Submitted by: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger
A lynchpin of the idea of America has been the meme “freedom of the press”. It is specifically mentioned in the First Amendment and many have declared it essential as a bulwark against tyranny. The Constitution, however, was written at the time when it took little expense to produce a newspaper or a one sheet broadside informing the people about one’s point of view. It was a time that had no media except for the print media and so “the press” as it existed then played a central role in informing the citizenry about the important issues of the time. From 1704 on the regular newspapers and magazines in the colonies had begun to charge for advertising, but the price of a paper still was the most significant revenue stream. While press freedom always was impacted by the major advertisers a paper had, the impact was quite minimal for more than 150 years, most importantly because each newspaper reflected its publisher’s point of view and that was the raison d’etre for the publishers. Then too, one could publish independent leaflets (broadsides) that could also sway the public discourse. Print media, which mainly included newspapers and magazines held sway as the conduit through which most Americans learned of the doings of the world and from which they formed their opinions politically. This “monopoly” last until the late 1930’s when the CBS and NBC radio networks started developing correspondents to go overseas and cover the world descending into war.
Depending on which side you were on the tradition of American journalism was a long and proud one. It played a significant role in the American Revolution and continued to do so for long afterward. The “free press” almost always took sides in that certain publications were known for their views and from what point on the political spectrum they saw the world. Investigative reporting was a proud American tradition, protected in the main by our Constitution and exposing the dark underside of America’s dream. The reader either is aware of, or can easily find instances where such reporting made a difference in the “people’s view” of a given issue and so I won’t detail the history except broadly. Sometimes, such as in William Randolph Hearst’s manufacture of the “The Spanish American War”, this press freedom was used in service of private interests. At other times with journalists like Lincoln Steffens; Ida B. Wells; Ambrose Bierce; Upton Sinclair; and Jacob Riis; to name a few, the public was informed of corruption both public and private in a long tradition dating back to the founding of this country. Whether one agreed, or disagreed with the information source, one could depend on the fact that given the already obvious point of view of the journalist/reporter, what they were reading was indeed a nuanced version of the facts that at least properly developed one side of the issue. The advent of first Radio and then Television supplanting the print media as the source of information for most Americans led to a trend in so-called “objective journalism” that has resulted in reporters/journalists/newsreaders presenting “both” sides of a dispute, without insight or context. Its’ my contention, as I’ll explain, that this has become very dangerous to the idea of an informed electorate and has resulted in sensationalistic bombast on a given issue, rather than intelligent debate allowing the public to make informed judgments as to where they stand.The idea for this blog came to me a few weeks ago after hearing about the controversy that erupted after Chuck Todd, NBC’s News Director had a discussion on the MSNBC show “Morning Joe”, with Ed Rendell, former Governor of Pennsylvania. The significant portion was this:
“MSNBC host Chuck Todd said Wednesday that when it comes to misinformation about the new federal health care law, don’t expect members of the media to correct the record.
During a segment on “Morning Joe,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D) speculated that most opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been fed erroneous information about the law. Todd said that Republicans “have successfully messaged against it” but he disagrees with those who argue that the media should educate the public on the law. According to Todd, that’s President Barack Obama’s job.
“But more importantly, it would be stuff that Republicans have successfully messaged against it,” Todd told Rendell. “They don’t repeat the other stuff because they haven’t even heard the Democratic message. What I always love is people say, ‘Well, it’s you folks’ fault in the media.’ No, it’s the President of the United States’ fault for not selling it.” http://videocafe.crooksandliars.com/heather/chuck-todd-not-his-job-point-out-lies-abou
In the aftermath of more than 150,000 people signing a petition in protest of Todd’s belief, he was still somewhat nonplussed by the reaction he had caused. In truth he was clueless because from his perspective and from the perspective of all of the corporate news media in this country just presenting both sides of an issue meets their journalistic obligations and they have no duty to inform the public when clear misstatements are being made. I’d originally thought when I planned this piece to go into a long history of why this once honorable profession has fallen on hard times, but my preference is to cut to the chase. The broadcast and digital media has become the most important source of educating the public as to the issues of our time. I say educating specifically because as I see it the purpose of including the press in the First Amendment was the understanding of our founding Fathers that in order to maintain this new type of government they had invented, there was an overarching need for an informed public.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Reading the First Amendment in context its aim is to ensure a public informed enough and active enough to redress any grievances they might have with potential government tyranny. From their perspective, in their era, the freedom of the press was the mechanism for ensuring that the public was informed. With the advent of the public’s information being filtered through large information entities, that are run for profit by extremely large corporations, the duty to inform the public on the issues has devolved into merely reporting the naked contentions of either side, without the need to provide context. Thus though Todd knows and has admitted that the Affordable Care Act has been wildly mischaracterized by those opposed to it, he feels no duty to inform the public of that mischaracterization or any of the mistruths associated with it. From his perspective that is the job of the Administration and they are losing the battle simply because the President has not “sold it” properly.
