Friday, October 22, 2010

The Leaning Towers of Media

When I studied journalism a decade ago I was taught that a journalist's job is to report the facts without opinion, without prejudice.  I remember a class exercise in which my instructor had us read sentences and pick out words that could indicate the writer's position on the subject.  Is there a difference between someone 'fleeing' and someone 'leaving?'  Is the word 'bizarre' objective?  I learned that the subtlest word usage, or twist of phrase could take a news reporter beyond his scope of telling just the truth.  I used to do that exercise while watching television news with my husband, pointing out the opinion-filled adjectives, and unnecessary tacked on bits.

That exercise is harder to do these days.  Not that journalists are being more careful about insinuating their bent into their stories, but more that the craft of news reporting has moved significantly away from truth telling towards position taking.  Now, viewers and readers are being asked to make the distinction between journalists and commentators - often the same people playing dual roles, and on the same screens or pages.

The recent high-profile firings of Rick Sanchez from CNN and Juan Williams from National Public Radio for expressing their political views - off their main job and in other media - brings to fore the discussion about if and when journalists are allowed opinions.  A larger question:  Were these reporters fired for having opinions that stand in contrast to their employers'.

I think viewers/readers who are filling the comment pages on various media websites with arguments about free speech are missing the point.  Rick Sanchez and Juan Williams may exercise their free speech rights to their hearts content in their living rooms, among friends.  Unfortunately, because of their chosen profession, and also because of their success, they now must consider first that they are viewed as newsmen - on and off the job.  As unfair as it seems, they should not be free to express their opinions in any broadcast.

We cannot overlook the fact that the reporters were fired for comments contrary to the perceived left lean of the employers.  That they were fired for being contrary is certainly an argument that can be made.  The power houses of media have almost stated political leans, in effect killing journalism.  These days viewers and listeners don't so much go to their favorite news source for unbiased reports, but to solidify their already-held points of view.  The market place of ideas has contracted into a fight circle where participants pick a side and stand their ground.  Token opposing points are thrown in by guests sporadically in vain attempts to feign impartiality. Gross misstatements and omission or twisting of facts are commonplace.

There is no growing or learning in this environment.  We are not fostering an educated electorate.  As consumers, it has to be our responsibility to sift through the opinions for the facts, formulate our own opinions and then challenge those opinions regularly.  We can no longer look to the news media to guide our opinions, but rather be vigilant about seeing through opinions.  Another option: We could watch Fox News and CNN and find the truth somewhere in the middle.


  1. joeybaggadoughnutsFri Oct 22, 10:26:00 AM

    Like you did similar exercises and learned the craft of reporting over two decades ago... By those calculations, I'm a very proud member of Journalism's Old School were words truly mattered and when there was a distinction between the the NYTimes and the Enquirer. The line is now blurred as the media titans excuse themselves by adding that new media has created an urgency to be the first... The same quest was done some 30- 40 or 50 years ago and yet what was dominant was the sense of being both objective and factual. I know of journalists who wouldn't vote as a means of not being swayed by a particular political ideology. Mainstream media today is far from the "Left Leaning" or "Liberal Media" that members of the far right make it out to be this is a fact because most media today is corporate owned and few families own it as before. Viewers and readers are being duped by the slur of "Liberal Media" NBC is owned by GE (see you if you'll ever find a bad story about GE on NBC/MSNBC); The Wall Street Journal is owned by Rupert Murdoch who also owns FauxNews... not so stunning when insiders know that Murdoch has had his eye on the (journalistic) prize since the 80s. In the case of Sanchez and Williams, they should have known better and instead they let ego get the better of them. Viewers and readers will have a hard time distinguishing the public vs. the private persona of such well known journalists. Did you ever see the likes of Cronkite, Koppel, Gumbel, or even Walters (prior to the View and 20/20) give their personal opinions? They are and/were practitioners of that old-style journalism were objectivity was tantamount to personal belief. Sadly today that ethic has waned and at a cost of a disservice to the public at-large and to the demise of industry titans.
    You're part of that old school too. You must be horrified by what passes as news today. Sadly it gets worse every day. Some will excuse it due to to 'convergence,' I'll say that it is due to a loss of the media's conscience where it instead of being the bearer of truth and light it is buddy of celebrity.

    But what do I know? JoeyBaggaDoughnuts

  2. Have you ever seen a more hypocritical media? Why is the media taking sides and firing people who have opposing views? In the case of Juan he should have been fired not because he had opposing views than that of his employer but because his comment was RACIST, plain and simple! He was fired for the same reason that Rush Limbaugh should be fired, that Bill O'Reilly should be fired, and I could go on. Which takes me to another issue, when did it become status quo for the media to be divided along party lines? If MSNBC and Fox can be biased in their political views, why can't Juan and Rick?