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 Volume 2.2  This View’s Guest Column September 16, 2002 


         
   
Shooting Down Media Arrogance
   
         
         
    Susanna Cornett    
         
   

It’s not very sporting to shoot fish in a barrel, but sometimes it’s fun. In that spirit, I thought I’d just make a few comments about an article on the end of the 9/11 love between the media and the public, by Alex S. Jones in Editor & Publisher on Wednesday. Jones is director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University and host of the PBS TV series “Media Matters,” which tells you most of what you need to know. But humor me.

The headline tells you immediately that Jones doesn’t get it:

Why Do Many Readers Hate Us Again?

Actually, Alex, they never stopped. They just, in a wash of patriotism, gave you a little slack, an opportunity to redeem yourselves from decades of increasing smarminess and lies. You blew it.

The newest polls about the press are discouraging enough to make even H.L. Mencken weep. The public, which had admired us in the months after Sept. 11, has turned against us again. Nearly half those responding in the most recent Pew Research Center poll seem to think that we “don’t stand up for America,” and a majority believe we “don’t care about the people we report on.” Generally, polling numbers have gone back to pre-9/11 levels.

The reason people believe those things, Alex, is because it’s true. Any day you think that journalists do stand up for America, read the NY Times. As for “caring about the people you report on”? I don’t know that “caring about” is as important as “not thoroughly screwing them at every opportunity”. It’s a case of actions speaking louder than words — I think this question would be more accurately stated as “not caring enough about the truth to present information fairly”. And of course there’s the “how did you feel when you saw the plane hit the tower and knew your husband wasn’t coming home?” questions you ask of weeping widows. Sometimes, Alex, we don’t have a right to know. And when you dig for readership or ratings by kicking the corpse… it’s hard for us to feel, you know, cared for.

This seems undeserved, given the torrent of money that has been spent by news organizations after 9/11 (despite the advertising drought).

Can’t buy me lovvve… looooovvvveeee… can’t buy me looovvveee!!

Sorry, channeling the Beatles there for a moment. It’s telling that your evidence that journalism stands up for America and cares about “the people” is how much money you spent on 9/11 coverage. “We spent millions of dollars even when we didn’t have advertising to fill the space! We showed we cared! What more do you want from us??” If you don’t understand that “caring” means “treating us respectfully and fairly”, not “fought like hungry dogs with us as the bone for what advertising dollar was there”, then I can’t help you.

And it is in spite of the risks run by scores of reporters to cover a war in Afghanistan that was often more dangerous for journalists than for GIs.

This leaves me breathless in its audacity. We should love you because reporters died covering the Afghanistan war? I’m sorry it happened, but that is the risk they ran for a story — they made a voluntary choice to do it. I admire the courage of those who covered the story and just did their job; I can’t comment on whether the risks they took were reasonable or if they crossed a line somewhere that put them at greater risk. Certainly I don’t put Daniel Pearl in the category of “taking foolish risks”. But none of them — none of them — deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence with Mike Spann, or the other soldiers who went there to serve their country. Your comment shows such condescension and arrogance , such disrespect for the military and misunderstanding of the relative roles of military and media, that really nothing I can say would give greater proof of why you and your comrades in “arms” are often vilified.

So why have we lost the public’s high regard?

See above. You lost it because you’re arrogant, condescending, whiny, unfair and unpatriotic. Shall I go on?

Does the public have our number

Yes.

or does the public misjudge us?

No.

And what should we do now?

Turn over your assets to Fox News and beg absolution in the public square.

The public loved us most in November, when flags rippled on the corners of TV screens and from on-camera lapels.

That’s right. Our love for you is proportionate to the number/size of flags you display. Really. It has nothing to do with what you’re covering, how you’re presenting it or whether it’s even true. It’s all about the flags. I mean that.

It has nothing to do with the fact that for a while most of you were human, and trying to come to grips with what the rest of us were. That the liberal naysayers in your midst were reluctantly silenced by the sheer horror of what was done to us. Nope. Nothing to do with that. It was the flags. Once you were allowed to wear them, that is.

Journalists were asking few tough questions regarding civilian bombing casualties and civil liberties

Yes, while you were pandering to us and to the military by not covering the war honestly, we loved you. Once you started covering it truthfully, and forcing us to see the burgeoning casualties by the brutal honesty of Marc Herold’s accounting of the numbers, we turned on you like dogs. Dogs! We always reject tough questions. Where’s my can of mixed nuts? Law & Order is on.

and the American military was rolling to a stunning victory in Afghanistan.

At least you admit that much.

Despite the tragedy of Sept. 11, we had a lot of good news to cover, and even pieces on the tragic aspects of the story seemed to forge a common sense of outrage and purpose.

That’s right, as long as you covered the good news about terrorists killing thousands of our fellow citizens, we were fine. Thanks for caring. Want some mixed nuts?

The more thorny elements tended to be put aside until a later day.

