Good Sex or just a Tawdry Affair? The consequences of broadcasting and political activism sharing a bed

Do audiences appreciate this new symbiotic relationship between news and bias, news and punditry and opinion? Is this a natural growth progression of a huge network’s business covering the news, and how is it possible that this does not cross journalist lines of independence when its social media component strives to become a politically charged entity, something that actively promotes further national division and societal discord?

Fox Nation, another expansion of the powerful FOX brand, promotes itself as a site where all opinions are welcome, although the predominant voices seem to be believers in a conservative political philosophy punctuated by anti-administration diatribe, fear mongering and occasional bigotry.   This is social media, and one does not have to listen long to Fox Radio to hear promotions for this affinity site — listen to us and if you believe in what you’re hearing, you’ll want to join the discussion at Fox Nation.

But the question is when does fair and balanced news reporting become the bulwark of a political affinity group?  It’s not whether this is good, or ethical under some sort of academic standard alone, but is the audience being served (happily) or misused?

It is an honest question for debate for it is changing the way people in this country see, listen, hear and relate to their news. Not so many years ago the major networks were all pretty much the same – bland and apolitical. Owners under the rules of the FCC stuck to rules governing fairness, standards and practices. That’s long over.

Do audiences appreciate this new symbiotic relationship between news and bias, news and punditry and opinion? Is this a natural growth progression of a huge network’s business covering the news, and how is it possible that this does not cross journalist lines of independence when its social media component strives to become a politically charged entity, something that actively promotes further national division and societal discord?

Just as the cablers seem to be in a race to carve out their space along the political spectrum, FOX representing talk-radio-right and MSNBC securing its place as talk-radio-left, there seems to be a new phenomenon of converting audiences into political armies.  Fox Radio is now heard soliciting its listeners to join the “Fox Nation” in order to be a more effective force for change.

What’s different is the blurred line between reporting the news, especially if it purports regularly and routinely to be the epitome of fair and balanced as its brand, but then uses those same broadcasts to appeal directly and solely to a specific political leaning.  It seems expectable that those who register will be parsed and shared with campaigns and PACs, and there are few, if any, limits to how those individuals will be culled and contacted in the environment of social media.

Is there a line and has it been crossed?  Should a national news voice use its power to effect political change in the contemporary environment, and if so, does it need to be more clearly disclosed?  Or is it obvious?

Is it too much for a program host to attend a political rally? Or tell listeners specifically where a rally is planned? Sean Hannity has done both even encouraging his audience to attend if they share his political beliefs.  But is his show even news or is it a talk show about contemporary events? And if it is just that, then he is not subject to the long-established rules guiding journalists and journalism?

There are many who believe FOX News presenters share a conservative bias.  There are even sites which are hyper-critical of Fox News, notably Media Matters which catalogues what it perceives to be daily examples of misreporting and misinformation. In fairness to Fox News and its president Roger Ailes, FOX does draw a line between its news presenters and talk show personalities.  For instance, on election nights the network’s most prominent show hosts, including Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, are not utilized as anchors but rather as commentators separating fact from opinion.  It may be a thin line, but it is a line that is crossed most notably by Keith Olbermann on MSNBC who is offered to the audiences doing both dispensing news and commentary within the same program.

Fox News self-promotes itself as the “new media” and seeks to differentiate itself from all the other networks, decrying them as “mainstream” and old-fashioned, horribly out of touch with their audiences who purportedly are crying out for better reportage. FOX News is not alone; each night John Stewart and Steven Colbert do much the same – making fun of the traditional models in satire and skits.

FOX News is a brilliant, contemporary business which may understand audiences better than any of its competitors.  It has cast off the traditional model of informing and instead has grasped the higher levels of communication theory, specifically to persuade audiences to think as it does and even, at the highest level, to motivate audiences to think that they had the ideas originally.

There is an open question: when does mixing news reporting with social media cross a line of independence, when does reporting with any bias become a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it OK for established news casts? What about for an organization without a formal news organization, for instance Google, which is offering corporate customers the opportunity to advertise on programs specifically created about their business and its audience appeal? Is that news? Is that propaganda? And once you start producing custom content for a specific purpose, business or government, when does it end, and how will the audience recognize the difference?  When does currying to an audience go too far?

The issue is – if that happens, then they will cover only news that interests their audience, or that their audience already believes in?  What happens to other  viewpoints and under-served communities? Will those voices be hear or be subjected to ridicule? Is that a danger today with FOX Nation – where it says all opinions are welcomed… but are they?

