November 21, 2010
This is well worth reading.
Ted Koppel: Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news
By Ted Koppel
Sunday, November 14, 2010
To witness Keith Olbermann – the most opinionated among MSNBC’s left-leaning, Fox-baiting, money-generating hosts – suspended even briefly last week for making financial contributions to Democratic political candidates seemed like a whimsical, arcane holdover from a long-gone era of television journalism, when the networks considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust.
Back then, a policy against political contributions would have aimed to avoid even the appearance of partisanship. But today, when Olbermann draws more than 1 million like-minded viewers to his program every night precisely because he is avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan, it is not clear what misdemeanor his donations constituted. Consistency?
We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly – individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable.
The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic. It is, though, the natural outcome of a growing sense of national entitlement. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-quoted observation that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” seems almost quaint in an environment that flaunts opinions as though they were facts.
And so, among the many benefits we have come to believe the founding fathers intended for us, the latest is news we can choose. Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.
It is also part of a pervasive ethos that eschews facts in favor of an idealized reality. The fashion industry has apparently known this for years: Esquire magazine recently found that men’s jeans from a variety of name-brand manufacturers are cut large but labeled small. The actual waist sizes are anywhere from three to six inches roomier than their labels insist.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter that we are being flattered into believing what any full-length mirror can tell us is untrue. But when our accountants, bankers and lawyers, our doctors and our politicians tell us only what we want to hear, despite hard evidence to the contrary, we are headed for disaster. We need only look at our housing industry, our credit card debt, the cost of two wars subsidized by borrowed money, and the rising deficit to understand the dangers of entitlement run rampant. We celebrate truth as a virtue, but only in the abstract. What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts – along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.
To the degree that broadcast news was a more virtuous operation 40 years ago, it was a function of both fear and innocence. Network executives were afraid that a failure to work in the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” as set forth in the Radio Act of 1927, might cause the Federal Communications Commission to suspend or even revoke their licenses. The three major broadcast networks pointed to their news divisions (which operated at a loss or barely broke even) as evidence that they were fulfilling the FCC’s mandate. News was, in a manner of speaking, the loss leader that permitted NBC, CBS and ABC to justify the enormous profits made by their entertainment divisions.
On the innocence side of the ledger, meanwhile, it never occurred to the network brass that news programming could be profitable.
Until, that is, CBS News unveiled its “60 Minutes” news magazine in 1968. When, after three years or so, “60 Minutes” turned a profit (something no television news program had previously achieved), a light went on, and the news divisions of all three networks came to be seen as profit centers, with all the expectations that entailed.
I recall a Washington meeting many years later at which Michael Eisner, then the chief executive of Disney, ABC’s parent company, took questions from a group of ABC News correspondents and compared our status in the corporate structure to that of the Disney artists who create the company’s world-famous cartoons. (He clearly and sincerely intended the analogy to flatter us.) Even they, Eisner pointed out, were expected to make budget cuts; we would have to do the same.
I mentioned several names to Eisner and asked if he recognized any. He did not. They were, I said, ABC correspondents and cameramen who had been killed or wounded while on assignment. While appreciating the enormous talent of the corporation’s cartoonists, I pointed out that working on a television crew, covering wars, revolutions and natural disasters, was different. The suggestion was not well received.
The parent companies of all three networks would ultimately find a common way of dealing with the risk and expense inherent in operating news bureaus around the world: They would eliminate them. Peter Jennings and I, who joined ABC News within a year of each other in the early 1960s, were profoundly influenced by our years as foreign correspondents. When we became the anchors and managing editors of our respective programs, we tried to make sure foreign news remained a major ingredient. It was a struggle.
Peter called me one afternoon in the mid-’90s to ask whether we at “Nightline” had been receiving the same inquiries that he and his producers were getting at “World News Tonight.” We had, indeed, been getting calls from company bean-counters wanting to know how many times our program had used a given overseas bureau in the preceding year. This data in hand, the accountants constructed the simplest of equations: Divide the cost of running a bureau by the number of television segments it produced. The cost, inevitably, was deemed too high to justify leaving the bureau as it was. Trims led to cuts and, in most cases, to elimination.
The networks say they still maintain bureaus around the world, but whereas in the 1960s I was one of 20 to 30 correspondents working out of fully staffed offices in more than a dozen major capitals, for the most part, a “bureau” now is just a local fixer who speaks English and can facilitate the work of a visiting producer or a correspondent in from London.
