Tuesday, June 21, 2005

"St. Luke, report to the newsroom"

For a journalist of any standing in the profession, for a wordsmith with at least a shred of self-respect for what he or she does for a living, the results of a recent poll of the American public has to be dispiriting news.

According to the poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, Americans make no distinctions, or only the slightest distinctions, between Bob Woodward, mainstay of The Washington Post and one of the reporters whose work during the Watergate scandal helped dismantle the Nixon presidency, and commentator Bill O'Reilly, the Fox News pit-bull apologist for the conservative right running roughshod over America.

Some 40 percent of the 1,500 adults who responded to the poll taken in the spring said they thought O'Reilly was a journalist, while 30 percent said Woodward was one, and (it gets worse) 27 percent said talk show host Rush Limbaugh was a journalist. One in five said they considered newspaper columnist George Will to be a journalist.

Displaying a withering grasp of the obvious, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the policy center, told The Associated Press that the results of the poll suggest the public defines the word "journalist'' far differently than those in the press define it. And not surprisingly, O'Reilly leaped into the fray saying that the poll indicated the dawn of a new day in American media, and proclaiming the end of the traditional sources of power and influence in the media (also perfectly obvious to anyone who's watched the network newscasts of the Three Wise Men over the last six months).

Not that we needed another poll to tell us; the Annenberg survey just confirms what we've known for some time: These are grim times for journalism in America. Setting aside the impact of such confidence destroyers as Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley and other fabulists masquerading as journalists, the media's complicity in reporting the war effort from an administration perspective while insisting it remains independent, skeptical and disinterested has led to the worst kind of disconnect: the press unplugged from the people the press purports to represent.

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The gravity of the situation was distilled last month with Newsweek's clumsy mea culpa over Iraq-war related reporting in its Periscope section [see "The Magazine in the Toilet"]. And an earlier State of the News Media poll, released late in 2004 by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, revealed that public perception of the media and the way it performs its mission had fallen to the point where Americans regarded the press as a motley collective of reactionary, self-protective liars and prevaricators one notch above child molesters (I exaggerate there, but not by that much).

Between 1985 and 2002, the Pew poll found, the number who thought news organizations were moral fell from 54 percent to 39 percent. Those who felt news organizations tried to conceal their mistakes rose from 13 percent to 67 percent. And the number of Americans who thought news organizations were highly professional declined from 72 percent to 49 percent.

Americans, Pew found, "increasingly think the press as a whole is motivated by money and individual journalists by personal ambition."

How did it get this bad? Can this marriage be saved? The answer is yes, of course; as Watergate illustrates, all it might take is one overarching constitutional crisis from an administration, a situation reported aggressively and accurately by journalists, to return the press to the good graces of the nation. But there is no escaping the fact that, in a big way, the press has no one to blame for the current mess but ... the press. Of all the books to be found and consulted in today's American newsroom, the Bible cries out for a quick reading. Not the whole book, but one passage in particular.

From Luke 4:23: "Physician, heal thyself ... "

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Enlightened minds can debate when this slide into stasis and public revulsion really began. You can make the case that it started shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States. In that time of high vulnerability, or at least the suspicion of Americans being highly vulnerable, the press collectively jumped on the bandwagon to wave the flag and rally round President Bush, the new commander in chief. Some of that reflexive patriotism manifested itself in the graphic cosmetics the media (especially the electronic media) loves to indulge in.

Within a few days of the attacks, American flags popped up anchored to the mastheads of American newspapers, on the lapels of the anchors, on the home pages of newspaper Web sites, and in the on-air Chyron graphics of hundreds of television stations across America. That purely emotional response in a very emotional time was probably warranted, on a short-term basis. Trouble is, that knee-jerk rush to the colors, which looked to be as much driven by competitive pressures as by any newfound sense of patriotism, set the stage for acquiescing in any number of actions by the Bush administration.

Among the most provocative of those actions would be the efforts by the administration to establish a cause & effect relationship between the events of Sept. 11 and the regime of Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein. There was no linkage then; no linkage has been proven to this day. But the American press had already largely deserted the high ground of analysis and investigation, content even at that early stage to indulge in flag-draped emotionalism — emotionalism the media couldn't conveniently disconnect itself from as the need for more critical, less emotionally driven responses to White House initiatives began to emerge.

The most provocative of those actions happened in March 2003, when the shock-and-awe invasion of Iraq began. When the bombs began falling, you could literally hear otherwise dispassionate journalists being awed by the pyrotechnics loosed on Baghdad. Those same journalists, and their handlers at Media Central in New York, were swept up in the awesome display of American might, and no doubt lulled into thinking (based on projections from their sources at the Pentagon) that this would be a short war, a cakewalk, a nominal conflict that would end with sweets and ululations from the grateful Iraqi citizens.