The question is simply this — other than in paid and disclosed advertising, should the cable airwaves or the public channels be used to actively promote a political party or belief? Does the audience care, should they? Should we care on their behalf? On that last question alone I believe the answer is an absolute Yes!

“Stupid is as Stupid does”

A new study about the use of media by college students and young graduates, those known as Generation Z, raises serious concerns about how little they know, how devoid of curiosity they appear to be, and how willing they are to settle for single-sourced information. It purports to have us believe that young people read very little, what they do read they accept unquestionably with little skepticism or doubt, and that when they search online the most superficial results happily suffice.

If they are in fact as under-informed and happy in their apparent ignorance, then the future is truly in play.  If they demand so little and are so easily pleased, then it is just-as-likely to be true that they will never demand more from the media they consume or rely on to make key decisions.

The New York Times So-Called ‘Digital Natives’ Not Media Savvy, New Study Shows reports the study by Northwestern University found “that college students have a decided lack of Web savvy, especially when it comes to search engines and the ability to determine the credibility of search results. Apparently, the students favor search engine rankings above all other factors. The only thing that matters is that something is the top search result, not that it’s legit.”

The study reports 25% students willingly accept the first site that appeared in search. Only 10% felt it was necessary to credit the source of their information or the credentials, and apparently none actually sought to verify that information independently. Additionally Google trumps Yahoo and both surpass Wikipedia in trust.

And there is little knowledge of even the most fundamental aspects of web management; again, from the New York Times, ” “Some students even thought that a .org domain name meant a site was inherently trustworthy – they weren’t aware that the .org extension can be freely registered just like .com.”

The Northwestern study concludes with this last graph, “While some have made overarching assumptions about young people’s universal savvy with digital media due to their lifelong exposure to them, as our study suggests, empirical evidence does not necessarily support this position. As our findings show, students are not always turning to the most relevant cues to determine the credibility of online content…”

The need for an informed citizenry, for a connected and discerning electorate, for an educated elite in business and the public sector demands individuals who are in fact trained, schooled and very savvy.

If in fact they are not curious, not inclined to push their knowledge and awareness, then in fact they are the epitome of “Stupid is as stupid does” and Forrest Gump was never so right.

Changing the definition of news – Bill O’Reilly asserts Fox News is dominant because they understand and give Americans what is important to them

In this clip Bill O’Reilly on ‘A Growing Split’ in News Coverage by Kevin Allocca on TVNewser is a piece and 2 video clips featuring Bill O’Reilly and FNC commentator Bernie Goldberg discussing mainstream media bias. 

Bill O’Reilly started his program last evening (Monday 7.19.10) with his take on Howard Kurtz, CBS’ Bob Schieffer, and Sunday’s edition of “Reliable Sources,” using their conversation as a jumping off point to criticize the “mainstream media.”

“Apparently there’s a growing split about how the news is covered in this country,” O’Reilly said. “The old-guard mainstream media makes decisions based on ideology, race, and elitism. The new media, of which Fox News is a part, covers what Americans believe is important to them. That’s why we are a dominant #1, and I submit that we have far more influence than the network news does.”

This too is a subject I have been writing about, see When Did Mainstream Media Get to Be a Dirty Phrase from June 17th.
How mainstream news is defined and denigrated is as interesting as any argument facing the media today. Fox – positioning itself as David to the mainstream media’s Goliath – is aligning itself with a distinct view of America, Americanism and Americana. It seeks to build alliances and seeks allegiance on the basis of political belief as that shapes its approach and tone, especially on the prime time evening newscasts as distinct from the daypart news programs. It asks viewers to rally around the institution (Fox) rather than the substance of the story, and at times intertwines the two. Either way it blurs the line of media independence and pure reportage.
Fox asserts that it is in fact the “new media” and defines the lines of that coverage and declares network dominance. That may not be the case in terms of sheer numbers but it is a growing trend.
Are there consequences and if so, what?

Shut Out & Shut Down but Media Refuse to Shut Up as Public Officials Behave Badly

Preventing access as a form of censorship is a dangerous point on the slippery slope toward despotism and government gone wrong. The latest slip and slide in this direction was written last week at the Regents of the University of California meeting in San Francisco when a journalist with a camera was barred from their public event.  The Regent’s defensive argument was he didn’t have a press credential; the weakness to their argument is the press credential per se wasn’t required.  Credentialed or not  any one is entitled to make pictures at a public meeting under Bagley-Keene, a California law since 1967.
To make matters worse UC police instructed that no one was allowed to make pictures of them doing their job, in this case acting as gatekeepers to enforce a decision which was against the law. This is a chilling thought, one I wrote about on June 9th “Use a Camera, Go to Jail” as it seems many jurisdictions are increasingly less interested in public scrutiny of their work than ever before.

From Saturday’s San Francisco Chronicle, UC Regents baring of filmmaker draws protest “State law is clear – any member of the public has a right to film and record public meetings of state bodies,” Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, wrote to UC President Mark Yudof.

Yee, who chairs the Senate’s committee on Public Records and Open Meeting Laws, asked Yudof to explain not only why filmmaker Ric Chavez was barred from taking his video camera into the meeting, but why UC policy – which makes no provision for the public’s right to film public meetings – “is in complete contradiction to state law.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard of the UC system being difficult toward news coverage. A Santa Barbara based cameraman has written to me about the UC campus there requiring fees for news coverage and offering limited access. This is a public school open to the world which needs to be reminded that coverage of news stories doesn’t come at the point of a pen writing a check.

What happens when something really serious happens… will institutions first ask who’s there to cover it, what their intentions are, their motives?  Perhaps they’d like to see examples of prior work?  How much will be required and how far back would they like to review? Should a network include coverage of the student massacre at Kent State? How about carnage at Virginia Tech?  Neither of those stories is likely to sway an administration’s decision toward openness?  UC Regents would be hard pressed to review the free speech movement at Sproul Hall at UCBerkeley – ah the halcyon days of tear gas in the plaza and riot-helmeted cops in the hallways when the sound of clicking handcuffs rivaled that of chalk on blackboards.

Organizations – public institutions – nor their officials should not be allowed to use access as a guarantee against positive or negative coverage, scrutiny or assessment by the citizenry of the quality of their work and the decisions they make.  It just isn’t a model which protects our right to know, the right to cover, and the rights of all of us to measure and monitor the government we pay for.

Who should decide – at an institutional level – what deserves coverage and what could be potentially embarrassing or liable? Maybe in spite of the open meeting law Regents and others can impound cameras, take away note books and recorders. Hey, why not just go into hiding entirely, star chambers and executive session.

But this is happening… more and more often.  This is distressing. This is dangerous

Public places – San Francisco’s Ferry Terminal, the passenger piers at San Francisco International airport – both operated with public funds – use both real and rental-cops to move crews off property demanding that they have prior knowledge and approval from management.  This is the same management which uses public funds to operate these public facilities… places where any one public with or without cameras is invited… so why not news coverage?

This decision to close ranks and circle the wagons is mirrored too at the corporate level.  As an example, BP is reportedly making it most difficult to video or film their work in the gulf. Reportedly many local operations, paid for with BP funds, are off-limits to media. It seems curious that BP – already a premium member of the pillory club for the crime itself as well as the initial cover up is now making strides to become more secretive, closed, and manipulative of the media, as far as it can be based on the money it is investing to that end.
More and more often corporations are risk-adverse to speaking on camera or allowing crews in to make pictures of their operations.

We’re seeing the first draft of censorship and limits on freedom of the press.  Sadly the mainstream press has become so emaciated by cuts that there is no one left standing it seems to fight the good fight.  As a public we may not realize what we’re losing until we have lost it.

Use a Camera, Go to Jail… new laws make it illegal to photograph police

3 states now have laws prohibiting news photography of police… actually, any photography of on-duty police.  If this is the new trend, what does it say for society that it is more afraid of protecting illegal or unprofessional acts by law enforcement than protecting civil rights?
Gizmodo.com is reporting Are Cameras the New Guns that law makers across the country are writing laws that limit if not outright prohibit photography of on-duty police in order to limit or halt photographs or video appearing on social media.
Laws that restrict citizen’s rights also restrict the news media and drape a veil on the truth.  How far does this extend? Will news crews be allowed to shoot benign pictures of video of traffic accidents but not when police misbehave or there are questions of abuse and misconduct? What about civilian journalists who have captured police beatings, for instance the Rodney King video in Los Angeles, the Oscar Grant shooting allegedly by BART police officer Johannes Meserhle – are they now liable for prosecution for capturing evidence of potential misconduct?
Would this ban on photography extend to riots? Would this extend to coverage of police protecting the President of the United States making a visit, campaign trip or speech?
Where does one draw the line — is it permissable to make pictures of police when they are doing good things but not when their conduct might be called into question?
What, pray tell some one explain this to me, are we afraid of?  This was, still is I would hope, a country where we expect our civil rights are protected… where we expect the best and most professional conduct from law enforcement, and where we acknowledge that bad things do happen… and that there are laws to protect everyone involved.

