Tuesday, April 6, 2010

What’s happened to the news?

There’s an interesting article in the March/April 2010 edition of the Columbia Journalism Review by Terry McDermott, a former reporter for the LA Times, which sums up nicely what has happened of late to American television news.

It’s titled “Dumb like a Fox” and carries the leader: “Fox News isn’t part of the GOP; it has simply (and shamelessly) mastered the confines of cable.” (All quotations here are taken from this article.)

McDermott argues that people like me, inclined to speak of Fox News as the Ministry of Propaganda of the Bush Administration, or, to update things, the voice of the radical right, have been fooled into thinking it deserves to be listed along with the other news networks (he focuses particularly on MSNBC and CNN in addition to Fox News), when in fact it is primarily best compared to radio talk shows.

I wish McDermott had included ABC and PBS in his survey, rather than limit his coverage to just these three, but his intent was evidently to make this point rather than cover the field.

Many wish the Obama administration had not gone after Fox as it did last fall when its director of communications, Anita Dunn, called Fox News “either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party…” “Let’s not pretend they’re a news organization like CNN is,” she added. All she accomplished, they say, was to provide Fox with dignity it didn’t deserve. Perhaps, but she got it just right and made the point McDermott is making.

Everybody and his uncle have gone after Fox for its claim to be “fair and balanced.” The claim is, in the minds of most people I know, a national joke, and proof positive that a significant number of Americans are dumber than their shoes. We’ve made a mistake there, McDermott claims. We’ve missed the important fact that Fox News, once you accept that it is rightward leaning, is not all that unbalanced, although you have to accept that Neil Cavuto is a “news analyst” rather than a newscaster, despite the way Fox sells him, to buy that. What is unbalanced are the talk shows – Bill O’Reilly, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and their regular use of the Limbaugh/Coulter/Malkin ideologues.

With newspapers shutting down left, right, and center in America, and Americans unwilling to pay for news when they think they can get it free on Google (forgetting that somebody has to pay reporters, and good stories can take months to collect), this exchange of objective news reporting for commentary is an obvious outcome of that lack of appreciation for the need to know what is actually happening. Rather, that is, than the desire to be entertained by people you believe you have a right to listen to because they confirm what you already believe.

Newspapers usually have one page of editorials and news on all the other pages. The way to look at Fox, McDermott says, is to see it as if it were a newspaper where that division is reversed. And, by the way, MSNBC is an entirely news-free organization, as well. No reporters at all. True, it does have NBC to draw from. The point is these are not TV news programs; they are TV opinion programs. Which makes sense of the fact that CNN has three times as many reporters and editing staff as Fox. (CNN also outdoes NBC as well.) And helps to explain the drivel on so-called news programs on American television these days.

McDermott gets in some good digs at Fox, and in doing that actually joins in the game of entertaining in a medium where one expects to find more traditionally objective reporting. OK with me. I’m always delighted to have someone say out loud there’s something wrong with lying on television.

McDermott, fortunately, avoids the suggestion I see in many commentaries on the news, that “there is bias on both sides.” “What is Rachel Maddow, if not a voice for the Democratic Party?” they say. What these folk miss (and, I repeat, McDermott did not fall into this trap) is that facts can be verified and that objectivity does not rule out slant. One can stress the merits of one side and the demerits of the other, so long as one is careful to include all the facts – not lie by omission – put them in the proper context, and get them right.

In suggesting that Rachel Maddow or Jon Stewart are as much purveyors of the democratic party line as O’Reilly or Hannity are of the republican party line, I think they’re missing the important point that the quality of truth-telling is not parallel. One of the things we were taught in kindergarten turns out not to be true after all. That truth “often lies in the middle.” Because that misconception is an American cultural belief, we trip over it all the time. I’ll never forget the day I saw Donahue put gay bashers on a panel to “balance” gay rights activists. And Nazis to “give their side” against concentration camp victims. If even a clever fellow like Donahue can make such mistakes, so can many of the rest of us.

One last point McDermott makes is worth mentioning. Until MSNBC gave up its more quietly objective news reporting style and took on the confrontational style of its competitors, it trailed far behind Fox. It went where the money is. People want to see gladiators more than they want objective news reporting when they turn on their TVs, evidently. And since money rules this country, getting away from the new format hardly seems likely.

And one last point to set this story in a larger context. The advent of the internet has brought this topic out of schools of journalism into the public arena and the evolution of news into entertainment is not limited to the United States. Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung happens to be running a series at the moment on the future of journalism and taking up such questions as how to make content entertaining, as well as informative.

Walter Cronkite is dead and gone, and so, apparently, is objective news reporting. So now what?

Fox comes out all smug and righteous when it insists its news program is in fact “fair and balanced.” Not our fault, they say, you can’t see the difference between our news reporting and our news opinion and analysis. But they are dishonest. They use the word news in ways that further that deception.

But the real problem isn’t Fox. It is a populace that says, in effect, “Bring on the gladiators. Make me laugh or make me gasp. Just don’t bore me with the news.” Whether Fox is a source of that problem or merely a symptom of it I leave for others to argue.

I think a good question to ask people you talk with about current events is whether they got their information from a news program or from a talk show. That distinction has been getting buried of late. We’ve got to dig it up, polish it and make it shine.

And then go right on to the next question. Is that true? I mean really true? Or are you just putting saddles on dinosaurs because something deep down inside of you tells you they had to be there?

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