Posts about objectivity

Journalists’ votes matter

Media have an Obama problem they’re going to have to grapple with now or after the election: They love him. They hate Hillary. And the gap between the two is clearly seen in coverage, which surely is having an impact on the election.

This, to me, only gives more weight to the argument that journalists should be disclosing their allegiances and votes. Reporters are not just covering the story. This year, they are part of the story. The ethic of transparency that I have learned online and that journalists apply to everyone they cover should also apply to them. I say that journalists have a responsibility to reveal their own views and votes — even as they endeavor to report apart from them with fairness, completeness, accuracy, and intellectual honesty — and we have a right to judge their success or failure accordingly as we also have a right to judge their roles in the stories they are covering.

No, I don’t buy for a second that journalists don’t have opinions. They’re human. To say that they are above opinions is just another means for journalists to separate themselves from the public they serve, to act as if they are different, above us. But journalists couldn’t do their jobs if they didn’t have opinions, if they didn’t have a reason to do this story over that, if they didn’t have a goal. Yet this is the fiction some journalists tell when they try to prove they are opinionless by not voting. As far as I’m concerned, that’s only evidence that they are trying to delude themselves or us.

And this year, the media’s role in the Obama wave is an angle of the story that itself warrants reporting. Says Bill Clinton:

The political press has avowedly played a role in this election. I’ve never seen this before. They’ve been active participants in this election.

Don’t you want to know the opinions of the political press? Don’t you want to be able to judge their reporting accordingly? what makes them think that they can and should hide that from us?

* * *

Terence Smith wrote a dead-on column about the delta between negative Hillary and positive Obama coverage:

The coverage of Hillary during this campaign has been across-the-board critical, especially since she began losing after New Hampshire. . . .

And her campaign has taken the tough-love approach with the reporters who cover it, frequently ostracizing those they think are critical or hostile. That kind of aggressive press-relations strategy may sometimes be justified, but it rarely effective. Reporters are supposed to be objective and professional. But they are human. They resent the cold shoulder, even if they understand the campaign’s motivation.

The result is coverage that is viscerally harsh: her laugh is often described as a “cackle.” Her stump speech is dismissed as dry and tiresomely programmatic. She is accused of projecting a sense of entitlement, as though the presidency should be hers by default, that it is somehow now her turn to be president. When she makes changes in her campaign hierarchy, she is described as “desperate.” . . .

And on Obama:

By contrast, has the coverage of Obama been overly sympathetic? Have reporters romanticized the junior Senator from Illinois? Have they glamorized him and his wife? Did they exaggerate the significance of Ted Kennedy’s endorsement? Have they given him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his meager experience?

Of course they have.

His rise to front-runner is described as meteoric, his speeches as mesmerizing, his crowds as enraptured, his charisma as boundless. Obama is characterized as the second-coming of JFK, etc. etc. It is all a bit much.

On NPR, media watcher David Folkenflik says:

Many reporters admit privately that they feel differently about the two candidates. And there’s a phrase that’s surfaced to described the phenomenon that’s afflicted MSNBC’s [Chris] Matthews: the Obama swoon.

And why should reporters get away with saying that privately? I want a camera in the voting booth with Chris Matthews — he of the too-frequent too-late apologies — to verify the obvious. I want to know how they’re voting.

But some journalists try to evade that legitimate question by not voting, as if that absolves them of opinions and blame. Len Downie, editor of the Washington Post — and by that evidence, a damned good editor he is — has long argued that by not voting he keeps himself pure: “Yes, I do not vote. . . . I wanted to keep a completely open mind about everything we covered and not make a decision, even in my own mind or the privacy of the voting booth, about who should be president or mayor, for example.”

Sorry, but I still don’t buy that and I fear that excuse is seeping down to others in his staff. Here is the Post’s Chris Cillizza — a fine political correspondent himself — arguing that not voting makes him objective:

. . . [O]bjectivity in covering these races means that you stay objective before, during and after the contests. As, or perhaps more, importantly, however, is the obsession among some people to sniff out a reporter’s “secret” political leanings. Time and time again, I find people commenting on this blog and elsewhere accusing me of having a pro-Clinton or pro-Obama or pro-McCain or pro-someone else viewpoint. I know in my hearts of hearts that I don’t have any of those biased viewpoints, but if I did vote — even in a local or county election — it would add fuel to the fire of those folks who think I am a secret partisan.