Much of the American public used to gather before the electronic hearth every evening, separate but together, while Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley, Frank Reynolds and Howard K. Smith offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know. The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed.
It was an imperfect, untidy little Eden of journalism where reporters were motivated to gather facts about important issues. We didn’t know that we could become profit centers. No one had bitten into that apple yet.
The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. Advertisers crave young viewers, and these young viewers are deemed to be uninterested in hard news, especially hard news from abroad. This is felicitous, since covering overseas news is very expensive. On the other hand, the appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated, opinion is demonstrably high. And such talk, as they say, is cheap.
Broadcast news has been outflanked and will soon be overtaken by scores of other media options. The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it has ever been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers; we’re now a million or more clusters of consumers, harvesting information from like-minded providers.
As you may know, Olbermann returned to his MSNBC program after just two days of enforced absence. (Given cable television’s short attention span, two days may well have seemed like an “indefinite suspension.”) He was gracious about the whole thing, acknowledging at least the historical merit of the rule he had broken: “It’s not a stupid rule,” he said. “It needs to be adapted to the realities of 21st-century journalism.”
There is, after all, not much of a chance that 21st-century journalism will be adapted to conform with the old rules. Technology and the market are offering a tantalizing array of channels, each designed to fill a particular niche – sports, weather, cooking, religion – and an infinite variety of news, prepared and seasoned to reflect our taste, just the way we like it. As someone used to say in a bygone era, “That’s the way it is.”
Ted Koppel, who was managing editor of ABC’s “Nightline” from 1980 to 2005, is a contributing analyst for “BBC World News America.”
It worked for Al Capone… why not Tony Hayward and so many other oil executives? Remember the adage that you’re never punished for the crime but you’ll be doomed for the cover-up? The oil spill is horrific but what’s more damaging has been the response, the obfuscation, the denials, and the apparent path of half-truths.
It seems apparent there will never be enough money to pay for all the losses, the hardships, the heartache. Besides fines are merely money paid by a corporation and diddled about on a balance sheet. In an age where we mourn the absence of real responsibility, make the crime personal, not just business.
Al Capone was never convicted for crimes regarding prohibition but for tax evasion. What’s the crime committed by the oil executives? Perjury!
Follow the logic. Or perhaps better phrased, follow the money. In order to gain government leases, in order to win approval of countless drilling plans, even when testifying before Congress following the disaster on Transocean’s Deep Horizon drilling rig it seems evident the executives from BP systematically misstated the facts (lies, fibs? white lies, convenient truths?) on government forms, contracts, plans and in testimony.
And that, ladies and gentleman of the jury, is perjury.
$20 billion dollars will never be enough as a set aside for damages. BP is already claiming they have spent 10% of that on containing the spill alone. What will happen when gulf beaches become oil stained gooey sand dunes, devoid of tourists for years? Or what will happen to spring-break-centered towns like Panama City when no students return next year? Or for anyone who bought condos on a once white-sand beach who will never be able to unload those albatrosses? Imagine the devastation from the first hurricane in the gulf which inhales oil soaked sea and distributes that as rain hundreds of miles inland, not to mention the storm surge, both of which will leave an oily residue hundreds, perhaps a thousand miles from the spill?
There is simply no way to contain the damage nor provide restitution for all these ‘legitimate’ claims. How do you put a value on some of the losses, or for deaths of wildlife or fish? As for the examples like a hurricane BP will most likely argue that flood surge and rain is an act of God and nature and surely they cannot be held responsible for that! As for the more acute, local claims, one must believe they will follow Exxon’s tact of making every nickle and dime a hard-won fight for those who suffered the loss.
Which brings me back to my principal theme. In order for any real change there ought to be personal and not just business accountability. This may seem like some sort of Jonathan Swift parable but change is unlikely to stem from political posturing, Congressional displeasure and environmentalist hand wringing. For any oil or drilling executive who made their false assertions, who knew that there were not enough booms, or that the valve was not up to par, they should be held accountable for simply this: lying. They seem to have lied or misled or misrepresented inconvenient truths regularly. Senior and highly trained engineers at BP and other oil giants should have known better – they to either lied or went mute when higher-ups changed or modified their reports. They kept their jobs but at an ethical price that is now being borne by others who are quite innocent victims. Similar assertions of defense and denial echoed at war crime tribunals with only a modicum of success. Surely we would not be able to jail all of the senior vice presidents, the vice presidents, the senior engineers and on down the line, and some offer value as government witnesses, but the point is simple – let’s make those responsible pay for their perjury. While we’re at it, perhaps offer an amnesty for all the other oil companies might be considered, for perhaps 90 days, as a period when they could review and revise their plans too.
