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Ted Koppel is one of the most trusted, and trustworthy, journalists in American history. His work with ABC News and Nightline is impeccable. Almost more noteworthy, to me, is his post-Nightline work, which seems as hardhitting as ever, especially in his criticism of the role money has come to play in journalism and the news “industry”. It seems timely that, in light of Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC, this piece he wrote back in November would seem to be all the more relevant.
As Koppel places a great deal of importance on the financial success of 60 Minutes as a turning point in journalism, I would say a later creation had a greater impact on the actual craft of journalism. That creation wasn’t some talking head or some easily picked-on journalist with overt political affiliations. It was a simple charge of industry bias.
It didn’t even start with Rush Limbaugh, but he put in the ears of more Americans than needed to hear it. The simple charge that news industry had a fundamental bias toward liberalism. Before you knew it, since the very early 90’s, journalists were tripping over themselves to prove how not-biased they were, claiming the virtue of objectivity. All the while, conservatives, like R-rated movie villains, shot the ground beneath the feet of well-intentioned journalists, saying “dance for me!” So eager to prove their lack of bias, they became infatuated with actually manufacturing a liberal and a conservative interpretation of events, rather than seek that objective reading of the facts. This manufactured dialogue would serve as political insulation (which does have economic incentives, I will admit) for journalists sensitive to their producers displeasure at reams of hate mail turning into GBs of hate e-mail.
I’ll give you a specific example of journalism’s literary transformation that I blogged about a while back.
The story goes something like this: the Obama administration releases new numbers showing a significant amount of Medicare fraud. The report in question places the emphasis of the new numbers against last year’s numbers. They then get a statement from the administration, one from a conservative watch-dog group, and then sum up the story by reiterating the difference from last year’s numbers.
By quickly isolating the three characters in the story, we can see what the problem is.
- The representative for the Obama administration explains that months earlier the rules and accounting measures were changed in hopes to better identify fraud and get a more accurate accounting of fraud currently taking place. In finding twice as many cases of fraud with these new, different rules, the administration could rightly call this a success.
- The spokesperson for the conservative viewpoint was given the opportunity to comment on the numbers against the previous year’s numbers. The predictable response from the conservative was that fraud throughout the system is rampant and demonstrates the problem with the system.
- The journalist himself cast the 2009 numbers against the 2008 ones, and framed the debate thusly. He invited the administration to “defend” the bigger number and invited the political opposition to try to shoot it down.
And yet the entire argument was manufactured. If it were factual that the rules for finding fraud had been changed (they had), then the comparing of the two is, at best, intellectually wrong, and at worst, manipulative and unethical.
The journalist in this example is a wonderful and ethically-sound journalist. What he is victim to is a new journalistic style that trades in honest and potentially dangerous objectivity in favor of the safe illusion of objectivity found in putting other people’s words in place of his own.
The real downfall of journalism isn’t the rise of opinion, the blurring of the lines between journalism and opinion, or even the conversion of the economic model, per se. It is the way it has allowed itself to be so easily manipulated by an ideology of political balance and fringe political machinations. When are journalists going to get a backbone?
Note: here is one that is trying!