Bad news. I think I lost an old friend this week. We had a knock-down, drag-out fight over media bias; specifically his contention that in this election year the "Mainstream Media" have chosen sides. I said I just don't see it.
I may be myopic, even delusional, but I just don't see it.
Now, I'll admit that this year is far more confusing and contentious than any election year I've ever seen. Or maybe it's just that, in my semi-retired state, I've got more time on my hands to do something I've never done before: pay attention to what Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity are saying.
Here's a bias I do recognize and admit: they make me sick--almost physically ill. I can take them in four or five-minute doses; and I have to be careful while driving to switch away before I drive straight off a bridge! The hate speech that passes for informed discussion these days is truly frightening. I'm not talking about their politics, I'm talking about their polemics. Add to that the Internet (a wonderful source for totally accurate, guaranteed opinion-free factual reporting, dontcha think?), and we're bombarded on all sides with hate, with bitterness, with divisiveness.
Rush is always talking about the "Drive-by Media." The one thing he doesn't mention is what I'm going to call the "Agenda-Driven" media. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I keep hearing the opinion, the one-sided opinion, and nothing that conflicts with that opinion. Agenda-driven.
Here's where it gets more complicated this time around. It was one thing when Rush had hate-speech all to himself. It was a bit more worrisome when the Rush wannabes started clogging the radio airwaves and the blogosphere. I thought it was a horrible development when the folks at Fox decided there must be an audience out there for a right-tilting cable news network. Ugggghhh!
Now, this year, in a move I absolutely deplore and condemn, MSNBC has decided that there's an audience to be served and money to be made by tilting left. Hey, that in and of itself is OK. In the world of "narrowcasting" they can pick their target audience and program for it in any way they want. Trust me, if there's money to be made programming strictly to Croatian cross-dressing serial killers, someone will aim a program (or a network) at them.
But here's where it gets ugly. The MSNBC folks decided to drag NBC News along with them. Respected, trusted, voice-of-reason folks like Tom Brokaw and Andrea Mitchell have been sitting next to shrill shills like Keith Olberman and Chris Matthews. NBC execs argue that the audience can tell the difference between NBC and MSNBC, between objective journalism and commentary. Like Hell!
Poor Tom. Poor Andrea. Forced to walk like ducks and quack like ducks and dilute their franchise, which up to now has been based on fair, factual journalism. I can't blame anyone who wants to see NBC News as tarred with the MSNBC brush. I don't care if MSNBC goes diving for dollars in the media pond. And I didn't mind when Tom and Andrea and Tim Russert were guests on Don Imus' old MSNBC program. Imus never tried to pass his schtick off as journalism, but MSNBC is trying to pass its political activism off as journalism: I think it's dishonest and I think it's called into question NBC's objectivity. Walk like a duck? NBC News is getting soaked.
This is the first Presidential election since 1968 that I've watched from the sidelines, so I think I can speak with some authority about media bias. I just never saw it. Maybe I'm myopic.
"The Meed-ya" make a convenient target for sleezy pols. The Nixon White House practiced "The Mushroom Theory:" Keep 'em in the dark and pile on the manure. Later, I think it was Repubican strategist Lee Atwater who coined the term "Liberal Media" and made it not just a label, but an accusation. The idea was to keep reporters off balance by accusing them of disloyalty if they had the temerity to ask a question of the candidate. We've seen that carried to a new level this year--with Sarah Palin not being allowed by her handlers to say much beyond name, rank and serial number.
Am I sounding like a liberal? In my defense, let me paraphrase something David Brinkley said years ago. It's easy to mistake journalists for liberals: we both want to ride in on a white horse and save the world.
I'm sitting this one out--but in close to forty years in TV news, I've written stories, produced newscasts, assigned reporters, coordinated coverage. Print out my body of work and lay it end to end--and you'd never have to buy toilet paper ever! And you'd also never find any trace of a personal opinion.
Now, I've got opinions. Damn right! You can't spend as much time as I have rubbing up against the major issues of our day as I have and not have formed a personal opinion. What do I think about the race for the White House--or abortion--or the immigration issue--or gay marriage--or capital punishment?
NONE OF YOUR BUSINESS!
That's because I've always made it my business not to let my personal opinions creep into my work. It wouldn't be fair. And I know what fair is. Why do some people think it's so difficult to recognize your personal opinion and keep it out of your news copy?
