Friday, January 27, 2006

I get a lot of e-mail at my job as the managing editor for a group of weekly newspapers and my regular readers know that I like to share some of it from time to time. Here’s something I thought was of interest to the blog world as well.

The Press is Good, But Not Good Enough
By Lee Hamilton

These have been bracing times for those of us who believe that an energetic press is key to the health of American democracy. Matters of great importance to this country – the proper extent and reach of presidential power; how money and lobbying affect policy-making on Capitol Hill; the conduct of the war in Iraq – have been getting a thorough workout in the media over the past year.

So this might seem like an odd time to take the press to task for its shortcomings. Yet that is precisely what is in order at the moment.

An energetic press corps sits at the heart of a free society and is essential to the proper functioning of Congress. It helps set the national agenda. It enables people to be heard. It provides a forum for the arguments, discussions and debates that comprise the marketplace of ideas. It acts as a watchdog and makes it possible for the American people to hold those in power accountable.

Yet all too often, journalists and their editors fall short of their responsibilities. Many journalists in Washington rely too heavily on official sources for their information, and believe “cultivating” those sources to be more important than risking offending them. They follow the pack, rather than pursue stories that no one else has covered.

Too often, they try for a spurious “balance” or yield to the tyranny of “evenhandedness,” making two sides of an issue appear even, when in fact they are not. It is most worrisome that investigative reporting is going out of style, and that the press has let slip its oversight role – its responsibility to look into every nook and cranny of government, and shed light on the doings of officialdom.

Perhaps the Washington press corps is getting its legs under it now. I hope so. I want the press to be skeptical, professional, independent, and self-disciplined. I want it to act on the belief that good, accurate, straightforward reporting is the best antidote to cant, complacency, incompetence and dishonesty within the halls of government. Because if the press doesn’t fulfill its role in our democracy, who will?

Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years


I agree with Mr. Hamilton, but what he fails to mention are the commercial pressures that taint and shape what we see, hear and read.

When asked whether or not I think “the media” is liberal or conservative, my response has long been “neither.” When I think of “the media” I don’t think of the reporters on the street (they do have opinions), but rather the owners – largely corporate – whose financial expectations and political agendas have a major impact on news coverage.

The political agenda of those corporations is one of self-preservation and that goal does not always tie into an easily described ideology.

You can control the outcome of events by controlling the choices one has to reach that outcome. Cut the news budgets in the name of profit and you will make an impact on content.

The press is only as “energetic” as its owners allow them to be.

More and more of the national news we are offered is “easy.” It’s gleaned from press releases and news conferences with sometimes too little investigation behind it. This is not the result of having poor reporters or editors, but news budgets that restrict the ability of those people to do their jobs.

And more and more of the lines between what are entertainment, news and punditry are blurring. For example, Bill O’Reilly likes to cast himself as a reporter, rather than a commentator, and too many people chose to believe him.

On the local level, people can pick up the phone and call folks such as myself to ask questions about coverage, but on the national level we’re stuck. Do you think that GE really cares what we thought of The Today Show’s coverage of the study determining which kind of fabric makes a woman’s backside appear larger?

Is that newsworthy enough to be on the top-ranked national morning television show?

14 comments:

Marky Mark said...

Hamilton says the Washington Press Corps is getting its legs under it now, as if they have been too meek. I see them (most of them, with a few exceptions) as hectoring and uncivil. He thinks they strive too often for "evenhandedness" and "balance"? I wish he had given examples. I don't know what planet he's on.

Josh said...

I don't think reporters asking questions are necessarily looking for evenhandedness and balance, but reporters writing stories are looking for the appearance of balance to the point where many stories are watered down so much that they don't facilitate a participatory society, which is the purpose of a free press.

It is, as Mike wrote, a perceived pressure from above in the organization. While publishers and editors might not say, "make sure you please our readers and advertisers -- especially our advertisers -- on the right and the left" in an editorial meeting (though some will), the feeling around many newsrooms is such that stories must pander to everybody, rather than serve to inform them.

Marky Mark said...

Thanks for the insight - but I still don't see the "problem" that Hamilton sees.

Local (Western Massachusetts): Mikey is not afraid to let his liberal leanings shine. The Advocate is definitely not afraid to let their ribidly liberal agenda shine.

State: Boston Globe? I can't imagine any publishers and editors there are subtly forcing the reporters to be more moderate.

National: The reviled Fox News definitely has a conservative slant. What the Fox News bashers won't admit is that the so-called mainstream networks have a liberal slant. Mikey laments the fact that Bill O'Reilly is accepted as a reporter, but fails to mention that Michael Moore is celebrated as an investigative journalist.

Liberals and people on the left (and please excuse me for lumping them all together - I know there are exceptinons, but I think there is definitely a pervasive liberal mindset) see this "problem" because they see the liberal press as just stating the obvious, and being namby-pamby about it. They see what the majority of mass media reports as simple obvious fact when in reality it is just their interpretation of the fact.

Here's my example: NPR report on Bush's polls numbers - One reason given for the sad grade at the time was "the Bush administration's failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina". That is accepted as fact among most liberals that I know. But it is not a cold hard fact when compared wityh historical responses to natural disasters.