Todd’s view reduces journalism to mere reportage of the various statements made about an issue and the coverage of the “horse race” aspect of election campaigns. It allows vastly unqualified people of either party, to run for and attain office based merely on their ability to craft a message or to sell themselves. With people of this mindset reporting the news is it any wonder that our political system has become a circus based on the principle of advertising and public relations? I seriously wonder why anyone would bother to get a Journalism Degree any more if this is what Journalism has become. Regarding the central mindset that encourages this phenomenon NYU Journalism Professor and Media Critic, Jay Rosen wrote a blog analyzing the basics. It is called: “He Said, She Said Journalism: Lame Formula in the Land of the Active User” and he writes:
“There I am, sitting at the breakfast table, with my coffee and a copy of the New York Times, in the classic newspaper reading position from before the Web. And I come to this article, headlined “Ex-Chairman of A.I.G. Says Bailout Has Failed.” I immediately recognize in it the signs of a he said, she said account.
Quick definition: “He said, she said” journalism means…
- There’s a public dispute.
- The dispute makes news.
- No real attempt is made to assess clashing truth claims in the story, even though they are in some sense the reason for the story. (Under the “conflict makes news” test.)
- The means for assessment do exist, so it’s possible to exert a factual check on some of the claims, but for whatever reason the report declines to make use of them.
- The symmetry of two sides making opposite claims puts the reporter in the middle between polarized extremes.
When these five conditions are met, the genre is in gear. The he said part might sound like this:
Mr. Greenberg asserted that he would have reduced or at least hedged A.I.G.’s exposure to credit-default swaps in 2005, when A.I.G.’s credit rating was reduced.
“A.I.G.’s business model did not fail; its management did,” he asserted.
Followed by the “she” said…
That provoked another scornful counterattack from his former company, saying that Mr. Greenberg’s assertions were “implausible,” “not grounded in reality” and at odds with his track record of not hedging A.I.G.’s bets on credit-default swaps.
I had read enough of the Times coverage of Mr. Greenberg to wonder why the editors would run something so lame. Their business columnists have been (excuse the expression) kicking ass on meltdown coverage, including A.I.G. But here there was no attempt to assess clashing truth claims, even though Times journalism was available to do just that. Instead Hank Greenberg got to star in a game of “you say black, I say white.” http://archive.pressthink.org/2009/04/12/hesaid_shesaid.html
Mr. Rosen wrote that blog in 2009 and four years later nothing has changed. In his blog he went on to describe the advantages, to the press, of this type of reporting:
“Turn the question around for a moment: what are the advantages of the newswriting formula I have derisively labeled “he said, she said?” Rather than treat it as a problem, approach it as a kind of solution to quandaries common on the reporting trail. When, for example, a screaming fight breaks out at the city council meeting and you don’t know who’s right, but you have to report it, he said, she said makes the story instantly writable. Not a problem, but a solution to the reporter’s (deadline!) problem.
When you kinda sorta recall that Hank Greenberg is a guy who shouldn’t necessarily get the benefit of the doubt in a dispute like this, but you don’t know the history well enough to import it into your account without a high risk of error, and yet you have to produce an error-free account for tomorrow’s paper because your editor expects of you just that… he said, she said gets you there.
Or when the Congressional Budget Office issues a report on ethanol and what it’s costing us in higher food prices, the AP reporter to whom the story is given could just summarize the report, but that’s a little too much like stenography, isn’t it? So the AP adds reactions from organized groups that are primed to react.
This is a low cost way of going beyond the report itself. A familiar battle of interpretations follows, with critics of ethanol underlining the costs and supporters stressing the benefits. Of course, the AP could try to sort out those competing claims, but that would take more time and background knowledge than it probably has available for a simple “CBO report issued” story. “Supporters of ethanol disagreed, saying the report was good news…” gets the job done.
These are some of the strengths of the he said, she said genre, a newsroom workhorse for forty years. (Think it’s easy? You try making any dispute story in the world writable on deadline…)”
In the end it comes down to the truth that these types of journalism make the job of the reporter/news writer much easier. The other big advantage is it keeps you out of hot water with your bosses and leaves your work immune from criticism. However, in its wake it leaves an uninformed electorate and a news media more interested in poll numbers than it is in reporting the facts. Most Americans lead very busy lives and keeping themselves informed of the news is low on their list of priorities. Given the difficulty entailed in really obtaining the facts on a particular issue, is it any wonder how really uninformed the electorate in this country is? My point here is not pro or con health care, although some comments will no doubt go there. My interest is in whether you think this mode of reportage is either fair, or valuable in the creation of an informed public. My opinion is that it is a travesty, but your may have a different perspective.
Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger