The No News Is Bad News Media Symposium

I attended a riveting symposium yesterday, hosted by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, titled: No News Is Bad News – The Role Of The Media In Our Democracy. The panels were interesting for who wasn’t included as much as for who was.  

I was intrigued to note that no television or radio-based media representatives were present, but that the blogosphere was more than ably present in the guise of Marcy Wheeler – emptywheel – who blogs at home on The Next Hurrah, provided amazingly detailed live-blogging on Firedoglake of the Libby trial, and who is recognized for her meticulous research and detail into the intricacies of the legal finagling being performed by the Bush/Cheney administration.

The three sessions presented included war reporting, political reporting and the news business and the business of news. The discussions were animated, at times intense, and they were insightful for what was said and asked, and for what was left hanging in the air.

One elephant in the room was walking a circus tightrope and another was flying on a trapeze.

The first panel about war reporting included a last minute substitution of Kevin Cullen from the Boston Globe filling in for Mark Bowden, who had some life interfere with his appearance.

Moderator David Greenberg, a local boy made good in the history, media studies and journalism arenas at Rutgers University, handled his job ably until he attempted a triple somersault off the high wire without a net, and he tumbled to the ground while the audience looked away mostly with disappointment in his ability to present fact-based opinions about media coverage reliability in the run-up to the US invasion of Iraq.  However, Samantha Power and Anthony Shadid spoke to the individual journalist’s moral and professional responsibility to cover news when their own life and safety is imperiled, and this, in my view, could stand much more reflection and public discussion about just where the mantle of responsibility lies for exceeding risk.  

Power described her own experience in going to Darfur and seeking out meetings with the head of the janjawid.  Shadid spoke to his coverage of the very unequal Israeli attack last summer on Lebanon, and also to his coverage of Iraq while in Iraq.  All three panelists discussed the critical need for journalists to report what they find as they find it in the field, and to continually self-check for biases of “being in the know” from remote places, such as academia, think tanks and offices.

What wasn’t addressed?

Given that tempus fugit and that there was not nearly enough time to explore in depth, let alone breadth, there were still several topics and questions which never made it to the panelists, but or which I have lingering questions:

Why is the “war” reporting relative to Iraq not called “US OCCUPATION” of Iraq?

Why are the terms, war and occupation conflated in US media reportage?

Because of the expense of sending investigative reporters and war correspondents to the field, why don’t they receive more recognition by their papers for this via longer stories, more prominent placement and more respect for the reporters’ requests about timing and placement?  (Powers related that when Dana Priest filed her black site extradition/torture story to the Post, she begged for them not to publish it on Christmas.  They went one better and published on the day AFTER Christmas – the ultimate Friday news dump! They also wrote the headline to reflect just he opposite of what Priest had written.)

Kevin Cullen, who reported about Northern Ireland for The Globe, spoke to the differences in perspective by reporters from other countries versus that of Americans covering wars and conflicts.  That somewhat answered my question about whether is is essential for American reporters to cover the US occupation of Iraq if US reporters are no longer able to do that due to extreme risk for being attacked as combatants.

Cullen and Shadid both referenced colleagues who had been killed since the invasion while working in Iraq, and this is affecting editorial decisions to continue to send reporters to the Middle East, as well as to inhibit or at least slow down the insertion of reporters into other places where they may be deemed combatants by warring forces.

The reporters all discussed their own biases and what they did individually to try to account for them and mitigate them in their reporting.  Shadid’s response resonated with me when he said that his best stories came about when he set aside his own views and knowledge and simply tried to ask questions, observe and write without any preconceptions.  Cullen and Powers affirmed this, and they all spoke to their perceptions that trying to “balance” stories is not valid.  Some issues and stories do not have two equal and balanced sides.  They aim for fairness.

Greenberg then shot his entire credibility to hell when he, as an afterthought, said that the media coverage of the run up to the Iraq invasion was valid, and that the public overwhelmingly supported it for the right reasons.  The audience reacted vociferously in refutation, and mercifully for him, time had run out, and he was able to exit without having to respond. (The audience leaned toward academics and media folks – silver hair predominated, but there were about a dozen middle school through college-aged appearing attendees.)

Oh, but I do go on!  

Let’s move ahead to the next session where the blogosphere is introduced and where Marcy Wheeler’s presence surprises and delights.

In the political reporting session, Alan Brinkley, (son of David – NBC’s news icon of yore) who is a professor of history and provost at Columbia very ably moderated.  He has one of those reassuring ways of speaking that makes me wish I had studied with him.  History is sometimes very scary, and having a reasonable and reassuring logical, yet probing, teacher, is a great thing.

Joe Lockhart, Bill Clinton’s press secretary was interesting as his perceptions about reporting were all about the message and the public’s marketing – the advertising of the message, the polls, and the effectiveness of the sold message.

Todd Purdum, of Vanity Fair and formerly of the NY Times, spoke to the history repeats itself meme of the McCarthy era to the Bush/Cheney era of oppression, accusations of unpatriotic behavior by anyone dissenting from the “official” message, and even the wearing of lapel flag pins by reporters.

But he Purdum also spoke to his perception that in days past, he generally enjoyed political reporting and coverage because he saw most politicians as generally good people with good motives trying to to the right thing.  In recent days, he feels that has slipped away and now politicians and reporters distrust each other on a deep fundamental level.  He believes that this has created an environment which squelches the ability of reporters to work sources effectively and which doesn’t get the necessary information to the public.

Marcy had a few things to say about this, and she referred to the “club” – as we do the “Village” or the “Beltway elite”.  The traditional media panelists agreed that there is a large discrepancy in what the politicians and reporters in the Washington area perceive as valid assumptions, facts and reality, and what the rest of the country – the general public – perceives as valid assumptions, facts and reality.

While not overtly hostile to bloggers, none of the panelists or moderators (absent Marcy, of course) enthusiastically embraced blogging, and no one seems to be able to speak cogently about the development of the blogosphere or its rightful place in “The Media”. There is still a great divide between traditional media and blogging, but I do perceive some bridge-building and a greater willingness of traditional media folks to learn about and engage with bloggers.  

Indeed, the NY Times now has its own stable of blogs and bloggers, and MSNBC has a blogger, Chris Colvin, who regularly posts news from around the blogosphere for the NBC News blog, the Daily Nightly where Brian Williams uses the venue to promote the likes of Tim Russert and his many forays into late night comedy TV.

Yes, I do think that Chris Colvin is a better reporter than Brian Williams by half.  Why do you ask?

Another elephant in the room that stayed visible to me, but apparently not so for the panelists was any discussion at all about the conflation of punditry with reporting.  I kept waiting to hear about a reference to Colbert or The Daily Show, but alas, that didn’t arise.

There was one statement presented as fact by Joe Lockhart that in spite of polls which demonstrate dissatisfaction with political reporting by the public and which demonstrate a desire for more policy and meat in the coverage, the ratings don’t bear that out.  

There was a lot of huffing that this couldn’t possibly be true.  Anecdotally, that’s exactly what I have experienced when I have written about healthcare policy – no interest and no response – and that’s on the progressive blogosphere, which is generally an informed, intelligent and interested demographic.

(If you want to disagree, I will point you to my reserved and empty group blog called Progressive Policy.  I requested input from progressive bloggers who write about policy from time to time – no one took me up on the offer to post or crosspost there, and I still can’t find any single progressive blog which discusses all policy all the time.  I’d LOVE to be proved wrong and to discover a gem out there, so please keep me in mind if you know where the treasure is.)

Wheeler and Lockhart had a little fun about the reportage of Clinton and Lewinsky, but they generally agreed that the coverage didn’t provide perspective, and that problem continues today in the coverage of the presidential candidates. Diamonds or pearls, anyone?

The News Business and the Business of News

Ellen Hume, formerly of the WSJ and now serving as the director of the Center on Media and Society at UMass Boston, served up a very lively and participative session.

She engaged David Carr, columnist on media, business and culture for the NY Times, John Carroll, the editor who resigned from the LA Times in protest of deep cuts in the newsroom, and Neil Brown (pdf file), the editor of the for-profit, but academic institute-based, St. Petersburg Times.

The advertisers and marketers’ coupling to the fiscal health of newspapers continues to provide sturm und drang for media.  Interestingly, none of the panelists was particularly worried about the consolidation of media ownership relative to the influence and direction of what is reported and how it is reported.  

The assumption that panelists help throughout the presentations and across the panels was that the editor and reporter relationship seemed to be the recognized place where editorial decisions are made.  Even when Dan Rather’s lawsuit against CBS was discussed in the light of his allegation of Bush administration pressure on CBS, none of these editors seemed to take that as a particularly ominous sign. Another question to the panel involved the ability of reporters to report stories when they crossed paths with the military or reported things that did not mesh with the government’s message.  

Because much of effective reporting is built on access to sources, questioners wanted to know how much news is simply suppressed by the military and government as sources are withheld or access is denied, such as it has been to McClatchy reporters trying to travel to Iraq.

The bulk of the time on this panel was spent in musing about different business models which will allow print media to continue to dominate, and which will allow for the expensive and critical ability for them to hire and support filed reporters:  investigative reporters such as Priest, Ricks and Hull, as well as war correspondents who travel and embed or who continue to take great personal risk and possibly be viewed as combatants.

Some of my other questions:

With the increasing use of online newspapers including readers’ comments to stories, does this add to the richness of reporting?

How, or should, newspapers, control or regulate commenters?

What is a preferred vision for the place of bloggers in relation to “media”?

What obligations do bloggers have in presenting opinion, commentary and news?

Given that newspapers often use unnamed sources, what is their responsibility relative to accuracy and reliability of sourcing?  Ditto for bloggers relative to sourcing.

More was not addressed than was, but given the time limits, and the willingness of the panelists to engage and to carry on frank discussions, the door has been unlocked and is ajar.  Let the light in.

What are your questions and concerns?

16 comments

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  1. thanks and a gold star!  I realize this is verrrra long.  Lots to ruminate on. Happy cud chewing.

    • pfiore8 on November 18, 2007 at 7:31 pm

    that’s when it’s great journalism…

    but that’s what this is aek! good on you!

    • pico on November 18, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with Marcy Wheeler, and she’s a diamond in the rough for sure.  We need more people who are willing to dedicate themselves so strongly to individual issues: bloggers want to be experts on everything, but given our numbers it makes more sense to divide the labor.  That’s why Marcy’s managed much more than most of us.  

    • nocatz on November 18, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    but you are kickin ass upon your return.

    • nocatz on November 19, 2007 at 1:22 am
  2. on corporate blacklisted topics?

    http://www.projectcensored.org/

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