Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Journalism Critique No. 1

In a series, no doubt.

This would represent the first time I’ve blogged in the wake of making a Facebook status post. Usually, 420 characters is more than enough to describe my snarky and relatively unimportant state of mind. This one, though … over the course of the last week, this former journalism major has come to a conclusion: current television journalism, as a profession, is either paralyzed by its corruption by outside influences … or just lazy. I’m not sure which worries me more.

This week on The Rachel Maddow Show, Ms. Maddow editorialized on this subject:

“If you just write down what they say, that’s called publicizing. Writing down what they actually do, what they are proposing in terms of policy, that is reporting. And it is the distance between what they say and what they’re actually doing, that is the news.”

And:

“Republicans say President Obama ambushed them. Republicans say Obama broke their trust. Republicans also say they’re fiscally conservative. Republicans say they’re cracking down on our national debt by cutting earmarks. It is true that Republicans have been saying all of these things. That is not the same thing as those things being true.

“In that spirit, I hereby declare that if there is, in fact, a coup in Madagascar today, it is to name me queen of Madagascar. Also, this show gets higher ratings than Monday Night Football. And General Electric promised everyone who works on this show a phone.
It is true that those things have all been said; I just said them.

“You can put them in quotes. It is true that someone has said those things
that is not the same thing as those things being true. There is a difference and it is really, really, really important.”

(That’s from <http://maddowblog.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2010/11/19/5497340-reporting-publicity-news&gt;.)

My apologies for a certain amount of partisan sentiment, but clearly that was one of the large problems with the years 2000 to 2008 in Washington, as it related to topics ranging from the Iraq war to climate change to how great a golf shot our President was: if somebody in a position of power said it, it must have been true. And the reason it was assumed to be true: someone said it. In the case of certain statements, you were unpatriotic if you didn’t believe certain politicians’ statements to be true. Not only was average citizens’ patriotism apt to be called into question, the mass media was entirely ready to flinch every time they were accused of questioning a possibly untrue statement on those grounds.

Then, this morning, I was listening to my favorite slightly-left-wing-tinged media outlet, National Public Radio (mostly so I could hear Charlie Pierce say goofy things about sports on “Only A Game” … but then I kept the sound a-comin’). The news came on. Right at the end there was a short, I mean maybe two-sentence, blurb that got me wondering if the world was conspiring to get my attention. And I immediately ran to Facebook (well, where else would one go to express an opinion?) and posted this:

“Okay, dang it. The news people (are you listening also, NPR?) need to stop trying to convince us that ‘a top Republican or Democratic politician says some particular thing needs to happen or is true, implying that dire events will occur if s/he does not get what s/he wants or if his/her political opponents do not concur’ is a news story.”

And, since I’d used up my 420 words, I posted a comment under the post:

“Unless the news people are willing to vet the statement first to see if it has any truth; and even then.”

And further commented, seconds later:

“It’s [one of the tasks I used to carry out monthly] in my last editorial job — open the mail, cull out the company new-product press releases, write little tiny stories about the new product and what its makers claim it will do for, be for, and mean to people who buy it. Lazy alleged journalism. And I didn’t even get a freakin’ byline! (Which, belatedly, makes me kinda happy.)”

In this case, NPR was reporting that Speaker-of-the-House-to-be John Boehner (R-OH) was demanding that the current lame duck Congress (of which he is NOT the leader!) put tax cuts on the top of its agenda – otherwise [insert scary pipe organ chord], unemployment will rise sharply!!! NPR followed up moments later with a similar assertion from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) – who is now and in January will still be the Senate MINORITY leader.

If that assertion is actually true, go find an economist (hopefully not on some Republican’s payroll, and we can’t even guarantee that journalists are sharp enough to research THAT) who can confirm that it’s true, and offer one more sentence to that news item: “economist Michael Smartguy of the Stanford A&M School of Economics confirms that Boehner’s tax cut proposal will result in the savings of X number of jobs in the manufacturing sector because of these two factors.” It would take a little digging, but it would keep me from shouting at the radio constantly, “prove it!!”

If the problem truly is journalistic laziness, then US journalism schools need to not let any of their students graduate until they can demonstrate substantive understanding of this concept. The problem is, once they’re out in the big world with journalism gigs, those students will be outside the influence of those re-energized journalism schools and potentially subject to the second possible problem: they will be subject to the influence of larger corporate and lobbying interests (perhaps not on them directly, but certainly on their employers), which will seek to emphasize certain stories and downplay others.

All of which turns them into journalists who are not carrying out (or being allowed to carry out) their number one responsibility, which is to inform the public. If the public doesn’t have accurate information about what’s going on and by whom it’s being perpetrated, the public doesn’t have a prayer of voting out the right bums.

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November 20, 2010 - Posted by | government, journalism, media, news, npr, politics, radio, social media | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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