I have to say I smelled some Obama roses blooming in this from Cillizza on Howie Kurtz’ show:

KURTZ: Chris Cillizza, you could argue about whether this Kennedy endorsement was a big deal, but what a collective swoon by the media — ask not why this was such a big story. Are they totally buying into Obama as the new JFK?

CILLIZZA: Well, you know, I do think, Howie, that in the Democratic Party, people have been waiting for the next JFK. A lot of people thought or maybe believed it was Bill Clinton. And I think Barack Obama is the next obvious heir to that legacy. It’s a powerful story, and I think as much as the media gets accused of bias, in the decade I’ve spent in it, I don’t think it’s bias as much as it is good storylines. And I will be frank — this is a very interesting, fascinating storyline….

If you are looking for the next John F. Kennedy, I believe he is it.

After a line like that, there is good reason to ask where his heart is. You can stay away from the voting booth but that doesn’t make you into the Tinman.

I agree with John Harris, head of Politico, who calls this a tedious argument — “a subset of the most endless and least satisfying debate in the whole profession: Is true objectivity ever possible?” Harris does vote — sometimes.

It is admirable that [Politico colleagues] Mike and Jim cleave to a scientific ideal of journalistic detachment, the way a surgeon cannot tolerate even the slightest bacteria on his instruments. Their piety on this subject is especially notable in an era when traditional lines governing journalism (or even who counts as a journalist in the first place) have blurred, and many new arrivals to the business don’t care at all about old notions of neutrality and fair-minded presentation.

But Jim is right that I find his obsession a bit silly — and a bit self-deluded. . . .

My belief is that being a journalist for an ideologically neutral publication like Politico, or the Washington Post, where I used to work, does not mean having no opinions. It means exercising self-discipline in the public expression of those opinions so as not to give sources and readers cause to question someone’s commitment to fairness.

But Harris turns around and says he didn’t vote in the primary because he didn’t want to declare a party and then have readers make assumptions about where he stands. So he’s pulling the same trick: He’s trying to hide his opinions. Isn’t that a form of deception by omission? Isn’t it at least coy?

I like his scientific analogy but I’ll take it a different way: A scientist surely has desires. A doctor studying cancer naturally wants to cure it; she’s against cancer. That doctor has opinions and beliefs, hypotheses to prove or disprove. But intellectual honestly will demand disproving a hypothesis that is wrong even if she believed it to be true. One can have opinions and still be factual, fair, honest, truthful. Indeed, it is easier to judge that scientist’s work by knowing what she’s looking for.

Steve Baker of Business Week goes one step farther:

I think it’s impossible for a person who thinks about politics, and cares about it, not to prefer one candidate to another. It’s fine for journalists not to broadcast our political views, but why pretend that we don’t have them? What’s important is to be fair. And if we want to keep our views secret, well that’s why it’s good that voting booths have curtains.. . .

I don’t think either Harris or Baker goes far enough. I believe that journalists should vote. They are citizens — and some get mad at me when I refer to amateurs as citizen journalists because they demand the label, too. They are human, too — they have opinons. They also have ethics that demand that they try to be — repeating the list of verities — fair, honest, complete, intellectually honest and I believe most hold to that. But now add the ethics of transparency and openness — and trust in the public you serve — and I believe that especially this year, journalists owe it to us to tell us what they’re thinking. The only thing worse than an agenda is a hidden agenda.

: I didn’t think it was necessary to append this to every post on the topic but judging by the comments, it couldn’t hurt: I voted for Clinton in the primaries.

Off with their headlines

The Cleveland Plain Dealer didn’t know what it got when it hired four local political bloggers to collaborate on a group blog at (which I oversaw when I was at the parent company). They got citizens with opinions. You’d think that would be obvious. In fact, you’d think that was the goal.

But apparently not, for when one liberal bloggers was found to have backed and contributed to a candidate, he was fired. Then the other liberal quit. Then the paper shut the blog. E&P has the story. Here’s the explanation from the paper’s assistant managing editor for online, Jean Dubail:

As most readers are no doubt aware already, Jeff Coryell is no longer blogging on Wide Open. The reason is simple: When we learned that he had contributed to a particular political candidate, we asked that he refrain from writing about that candidate and his opponent on this blog. Our concern was that since Jeff and the other Wide Open bloggers are paid, his views might be taken as those of the paper, which could raise legitimate questions about our fairness. Jeff was uncomfortable with that restriction, so we felt obligated to end our relationship. It goes without saying that Jeff did nothing wrong. His contributions to Wide Open were first-rate. But clearly I should have anticipated this potential difficulty when we set up the blog, and avoided putting him and us in this position. In that sense, the fault is mine.

