stand as proud, knowing that we had manipulated Saddam into justifying our attack on his forces? That's not to say Saddam wasn't a monster, because he was. But I think we owe it to ourselves and whatever legacy we desire for this country to approach situations more objectively. And the only way we could achieve such a goal would be predicated by having accurate information upon which to make our decisions, no matter how that information reflects upon the parties involved. Might even make us behave more appropriately if we know someone's really watching what we do, rather than blindly accepting what we say (or don't say).

Markus said...

Markus: Question for you--would it be covered the same way in, say, Palestine? Or Tehran?

No, but I wouldn't expect it to be. One country's terrorist is another country's freedom fighter.

But if a man who tried to blow up a plane full of Americans cannot be labeled a terrorist by American news outlets, then who can?

Steve Salerno said...

Markus: How 'bout something like so...

"Today in the skies over Detroit, a man with grievances against U.S. policy blew up a plane full of holiday travelers, killing 278. We now to to correspondent Eli Manning, who has an interview with a widow of one of the fliers. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces raided a cave believed to contain Afghani insurgents, killing 29. We now go to correspondent Phil Simms, who has an interview with the widow of one of the Afghanis killed..."

Look, these are very tough issues, and as is true for most of life, the genius is in the implementation. But I think you know what I'm talking about. At the very least, reporters could lose the tone of moral outrage, unless they're going to display equal outrage at every loss of life (which, as I say in my post, is probably a bad idea anyway).

Markus said...

Steve, if you expect American news outlets to give equal weight to the deaths of American citizens and the deaths of Afghani insurgents, then you're in for a lot of disappointment.

It's like the story about the flood that washed away a child today. Oh, you didn't hear about that? I'm not surprised, because it happened here in Australia, and I wouldn't expect another country to give it the same coverage as if it had happened over there.

News outlets concerned more about their own country and their own citizens? Nothing wrong with that.

Steve Salerno said...

Markus: Nothing wrong with that? So how 'bout, say, if your country is fudging the stats on war fatalities, as the U.S. did for years in Vietnam, in order to "keep up the public morale"? Is it OK for the press to just go with the program and do what amounts to press-release journalism? Or how 'bout if your country is running illegal covert ops overseas that are provoking at least some portion of the resentment that causes terrorists to want to kill us? We shouldn't be informed on that, either?

Once you start promoting what amounts to a "patriotic" lens on the news...where do you stop?

Markus said...

There's a big difference between showing concern towards the lives of one's fellow citizens and fudging the stats on war fatalities. The string on that bow is at breaking point.

If I was in America and I was watching American news coverage of a man's attempt to blow up a plane full of Americans, and the reporters expressed moral outrage, I wouldn't have a problem with that.

Elizabeth said...

This not exactly on topic, Steve, but apropos:

Turns out Bush released two of the masterminds of the failed terrorist bombing and recommended, in a manner of speaking, art therapy for them:

Two of the four leaders allegedly behind the al Qaeda plot to blow up a Northwest Airlines passenger jet over Detroit were released by the U.S. from the Guantanamo prison in November, 2007, according to American officials and Department of Defense documents. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for the Northwest bombing in a Monday statement that vowed more attacks on Americans.

American officials agreed to send the two terrorists from Guantanamo to Saudi Arabia where they entered into an "art therapy rehabilitation program" and were set free, according to U.S. and Saudi officials.

I must admit to a personal disappointment by this news. I love art therapy! I'm stunned and saddened to learn that it does not work for would-be terrorists.

Martha said...

Ho hum...

First of all, Fox does deliver the news. Although I must admit, I spent much of Friday and Saturday on CNN. Gov Huckabee's Christmas special didn't seem to be quite the thing.

Secondly while I get your comment about journalism needing to show both sides, I believe it's globally agreed upon that murdering almost 300 civilians in one blow (like the little tailor and all those houseflies) is not a very nice thing to do. If the US did it in, oh, say, Yemen, you can be darn tootin' that the world community would rise up and give us one gigantic wedgie of censure.

Yes, Virginia, I mean, Steve, in some instances right and wrong are indisputable. This is one of them. And Obama has certainly be sanguine enough for the rest of the planet in his four-day-old, I won't wear a tie today, response. Not to mention Napolitano's "everything's working here" report on Sunday. A sense of outrage is one of those bindings that keep people all around the world playing nicely with each other.

Did you see The Onion right after 9/11? The entire edition was a masterpiece in a balance of rage and humor. This particular article, "God Clarifies Don't Kill Rule," is
appropriate here, I think:

The entire package is brilliant.

