Just Above Sunset
June 27, 2004 - What journalism is and what it is not. A dialog.

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Sent to the News Guy -


The Wolfowitz thing - This is not really insider stuff as the item below has been all over the news.  This is bare bones – there are millions of words on this now.  Christiane Amanpour on CNN last night was not a happy camper.  Pissed off is the term, I guess.  She acknowledged the apology, grudgingly.  Well, she noted one was released.  But then again she’s married to James Rubin – and he was Clinton’s Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs from 1997 to May 2000.  So she’s suspect.  Obviously she’s part of the SCLM (so-called liberal media) and hates the wolf-man.  And he hates her.  And so on….


Any comments on the whole business?  I can only assume the folks at CNN you know, rather than being outraged by the orginal comments, just giggled.  Wolfowitz has become a joke, and the shot of him in the new Moore film, using is own saliva to wet his comb then slick back his hair before testifying to congress, while a cheap shot, nails the lid shut.  He’s toast.


By the way, four or five weeks ago I saw G. Gordon Liddy and Al Franken together on the Matthews “Hardball” show discussing “Air America.”  Liddy said Franken is a long-time friend and has always been welcome in his house.  They get along fine.  Then Liddy went of on Bill O’Reilly – calling him a an egotistical buffoon and an embarrassment to all conservatives.  (Even our friend agrees on that.)  I guess that’s how I feel about Michael Moore.


Anyway, the item -


Wolfowitz apologizes for calling reporters in Iraq afraid

By Associated Press,  June 25, 2004

WASHINGTON -- Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz issued an unusual apology yesterday to war correspondents in Iraq after saying they reported rumors because they were too afraid to leave their Baghdad hotels.


In a letter provided by a Pentagon spokesman, Wolfowitz wrote: "Just let me say to each of you who have worked so hard and taken such risks to cover this story, I extend a heartfelt apology and hope you will accept it."


On Tuesday, in testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Wolfowitz agreed with statements by Representative Jim Saxton, Republican of New Jersey, that the news media's focus on violence in Iraq has eclipsed reports of progress there.


"Because frankly, part of our problem is a lot of the press are afraid to travel very much, so they sit in Baghdad and they publish rumors," Wolfowitz said.  

Received from the News Guy:


I wonder whether Wolfowitz's apology was "heartfelt" or whether he really meant what he said, but then decided he really didn't want to refresh the paintjob of the target on his back.


In either case, he does address a question about the job of "war correspondent" that has been discussed since way back before Vietnam.  During that war, Peter Arnett was famous for being one of those reporters who got away from the Saigon hotels to report his story, and in spite of widespread doubts about his veracity as a reporter later on, he did insist on staying in Baghdad as the bombs began dropping, even as most of those around him chose to leave.


I do think Wolfowitz's comment does show a common misunderstanding of how news is collected.  In fact, a correspondent who wanders away from all communications and out into the countryside may luck out in being an eyewitness to some explosive event, but the danger is that he risks not being there at the vortex into which all information (and yes, also rumors) flow, but also not being in position when news breaks to file anything back to headquarters.  After all, the real story of the war is not so much what happened on some street corner in Mosul today, but what happened in Iraq.


And just sometimes, journalists in Baghdad are in a better position to hear about these things than are the U.S. diplomats and military in country, much less assistant secretaries of some department or other as they sit at a ranch in faraway Texas.

People high up in government -- guys like Wolfowitz, but also Bush -- often make the mistake of thinking that, since they know some things the newsfolks don't, they actually know /more/ than the newsfolks do. They forget about all those times when they were asked as to when they first learned of such-and-such event, and they answered, "Me? Oh, I saw it on CNN."


The CNN folks?  Since they have their hands full elsewhere, I'd guess they probably don't have time to concern themselves with this stuff.


