Monday, May 07, 2007

Abrogation of Media Responsibilities

The sad and sorry state of US journalism has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time now. We all know that Fox News is little more than an arm of the Republican party. CNN, once a half decent organization, has descended into a sleazy pit with a screeching Nancy Grace and a fawning Larry King. Forget what's happening in the world, let's talk about celebrities, bland human interest stories, and missing white girls.

A few cases stand out starkly. Last month, Time magazine ran with a cover story called "Talibanization", dealing with the rise of extremists in the tribal areas of Pakistan. An important story, surely, and available to Time readers all over the world, with one exception: the United States. Yes, the US edition ran with a cover story on religion in schools. Newsweek did exactly the same thing last September. While the rest of the world read about "Losing Afghanistan" and the return of the Taliban, US readers were treated to a more important and timely story: a look at photographer Annie Liebovitz's new book. And CNN's dirty little secret is that its international edition is far better than the domestic counterpart, broadcasting quality material on world affairs.

As part of this soft-focus agenda, an unwritten rule of political reporting is that you cannot attack "powerful government officials". This is an argument made recently by Glenn Greenwald in the context of an attack on Keith Olbermann for being too partisan in his reporting. With Olbermann's popularity soaring on the back of his crusading zeal against Republican corruption and incompetence, certain journalists are arguing that MSNBC is going too far in mixing reporting and opinion. After all, the argument goes, even Fox does not put Bill O'Reilly out there as a news anchor. Greenwald immediately rips this argument to shreds, noting that the preeminent Fox "anchor", Brit Hume, makes partisan statements on a daily basis. Recently, he concluded a story about Jack Murtha by concluding that the Democrats are not serious about national security. Fine lines indeed!

Hume is a quintessential "loyal Bushie" and yet remains highly respected among his peers. What explains the double standard? It's far too easy to take the bait and groan about an inherent "conservative" bias in the media. No, something far more subtle is going on here. As Greenwald notes:
"What Olbermann actually is, first and foremost, is a critic of the government who adopts an aggressively adversarial posture towards the President and those in power. That actually is -- or at least used to be -- called "journalism." What ought to define the function of political "journalists" is that they exercise adversarial oversight over government officials. That is the only thing that makes a political press worthwhile.

Even if one concedes for the sake of argument that Olbermann is a "liberal," what clearly emerges from all of this is that it is not inappropriate in any way for a "journalist" to express political and ideological views, even the most extreme, offensive and partisan views. The behavior of Brit Hume and Chris Matthews leave no doubt about that.

What is "inappropriate" -- really, prohibited -- is for a journalist to express certain types of political views, in particular the views expressed by Olbermann. That is why his status as a "news anchor" supposedly "stretch(es) traditional notions of journalistic objectivity."

Olbermann's real journalistic crime is that he is too critical of powerful government officials. That is the real crux of Olbermann's commentary -- criticizing Bush officials for their abuses of power, exploitation of fear and terrorism threats for political gain, and blatant corruption. Whereas in the past, exposing abuses of power by our most powerful officials and criticizing corruption was the hallmark of a real journalist, that behavior is now considered out of bounds, the mark of an unacceptable ideologue, not a journalist. "
This is the crux of the issue. Its about a symbiotic network of cronyism, whereby the ruling political elite shower favors on the established media elite in return for a respect veering on fawning obsequiousness. The one thing a journalist is not supposed to do is be disrespectful. That breaks the golden rule of modern journalism. It also betrays the very concept of what journalism is supposed to do. And of course, the Bush administration exploits this weakness to great effect.

The media in other countries is not like this. In fact, political journalists believe that asking tough questions is their job, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them feel. Just look at the kind of hard-hitting European interviews that make politicians squirm and sweat in their seats. Back in 2004, Irish television reporter Carole Coleman interviewed Bush in a style typical of Irish TV. As Bush repeated his talking points on Iraq, Coleman continuously interrupts with comments like "Indeed, Mr. President, you didn't find the weapons of mass destruction" and questions like "Do you not see that the world is a more dangerous place [because of Iraq]?" As the interview progresses, Bush becomes more and more irritated that this lesser mortal dares to interrupt his well-rehearsed screed. Afterwards, the Bush administration complained to the Irish government and cancelled an interview with Laura Bush. But there was nothing unusual about this interview from an Irish journalistic perspective. Or a British one for that matter. After the Coleman interview, a Bush supporter I know told me that he thought Coleman was terribly disrespectful to a head of state. Lost on him was the notion that Bush is an elected representative, not an untouchable monarch. And they claim to be "leaders of the free world"... God help us!

This is the sorry state of American political journalism. It's no wonder that this cosy cabal reacts strongly to those who challenge this status quo, even in jest. Remember that phony outrage from the journalistic community that surrounded Stephen Colbert's performance last year at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner? His sin was skewering the media with lines like ""Over the last five years, you people were so good--over tax cuts, WMD intelligence, the effect of global warming. We Americans didn't want to know, and you had the courtesy not to try to find out."? The establishment media found him rude and unfunny. Because he hit them where it hurt most.


Chris said...

Where was Glenn Greenwald back in 2003 when MSNBC fired Donahue on the eve of the Iraq war and hired Michael Savage, Dick Armey and Joe Scarborough to advance the Bush-Cheney agenda?

Anonymous said...

. . . an unwritten rule of political reporting is that you cannot attack "powerful government officials".

This "unwritten rule" sounds like it was resurrected from the former Soviet Union or East Germany, or is this now a provision of the Patriot Act?

Something I've noticed . . . say in the past 4 years or so, is the reluctance (or downright refusal) of the mainstream media to use the word "lie" when describing a lie. A lie that was exposed long ago and that everyone knows is a lie cannot be called a lie. That would be too rude! Just another example of PC run amok.