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.)

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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.)

Hard economic truth for $2000, Alex

If only that were the figure—the real issue on deck in Washington, D.C., the issue that drove last week’s election results, is economic recovery: when will the economy get stronger, when will job growth get stronger.  It’s the issue that all of most of the nation’s journalists largely ignored, except for predictable emotional pitches.  Alan Mutter recently pointed out the reasons why: the economy is a hard story to tell, and it has nothing to do with easy stories like who is the new president and what will he do, and why do we think he’ll do it, and what do the polls say about what the people think about what he’ll do.

…the myopic press stuck to covering the inside-the-Beltway story of the day – health care, Afghanistan, Supreme Court picks – instead of zeroing in on the things that really mattered to all but the very wealthiest Americans.  Things like: Will I keep my job? What will I do if I get fired? Can I keep my house? Will I be able to send my kids to college? How can I afford to retire?

It’s anybody’s guess if the myopia will be cured soon; the prognosis is not encouraging, but there’s always hope.  There are some trying to sound the alarm: Mutter points out Paul Krugman at the New York Times as one good example (and notes that the good professor is, in fact, not a journalist in the usual sense of the word, but an economist).  I’ll give kudos to Loren Steffy, the very good and very readable business columnist at Houston’s Leading Information Source.  He’s written an excellent summary of where we stand, and it’s not pretty.  Quoting the Congressional Budget Office,

“Unless policymakers restrain the growth of spending substantially, raise revenues significantly above their average percentage of (gross domestic product) of the past 40 years, or adopt some combination of those two approaches, persistent budget deficits will cause federal debt to rise to unsupportable levels.”

Some of the people crying about the national debt these days come off as wacky, but there is a scary kernel of truth in that cry and our government is going to have to address the problem—and blindly rubberstamping an extension of tax cuts followed by another round of collecting campaign donations from lobbyists is not the answer.

The national economy, at its core, is subject to the same rules as your household economy and mine.  If you spend more than you take in, you go into debt; reducing your income doesn’t magically translate into higher revenues; you pile up enough debt and most of your payments are going to the interest and very little to principal, and you never get out of debt.

I’m not saying you and I, or the government, should never borrow money, although it would be sweet not to have to.  But you borrow money to buy a house or a car; sometimes you have to charge to your credit card, like when the extra thousands it takes to buy a replacement air conditioner are not just sitting there in your savings.  But you can never borrow enough to repay all of the principal—ask Bernie Madoff.  At some point you have to bite the bullet and make unpopular choices.

Texas Monthly’s Paul Burka writes today about how the economic rescue plan known as TARP catches flak as an example of big government run amok, despite (a) the fact that it was dreamed up and implemented during the Bush Administration, allegedly a conservative regime that believed in small government, and (b) is costing less than one-tenth of the advertised $700 billion.  TARP was the best thing the administration could come up with to save the whole economy, and if some of the bad guys who caused the collapse got caught up in the rescue then we’re going to have to learn to live with that.

What will Congress and the president do to get this country’s economy headed in the right direction?  I hope more news agencies commit the resources to dig into the question and produce some journalism that will help the economic illiterati like me understand what’s going on.

For that to happen we need more of them to adopt the idea Jack Shafer discusses today in Slate: we don’t need journalists to be unbiased in the sense of not having an opinion on issues, we need more who are honest and curious and hard-working and are committed to using an objective process to reach some verifiable conclusions.

As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their 2001 book, The Elements of Journalism, traditionally, it was the journalistic method that was supposed to be objective, not the journalist. As long as the partisan journalist comes to verifiable conclusions, we shouldn’t worry too much about the direction from which he came.

This will require an agreement that there are—as a…well, as a matter of fact—certain verifiable truths, and abandoning the current craze of dismissing as biased any “facts” that don’t conform to one’s current opinions.  How about we start with a little optimism about each other on that score.