But if it's true what they say, that we are born with our temperament, then there is a certain category of reporter who is born to the thrill of the danger found in covering wars, who thrives on the whistling of bullets just missing their heads, and who bristles at being called "afraid" to do what they think they do best.  I think Arnett is one of them, and I know a freelance cameraman named Carl Hirsch who described that feeling to us over a candlelit dinner one night, far from the bombs and bullets and blood and gore, and I remember thinking at the time I prefer a life in which my adrenaline knows its place and just stays there.


Christiane Amanpour herself is one of these bullets-whizzing-by reporters, or at least was when she worked next to me over on the CNN foreign desk.  One day she told me about her dream of someday becoming a foreign correspondent, disguising herself as a man, and sneaking back into her native Iran to report about the nasty things she believed were happening there.  I didn't bother asking her if she thought that might be a bit too dangerous, seeing that look in her eye and not really wanting to embarrass myself.  And so, here she is today.


Not sure I ever old you about when our boss, Reese Schonfeld (back when we were all at ITNA, before we went to start up CNN) sent Jane to Nicaraugua during the fall of Samoza, mostly to chase exciting war footage, not necessarily to get the story of what was happening to the country.  I was not amused. I told Jane if that's the kind of life she wants to live, I won't marry her.  It wasn't, but since we had never talked about marriage before, the idea apparently intrigued her, and so it got that discussion going.  And so, here we are today.




Bill O'Reilly, and his fellow conservatives not liking him lately: I don't know what that's all about. I've heard Neal Boortz here in Atlanta mention several times on his radio show that, especially after he was a guest on O'Reilly's show, the two can't stand each other.


Michael Moore: I confess that I enjoy his stuff, but sort of reluctantly.  When Jane and I saw "Roger & Me," we thought it was funny but we were annoyed that someone could make a "documentary" and apparently break all the rules of fairness and accuracy.  Then this week, I saw Eleanor Ringel Gillespie's (of the AJC) review of his latest in which she says his movies are often mistaken for "documentaries," which should live up to a different standard than what he actually makes, which are "essays".  I think she's right.  Yeah, he's a far-out leftest guy, but what the hell, it takes all kinds to make a world.  As long as he doesn't pull a Ralph Nader and run for president, I'll give him a break.  (He interviewed Jane on camera once, I think when she was in New Hampshire and he caught her ducking out of the trailer for a smoke. It supposedly screened on C-SPAN late one night, but we all missed it here.)


Sent to the News Guy


Friday evening - June 25th - and I just watched Jon Stewart do his hour-long visit on the Larry King show.


Last week in Just Above Sunset you wrote: I just so wish we could go back to the days when delivering news was considered a sacred public trust, instead of an opportunity to "enhance shareholder value" by being the most popular kid in school. (I caught just part of Michael Moore speaking with Katy Couric this morning, and thought he was right on when he said something like, "You news people are in the privileged position of asking these people any question you want, and going into this war, you didn't do it. You really let us down!")


You should have seen this CNN show tonight.  Maybe you did.  If not, catch a replay.  Stewart took your thesis here and simply badgered and insulted Larry King - in his funny ironic way - for most of the hour.  And Larry DIDN'T GET IT!  Larry knew something was up, but couldn't quite latch onto the ideas.  It was, in effect, Stewart saying in many subtle at not so subtle ways - LARRY!  YOU'RE A JOURNALIST.  DO YOUR DAMNED JOB!  Great stuff on moderating debates and calling folks on what they say - something no one does any longer.  (See Julia Bolger this week admitting she knew, as did almost all of her audience, that Cheney was flat-out lying to her in a nationally televised interview last weekend week and she just said - "Okay."  She let it go.  "I NEVER said that."  There's damned footage of him saying that.  It is fucking famous, for God's sake!)  Stewart talked about why this was what journalism has become - all part of the same large organism.  No journalist is an outsider now as everyone trades away investigating and digging for the news for special access that makes them a bigger gun the next time.  He talked about what journalists should do.  He turned to King and said, "Larry, that what you're supposed to do- YOU!"  And Stewart added, "But I mean that in the nicest possible way."  King looked stunned.


