The Media: Truth Telling and Its Difficulties
If you are not reading this using slow dial-up, go here and watch this - video (Windows Media Player) or video (QuickTime). This is the commentary delivered on MSNBC by Keith Olbermann, Thursday, October 6 - where he does a pretty good job of channeling Edward R. Murrow in his glory days. It seems Olbermann took the movie seriously, and he signs off with the movie's title - "Good Night, and Good Luck." That was Murrow's signature.
Many think this is a must-see. It's an amazing callout - even if cynical and careful news folks may scoff. But calling bullshit what it is helps now and then. Television should do more of it. CNN maybe shouldn't, but this is refreshing. But then, maybe Olbermann here tries to hard. Maybe it's just pretentious - a cheap imitation of a long-dead honest man. Take a look.
Or see Dan Froomkin in a special to washingtonpost.com here -
The traditional media has been slow to come to grips with the American public's distrust and dislike of President Bush - sentiments clearly reflected in opinion polls dating back well over a year.
Almost alone among the network newscasters, MSNBC's Keith Olbermann is channeling that sensibility. Channeling it - and amplifying it.
In fact, the increasingly shrill Olbermann is fast becoming the Howard Beale of the anti-Bush era: He's mad as hell, and he's not going to take it anymore.
His newscast-ending "special comment" yesterday was a doozy.
At issue: The sorts of rhetorical excesses in Bush's campaign speeches recently handled (with kid gloves) by such mainstream journalists as McClatchy's Ron Hutcheson and The Washington Post's Peter Baker - and on which I've been harping for ages, most recently in my "Bush's Imaginary Foes" column. [Click on the Froomkin link for links to those.]
What apparently set off Olbermann in particular was when Bush recently described a vote against his warrantless wiretapping plan as being the same as saying "we don't think we ought to be listening to the conversations of terrorists" - and when Bush said of the Democratic leadership: "It sounds like they think the best way to protect the American people is - wait until we're attacked again."
Here's Olbermann yesterday: "The president doesn't just hear what he wants. He hears things that only he can hear.
"It defies belief that this president and his administration could continue to find new unexplored political gutters into which they could wallow. Yet they do.
"It is startling enough that such things could be said out loud by any president of this nation. Rhetorically, it is about an inch short of Mr. Bush accusing Democratic leaders, Democrats, the majority of Americans who disagree with his policies, of treason…
"No Democrat, sir, has ever said anything approaching the suggestion that the best means of self-defense is to 'wait until we're attacked again.'
"No critic, no commentator, no reluctant Republican in the Senate has ever said anything that any responsible person could even have exaggerated into the slander you spoke in Nevada on Monday night, nor the slander you spoke in California on Tuesday, nor the slander you spoke in Arizona on Wednesday … nor whatever is next …
"But tonight the stark question we must face is - why?
"Why has the ferocity of your venom against the Democrats now exceeded the ferocity of your venom against the terrorists?
"Why have you chosen to go down in history as the president who made things up?"
Powerful stuff - and the whole thing is appended below.
The reaction from the Just Above Sunset virtual salon - the small email discussion group that stretches from Hollywood to Paris - led to the underlying issues.
From the high-powered Wall Street attorney -
Actually this has become Olbermann's sign off and (since memory does not stretch back to Murrow's time for the majority of Americans) he presently owns it.
It should be further noted that his cadence and delivery are fairly faithful to that of Murrow's. It may be a cheap trick, but I suspect it is more passionate than that. It is a tribute to a man of impeccable honesty and integrity.
So there was a mixture of, perhaps, cheap theatricality, but also an underlying passion for cutting through the crap.
From the internist in Boston - "I liked it too."
From Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta -
I like what he said, too, and I like that he said it, but I do wish he could have done it in less than 11 minutes and 10 seconds. Also, I sort of like how he said it, although sometimes he seemed to climb way too high up on the horse. But I do admire his guts for being one of the only people saying these things. Unfortunately, his words won't inflict the thunderous damage Murrow was capable of, especially in this day and age when anyone with an opinion is just dismissed as someone with an opinion.
What I wish is that one of the networks would take the points Olbermann makes and do a half-hour special that looks honestly at the facts - on whether the Constitution is under attack, and also on whether any Democrat in elected office has ever said any of the things that Bush claims they have. The fact that no news outlet is doing this is proof to me that none of them understand the function of a free press in a free society.
From the marketing professor at the business school in upstate New York, taking a break from his graduate students -
I WISH a credible Democrat - WORTHY of national leadership - would stand up and proclaim the emperor's no clothes for what they truly are! THAT's what we REALLY await!
But yes Rick, I agree the mainstream media have totally caved on responsible journalism issues.
Did people see the September 11 Koppel special on the Discovery Channel, where he's Programming Director now, his counter-programming the night ABC aired its 911 movie debacle? HE took on dilution of citizen's rights to privacy in the name of the witch-hunt on terror with a documentary followed by town meeting forum with respectable stage guests. MUCH better TV than ABC was offering that night!
THEN on night two of the ABC movie - you recall - ABC allowed themselves to be "movie interrupted" by Bush's speech at 9:00 (movie part deux ran 8-11). Charlie Gibson even stepped in - middle of the fiction - to segue to Bush live in the oval. I was never so disappointed in a seemingly credible news figure!
But he came out of the entertainment division to sit at his desk! My fault for putting trust in a likeable morning show guy with a Princeton education!
Smoke still burns here... see what you touch off with this Murrow piece?
I DID put Clooney's movie into my permanent home collection and forced my nineteen-year-old daughter to watch it!
Well, the issue seems to be truth-telling. So what is the function of a free press in a free society?
As for Olbermann - he was speaking on the least-watched of the three cable news networks. They'll try anything. But if one day they actually get a real audience, they'll also become a cash cow, and the parent corporation - NBC-Universal out here (the Canadian family, the Seagram folks, and the French, Vivendi, are out) - will want to milk that cow for all it's worth, and play it safe, and will shut him up.
There are trends. The same day Olbermann had been so bold the Tribune folks fired the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, as noted here. The message - the newspaper exists to generate money, and more each year, and while award winning journalism is nice, it's kind of beside the point -
Jeff Johnson, the publisher of The Los Angeles Times, was fired today after refusing last month to go along with cutbacks at his paper ordered by The Tribune Company.
The company asked Dean Baquet, the paper's editor, who had also resisted the cuts, to stay at The Los Angeles Times, and he has agreed to do so. Colleagues said he saw an opportunity to start fresh with a new publisher and to make his case for why the staff should not be cut back as much as Tribune has proposed. But one colleague noted that Mr. Baquet still retained the option to leave.
David D. Hiller, publisher of The Chicago Tribune, has been named as a replacement for Mr. Johnson.
Scott Smith, president of Tribune Publishing, based in Chicago, flew to Los Angeles and fired Mr. Johnson this morning.
"Jeff and I agreed that this change is best at this time because Tribune and Times executives need to be aligned on how to shape our future," Mr. Smith said in a statement.
In a memo to the staff this morning, Janet Clayton, an editor, wrote: "Sorry to tell you that we are told that Jeff Johnson is out as publisher of The Los Angeles Times."
Mr. Baquet and Mr. Johnson last month said publicly in the pages of their newspaper that they would not draw up a budget plan for cuts that Tribune, based in Chicago, had ordered. They included increasing the paper's profits by 7 percent, or about $17 million.
A newspaper, of course, generates revenue through the sale of print advertising and subscriptions, and now online services. Think of it as a cash delivery system. That's its purpose, to deliver profit. The content before, after and around the advertising is of somewhat secondary importance - it's just the "hook" that gets people buy the thing or subscribe. It only needs to be "good enough." The journalists thus mistakenly thought they were more important than they actually were. At least that seems to be how the parent corporation sees things.
This was mentioned last week in the item Truthiness, where the rumors were that the Tribune folks were going to sell of the Times and their other newspapers and go private. Billionaire Ron Burkle, business leader Eli Broad and Hollywood mogul David Geffen were each interested, and the cost cutting thing was at the core - whole swaths of folks are gone, and the current editors were standing up to the parent company. They just didn't want to fire any more reporters to improve the bottom line. What's the point? And the founders of the paper, the Chandler family, holding the biggest block of Tribune stock, didn't want the newspaper turned into an empty shell - the Chandlers sold Times-Mirror, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times, to Tribune in 2000 and have three board seats. But it seems the shoe dropped.
The marketing professor at the business school in upstate New York put it nicely - "There had been wind of privatizing the Times again, but alas - money-speak wins once again. Send in a new body from corporate!"
That's about it. But didn't Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, say that no news outlet now seems to understand the function of a free press in a free society? If it is not what the Tribune folks claim, to make money for the shareholders, what is the function of a free press in a free society? Perhaps he should write a piece on that.
Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, who was one of the guys who started CNN back in the eighties and whose wife is an executive there now, thinks not -
I'm not sure that what I would say deserves a whole column. It seems so obvious to me that I have a hard time finding the words without repeating myself, or at least saying what I've said over and over, here and elsewhere:
When I started my career in journalism (1968), television news didn't make money, but that was actually a good thing. The business was still coasting along on the fumes exhaled only decades earlier by the founders of broadcasting in our country (namely William Paley and David Sarnoff), who all but proclaimed that nobody should begrudge our making millions from use of the public radio frequencies, just as long as we never let the commercial dollar overwhelm what everyone saw as a "public trust" - objectively informing Americans of what was going on in their world.
That all changed years later with their descendants realized that they actually could (and, therefore, should) make money off of news after all. I think you're right about MSNBC, that things might be different if those people were actually making huge bucks, since too much money seems to be the thing that sullies everything else. But maybe CNN shouldn't do this, you think? I disagree. For one thing, doing the right thing for once might cause such a public fuss that more people might actually tune in to see what's going on.
The Los Angeles Times situation is a good case in point - except that, unlike the Paley-Sarnoff case, it doesn't involve publicly-granted broadcast licenses. The problem with that newspaper is not that it doesn't make money - as was discussed in exchanges last week, newspapers have always made money. It's my understanding (from the public radio show "Market Place" last night) that the Times has been averaging a healthy 25% profit; the problem is that the Tribune is used to its papers turning closer to 35%.