Uh huh. Define “thorny elements”, please. Best I can tell, for you that means “questioning why the terrorists felt the need to attack us, and deciding we’re at fault”. Or maybe, “why we don’t roll over for the Euroweenies” or “why we don’t respect the fairness and statesmanship of an organization that chooses a known dictator, murderer and terrorist to oversee human rights for the world”. Alex, hon, as far as I’m concerned those thorny elements can be put aside for, well, no day at all! Just abandoned unilaterally! Oh, I forgot, you hate unilateral don’t you? Unless it’s unilateral condemnation of the US.

This spring and summer, that day came. The triumphant story ran its course, and the what-really-happened story began to be covered, with disquieting results.

You mean, you were lying to us for months? You weren’t telling the truth? Tsk.

We started to get reports that there were significant civilian casualties

From your buddy Marc Herold? You might want to check here for more info on him.

and serious questions began to be raised about the wisdom of an invasion of Iraq.

Only around the water cooler at the NY Times. And in Ivy League schools (like Harvard) where everyone sucks in the advantages of living in the US and spews out venom for our way of life. Or at a tax-supported broadcasting company. Or in the halls of Congress where the Democrats thought they found a way to make themselves seem less impotent. Sorry, boys, you’re still limp as a wet dishrag.

Darkening the news atmosphere further were the stories of Enron Corp., Global Crossing, and the betrayal of shareholders. The market fell. The news from the Middle East had seldom been worse. These past six months have not been a happy time on the news pages.

The sky is falling! The sky is falling! The winters are getting bad in Afghanistan! Help us, heellllpppp…!!!

Oh, sorry, I ran out of mixed nuts. Thankfully you haven’t. Yes, the economic stories were bad news. But we don’t really hate the messenger unless he gloats. You gloated. Scum.

So, has the public simply returned to its pre-9/11 attitude when the press returned to its normal adversarial role as the news itself turned bad?

No, the public pulled back your slack when you showed you didn’t deserve it.

When the lapdog turned back into a watchdog?

You were really sick about those months when the media toned down the US bashing, weren’t you? Lapdog indeed. The better question is, “When did the mad dog’s remission into sanity come to an end?”

No doubt that is a big part of the drop in our approval rating. But we would be letting ourselves off the hook too easily to believe that the problem lies entirely with the public’s distaste for us whenever we simply do our job. There are some questions that we tend to ignore that we should, instead, take time to ponder.

Yes, yes! There are questions you should ponder! Oh, wait, for a brief, almost frightening moment, I thought you were getting it. But then I read on.

Is wanting public approval pandering or is public approval something worth trying to win? What did the public see in us after 9/11 that is worth struggling to preserve? Were we simply more human and accessible, less confrontational and negative? Can we do our job well and still be human and accessible — and not so confrontational and negative?

You equate having public approval with pandering. That’s very enlightening, because you’re assuming that the approval comes only with your willingness to shape the news toward our expectations or preferences. What you’re not getting is that public approval comes with fairness, accuracy and a willingness to see the good in America on your part. We want to be pandered to about the same way we want what you do now – howling after stories like a pack of mad dogs, keening in your eagerness to rip up American values. You know why we are disgusted by your coverage of the anniversary of 9/11? Because there is no sincerity behind it. It’s a play, a television script written with an eye to what will draw the most viewers. The problem is not our vacuity — it’s your efforts to milk our sorrow to your own ends. The problem is not that you’re confrontational and negative. It’s that you cynically play us toward your own ends and arrogantly believe it’s not just your right, but your responsibility.

Is being overtly American in our reporting wrong?

No. What’s wrong is being dishonest. You can be overtly American and still be honest. Try it sometime.

What does it mean to be an American journalist, as opposed to being a journalist without a national perspective, such as at the BBC?

Whoa! When did the BBC become an ideal? I suppose it’s better than Reuters. All journalists have some perspective, so if not national, then what? Liberal? Global? What values do you espouse? Does moral equivalence become the order of the day? That’s the evidence I see. Separating from a national perspective means feeling you can trash the US without guilt. Be my guest. Just move to France to do it. And don’t lie to yourself that divesting your national perspective makes you any less a partisan. It just shifts your allegiance to another entity. Like the UN. Or your own liberal philosophy. Expect more hate, Alex.

Where is the line between flag waving and simply reacting as an American?

This of course assumes that flag waving isn’t “simply reacting as an American”. I would say it is. But, again, you’re illuminating your viewpoint. That’s fine — hang yourself. You’re doing better than I am anyway.

There are genuine assaults on the press now under way that make these questions especially urgent. The Bush administration is taking unprecedented steps to limit access to public records, and the Freedom of Information Act is in real jeopardy.

Now we get to it! All this has been leading up to an assault on the Bush administration. Thank you, Alex! There might be efforts to shut down access — which you don’t detail, you just state — and many times that’s a bad thing. But you are not a privileged creature, Alex, and you don’t deserve access just because you want it. Checks and balances work both ways. And maybe some information doesn’t need to show up in our media. But you’re not done yet, are you?