Well, indeed. The logic of all this is baffling. The paper knew it was hiring opinionated people. But it didn’t want involved people. That is a “difficulty.”

What we’re really seeing is the view of journalism from inside the cloister of the newspaper: Once you take a dollar from the paper, once you take its communion, you are transformed: You take a vow of political celibacy. You have no opinions and if you do, you hold them to yourself, like impure thoughts. You don’t participate in your community but stand apart from it. And you don’t mingle with those outside the walls who speak the vulgate, blog. So the priests of the paper said that the bloggers were sinners. And they were excommunicated.

Perhaps, having heard Luther’s tap-tapping at the door, the paper would have been wiser to reexamine its own assumptions about its world. Perhaps it should have had a discussion about discussion. Wasn’t there value in bringing in the voices of active, opinionated, caring citizens? Wasn’t that why they did it? Wasn’t the transparency and involvement of these people worth examining and perhaps learning from?

Apparently not.

Here’s a telling line from Dubail’s pronouncement on the blogo closing the blog (pinned with Luther’s nail):

We still believe that newspaper and newspaper Web sites need to engage the new media. Our first effort in that direction obviously didn’t fare well, but it would have been a still greater mistake not to make the attempt.

They think this is “new media.” And they think that’s something they need to try. (I would have hoped they’d have come to that conclusion about 12 years ago.) Of course, it’s not just new media. This should be a new relationship. It should be about discovering and joining in a conversation. I saw another sign of this at the BBC the other day when staffers kept fretting about filling a blog, as if it were a show rundown or a blank page. I told them to stop looking it that way and instead to take the advice I’m giving my students: Find the conversation. Join in. Contribute to it — indeed, contribute journalism, answering questions, finding facts, fact-checking the ones that are there. But to do that — beware — you have to talk at a human level with other humans with opinions (who don’t want to talk to a closed door).

So perhaps what the paper should be doing is not trying to impose its definition of “journalist” on any who receive its dollar but instead rethink that definition themselves.

: See also this post from a year ago contemplating this from the other perspective: what’s the line (if any) between activism and media?

Objectivity/impartiality = cowardice, boredom, obsolescence

When we debate journalistic objectivity in America, we tend to talk about the truth of the claim, the self-delusion, the lack of transparency. I am among those who also talk about its obsolescence, now that media channels are no longer scarce. In the UK, when they talk about their synonym, impartiality, the discussion has turned to new judgments and adjectives. The New Statesman calls impartiality cowardice, the Guardian boredom.

The issue that’s raising this age-old J-school seminar topic is the BBC’s dropping of Comic-Relief-like day of programming around global warming.

Asked whether the BBC should campaign on issues such as climate change, [BBC head of TV News Peter] Horrocks told a session at the TV festival: “I absolutely don’t think we should do that because it’s not impartial. It’s not our job to lead people and proselytise about it.” [BBC Newsnight editor Peter] Barron added: “It is absolutely not the BBC’s job to save the planet. I think there are a lot of people who think that, but it must be stopped.”

Acting as if there were no agenda in journalism is itself a deception. Why does an editor decide to pursue and publicize a story about, say, public corruption? Because he thinks corruption is bad — otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story — and he wants to do something about it. He has an agenda. Of course, he has. To act as if he doesn’t is a lie of omission.

Mark Lynnas at the New Stateman pokes a hole in the BBC editors’ hot-air.

If Barron is really suggesting that the BBC should be “neutral” on the question of planetary survival, his absurd stance surely sets a new low for political cowardice in the media. It is also completely inconsistent. On easy moral questions, such as poverty in Africa, the BBC is quite happy to campaign explicitly (as with Comic Relief or Live Aid), despite the claim by the corporation’s head of television news, Peter Horrocks, that its role is “giving people information, not leading them or prophesying”. By analogy, the BBC would have been neutral on the question of slavery in the mid-19th century, and should be giving full voice today to the likes of the British National Party – all in the interests of balance and fairness.

And Peter Preston in the Guardian attacks the BBC’s government-degreed doctrine of impartiality from another angle: He says it’s boring.

When Whitehall handed the corporation its revised charter and system of trust governance, it made accuracy and impartiality bounden duties. . .