And this new truth-telling or ethical conduct might be applied to the mining industry… or transportation, or food too as there seem to be countless industries that have grown too cozy with government regulators who believed we’re paid by taxpayers to protect the public at-large.
The point is this – instead of focusing solely on monetary recover, which is important, let’s not settle for the easy solution – the money alone – but use this disaster as a water shed mark in US history when companies are put on notice that too-close-for-ethical-comfort relationships with K Street lobbyists is not an alternative to the more costly truth; and that doing business well requires ethics. That success is not judged solely on the balance sheet or an ability to recover from a whoops-moment.
We have suffered through the banking crisis, the housing meltdown, the oil spill and yet it feels as if we haven’t learned a lesson called accountability. Fiscal, moral, ethic accountability and leadership is what is sorely needed. We have suffered a hat trick of woe. Have we learned anything more than, “Wow, it sure is expensive” and “How did that happen?” Are we that naive? Are we perpetually doomed to be ostriches? If we don’t want to put the bastards in jail then let’s break out the old family recipe for mixing tar and start gathering the feathers.
The media has treated each of these events in a episodical way. The public sees them as disasters each in their own right. But I think there may be an underlying cause that transcends all three… greed, a lack of ethics and accountability. Money wont restore that – not even the most Draconian fine. Accountability is not s synonym for businesses with deep pockets but rather it should be a maxim for the behavior of a company’s leadership, its C-levels and its Board.
Brilliant? Tony Hayward and the cast of Gilligan’s Island… brilliant? Well, perhaps as the Skipper he has left a lot to be desired, but virtually everything else the BP media machine is doing is text-book perfect and likely to be studied as a model for crisis communications and disasters of tomorrow.
BP is using the media, the web, social media and is literally crafting stories right before our eyes. They have mastered the concept of producing and distributing their own media and communications. Believing in the long tail of the web BP has hired its own reporters to gather news stories under the guise of journalism. Under banner headlines “BP reporters Tom Seslar and Paula Kolmar are on the ground in the Gulf, meeting the people most immediately affected by the oil spill. Read their regular updates” are an apologia of unimaginable guile and proportion featuring heartfelt reports of clean ups and mitigating the severity of the disaster. BP knows that some of these stories will fall into mainstream media either through a lack of checks and balances or an absence of editorial scrutiny. BP knows that while they cannot rebut all the stories produced by the press the corporation can muddy the water by producing and distributing its own look-like news. Clever. Perhaps even diabolical. Effective nonetheless.
Aggregating electronic media is also used to build what masquerades as a social media-oriented site where true news is co-mingled with corporate pieces. They create and maintain a look so responsible, so balanced and fair. Why not? They cannot prevent the cascade of negativity so they might as well co-opt it to fit their presentation and advantage. And goodness let’s watch them use You Tube as one of the silos to distribute their material to the main stream.
Union Carbide and Exxon were the poster children for how to bumble and fumble corporate responses to a crisis. Johnson & Johnson, Odwalla, even fast food outlets have done a better, more comprehensive and responsive job in managing a crisis over the recent past. But BP has set a new bar in how to handle the media on the ground, when to stonewall, when to provide selective access to those it favors (most notably FOX news, perhaps based on their British Sky News affiliation AKA Rupert Murdoch?), and now creating content thanks to their own news team juggernaut.