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made many Pentagon officials afraid to be seen speaking to journalists

Yeah, it sucks that you can’t blare our war plans to our enemies, doesn’t it?

and lately the FBI has been conducting a scorched-earth search for the source of leaks on Capitol Hill.

With the level of competence the FBI has shown lately, this might actually result in more leaks from Capitol Hill. But never mind that. The point is, you’re annoyed because, again, you can’t get your hands on our military secrets so that you can tell the world and denounce the US even more vociferously – and then smirk “I told you so” when plans fail because you leaked them. No, no, there’s no reason there for the average American family to find you deplorable, just because they may lose a son or daughter in the military because of your arrogant need to “get the story”.

Two recent best-selling books, Bias and Slander, have accused the media of everything except abducting children.

Actually, I wasn’t impressed with Bias, and haven’t read Slander, but I’ll take your word for it. They didn’t accuse you of abducting children, but we the people are sick of your selling fear about abducted children to increase your audience. Do you think that might have had an impact on your ratings? Nah, me either.

Various interest groups have tried to intimidate news organizations into tailoring their reporting to satisfy a particular political perspective.

Groups other than leftist ones, you mean. Because they don’t have to intimidate you into it, you tailor your reporting toward their agenda just as a matter of course. I don’t hold with any intimidation, but you might want to consider what you’re doing that may make these groups you’re pointing to feel that they have to use intimidation to get their side heard. Isn’t that how it’s done? You don’t decry intimidation, you try to understand what you did to cause someone to be aggressive toward you? Or doesn’t that work when the object of the intimidation is your behavior that you don’t want to change, rather than our whole country whose values you do want to change?

I suppose I would also have to know what you mean by “intimidation”. Is that, perhaps, blowing up a newspaper office? Or would that just be someone accusing you of bias because you weren’t fair in your reporting? I seem to remember that truth is a defense.

Coverage of the Middle East, for instance, has made news organizations a target of both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups.

Ah. That’s who you mean. You’ve been a target of pro-Palestinian groups? Why, you weren’t biased enough in their favor? Maybe you should get Marc Herold on the case.

The point is that we need the public’s support, now more than ever. We need for the public to understand that it is not unpatriotic to want government officials to leak information. That’s how we — and our readers — find out about what Washington is really up to.

So now it’s patriotic for government officials to leak information. Funny how it wasn’t patriotic of Linda Tripp, when our Highest Official was conducting national affairs and, um, a more local one at the same time. Funny how it wasn’t patriotic any time Clintonian information was leaked. No, it’s only patriotic if it’s revealing information that shores up your preconceived ideas about how wrong the Bush administration’s policies are. I personally think that elected government officials need to keep their mouths shut and do their jobs, not pander to you. If they have accusations to make, there are avenues to do it. You are not the only protector of our freedoms, Alex, or often even the best one, as much as I think the media is essential to freedom.

We need the public to care about access to documents.

We do care. And when the access is used appropriately we applaud — like when a newspaper in Florida found missing children the state department for children and families had lost and been unable to locate. That was journalism as watchdog, and doing it up right. Whining about how public officials aren’t allowed to do your scut work anymore isn’t in the same league.

We need them to believe we are acting on their behalf when we fight for such things.

We would believe it, if we thought there was any chance that it was true.

And we need the public to understand that while journalism is not often perfect, that doesn't mean that it's calculatedly slanted and biased.

We don’t expect journalism to be perfect; we expect it to be fair and as accurate as possible, without limp-wristed moral equivalence. And I actually agree with you that a lot of times it’s not calculatedly slanted and biased — it’s even scarier than that. You honestly think you’re in neutral, middle-of-the-road territory when you’re actually dripping off the outer edge of leftist rhetoric. Your America isn’t my America. You might want to ponder that.

With the problems that we face, we dare not simply shrug and say, “The public’s attitude be damned.”

Is this an admission that you have in the past? So your coverage has generally been about what you think is right, using judgment developed within your own closed system, holding yourself up as smarter and more insightful than America as a whole? Maybe it’s your arrogance that’s part of the problem. Ever think of that?

We need, instead, to spend some time figuring out what we can honorably do to nudge those polling results back up. The stakes for us, and for the public, have never been higher.

Alex, let me make a suggestion. If you want your polling results to improve honorably, then do something truly radical: be honorable. I know it’s a stretch, and something new for many in the lofty heights of elite media, but you might find that fairness, accuracy, respectfulness and honor for the Constitution and American values will get those poll numbers up pronto. And that’s the goal, isn’t it? To get those poll numbers up. We wouldn’t want you to do it because it’s the right thing to do, now would we?

(NOTE: I’d like to make a disclaimer. This article is so full of hooey it had to be dismantled. But I do think that many journalists do an excellent job, and much of the news coverage in this country is pretty straightforward. However, the tone of the industry is skewed, and on many important subjects like national security and social policy the default position is a liberal one.)

cut on the bias
September 6, 2002

© Susanna Cornett 2002. Used with permission.

   
         
    Webpage © ELC 2002    



 Volume 2.2 This View’s Guest Column September 16, 2002 





The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.

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