The question that matters isn’t yea or nay with alleged fairness and balance, it is where the hell we go next. . . .

But Peter Barron of Newsnight – “It isn’t the BBC’s job to save the planet” – and those top executives who took his side, exalting impartiality, couldn’t see where the issue had got to; they had to frame it once more, through ignorance or timidity, in its original yea or nay state, as somehow politically dubious and therefore untouchable. Yet nothing, in practice, starts there. And the grinding brakes, the clunking change into reverse gear, is not just depressing but deeply tedious. Which is probably the worst thing about impartiality stretched across 12 commandments: boredom comes guaranteed. . . .

Human existence means making choices. Choosing where you start dictates how you finish.

In his blog, Peter Barron argues that it shouldn’t be the mission of the BBC to make us act differently: “[I]s it our job to encourage people to be greener? I don’t think so.” That makes sense; I’m not looking for propaganda or coercion from journalism. Then he adds: “There’s currently huge interest among the public in leading more sustainable lifestyles and we should reflect and explore that.” I agree with that, too, as I do with Preston: The real story here is what do we do next. Then Barron concludes: “But I don’t think it’s the BBC’s job to try to save the planet. Do you?”

There I think we see the corner into which the impartial journalist paints himself. He is looking for cover for the judgments he makes. He says there is interest in the story and so that’s why they cover it. But there are plenty of stories for which there is little interest — such as suffering in various poor corners of the world — yet journalists cover them because they believe these events and issues are important. They made a judgment and that is itself not impartial. Indeed, what I want is more information about what goes into that judgment — more transparency. At the same time, when they give the public what they want about Paris Hilton, it’s called pandering. Is ecological coverage pandering? Now it’s reasonable for Barron to say that it’s not his role to proselytize. But is it reasonable for him to say that he wouldn’t, given the chance, save the planet — and that we wouldn’t want him to? Don’t we want him to expose a terrorist plot against us or a crime against the public trust or a theft from public shareholders? Doesn’t he want to? Is that agendaless only because there’s a law and a bad guy involved? Can they, again, hide behind someone else’s judgment?

The irony for Barron is that he ends up quoting the “Ethical Man,” a journalist who spent a year counting his carbon on Barron’s own show. The name of the segment is thick with judgment: Green is ethical, thus using energy is not. Yet in this blog post from Ethical Man, we see a way to cover the story with both agenda and transparency: He clearly has a viewpoint (and is proselytizing by example, I’d say) but he still seeks to report the facts on the carbon creation (if not impact) of flying (an activity that is being vilified in the more radically green quarters of Europe). So Ethical Man has a perspective and is fairly transparent about it. Given that, he tries to get the facts. And the facts he tries to get are those that the editors believe the public wants to know.

Note, too, that if anybody thinks that Ethical Man is wrong or unfair (for demonizing first-class passengers, for example, and for giving airlines cause to cram more seats onto planes), they can say so. And they do. At last count, there are 230 comments on his post plus some outside blogs pointing in.

And there (finally) is the point: The new architecture of media makes obsolete the reasoning behind the BBC’s (and American newspapers’) futile — and ultimately misleading — claims of objectivity and impartiality. Balance will not come from a reporter or editor thinking he can shut off his bias (and brain) to be impartial. It will not come from a TV news producer filling two chairs on any one issue to be objective.

Balance comes from the link. Balance is the product of the conversation.

Oh, this balance is not as neat and tidy as a carefully packaged story manufactured under a label of objectivity. Life and the conversation are messier than that. But in the long run, it will be more honest and productive than one person controlling a once-powerful pipeline arguing that he was the best proprietor of it simply because he claimed impartiality.

Impartiality/objectivity is not merely cowardly or boring. It is obsolete.

SEE ALSO: Steve Outing on News Corp and green goals.

I still find it odd that news organizations mostly refuse to go beyond their role of strictly reporting on and analyzing climate change news. Helping to avert planetary environmental disaster, I’d think, is a cause worth championing. (To reiterate, I am NOT talking about abandoning objective coverage of climate change; some critics seemed to think that’s what I have suggested.)

