Media postsTuesday January 26, 2010
Who's Controlling the News? Not Auletta
"You missed it."
I kept thinking of that line from “All the President’s Men” while reading Ken Auletta’s Jan. 25th New Yorker piece, “Non-Stop News: Who’s Controlling White House Coverage?” Auletta missed the story. Shame. I normally like Auletta.
The story for me doesn’t begin until the fifth of 11 sections, the one beginning “Like other American workers, journalists these days are crunched, working harder with less support and holding tight to their jobs” and ending with a quote from Chuck Todd, who, this section tells us, is not only NBC’s White House correspondent and political director, but is busy from dusk 'til dawn with appearances on “Today,” “Morning Joe,” his own (aptly named) “The Daily Rundown,” along with the usual blogging and tweeting from and to various sites. The news cycle is now a cycle in the way that time is a cycle. It never stops. As a result, Todd, and other journalists, have no time for in-depth coverage or even deep thought or analysis. “We’re all wire-service reporters now,” Todd says.
The sixth section is also about how technology has transformed media matters but this time from a White House perspective. “The biggest White House press frustration is that nothing can drive a news cycle anymore,” Republican political advisor Mark McKinnon says. Auletta then goes on to criticize the Obama White House for being too slow and reactive. He criticizes Press Secretary Robert Gibbs because “he rarely asserts control from the podium, to steer the press onto the news that Obama wants to make.” I.e., He’s not telling the newsmen what the news is. One could argue he’s treating them like adults.
So if we’re all wire-service reporters now, and the Obama White House isn’t steering these reporters towards the news, who is? That’s where it gets scary. Auletta writes: “What the press is paying attention to, [former Obama White House Communications Director] Anita Dunn says, is cable and blog attacks on the Obama Administration.” And who’s steering those? Guess.
That’s the story: In an increasingly fragmented, perpetual news-cycle world, who or what is steering the news? That’s even the story in Auletta’s headline, isn’t it? And he still misses the story.
Because much of Auletta’s piece is old news. Has the mainstream media been pro-Obama? Is Pres. Obama too prickly with the media now that the honeymoon is over? Should he be lecturing the media on its faults the way he does? About how the media focuses on the most extreme elements on both sides? About how they’re only interested in conflict?
Early on, Auletta quotes from a PEW Research Report on Obama’s early glowing press coverage:
The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan media-research group concurred; tracking campaign coverage, it found that McCain was the subject of negative stories twice as frequently as Obama. (The study says that the press was influenced by Obama’s commanding lead in the polls—the kind of ‘Who won today?’ journalism he now decries.)
Allow me a sports metaphor. Do we assume that Albert Pujols gets more positive press coverage than, say, Yuniesky Betancourt? Of course he does. He’s a better ballplayer. Our eyes see it, the stats prove it. Unfortunately, politics has no such stats beyond poll numbers and votes. I’m not suggesting that Barack Obama is Albert Pujols; I’m merely suggesting that, in dealing with two political figures, we’re not dealing with two interchangeable blocks of wood. I’m suggesting that the mainstream press cannot pretend that the Yuniesky Betancourts of the political, legal or business realms are equal to the Albert Pujolses of same, without losing as much credibility as they would if they misreported facts. Objectivity is not stupidity. Let me add, not being a journalist, that I have no idea how you work this out within the constraints of objective journalism. But make no mistake: This is an issue for objective journalism. If objective journalism is to survive.
Perhaps more importantly, does the Pew Research Center Project include FOX News and conservative radio in their study of mainstream media? If not, why not? The notion that “the media” is limited to The New York Times goes against what should be the brunt of this article. We’re in the middle of a whole new ballgame.
Auletta quotes ABC’s Jake Tapper on the matter. “This President has been forced to deal with more downright falsehoods than any President I can think of,” Tapper says. Auletta then lists off some examples: “Obama was brought up a Muslim; he was not born in the U.S.; he studied at a madrassa in Indonesia.” How about: Obama is Hitler? He wants to kill your grandmother? He’s destroying the foundation of American society? That’s daily fodder in these venues, and it keeps seeping out, and it becomes the story. Even when it becomes the joke story, on “The Daily Show,” or “The Colbert Report,” it’s still the story. In addressing these falsehoods in an objective matter, or a jokey matter, how are you not perpetuating these falsehoods? That’s the issue. This was the issue in the summer of 2008 and in the fall of 2009. And today. And for 10 pages of prime New Yorker real estate, Auletta misses it.