A few times King came up with dumb-ass fluff questions and Stewart shot back, "Larry, I can't believe you asked me that question."  It was DO YOUR JOB! - over and over.  The press has let us down.   Somehow Stewart assumed that King was part of the press.  Is he?


A great night for news junkies.


From the News Guy


Yeah, flipping channels Friday night, I saw Larry introducing Jon Stewart as "My man, Jon," and thought the look on Stewart's face said something akin to, "Lemme at 'im!!!"


Still, as I've told you, although I think Larry King does a good job at whatever it is he does, it's just that I usually find I have something else to do when his show comes on, usually something like sorting my sock drawer, so I switched it off.  For one thing, I hardly ever like to watch public affairs stuff during prime time; for another, I hate call-in shows, at any

time of day or night.  Hate 'em.  (Although I gather he comes on at 6 pm where you are, King comes on here at 9 pm.)


"Somehow Stewart assumed that King was part of the press.  Is he?"


Great question!  In fact, I think that's a more complicated issue than it appears to be on first blush, one that worker bee newstypes today never address, and probably won't for years.


Part of the "press"?  Yes, assuming he still syndicates a column to newspapers.  I think I heard he's no longer in USA Today, but don't know if he's still doing it somewhere else.  But "journalist"?  Now we're treading into muddy ground.


When I started in this business, there was understood to be a clear distinction between a newsman (like Walter Cronkite) asking some newsmaker a few questions, and a talk show host (like Johnny Carson) doing the same thing.  When CNN went on the air, an effort was made by management to balance

the serious "newsers" with a "talker," especially one that came with a live audience (first, Sandy Freeman; later Mike Douglas; and finally, but without the audience, Larry King).  The idea, I think, was to come at the news of the day from another angle, and to this end, I think Larry has been quite successful.


A blast from the distant past: Even most "journalists" of today probably don't know it, but historically, there were "journalists" (that is, "diarists," both coming from the same root word "diurnal," meaning "daily") who wrote columns in newspapers; and "reporters," whose job it was to go out and report on stories for those same newspapers.  Of the two, only the latter could accurately fit the description of "newsman" ("newsperson"? “newstype"?), since the other guys were much more into comment and opinion than reportage.


So forget "journalist" for a second.  Is Larry King a "newsman"?


Nope, not really, not in the sense, as far as I know, of his ever having actually "reported" to a news editor who had the power to cut his legs off at the knees.  Yes, Larry asks verrrry good questions, and has a talent of wheedling stuff out of his guests that real reporters probably couldn't - and for this, in my opinion, his talent should always be respected far and wide - but technically, he's not really a "journalist," at least not in the eyes of those people who are.  And, in all fairness, Jon shouldn't be accusing him of this.


In fact, Larry King is technically about as much a "journalist," in the modern sense of the word, as Jon Stewart is - except that Stewart, unlike King, seems to be guilty of an ideological bias that probably clouds his objectivity.  But from where most of us old-timers sit, I'd guess they bothlook equally like make-believe newsguys.


Okay, so Jon might say in his own defense that his show, for goodness' sake, airs on Comedy Central, and doesn't that tell you something?  I mean, that he's just pretending to commit journalism, but he's just kidding?


Yeah, I suppose so, but how is that so much different from Rush Limbaugh, one of whose faces at one moment insists he's just an entertainer, while moments later, his other face tells us we can't seriously believe anything we see or hear on the liberal so-called mainstream news media outlets?


I mean, is it really and truly the fault of the "so-called mainstream news media" that you live in a country in which most of your fellow citizens get their information from either the late-night comedians or the daytime conservative talk-jocks?


So maybe Larry wasn't the one who didn't get it, maybe it was Jon?  No, scratch that - likely it was both of them that were missing the big point.  Meanwhile, remember this well: when you live in a free country, especially one with a free press, you inevitably end up getting what you pay for.


And this will be continued…


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
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