The god impartiality

The BBC just released a report on its own impartiality. As I’ve said before, the irony of British media is that the BBC and TV must, by law, be impartial while the press is transparent about its perspectives; in the U.S. the opposite is occurring: the press thinks it is objective while TV is headed in the opposite direction (see FoxNews, Lou Dobbs on CNN, Keith Olberman on MSNBC). Here’s Media Guardian’s coverage; the BBC’s own coverage; and the complete report with its 12 principles of impartiality (my emphases):

1. Impartiality is and should remain the hallmark of the BBC as the leading provider of information and entertainment in the United Kingdom, and as a pre-eminent broadcaster internationally. It is a legal requirement, but it should also be a source of pride.

2. Impartiality is an essential part of the BBC’s contract with its audience, which owns and funds the BBC. Because of that, the audience itself will often be a factor in determining impartiality.

3. Impartiality must continue to be applied to matters of party political or industrial controversy. But in today’s more diverse political, social and cultural landscape, it requires a wider and deeper application.

4. Impartiality involves breadth of view, and can be breached by omission. It is not necessarily to be found on the centre ground.

5. Impartiality is no excuse for insipid programming. It allows room for fair-minded, evidence-based judgments by senior journalists and documentary makers, and for controversial, passionate and polemical arguments by contributors and writers.

6. Impartiality applies across all BBC platforms and all types of programme. No genre is exempt. But the way it is applied and assessed will vary in different genres.

7. Impartiality is most obviously at risk in areas of sharp public controversy. But there is a less visible risk, demanding particular vigilance, when programmes purport to reflect a consensus for “the common good”, or become involved with campaigns.

8. Impartiality is often not easy. There is no template of wisdom which will eliminate fierce internal debate over difficult dilemmas. But the BBC’s journalistic expertise is an invaluable resource for all departments to draw on.

9. Impartiality can often be affected by the stance and experience of programme makers, who need constantly to examine and challenge their own assumptions.

10. Impartiality requires the BBC to examine its own institutional values, and to assess the effect they have on its audiences.

11. Impartiality is a process, about which the BBC should be honest and transparent with its audience: this should permit greater boldness in its programming decisions. But impartiality can never be fully achieved to everyone’s satisfaction: the BBC should not be defensive about this but ready to acknowledge and correct significant breaches as and when they occur.

12. Impartiality is required of everyone involved in output. It applies as much to the most junior researcher as it does to the director general. But editors and executive producers must give a strong lead to their teams. They must ensure that the impartiality process begins at the conception of a programme and lasts throughout production: if left until the approval stage, it is usually too late.

I hear a note of protesting too much. The notion of impartiality comes from monopoly: the need to be one-size-fits-all, except one size doesn’t fit all. What’s impartial, objective, true to one person or community may well not be to the next.

I think a better exploration of this comes from the head of BBC TV news, Peter Horrocks, who in December 2006 gave a speech exploring the fate of the BBC and impartiality in a niche media society: If you make a show or network aimed at one segment of society it is no longer one-size-fits-all; it now has a perspective and so is it impartial? Horrocks’ rhetorical pas de deux was to call for radical impartiality: more voices, more opinions, more perespectives. But this still begs the question: Is impartiality possible? Is objectivity possible?

I always find it necessary in this discussion to say that I’m not advocating that all news be opinionated — that we all become the aforementioned cable newsers — but I do say that we all have perspectives and as hard as we may work to be — cough — fair and balanced, it is still necessary to reveal those vantage points: the ethic of transparency over the god objectivity.

(I think I may be on PBS Newshour tonight discussing this. It has been rescheduled three times, so who knows.)

The fate of the BBC’s impartiality

Peter Horrocks, the head of TV news for the BBC, gave a thoughtful and groundbreaking speech at Oxford trying to update the corporation’s ethic of impartiality. Just as we in the U.S. are challenging our sacred cow of journalistic objectivity, they at the BBC appear finally to be ready to question their own holy write of impartiality.

But the responses are different. In the U.S., many are starting to see transparency as the new ethic and the antidote to the old, outmoded creed of objectivity. Some are coming to embrace the British newspaper model, or at least to recognize that this is how blogs also naturally operate: They state their worldviews and then ask to be judged on the fairness, completeness, and intellectual honesty of what they say. In the U.K., Horrocks is not trying to follow that model from his own backyard, but instead trying to expand impartiality to take in more voices. Here is the nut graph in his speech:

So, the days of middle-of-the-road, balancing left and right, impartiality are dead. Instead I believe we need to consider adopting what I like to think of as a much wider “radical impartiality” – the need to hear the widest range of views – all sides of the story. So we need more Taliban interviews, more BNP interviews – of course put on air with due consideration – and the full range of moderate opinions. . . . So get used to hearing more views that you dislike on our airwaves. This wider range of opinion is a worthwhile price to pay to maintain a national forum where all can feel they are represented and respected. . . .

