Posts about journalism

Dinosaur tears

Dan Rather gets all weepy at a Fordham speech:

Addressing the Fordham University School of Law in Manhattan, occasionally forcing back tears, he said that in the intervening years, politicians “of every persuasion” had gotten better at applying pressure on the conglomerates that own the broadcast networks. He called it a “new journalism order.”

He said this pressure — along with the “dumbed-down, tarted-up” coverage, the advent of 24-hour cable competition and the chase for ratings and demographics — has taken its toll on the news business. “All of this creates a bigger atmosphere of fear in newsrooms,” Rather said….

[HBO documentary boss Shiela] Nevin asked Rather if he felt the same type of repressive forces in the Nixon administration as in the current Bush administration.

“No, I do not,” Rather said. That’s not to say there weren’t forces trying to remove him from the White House beat while reporting on Watergate; but Rather said he felt supported by everyone above him, from Washington bureau chief Bill Small to then-news president Dick Salant and CBS chief William S. Paley.

“There was a connection between the leadership and the led . . . a sense of, ‘we’re in this together,”‘ Rather said. It’s not that the then-leadership of CBS wasn’t interested in shareholder value and profits, Rather said, but they also saw news as a public service. Rather said he knew very little of the intense pressure to remove him in the early 1970s because of his bosses’ support.

Nevins took up the cause for Rather, who was emotional several times during the event.

“When a man is close to tears discussing his work and his lip quivers, he deserves bosses who punch back. I feel I would punch back for Dan,” Nevins said.

Dan, face it: The pressure to get rid of you came from the newly empowered public and from not a few journalists who believe you messed up.

Misery loves company – OR – Safety in numbers

If a storm caused the river by your isolated farm to flood, ruining your house and your work, leaving you homeless and jobless, you’d likely receive no media attention and no extraordinary government help and not much charity from strangers.

But if the same thing happens to you when you are among hundreds of thousands of others in the same situation at the same time — if you are one among a big number — then you will be lavished with media obsession and some of the billions, even hundreds of billions in federal money and many millions more in charity devoted to your plight.

Is that fair? No, logically, it isn’t. But it indicates how driven our society has become to big numbers, thanks first to media, second to politics. This is in a sense an extreme example of the inequality of power law Clay Shirky writes about: The people at the top of any number curve get the attention.

If life, government, and media were fair — if government policy and media coverage were driven by principles rather than publicity — then the lone farmer above would have the same rights to help as the millions driven out by Katrina. Of course, there are added issues caused by this catastrophe: A region’s infrastructure — its roads, schools, utilities, services — were also disrupted or destroyed.

So take another charged example: 9/11. If the families of the heroes and victims of that day had a right to receive recompense from government and charity for their loss — and who will argue with that? — then, it has been asked, why don’t the families of the soldiers killed by terrorists in Iraq or the innocents killed in Oklahoma City or for that matter the doctors killed by anti-abortion terrorists?

But this isn’t about principle. It is about numbers. We pay attention to big numbers. And whose fault is that? Media’s, first and foremost. Part of the reason behind that is obvious: In a world of scarce paper and airtime, only the big news gets big attention and big numbers mean big stories. Part of this is our fault: We watch the big story because of the big numbers. So big numbers make business sense: Big begets big.

Then the politicians exploit the numbers, too, of course. Especially after messing up the rescue and relief on the Gulf Coast, Bush and Congress ran to throw big money at the big numbers of victims: $200 billion is the latest figure we’ve heard. But we haven’t yet heard a substantial debate about how best to use such money: Is it to rebuild New Orleans? Or reimagine New Orleans? To support the building of housing there, as has been proposed? To support the creation of jobs there? To support mortgages and jobs and schools elsewhere in the country, where these people are going?

Whenever numbers grow big, you can count on a big backlash. The other day, I took Marketwatch’s Jon Friedman to task for scolding media because they reported predictions of death tolls that — thank God — apparently turned out to be too dire. And then an AP reporter called following a similar angle. I told him that it is a nonissue. What were reporters to do: Not report what officials said? Question their numbers with no basis in fact to do so? Follow what the officials said with some blanket caveat — “but they could be wrong” — as if we’re all an idiot and didn’t know that already? And what if — God forbid — the numbers turned out to be even worse than predicted? Then how would the reporters look? If the number were smaller or greater, is the story and the tragedy and the need any different? Or is it just the numerical perception, the headline value and political value that changes? And as a practical matter, if the government would not jump fast enough in a disaster where 10,000 were believed to have died, then you could argue that the local officials should have predicted 100,000 to get faster action. Because everybody responds to a bigger number.

This is all a product of mass think from mass media and plaint-by-numbers politics. But to quote Raymond Williams as quoted often by Jay Rosen: “There are no masses, there are only ways of seeing people as masses.”

We see — and use — the victims and even the dead as masses. But, of course, they are a mass of individual stories and today, on the internet, each of those individuals can tell his story. We are coming into the age of the empowered individual: as consumers, as publishers, as businesspeople, as citizens. We have to learn that when we hypervalue the mass, we undervalue each of us. Whether part of a tragedy of huge numbers or a tragedy of one, each of us is the same, just one person with the our own pain and the our own needs. That is the ethic of the individual over the ethic of the mass.