Steve Salerno said...

Martha: My real point is that journalism shouldn't show sides; it should report facts. Ideally, facts unembellished by pathos, "the wider meaning," etc. My biggest gripe is with the "contextualizing" of discrete facts, including tearful interviews with "human interest" types, various attempts to connect the dots, and so forth.

Since you appear to be of a conservative bent, I suggest you review Bernie Goldberg's book, Bias, particularly the chapter titled, I believe, "How Bill Clinton Cured Homelessness." That's the type of stuff I'm talking about. And since Bernie's words are more likely to resonate with you, given your natural sympathies, I think the point just may hit home when it's emerging from his mouth.

Martha said...

Remember...I'm a fellow journalist myself! And come from a long line of esteemed reporters and a CIA case officer. So I was born to the breed.

If your beef is about gratuitous pathos,I'm totally with you. Perhaps in pursuit of balance, perhaps all the nations should rise up in outrage.

Personally, my preference is indeed watching Peter Bergen and Christianne Amanpour when it comes to international reportage and analysis. (Primarily because Peter is like really hot.)

Steve Salerno said...

Martha: And while I think of it, let me run something else by you. You live within an errant dust-cloud's travel of Alamogordo, where America's nuclear arsenal was fine-tuned. One of the fruits of that effort was detonated in an airburst over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Fatalities from that one incident were estimated at between 130,000 and 200,000. For formal consumption, Truman said he used to bomb to save our troops the trouble and almost certain catastrophe of having to confront the Japanese Plan for the Defense of the Homeland, which was indeed chilling--horrific--on its face. But privately many surmised that he dropped the A-bomb in retaliation for Pearl Harbor. OK.

Now it's 60-odd years later. Let's suppose some brigade of Japanese terrorists--perhaps disgruntled over declining Toyota sales--decide to toss some high-grade botulin toxin into some reservoirs in upstate New York, shouting "Remember Hiroshima!" (or however you say it in Japanese) as they do so. What do we make of that? Where is the "absolute" right and wrong? Which act was an act of offense, and which act was an act of reprisal?

You could regress these things all the way back to the beginning of (so-called) civilization, with people settling the score, often many years later, for some ancient transgression. Who's to say? How does one rank the human cost of 9/11 against what the Palestinians have had to deal with over the years?

Understand: As an AMERICAN I'm having none of it. I don't care about ancient grievances. I care about my granddaughters being able to go to school in peace, without worrying about the imminent arrival of radioactive iodine from the suitcase bomb that was just detonated in Times Square. But as a journalist? Journalists simply cannot take sides. Period.

Martha said...

Alamogordo? Do you mean Los Alamos? I can actually see Los Alamos from my home office window (sort of like Sarah and Russia). And the wind direction is such that when I'm seeing snow over Los Alamos, I know that within a couple of hours there is will be snow on my driveway. So, cough cough.

I'm not sure about the relationship between balanced reporting and retaliation bombing. Sometimes your connections are so bizarre, I wonder if you're making them to keep the comments going (or as an attention-getting device!).

As for balanced journalism (and history), I wonder how widespread the journalistic reports were introducing American newspaper readers and radio listeners to the Hitler's rationale for exterminating certain population groups. I'm thinking, there wasn't much in the Saturday Evening Post on that particular matter.

Setting aside the issue of purely objective journalism for a moment (as if), I'm thinking that there wasn't much of a market in the U.S. for understanding Hirohito's perspective on Pearl Harbor. Especially when there was the smell of burning flesh still hanging in the air. And I would imagine that the Japanese really didn't care much about Truman's perspective as they cradled the charred remains of their babies. That is the prerogative of victims and would-be victims -- to be morally outraged.

So, I certainly don't advocate strictly pandering to the emotions of an outraged customer base (U.S. news consumers). And it is the responsibility of journalists to bring balanced information to their audiences. At the same time, journalists are citizens too.

Karl said...

Steve, you make some really great thought provoking points! When I read it I was reminded of this quote.

"If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?"
Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago

Steve Salerno said...

Karl (it's not Marx, is it?--that's a joke): What a great quote. Unbelievably great. Why haven't I heard that one before?

Thanks for weighing in.

Karl said...

I'm pleased you like the quote. Like many of his countrymen Solzhenitsyn was extremely profound.

And here is something else he said apropos this blog topic:

“Hastiness and superficiality are the psychic diseases of the 20th century, and more than anywhere else this disease is reflected in the press.”

PS I'm not a Marx but 'fess up to a deep sense of gratitude to Groucho, Chico and Harpo.