A more wide ranging and radical definition of impartiality may help persuade those of strong views who are already engaged with the news to trust us more.

I don’t think that transparency and openness are either/or’s. They are, together, legitimate responses to tearing down the castle walls that separate journalism from the community it serves. But Horrocks is not adopting transparency as his answer; he is holding onto impartiality and trying to update it. He is responding to the internet age by trying to open the megaphone wider to more voices — to mimic, indeed, the internet itself. This springs from the BBC’s license-fee-supported mission to supply “a universal news service” even in what Horrocks says is “a fragmented and segregated society,” in which fewer people believe they are being heard or served. So he will endeavor to have them be heard. Done one way — with many new targeted products, which he also proposes — this potentially only makes more echo chambers; done another way — with equal time for all — it becomes an unbearable cacaphony. What stands in the way of either definition of chaos is still editorial judgment (which, I believe, still mandates editorial transparency).

The underlying precept of the BBC that Horrocks chooses not to challenge — because he cannot, or he jeopardizes the very mission and support of his organization — is universality. I think it requires challenge. Can one news organization possibly serve everyone? Should it? I have complained that American newspapers must abandon their one-size-fits-all myth and I say that the internet is imposing on American journalism that British newspaper model of many viewpoints; it is in the debate that democracy emerges. So it’s ironic that the BBC is necessarily stuck with the American monopolistic model; universality breeds impartiality but both are anachronistic. So what Horrocks attempts to do, I think, is simulate within the BBC a more open marketplace not only with more viewpoints expressed in existing products but also with more products to serve more audiences, many of whom he admits have left the BBC and news, which itself challenges the notion of universality.

Thus Horrocks attempts to rebuild universality by building new products to serve various constituencies and he recognizes, face-on, the challenge of doing so without “dumbing down” the news to attract more people to it. He says:

Recent research we have done shows how different the perspective of this audience is from our traditional approach to news. For instance, they find the professional detachment of BBC presenters and reporters, in the face of human tragedy, baffling. They want our presenters to say things like “your heart goes out to them”.

Well, you could just switch to CNN or hire Ann Curry away from the Today Show.

Our research concluded “Whilst much of university-based education is focussed on teaching the ability to divorce emotion from intellect and argue “both sides of the toss”, to this audience such equivocation would seem not just alien but perverse.”

So should we respond to this and other insights into this audience? I can already hear the anti-dumbing down brigade limbering up for the charge. And I’m fully aware of how resistant our current audience is, for instance, to over-emotional reporting. But isn’t it vital, for instance, to encourage all audiences to be interested in global news stories? If parts of the audience find our approach off-putting don’t we have an obligation to change that approach? Isn’t it more important for a public service news service to try hard to get tough stories to audiences that might otherwise turn away from them?

At the start of his speech, Horrocks rejects the journalism of the lecture, which he confesses he was a part of:

If you scratch some broadcast journalists of my generation you’ll discover, barely skin deep, that the reason some of them went into broadcasting was to tell the audience what to think.

Yet he may be replacing that with a journalism of begging: Please come see our news (else we won’t be universal). American news organizations have long been accused of such pandering for the sake of market forces: audience size and advertising. The BBC was supposedly above that because it was supported by government license fees and the near-monopoly it once held in distribution. But if it is to maintain its call to be universal, the BBC must have the audience to prove it. So Horrocks wants to go get that audience where they live. And done properly, there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s called service:

But, above all, this audience wants an agenda that speaks to its concerns. . . . The BBC needs to have a reputation for excellence in its domestic journalism that it rightly has for its foreign, economic, business and political journalism. And that means an unembarrassed embrace of subject areas that have too often been looked down on as too pavement-level or parish-pump. . . . Less frequent rubbish collections that leave unsanitary garbage in the streets, gun crimes that terrorise black communities, rising unemployment partly caused by new immigrants. These stories are real, not sensationalist and we need to tell them with the same vividness we have brought to our foreign reporting. And they need to be told in the accents and through the personalities of reporters that this audience recognises as being closer to their own interests. The days of the BBC talking down to them and trying to tell this audience what to think are over because they can simply switch off or ignore us if we don’t speak to them in their voice.