: LATER: David Carr wrote in The Times today about other kinds of exaggeration that came into Katrina aftermath coverage — just as happens with other too-big stories: the reports of rapes and murders in the Convention Center, for example, which came from major media and which I linked to. Fears and stories get overblown. That may not excuse the journalists who reported without verification. But even here, this doesn’t lessen the gravity of the neglect, and that is the real story.

It is a fact that many died at the convention center and Superdome (7 and 10 respectively, according to the most recent reports from the coroner), but according to a Sept. 15 report in The Chicago Tribune, it was mostly from neglect rather than overt violence. According to the Tribune article, which quoted Capt. Jeffery Winn, the head of the city’s SWAT team, one person at the convention center died from multiple stab wounds and one National Guardsman was shot in the leg.

If Geraldo could get to the Convention Center but water bottles and soldiers could not, if one person died becuase of this or five or 10, the story of neglect is still the same.

Schadenfreude as media bias

The Observer reports that in a conversation with Rupert Murdoch, Tony Blair “denounced the BBC’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina as ‘full of hatred of America’ and ‘gloating’ at the country’s plight.” It says that at his confab in New York, Bill Clinton “also attacked the tone of the BBC coverage at a seminar on the media. He said it had been ‘stacked up’ to criticise the federal government’s slow response.”

The BBC’s report on the criticism says:

Earlier, the BBC’s world editor Jonathan Baker defended its coverage to Newswatch after similar criticisms from some BBC News viewers and users.

He said most of its output had been “absolutely down-the-line straightforward reportage”, but added the president had made himself the “figurehead” of the disaster response.

“If things are not going well, he is there to be criticised, and if they were going much better he would expect to take the credit,” he said.

That’s an odd thing to say: There’s plenty of substance to criticize without having to make a “figurehead” as a sponge of criticism.

I haven’t seen the BBC’s coverage, so I can’t get specific in return. But we all saw last week’s Economist cover: The shaming of America. And God knows what other foreign press is saying about us, bringing us down a few pegs. But then again, what did we say about the French when they let their old people whither and die in a heat wave after they had acted so high and mighty about Iraq?

Is the bias anti-Americanism? Or is it a nationalistic bias of knocking the other guy who knocked us? Or is it a journalistic bias of schadenfreude?

Behind the lines

CBS’ new blog bravely, transparently, and wisely invited Jay Rosen to write a guest post and he didn’t waste the opportunity to speak directly to the people of CBS News about Rathergate, a year later.

It’s a pity that the people of CBS News do not speak back.

I fear they’ll fear doing that — and also that they’ll look at the post and see that, unfortunately, trolls have moved into the comments and the discussion there is not deep. That is not helped by CBS’ inexplicable decision to put a 500-character limit on comments (this isn’t TV, folks: bits are not scarce) as well as its decision to shut off comments after 24 hours (time’s no longer scarce, either, guys). The discussion over at Jay’s blog, under the same essay, is much better: more substance, more intelligence, more relevance, more to chew on.

And that says a lot: Jay has built a community of conversation — around what we used to think of as a reputation, or even as a brand — and CBS has not yet done that on its blog (though it is a bit soon for that). But isn’t that interesting: The giant and allegedly venerated institution of professionalism has a tougher time getting a good conversation going than the lone prof with no tangible media assets.

Jay’s post is good but just as with Rathergate itself, the aftermath that’s just as interesting.

Public Eye stares back

Vaughn Ververs, the new blogger at CBS, replied to some points I raised on objectivity, opinions, personal biases, and independence in my interview with him, and then quoted many of you, dear commenters, with responses in turn. Good on him.

The emphasis here is not to express our personal views. If that makes this less a “blog” than some would expect, then so be it. It is worth remembering that this conversation was started based on what Jeff Jarvis and his readers considered important, not necessarily what we considered important. It is exactly this sort of dialogue we will seek to facilitate.

As a group purporting to provide a level of transparency at CBS News, our biases (such as they are) are a legitimate topic of discussion. To that end, the biographies posted here, especially the long version of my own [link here], are intended to demonstrate what some of those biases might be. As with most things, anyone is free to make assumptions based on the information available but we urge caution in doing so. You know what happens when you assume …

The blog gets a bit wordy, as that snippet does at the end. (Imagine me saying that: a case of the pot calling the kettle metal, eh?).

He also addressed my snark about being accompanied by a handler:

Jarvis, and some readers, also made much of the fact that I showed up for our talk accompanied by a “flak” from the CBS News PR office. I confess that the arrangement was slightly awkward for me as well in the sense that it hurt efforts to demonstrate independence from the news division.

A reporter asked me to critique Public Eye but I said it’s just too soon. What blog finds its voice and raison d’etre in a day and a half? I’ll give it more time.

But I will complain that they don’t have an RSS feed, though other stuff at CBS does. Friendly, neighborly tip: Better get one before Winer comes calling!