Unfortunate Graph of the Day
"So [John Lennon] embraced the heady freedom New York offered, leaving his mop-top past behind like a new arrival from a small town, eager to become who he wanted to be. New Yorkers, in turn, saw the city anew through his wide, endlessly appreciative eyes. Sadly, such open-heartedness would prove his undoing in a town that proved tougher than he ever imagined it could be."
— Anthony DeCurtis in "His Kind of Shell-Shocked Town" in The New York Times' Week in Review section, about Lennon and NYC in the 1970s.
- ...leaving his mop-top past behind. By the time Lennon chose to live in NY in 1971, he'd left his mop-top past behind about 5-6 years earlier.
- ...in a town that proved tougher than he ever imagined it could be. Is "tougher" the right word here? How about "more homicidal"?
- ...in a town that proved tougher than he ever imagined it could be. Also, "town"? What connection is there between Mark David Chapman and New York? Almost none. Dude was from Texas, lived in Hawaii. He represented tourists, not New Yorkers, and certainly not New York itself. Odd, odd piece.
The Journalistic Mission of Bill O'Reilly
In Brian Stelter’s article in The New York Times yesterday about the ambush journalism that Bill O’Reilly practices, which a producer of “The O’Reilly Factor” calls “part of the journalistic mission of the show,” and which is compared (favorably) with what Mike Wallace did on “60 Minutes” and (unfavorably) with what Michael Moore does in his movies, O’Reilly, in drawing distinction between himself and Moore, says he does what he does because “there’s no other way to hold these villains accountable.”
You don’t need to read any more.
Quick: What’s goal no. 1 for any journalist? To get the story first. To scoop the other bastards.
What’s goal no. 2? To be as objective as possible in doing this.
Journalistic mission? These villains? Does he know he's sticking his foot in, if not his own mouth, then his producer's mouth?
And what villains? Murderers? Torturers? Bernie Madoff types?
Not exactly. The ambushees include Mike Hoyt, executive editor of The Columbia Journalism Review, who assigned a story on right-wing media to a writer with a supposed liberal background. There’s Hendrik Hertzberg, my man from The New Yorker, who, the Times writes, “was confronted for what Mr. O’Reilly described as taking a ‘Factor’ segment out of context.” (No word from the Times on how Mr. Hertzberg described the incident.) There’s also Amanda Terkel of thinkprogress.org, who organized a protest against O’Reilly.
These are the villains. People who disagreed with Bill O’Reilly.
From what I remember of those “60 Minutes” segments, Wallace and his producers would use the ambush technique, when they used it, to confront either legitimately powerful people and/or crooks. It was a technique unmotivated by politics or personal vendettas.
Michael Moore, when he uses the ambush technique (which is often), uses it to confront legitimately powerful people: U.S. congressmen and CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. His ambushes are, more often than not, motivated by politics but unmotivated by personal vendettas.
Both are examples of the journalistic mission, the journalistic mission, to speak truth to power.
Most of O’Reilly’s targets are less powerful than he is. His ambushes are simply another bullying aspect of his show. It’s less speaking truth to power than power picking on truth.
Weekly, Not Weakly
Leave it to David Carr. After reading about dailies folding left and right, and particularly after reading Clay Shirky's sharp essay last week, the question I kept asking myself and others was: What about alt-weeklies? How are they doing? Can they become like the dailies of the 21st century?
I was particularly interested in locally owned, locally produced alt-weeklies like The Stranger in Seattle — as opposed to those weeklies put out by Village Voice Media: City Pages, Seattle Weekly, SF Weekly, etc. National retread crap with only a few local voices.
So here comes Carr, with his Monday Media Equation column, answering, on a singular scale anyway, my very question. The Austin Chronicle, founder of South by Southwest, is doing very well thank you. Money quote:
“We don’t do gotcha journalism, our coverage is very policy-oriented, and always local, local, local,” [Chronicle founder Louis Black] said. “Even during the Bush years, which were a very big deal here, we never put anybody that wasn’t local on the cover. We don’t do out-of-towners."
The new model?
You Say You Want a Revolution
Clay Shirky has an astonishly temperate, reasoned piece on the future of newspapers in the digital age. The money quote, for me:
It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.
He focuses on newspapers and journalism but I'm wondering how much of his argument can apply to the book-publishing industry and authors. It's my assumption that authors can survive on an iTunes model, because, in theory anyway, they're selling something unique: their voice. It's not like, "If I have to pay for the Times' story in Iraq, I'll just read the Post's, which is free." If you want to read John Grisham, there's really only one place to go.
Anyway check out Shirky. Sober reading the day after The Seattle Post-Intelligencer killed its print edition.
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