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The media, not expecting to have to endure the fever pitch of martial patriotism for very long, went along with the White House in ways that are now, in hindsight, an utter embarrassment. It began with the language used to identify and report the war. From the very beginning, the media — print and electronic — went along with the White House shorthand for the name of the conflict itself. What was marginally a "war on terrorism" became "the War on Terror" in news reports — bringing to mind a pleasant if improbable scenario: "Just think, folks," the administration seemed to say, "if we win this, that feeling you get on the steepest part of an amusement-park roller coaster ride will be a thing of the past!"

In presumably independent news reports, those people who were captured by U.S. and coalition forces were not "prisoners." They were improbably identified as "detainees." That substitution of a perfectly accurate, idiomatic and serviceable word for a genteel, bullshit descriptor took place almost uniformly in the press (though sometimes, wire services such as The Associated Press engaged in such editorial insincerities as identifying people as "detainees" in one paragraph of a story and calling them "prisoners" a graph or two later, showing nothing so much as a cheap attempt to report the facts and placate the Zeitgeist at the same time).

Of all the news outlets to gain prominence in the past five years, the Fox News Channel has gained a foothold — some will say "stranglehold" — in the hierarchy of American media. In 2002, the year that the channel overtook CNN for ratings dominance, Fox News' median audience increased by 73 percent, according to the Pew Center. It was roughly at that point when cable television outlets began to sacrifice certain aspects of their editorial integrity and independence in order to hit their numbers on the bottom line. As the war became an unavoidable reality in Americans' lives, the media coverage of that war began to break down along politically partisan lines, with each network doing whatever it could to tack further to the right than its competition. The grim slide had begun in earnest.

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It was almost laughable sometimes. Fox News adopted its "fair and balanced" slogan, the network apparently unable to see just how ridiculous it is, or should have been, for a news network to so loudly trumpet that which should be obvious for a bona fide news organization.

And MSNBC went through any number of changes. In a series of chameleon shifts, MSNBC ("America's Newschannel") brought on (and eventually cashiered) Phil Donahue, talk-show veteran and political moderate; Alan Keyes, erstwhile presidential contender; Michael Savage, rabidly homophobic conservative author, commentator and syndicated radio rottweiler; Pat Buchanan and Bill Press; point-counterpoint hosts and commentators; and others, in a desperate-seeming search to rebrand itself and find the right media mix for a nation that was increasingly restive and, to go by the Republican victories of 2000 and 2004, increasingly conservative.

Former U.S. Rep. Joe Scarborough, a conservative Pensacola attorney, was called up to take the helm of "Scarborough Country" in 2004. And in early 2005, the point-counterpoint approach got a kinder, gentler treatment with the debut of "Connected Coast to Coast," with parallel hosts Monica Crowley from MSNBC's East Coast studios (on the political/geographic right) and Ron Reagan from MSNBC.com studios on the West Coast (on the left).

For some the proof of pandering to an audience perceived to be growing in its conservatism was there in a Washington Times article published in early 2003. The article claimed to quote an internal MSNBC memo noting that Donahue was considered "a tired, left-wing liberal" whose antiwar, anti-Bush sentiments represented "a difficult public face for NBC in a time of war." MSNBC brass denied the memo even existed.

For MSNBC, and for other cable networks, data suggested that rebranding made financial, if not journalistic, sense: Some 40 percent of those watching CNN, MSNBC and Fox News identified themselves as conservatives in 2003, according to a study that year by the Pew Research Center. When such transparently feverish attempts to reinvent oneself are driven more by financial considerations than by journalistic considerations, it shouldn't be a surprise that Americans have less and less faith in the integrity of their press, and make less and less of a distinction between one form of the press and another.

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There is a statement that's been variously attributed to Thomas Jefferson, Adlai Stevenson and Hunter S. Thompson: "In a democracy, people usually get the kind of government they deserve, and they deserve what they get." It's hard as hell to imagine Jefferson saying that; the phrase bears the edgy, retributive modernity of mid- or late-20th-century thought. Maybe it was Stevenson, in a moment of deep cynicism, or Thompson, in a moment of cynical lucidity.

But whoever said it might have gone one small step further.

In a climate of furious rebranding to suit the tastes of a politically-partisan audience; in a time of declining financial investment in investigative reporting; in a period of static numbers of minority journalists in newsrooms and faint-hearted industry efforts to boost those numbers; in a time when American journalism seems more prepared to fall for anything rather than stand for something ... the press gets exactly what it deserves: the inability of the public it serves to distinguish between reporting and rant.
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