He must tiptoe on a line between pandering to and ignoring audiences: “We need to make these shifts in tone without, as far as possible, offending our traditional audiences who find the style of BBC News appealing,” he says. In one breath, he apologizes to those he will shock with new programming and to those who ignored his old programming. Hard job.

But I believe it is even harder to try to maintain the myth of the single, shared national experience of media and news: the great same page we’re all to be on. In the U.S., I have said, this allegedly grand, shared experience lasted only from the mid-50s — when network TV killed competitive metro newspapers — to the mid-80s — when the remote control, VCR, and cable box restored choice to media. And the grand experience is shown to be rather a lie by the great openness of the internet, which returns us to what I believe is the natural state of media in a democracy: a square for many voices. Horrocks clearly is trying to create the square via the BBC. He believes in a “society in which there can be common ground. Common ground in information, views and a shared understanding of how to interpret the world.” I see that wish as a vestige of the days when media, public or private, could dominate the debate. The debate is again ours.

What Horrocks wants to build is an ethic of openness not in media so much as in the public. He says that this common ground he wants “cannot now be based on a single set of views about the world. It has to be a shared set of approaches to understanding the world – a willingness to receive information that challenges assumptions, of hearing views with which one disagrees and the ability to debate and interact to form a variety of views about a diverse society.”

So we need to ask what is the best approach to the great democratization of media. Horrocks comes at it, naturally, by trying to open the BBC up. As an American without a BBC and with a prejudice toward independence, I believe the open marketplace of media and ideas will better do that. Yet, of course, over here, the comparable dinosaurs, the private media moguls, are contorting themselves rather like Horrocks to try to stay in the square. They, too, fear they will lose their standing as leaders in the debate. And I say that is good.

But at the same time, all these media machers fear that society will end up poorer for it, poorer in information, news, investigation, and service. And their fears are not wrong. If the BBC and American news organizations mismanage the assets they have — talent, resources, experience, brand, trust — then we will suffer. But the only reason they will do that is if they assume that we do not value what they should value: a watchful eye on the powerful, a voice for the silent, service for our lives.

I believe there is still a market demand for journalism. If you don’t believe that, then you might as well throw in the towel on both media and democracy.

So Horrocks is trying to answer that demand with the tool he has: the BBC. American editors are doing likewise with their assets. But I think they must find new ways to open themselves up, not just to new programs they control but to supporting the efforts the people control — with promotion, training, revenue help — for that is the way to include more voices and viewpoints and serve more communities.

I don’t think Horrocks will disagree. He says at the start of his speech:

Regulators, politicians and lobby groups are often united in just one thing – their desire to tell the public what to think and their determination to make the BBC and other public service broadcasters deliver their messages accordingly. But these interest groups, and those of us who once thought we could shape the views of our audience, are being rapidly out-flanked and indeed ignored by the audiences those groups control.

In this lecture I hope to demonstrate the depth and spread of this anti-elitist revolution but I will show there is still space for journalism that seeks to inform all, even-handedly. But to achieve this new purpose we need to leave behind the desire some broadcasters previously held – to tell the public what to think. Instead we should seize a new purpose – giving the public the information and greater space to think through democratic debate and interaction.

And I will argue that to respond adequately to these audience challenges there must be a far greater range of approaches and agendas in our journalism. BBC TV News will need to adapt massively. “BBC News” may need to become “BBC Newses”.

The question remains: How? Yes, one must open up the BBC, but not just to new interviews from the edges and new programs aimed at the disengaged but to new creators at the center. The BBC, like American news organizations, must find ways to encourage and enable not just debate but also journalism and not just within their organizations but without. The BBC should be helping many “Newses,” not just its own.

* * *

I can’t resist also sharing with you the BBC’s execution of the idea of impartiality, which was even more absurd than American media’s current practices in what they think of as balance:

And what of the journalism that we delivered? How did we interpret the BBC’s key value – impartiality? Well, on arrival we were soon taught how to handle that. In an era of neatly polarised Left/Right views – both domestically and internationally – it was easy to make sure that you delivered impartiality – simply by balancing interviews. A Tory minister balanced by a Labour spokesman. An industrialist with a union leader. An American foreign affairs expert with a CND activist.

