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.)

Oh, happy day!

Why, the day they start to show new episodes of television series, of course!  It’s like Christmas without the lines or the bills or the lamenting about what to get everybody on the list because there’s something for everyone.  There are new stories from old favorites, and there are new offerings you can try for free without any down payment beyond your time.

Now, if you’re a Scrooge afoot in the land of TV, just go read a book and don’t bother the rest of us.  I’m not saying it’ll all be great, or even that much of it will be worthwhile.  But right now, it’s all shiny and full of possibility.  Still, I keep these precepts in mind:

Television can teach.  It can illuminate.  Yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends.  Otherwise, it is merely lights and wires in a box.  (Edward R. Murrow)

Imitation is the sincerest form of television.  (Fred Allen)

 Time for the first show–see you later.