If you look at journalism as a service we provide on behalf of our fellow citizens, than you know why all this talk about liberal media bias infuriates me so. When people talk about the media being unfair, most often their complaint boils down to, "It's not fair that you're asking my candidate tough questions."
Close to forty years and I can honestly say to you that I've never seen or heard any of my colleagues pushing a personal agenda. Oh, I've seen my share of "gotcha" journalism: but I've always looked at it as "bulldog" journalism. When a responsible journalist--and by that I mean someone working for the three TV/radio networks, local affiliates and major newspapers--is on the job, he or she is like a bulldog going after the mailman. If the mailman stands his ground he doesn't get bit. If the pol starts to bob and weave, duck and dodge, and tries to pull away--the bulldog chomps down and holds on. So I've seen plenty of people get bloodied trying to mislead and flee the media--and I regret nothing.
Bias? I never had any political pressure brought to bear on me by my bosses. Just for fun (and for clarification) I recently talked to my old WABC boss, Cliff Abromats, and asked if he was ever made aware of some hidden agenda on the part of his ABC corporate bosses. He told me that there was an agenda alright--but it wasn't hidden: "Get more viewers so we can make more money." Every once in awhile corporate would meddle with a personnel decision, but Cliff told me no one at the network level ever told him what stories to cover or how to cover them.
An anecdote I find amusing and telling at the same time. At the height of Watergate I was producing the 6:00 and 11:00 p.m. newscasts for the old WWJ (now WDIV-TV) in Detroit. Between newscasts, whenever possible, I'd take viewer calls; a "pulse of the people" sort of thing. One night I took two calls pretty much back-to-back.
WHAT DO YOU #$#%&% THINK YOU'RE DOING? YOU'RE TEARING DOWN RICHARD NIXON, THE GREATEST PRESIDENT THIS COUNTRY HAS EVER HAD, AND A TRUE PATRIOT. I HOPE YOU'RE PROUD OF YOURSELVES!!!!!
WHAT DO YOU #$#%&% THINK YOU'RE DOING? YOU'RE DEFENDING RICHARD NIXON, THE WORST PRESIDENT THIS COUNTRY HAS EVER HAD, AND AN OBVIOUS LIAR AND CROOK. I HOPE YOU'RE PROUD OF YOURSELVES!!!!!
And I thought to myself, I must be doing something right.
In the few years before and the many years since I've never once been asked to or ordered to slant the news. The only political conversations I've had with my general managers have been "cost of coverage" not "kind of coverage." Their concern is that we got bang for our bucks--and covering politics can be expensive. For example, at my last station we covered every minute--every second--of every single appearance by the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates in our area. We blew out a lot of programming (and commercials!) but we felt it was important to give our viewers more than the standard :30 sound bites.
Damn...what was I thinking...I've buried the lead again.
Here's the lead. The friend I lost--after thirty years--accused me of being a lackey for the conservative establishment. His take was that the owners of the mass media are, for the most part, Republicans; and they have (he's convinced) dictated a kid-glove policy when it comes to covering John McCain and Sarah Palin. He wrote, "How many questionable decisions based on bucks have you made? Are you a newsman or a lackey?" Hmmm. Maybe he's right. I haven't heard anyone in the "MSM," the "Drive-By Media" asking McCain tough questions, now have I?
He wrote, "The Truth, like the news, is for sale."
I told him to pound sand!
Because--now get this: this comes from a man who worked as a tape editor for several New York TV stations! I guess he didn't check his mailbox the day the political agenda was passed out. He must have missed the auditions for the "media chorus."
I reminded him that I missed the time he nailed his "95 Theses" to the station's (glass) door. But no, he insists, he wasn't a collaborator: "I never had a position of responsibility beyond my individual projects which were never 'HARD NEWS' (that was for you intelligent pundits). I did not have a vote on anything put into the daily broadcast. You on the other had, did, and must share the blame for sucking up to those cretins who signed our checks."
Yeah, he just cashed the checks!
So there you have it. I'm part of the great conservative media conspiracy! Don't hear that one often, do ya?
I guess truth is in the eye of the beholder. Me? I'm biased against people who see a media bias under every rock. I'd conspire against them--but I don't know how to organize a good conspiracy! Most journalists can't organize a good three-car parade. The ones I know have a simple mission. They think knowing a lot is better than knowing a little, and they want to give you the information you need to know to make informed decisions this election year.
You gotta problem with that?