There are examples galore of the mainstream media reporting "facts" that are just as opinionated as the "facts" that liberals bash Fox, Limbaugh etc for "spewing".

Hamilton wants reporters to be more aggressive and opinionated. I just don't see a lack of that.

Marky Mark said...

RABIDLY

SRBissette said...

The 'liberal bias' mass media myth is nonsense, Mark. Please, steer me to the Noam Chomsky talk show, I'm all ears! Josh's response rings pretty true, as does Mike's post.

Corporate-controlled media serves its own ends -- which coincidentally coincides with those of the corporate neocons. If the Washington press core were "hectoring and uncivil," they'd be pushing with some force (like Oprah Winfrey did with writer James Frey, current scapegoat of the national zeitgeist), calling politicians and our leaders on blatant lies instead of pussy-footing around the press conferences.

"Balance" and "even-handedness" has been distilled away from anything resembling debate to a dualistic template that 'equates' points of view regardless of the factually validity of one or the other. This has been particularly damaging in 'news stories' on things like global warming -- as if there were "two sides" to present, as in the "evolution vs. creationist/intelligent design" news items.

Pitching polar opposition against its extremities as an anemic arena sport has supplanted anything like meaningful contextualized journalism. When the need for spectacle accidentally coincides with corporate news agendas -- as was the case with Hurricane Katrina -- the mask slips, and we get vivid glimpses of the sordid realities too much of what passes for journalism skirts to maintain the corporate "don't look behind the curtain!" status quo in place.

The wretched numbers in our own elections -- local and national -- demonstrate how little of our "land of the free" population is participating in this democracy. Given the percentage of populations reported to vote in recent Ukranian, Iraqi, and Palestinian elections (against real life-and-death opposition to their voting, including possible death!), our "democracy" is looking pretty fucking frail and pallid.

We are no longer a participatory society, and the numbers prove it. The steady erosion of the free press into an 'infotainment' narcotic has actively fostered such inexcusable complacency.

What planet are you on?

Marky Mark said...

Noam Chomsky might have a talk show if enough people would listen to it. You tell me why he doesn't have one, I'm not stopping him. I think the reason I can't steer you there is obvious.

SRBissette said...

"I think the reason I can't steer you there is obvious."

You're right, it's obvious. No corporate media will fund any sort of ongoing critical analysis of corporate media.

Erik Mann said...

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Marky Mark said...

Thank God he showed up to kick Bissette's ass.

SRBissette said...

That blogspammer? Kick my ass? Why, he isn't even here.

Well, that's gets all three of us a blogspammer each in three days. You're going to have to trigger that Descrambler Identifier Ray, Captain Mike!

Mike Dobbs said...

Mark...here's my difference. I make sure that conservative/Republican stories, etc. get into my papers and their letters get printed as well. I will admit in my column what my "tendancies" are...there is no masking of my beliefs unlike FOX, which claims to be "fair and balanced."

If you asked around various conservative types in Hampden Country, they would tell you I'm a fair guy. Thye won't agree with me, but most of them have no beef with me.

Now I know I'm just a local guy and Hamilton was speaking of national reporting, but objectitivty is an issue throughout the press.

Just how "objective" a story can be relies on a number of factors.

As far as Michael Moore goes, I personally have never viewed him as a reporter. He, too, is a columnist, a pundit. Yes, I like a majority of his stuff (although some leaves me cold) and I think the guy probably has a big an ego as O'Reilly. But I've never heard him describe himself as "a reporter" but O'Reilly does.

Josh said...

The "liberal media" is, in fact, a myth. What is not a myth is liberal media workers. I know a lot of people find academic work to be a load of crap, but the work I've done and read leads to these two findings over and over:

(1) About 70% of people who work in the newspaper industry describe themselves as liberal.

(2) Content studies of newspaper that examine stories, sentences, and paragraphs find that within a small margin of error (generally 3-5%), content is neutral -- on the money.

Some president have gotten preferential treatment, and it seems to be a matter of how the president works with the press. Everybody loved Clinton. Almost everybody is wary of Bush (probably because he called a NY Times reporter an asshole on mic during his campaign).

But by and large, newspaper coverage is basically neutered.

As for TV and radio, ratings go up as more people listen to either vehemently agree or disagree. Fewer people are turning to TV and radio for news, but actually want commentary.

What makes Michael Moore an "investigative reporter" is that he actually searches records and reads laws. He happens to not present his findings objectively. What makes Bill O'Reilly not a reporter is he doesn't do any of the digging. He comments on news.

Something that we need to assume -- and that we tend not to give people credit for -- is that news consumers have brains and they can determine what is fact and what is commentary. Some can't, and some get confused, but most people can, in fact, tell the difference.

SRBissette said...

Thanks, Mike and Josh -- well put, and worth stating -- if only for the record.

If anyone out there reading this believes in a shred of the 'liberal media' myth, read INTO THE BUZZSAW (edited by Kristina Borjesson; Prometheus Books, 2002); sobering & essential book. I also nab the annual CENSORED [...2003, 2004, etc.]: THE TOP 25 CENSORED STORIES (edited by Peter Phillips & Project Censored; Seven Stories Press, annual publication), always worthy reading.

Marky Mark said...

I'll get back to you on that...

Hi, Mikey! From Fabulous ALABAMA!