Those Pesky Lines Between News And Commentary
November 29, 2010
By Roger Aronoff
In a commentary in The Washington Post on November 14, Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s Nightline for 25 years, analyzed the modern news landscape in a piece titled “Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news.” In it, he bemoaned the loss of a unified view of the news, a nightly perspective we can all agree on. Koppel made clear the world he longs for: “…we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers. We’re now a million or more clusters of consumers harvesting information from like-minded providers.”
Koppel started out his article—which had a different title in the print version, “The case against news we can choose”—making the same point I made about the recent incident with MSNBC and Keith Olbermann. Olbermann was suspended for two days from being on the network after it was revealed that he had given the maximum political donations to three Democratic candidates. Koppel described Olbermann as “the most opinionated among MSNBC's left-leaning, Fox-baiting, money-generating hosts.” The absurdity is MSNBC getting all high-minded about Olbermann having made political donations, when he is clearly on their network to act as a political partisan. Koppel, and I, wondered what sort of journalistic avoidance of the appearance of partisanship was violated by the “unabashedly and monotonously partisan” Olbermann. “It is not clear what misdemeanor his donations constituted. Consistency?” Koppel asked.
But then Koppel seems to confuse and mingle some issues that aren’t really related. Back in the day, the national news on the three broadcast networks was 15 minutes a day when the 1960s began, and 30 minutes a day when the decade ended. The only national newspaper was The Wall Street Journal, which was primarily a business publication. It was a decade later that national TV news moved out of its dinner time box. ABC took to the airwaves after the late night local news broadcast with daily coverage of the hostage crisis in Iran , which became Nightline. After about four months of being all about the hostage crisis, they began covering other topics.
That was followed closely by CNN and C-SPAN, extending news coverage around the clock to people who were getting their TV through cable, rather than by radio or TV waves being beamed out. It was nearly a decade later that opinionated talk radio came on the scene following the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, a Federal Communications regulation that had existed since the late 1940s demanding equal time for opposing views on all broadcasters who licensed airwaves for radio or TV broadcasts. Then came the Internet, and cable news beyond CNN. The days of Walter Cronkite telling us, “And that’s the way it is,” were gone.
Koppel is not the first to long for those days, when we all supposedly were on board with the same set of facts. But the fact is that there really was no one to keep them honest. Accuracy in Media came along in the late 1960s just for that purpose, the first to identify itself as a “media watchdog.” And the media weren’t nearly as “objective” as Koppel recalls. Just because they weren’t quivering their lip, Olbermann style, or speaking in mocking tones and voices, doesn’t mean they were shooting straight. Bias can be by omission just as easily as by commission. And it can be based on carefully selecting quotes to support one’s position, and by heaping ridicule or scorn on those with different views. It can be by mischaracterizing and mislabeling the intentions of groups or leaders like Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, and treating them as revolutionary heroes or liberators.
Koppel’s critique clearly hurt Olbermann’s feelings. We know that because Olbermann went on another of those crazy rants, where he gushed about how much he is just like his heroes Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and even like Koppel, though Koppel seems to have lost his way. Their finest moments, Olbermann argued, was when they were showing their liberal backbone and standing up to some evil conservative or another. And it wouldn’t be an Olbermann rant without linking Republicans and Nazis in the same sentence. And yes, of course, MSNBC is a real news organization, while Fox makes up its stories, and it all happened “organically” and he was there for every “step of the way.” And of course Koppel stood by while Bush lied us into war, and tortured away. Are those opinions, or facts? I guess that depends on the definition of opinions. And facts. Olbermann clearly cannot separate the two. If it’s his opinion, he believes it’s a fact.
In the end, MSNBC buckled under Olbermann’s pressure, according to an article by Howard Kurtz in The Daily Beast. Olbermann threatened to take his grievance public, on Good Morning America, and the network caved. They had been talking about a suspension of weeks or months, but instead made it for only two days. And they didn’t dock his pay. Nor did they demand a letter of apology they had asked for. The network kissed Keith’s you-know-what. Didn’t want to offend their golden boy. The article also makes clear the degree to which many of the staff at NBC and MSNBC disapprove of Olbermann: “From the moment Olbermann was found to have donated money to three Democratic candidates, there has been a deepening sense of anger and frustration among his colleagues, according to interviews with eight knowledgeable sources. These sources, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the situation, say that several of NBC’s front-line stars, including Tom Brokaw, have expressed concern to management that Olbermann has badly damaged MSNBC’s reputation for independence.”
Koppel goes on to say in his article that “The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic.”
He continued, “Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be.”
This is what is so galling to Olbermann—the equating of the two networks. Koppel got it right when he said that “We celebrate truth as a virtue, but only in the abstract. What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts—along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.”
He made a big deal of what he described as the fact that news had been a “loss leader” for the networks, and their big entertainment arms, and that CBS’s “60 Minutes” changed all that. But Jack Shafer of Slate.com wrote a persuasive rebuttal to that notion, showing how hugely profitable news networks had been for a long time. Shafer writes that “The myth that network news didn’t make money owes its origin to artful bookkeeping…” He cites a 1965 Time magazine article that says that “NBC News’ nightly news program, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, brought in an estimated $27 million a year in network advertising revenues, making it NBC’s highest-grossing show. CBS News’ evening broadcast, anchored by Walter Cronkite, collected an estimated $25.5 million.” Again, those facts can be stubborn things, or interpreted differently. Koppel answered back on National Public Radio that he was repeating what the networks claimed. He said in the same interview that Olbermann’s perspective is “a little screwed up.”
The fact is that today, we all are consumers of news, and have more places we can go to find news. People should read The New York Times, and The Washington Post, but they should also read The Washington Times, National Review and the Wall Street Journal, as well as some reliable blogs. They will see that there are certain facts that we all agree on. For example, the unemployment rate is 9.6%. But does that really tell the story?
The reality of news today is that there are many, many sources of it available.
I, too, bemoan the loss of more newsmen covering foreign affairs. But the reality is that it forces people who care about it to dig out sources, usually on the Internet, that over time they come to trust. The bottom line is that we are living in the Wild West of news, talk, entertainment, sports and game info, and there is no turning back. The answer is for people to become responsible consumers of news and other information relevant to their lives.
The reality is that, as maddening as the news media can be, and as coarse as the national dialogue has become, we are better served by the many voices that now make up The Media as opposed to some idealized memory of “That’s the way it is.”