And 25 years ago we used to measure impartiality to ensure we were delivering. During election campaigns one producer had the unenviable job of running the stop watches on every political discussion. He’d have three stop watches (because at election times the Liberals or Social Democrats would be allowed on, to make up the panel). The watches would be stopped and started as each speaker began and ended. Towards the end of a discussion he’d issue instructions through the presenter’s ear-piece. “Labour needs another 45 seconds”. The presenter would seek to give the spokesman that time. Uninterrupted. After each interview the minutage would be compiled into magnificent tables that would show incontrovertibly if we were, or weren’t, being impartial. There was healthy internal editorial debate, but little examination of content and agendas from the audience’s perspective. And, apart from the relatively confined programme areas of Question Time and radio phone-ins, there was little audience involvement in our journalism.

: Here is an earlier Guardian column I wrote on the BBC’s role in the landscape of media and journalism.

See also Adrian Monck (no relation) of the City University of London (no relation) on Horrocks’ speech — at first snarking, then considering and then comparing.

Making war look worse

This is a post I just put up on Comments is Free. The discussion there is already lively; if you feel moved to comment, please head over there….

Those bloggers have done it again: They’ve caught a fake used in a major media story.

After Reuters ran a photo last week of black smoke over Beirut, suspicious bloggers noted that smoke isn’t known to rise in incredibly symmetrical bulbous billows. That was clear evidence of Photoshopping, using a tool to “clone” one part of a picture so you can cut-and-paste it over other parts. Someone took this photo, added smoke and made it darker. You can see the before-and-after most clearly here.

The sleuth who proved the hoax was Charles Johnson, the man behind the controversial Little Green Footballs blog and the same man who uncovered the faking of the memos used in Dan Rather’s fateful – for Rather, that is – story about George Bush’s military service. In that case, too, Johnson took the original and the fake the showed how the deception was done by dissecting and overlaying the efforts at technical trickery.

Reuters, however, did not wait 11 days, as CBS did, to respond to the outing. Yesterday, it pulled the photo, apologised, and suspended the photographer, Adnan Hajj. The photographer was already controversial in certain blog circles for taking part in what some contended was a stage-managed presentation of the deaths at Qana.

One wonders why anyone, especially a photographer and journalist, would feel compelled to amplify war. No matter what side you are on, does anyone really need to make war worse?

This morning in New York, I watched a TV interview with the two police officers whose story as the last of too few survivors pulled from the World Trade Center has been made Oliver Stone’s new movie, which opens here Wednesday. Asked whether the movie conveyed their own horror at being trapped for 13 and 22 hours, they said that it couldn’t be made bad enough. Yet that surely did not stop Stone from trying. That is what artists often do when faced with tragedy: they struggle with how to make it bad enough. This is why Elie Wiesel has said that one must not bring theatre to Auschwitz or Auschwitz to theatre; one cannot make it bad enough and – as we have seen in countless movies and miniseries – efforts to make it worse only trivialize the tragedy by unnecessarily over-dramatizing it. And, no, I am not drawing a parallel in any way between any of these events, only between the efforts to amplify.

If this photographer were a dramatist, one wonders why he would see the need to Photoshop reality. Does blacker smoke make the damage worse? Is a dead child in Qana any more tragic if the scene around her is more photogenic?

But, of course, the photographer is not a dramatist. He is a journalist. And that makes the effort to goose up the news both more puzzling and more troubling. I suppose one could argue that these could be the acts of hacks hungry for Page One: it’s simple sensationalism. But I doubt that.

It seems more likely an act of agenda that fits into the current argument about proportionalism in the Hizbullah-Israel war. One side of the argument is, of course, that Israel’s security was violated by Hizbullah, and it has a right to defend itself and to assure that these attacks will stop by disarming or disabling Hizbullah. The other side of the argument we hear now is that Israel’s response is disproportionate, an argument I find puzzling in war, where the disproportion is in winning or losing (I have blogged on this here and here and here). If the effort is not to make war look worse but to make one side in it look disproporationate, then I suppose it makes sense to make the smoke bigger and blacker. It makes sense if that is your agenda.

It doesn’t make sense if what you’re trying to do is report the news.

The other subtext of this incident is one I hope is fading away: the supposed rivalry of blogger v mainstream journalist. There was quite the kerfuffle in the blog world this last week when the dean of the Columbia Journalism School, Nicholas Lemann, wrote in The New Yorker continuing that faux feud (read about it here and here). The professionals in this narrative supposedly say that they are the ones holding the standards.

But then along comes a case like the doctored Reuters photo, where the professionals are the ones violating any standards and the bloggers are the ones catching them at it. Where there’s smoke …