Also, like so many other companies these days, Tribune stockholders are not expecting a 7% increase in actual profits just this year, but for every year hereafter. The local Times management has argued that doing this hurts the quality of its news coverage and does not serve the community; the bosses at Tribune say "either take orders, or take off."
I think the people and leaders of Los Angeles should kick up a stink and complain that we don't need some Chicago outfit coming here to set up a money-printing machine at the community's expense, and then send all the money back to Chicago. I wish the locals would start a boycott of the paper until Tribune stops being so greedy and starts taking the local needs more seriously. It might not work but it might just focus America's attention on how it is losing its soul.
I know it's not a good idea that they pull the paper's business license, but maybe someone else out there, someone with a good conscience and a willingness to survive on profit margins as "low" as 25% - after all, don't most successful businesses aim for about 10% - anyway, I wish someone would start a new paper out there and hire away all the good folks from the out-of-town rag.
But to reiterate my original point up top, the real bottom line is that there is a job to be done in informing citizens about how their leadership is threatening the Constitution, and it's a job that nobody seems to be doing.
Well, there's no money in it.
And there is no point in linking to all the items out here on the Los Angeles Times thing - there are far too many - but it looks like most of the top folks will be quitting, going to other papers and magazines. There's talk of a mass exodus of those with experience and reputations and the big awards, and the new Tribune guy says he's fine with that. His job is to increase revenues, and if the paper becomes fluff - well, fluff sells. The decision has been made. It may just turn into a fat Penny Saver, with cool display ads, a fine comics section and celebrity gossip. Heck, the circulation will probably go up.
Where do we go to find some source that provides information on what our leadership is doing - information that hasn't been neutered or hidden or sanitized or slanted, if it's there at all, by those watching the profit margin and making sure it's growing? There's Olbermann with his tiny audience, scheduled against Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, and no much else - just corporate news subsidiaries trying to make enough of a margin so the parent organization doesn't pull the plug entirely.
It's like it's London in 1727 again - the year of Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Gay's Beggar's Opera and Pope's Essay on Man. You have to turn to the satirists to get a sense of what's really going on, and that may be a shame.
Of course, some of it is rather good, as in this, a video clip from Jon Stewart's Daily Show on Comedy Central.
It gets down to the basics. What exactly is the president's job? This is a devastating string of clips of the president explaining, without much comment, except for some logical questions as to what does the man mean when he says his job is to explain to the people what his job is, and "my job is to do my job." It's laugh out loud funny, and really depressing.
Yeah, Swift was like that too.
Click on the link and take a look, and then note what Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, says -
Assuming the conservatives are right in thinking that government should be operated more like a business, and then we hire somebody and for the next six years he spends more time telling you what he thinks his job is than he does actually doing his job, shouldn't we have the right to fire him? You know, give him a parachute and a script about his "wanting to spend more time with his family," then just gently shove him off the plane?
I mean, I've worked with dudes like this. They bring him in like he's the golden boy who's going to save the company, then he screws up everything he gets involved in, then gabs us all to death at the water cooler! No one has the nerve to tell him the real score, but that doesn't matter because he's not listening anyway. There's an old saying that "time wounds all heels," but you know that truism won't kick in until after we've all totally lost our sanity, because this loser has two years left on his contract! Can't management just offer him an early buy-out so we can get a head-start with his inevitable replacement?
Or maybe, to put it in showbiz terms, we should have just subcontracted the presidency out to one of the TV networks, so if he didn't grab the ratings, they could have cancelled him after 13 weeks.
Of course that's not how things work.
And as for the Los Angeles Times changing, see this - the guy they brought in from the parent company is buddies with Ken Starr, Chief Justice Roberts and worked for Reagan, devising the current conservative agenda. More than money is speaking. And he has a new toy.
John Amato and Mark Groubert - "Last night David Hiller, from the Chicago Tribune came into town to replace Jeffrey Johnson and Times Editor Dean Baquet because they 'publicly opposed a corporate demand for a stringent cost-cutting plan last month.' In other words they were fired. Johnson would not bow down to the right wing Chicago Tribune."
The Chicago Tribune is right wing? No one pays attention out here.
They seem suspicious of this from the front page story in the Times -
His background has been varied, including a stint as law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, two years at the Reagan Justice Department (where his colleagues included current Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani …
Yeah, the man worked with the new Chief Justice and for Reagan's Department of Justice back in the eighties. And he co-wrote the famous Reese Memorandum that put laid out Ronald Reagan's most conservative agenda, like immigration proposals that were rejected - the internment of illegal immigrants after Carter left office. And he worked with Ken Starr on getting Bill Clinton good. But that was a long time ago. He's here to make this paper make a lot more money. This will not turn into the west coast version of Reverend Moon's Washington Times. It won't sell. This isn't Chicago. We'll get Paris Hilton stories, box-office returns, and guacamole recipes.
And some of us will watch Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart.
What started this whole conversation -