Judging news judgment

I boarded this train of thought reading  Ted Koppel’s op/ed piece in Sunday’s Washington Post in which he eloquently denounces the cable networks’ proliferation of opinion-as-news programming.  I mostly agree with his complaint that Fox News and MSNBC have given up any pretense of being objective in favor of creating an “idealized reality.”

They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.

In this essay Koppel seems to put a lot of the blame on the desire to turn a profit; I find that disturbing.  No one in this argument should be against the idea of the Koppel_11_25companies turning a profit, and Koppel himself has proudly noted in the past that Nightline made a pile of money for ABC, although he says they did so with high standards.  I see that Koppel, in the end, is lamenting the death of any effort at real reporting, the loss of any non-partisan effort to uncover facts that can illuminate the truth.

So last night on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann did what he does: protest perhaps a bit too much about being the subject of criticism and spend a lot of valuable minutes proving points that were never called into question.  Mostly though, he gratuitously blasted Koppel for not having done on “Nightline” what Olbermann believes he does on his program—seek for truth, particularly about the war in Iraq.  (Click on the picture to see the whole commentary; runs something over 12:00.)


Credit where I think credit is due: Olbermann did his damnedest to get America to see the ugly truth about the Bush Administration and the Iraq war, in the spirit of Murrow’s takedown of Joseph McCarthy.  But as he himself has admitted, in a previous incarnation Olbermann squandered an inordinate amount of precious airtime on the Monica Lewinsky “story.”  Nobody’s perfect.

The important issue here is news judgment.  In Olbermann’s examples of Murrow’s reports from London, and when Cronkite made clear the fiasco of Vietnam and the importance of Watergate, their reports were  the result of a collective decision within their organization about what was news: what was important, what had lasting value, what did the audience need to know about.  In Koppel’s examples of the shouting heads on today’s cable network programs, the reports are the result of a collective decision within those organizations about what will grab attention: what is current, what has flash, what does the audience want to hear.

Koppel’s complaints focus on cable programs, not the broadcast networks and their news programs.  I don’t think those guys have any room to crow when it comes to news judgment when you consider their response to news from London of a wedding within the royal family: leading with the story as “breaking news,” dispatching armies of troops immediately to London, and planning major special reports.

Really?  Is there really anything more pointless, or with less real substance or import to our future, than the wedding of British royalty?  What does it say about our news media when we see them drool on themselves at this news?  Personally, I laughed at the headline Unemployed English girl to wed solider from welfare family, but that’s just me.

I’m not completely pessimistic about the future of journalism; I believe there will always be some place to get an honest recitation of what’s gone on, along with some perspective to help me make sense of my world.  But I know that it will not be from the Tribune Company’s TV station here in Houston.

KIAH-TV is moving ahead with a plan developed by the ousted corporate boss Lee Abrams to do away with traditional newscasts altogether.  They need “preditors” to run this new paradigm, and there’s no pretense: the ad says clearly that they aren’t interested in experience or credentials, they value the ability to make noise and grab attention; heat, not light…flash, not value.

And that’s fine, too—it’s their station and they can put whatever they want on their air.  But when it’s about news judgment, we all need to think about who we want to trust.

(Note: the spell-check dictionary didn’t like the word “Olbermann’s”; it recommended “Doberman’s”…I’m just saying.)

(Would you look at that: a post with Prince William, royal wedding, and Monica Lewinsky tags…I should be ashamed.)

4 thoughts on “Judging news judgment

  1. I respect Pat Ryan’s opinions, because I know that he has practiced what he opines. Pat quit a high profile radio position over journalistic integity issues and remained out-of-work for a long period of time rather than trivialize those principles. He continues to adhere to high journalistic principles.

    As a non-journalist, I offer that the journalists misstate the issue at hand. As a non-journalist trying to learn a little bit more about a given topic from any given medium, the issue is factual accuracy. It is not accurate because a presenter or host said something. It is accurate only if what each presenter or host said is accurate. I can fact check what a presenter or host states. If a presenter or host states that a certain document contains a certain passage, then I can read the document. The fault lies when we do not require the presenters or hosts to be accurate, when we accept a statement because a certain presenter or host so states, and when we have twenty-four (24) hours of news to report and the media fills it to fill it. If you believe that a presenter or a host is partisan, then please show me how the facts he reports are wrong. Please do not tell me that you do not like his style or that he has strong opinions. If a presenter or host states accurate facts that lead to a certain conclusion, that should be an exercise in logic — even if it turns out to be criticial or supportative of one group, person or cause or another. If being logical is partisan journalism to be avoided, then the problem rests squarely within the journalistic heart or mind.

    I also find any positive reference for Nightline as the medium of journalistic integrity unavailing. Nightline was born and flourished under the rubric – America Held Hostage. America was not held hostage. Some Americans were held hostage. Amercian soil in the form of the diplomatic mission in Iran was invaded. Yet, Nightline perpetuated a falsehood that helped to defeat Jimmy Carter, helped to devalue America, and helped, in a small way, to facilitate the rise of Ronald Reagan. The error was not that it had a partisan wake, but rather that the wake resulted from a falsehood fabricated for ratings. If this is the journalism to be replicated, then the problem rests squarely in the heart or mind of journalism.

    Critcial thought rests at the heart and mind of journalism. That is what Pat Ryan taught me over the past thirty (30) years. It is a tenured lesson as old as cuneiform. It will never go out of style.

  2. I do not know if it is irony or kharma that the message “Your Comment is Awaiting Moderation” is displayed after posting a comment. I guess we all could use a little more moderation.

    1. The real irony is that I get to be the voice of moderation (!), reviewing comments to ensure they meet the unwritten standards of this here little electronic publication; yours always do, and thanks for the compliments. Since you went to the trouble to make the points I feel I would be remiss not to respond to a couple.
      I’ll bet Ted Koppel would find no fault with your demand that accuracy be paramount in reporting; when I learned it, getting the story right was more important than getting it first, although that was a close second. And yes, it is the job of the consumers of news to insist that the purveyors meet a high standard of accuracy; Koppel would join your lament that so many treat the opinions of like-minded broadcasters as fact because of the source. Those who label as “biased” the substantiated facts which undermine their point of view aren’t likely to be persuaded by you or Ted.
      Your memory of the origin of Nightline is entirely correct: it began life in November 1979 as a nightly special report called America Held Hostage, and the name was changed to Nightline before the end of March 1980, some ten months before the hostage crisis concluded, when it expanded its daily coverage beyond just the hostage story. I think we could find the polling data to confirm that daily reminders of the hostages in Iran contributed strongly to Carter’s defeat in 1980, but Nightline wasn’t the only outlet reporting the facts of that story. If Nightline hyped the crisis in its infancy, it also contributed a lot of great work through the rest of its first 25 years and I give Koppel credit for that.

  3. I cannot dislike Ted Koppel, as he is a footballer (yes he is a soccer player). I was a longtime watcher of Nightline. I like Ted Koppel. I respect Ted Koppel, but all of us who aspire to sit on a high horse must be ready to fall and return back to Earth. How else will we find the broken cuneifrom tablets?

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