After Katrina all the networks pledged to establish and maintain news bureaus in New Orleans in response to what was perceived to be the national anguish over the tragedy. Slowly but steadily the New York based, east coast centric news producer’s interest waned until the economic costs of sustaining gulf coverage was deemed to be too high with respect to the newsness and news value of what was produced. No network executive wanted to blink first, that is to be perceived as caring less about the minority impacted city, but inevitably the networks scaled back and withdrew their staffs. Watch for the same in the gulf… the story will move from just Louisiana on to Mississippi, Alabama and ultimately the prize jewel Florida. As the floating story sails the gulf the reports will migrate too, a nomadic news team on the prowl for the oils next landfall. Meanwhile the audience’s attention to oil soaked birds and families-with-ruined-lives will become tiresome. The birds will be featured in pieces on Nat Geo. The families will become features on anniversary occasions and special events such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Cynical perhaps but predictive too. And as time passes the only ones covering the story, crafting and creating faux news will be the one organization with the most money to spend and the most reputation to change… BP.
Watch it and weep.
June 21, 2010
Apparently there is a trend among Human Resources people to discriminate against the unemployed. According to a CNN Money Looking for Word? Unemployed need not apply companies have quietly started to use a filter in their hiring practices. Swamped by job applicants and needing to create criteria to sort through the mass of applications, some companies have quietly instituted a policy to discard resumes from all those applicants who are currently unemployed. When challenged, some companies immediately do an about-face and distance themselves from the discriminatory practice – whether out of embarrassment or true regret isn’t quite clear. The point is that such policies are discriminatory. They are short-sighted. They work to negate any advantage of job training programs. If permitted they would create a perpetual unemployed class – a seething, frustrated mass of qualified men and women who would be thwarted from any kind of economic future.
It makes one wonder – where and on what level – did any company even think this was a “good idea” and how, pray tell, did they sell it to the higher-ups in the company.
It makes one wonder.
Not so many years ago… major newspapers sent their unilateral reporters around the world, wire services competed to file first from world capitals; radio and television networks scrambled to be first with multimedia and the global news audience was the prime beneficiary of news and information, in-country sourcing due to a robust sense of competition. Economic realities and changing market forces have picked off those reporters as if by a sniper whose aim was unfailing. UPI is gone, AP and AFP remain though reduced in size, scope and prominence. Now comes news that CNN is considering dropping all its outside sources CNN Close to Dropping AP… in favor of complete reliance on its own staff, I-reporters and citizen journalists, Tweats and other independent, unprofessional and inherently unreliable, untrained sources. It is not that all are unreliable they are untrained, unprofessional, unregulated and the audience is unprotected from uncorroborated reporting.
That’s the risk… the risk of spin, government or corporate news masquerading as real, and simply stories which cannot be checked and verified in what will be a competitive rush to publish and broadcast. It is already unfortunate that independent reporting has been a casualty of the economic juggernaut. The risk – and it is a significant risk – is that the network is choosing economics over prudence, responsibility and history.
May 20, 2010
We all know them… colleagues or bosses who wield enormous power often based on the most ephemeral set of skills or talents. Many are sycophants, some are pathological, others are deceitful and conniving, but they invest considerable time embellishing their careers, often in spite of their limited talent and acumen, often if not always at the expense of others.
Network news, a business I happen to know well, is filled with such people. There are both men and women who have truly slept their way to power and prominence. There are those who have married their careers to anchors and executives only to be eviscerated themselves, as if by a scythe, when their powerful benefactor’s star has lost its luster.
Last week ABC News announced the departure of long time executive Mimi Gurbst. Many believe the 30-year veteran was edged out in a power shift that promoted those in Diane Sawyer’s coterie and cast aside those who were not among the favored few. Others believe this is a touch of long-delayed justice for an individual who had littered her career path with other’s reputations. What makes all this so interesting is the reaction to this story in The New York Observer “Top ABC News Producer Leaving Network To Become High School Guidance Counselor” by Frank Gillette. Mr. Gilette’s fawning lede and story, heaped with praise and adulation, triggered the most amazing series of comments – more than 100 of them, and none positive. Reading the posts one cannot help but conclude that engaging with Ms. Gurbst professionally was like touching the third rail.
Network news is an industry which often puts its best face on its own dirty laundry and unpleasantries. No where is this more visible than in tributes or saccharin eulogies offered about individuals who were not particularly well thought of even when they were alive. But I cannot recall a public recollection made by colleagues laced with such vitriol and venom. And that’s the lesson… if you live by the sword be prepared to be cut and slashed and wounded by those whose personal and professional reputations you traded as the currency of gossip, innuendo, and disrespect.
In disclosure I knew Mimi Gurbst at ABC years ago. I haven’t spoken with her in more than a decade.