It just doesn’t make sense to me.  Would some one help me to understand by starting a rigorous debate?

Shoot the messengers. Just shoot them and put us all out of their misery.

Over 37 years of producing and conducting TV and radio and multimedia interviews with executives, politicians, warlords and men and women on the street I rarely believe anything I hear these days, and certainly I believe less than I once did.

Why?  Because politicians and executives have been so over-coached and practiced to be sure they say nothing that will be used against them later… it is the equivalent of a hijacked Miranda warning.  Say nothing and nothing bad will happen to you.  For people on the street they are so ready to tell you whatever you want to hear in exchange that you’ll choose their mutterings for the story prompting them to call their friends to watch or listen.

I have been critical of corporate messaging for a long time.  Let me tell you why… when conducting corporate interviews it has become standard practice for their handlers to ask what the interview will be about?  If you’re working for a corporate client, you’ll be asked to participate in a “grounding call” that will last about an hour several weeks before the scheduled interview.  About 2 weeks before the interview you’ll be invited to another hour plus “briefing call” which becomes the framework for a briefing document for the executive.  It will be a pulp intensive document of multiple pages with probably 4 or 5 bullet points for each of the anticipated questions, often with a paragraph of more of embellishments for each bullet point.  For an interview of perhaps 20 questions this means that the sycophants who perform the role of communication managers will spend hours drafting up to 120 specific bullet points with hundreds of additional words to manage key suggestions for the executive’s conversation.

The funny thing is that by the time these briefing documents are prepared and delivered to the executive, often on the night before the scheduled interview, it’s frequently too late.  Countless times executives have come to the interview and asked me, “What are we talking about today?”  I always enjoy the question, as I perversely enjoy watching the blood drain from the face of the handlers simultaneously.

It’s a strange thing.  These executives are at the top of the corporate food pyramid.  They know their stuff – they have spoken the words before.  In many cases, they wrote the words.  By preparing the bullets, by over manipulating the executive, his or her handlers have frequently squeezed out any remaining drop of authenticity… the conversation sounds as canned and corny, as insincere and ineffective as imaginable.

Years ago the average length of a sound bite (quote) on the network evening news was :22.  Today I hear that’s dropped to just :08 seconds.  Is that because reporters are so enamored of their own voices that they insist on shorter sound bites?  Perhaps in part.  Is it because news makers have less to say than ever before?  I don’t think so.  Is it then a matter that people don’t say their stories or share their expertise as well as they used to… or we’re burned out hearing the same old stuff again and again… perhaps that has some bearing too.

Here’s the bottom line… why don’t you believe politicians?  Why don’t you respond to executives and others representing their issues?

Comment, email me.  I am at a loss.  What I do know is that you, me, we – the audience generally – is not hearing messages that we believe, that we trust, that we are willing to value… so why not?  What’s failing and why?

I’d like to understand this better.

Hype only serves to disappoint audiences

News producers, managers and all those create news – the content which is the stuff that keeps the soap commercials from bumping in to one another – seem to me to be more frantic, ever-so-driven to capture and hold their audiences.  More than ever before it seems  that they too have drunk the Kool-Aide and now piously justify their hype as necessary to lure and secure audiences. Sadly though this is getting sillier and sillier as boasts are proclaimed that cannot be defended, promises are assured that cannot be delivered, and audiences – like you and me – feel more cheated.

It just feels like an era of news abuse – instead of trust – is in vogue and in turn, professionals are defending what is indefensible, hype.

For instance on a weekend report about the death of a University of Virginia co-ed the network anchors assuredly promise “we’ll have the latest on the investigation when we return.”  Really?  On a Saturday?  On a Saturday when investigators are not visible to the media and when there has been no news release from the police.  So the latest is… actually, when?  Yesterday!  And so it has already been… reported? And when?  Yesterday!  And so the boast of having the latest news coming up is really just a… hype?  A tease?  And that’s somehow OK… or if as professionals you knew there was truly nothing new, was the hype a lie? A white lie?  Or just a plain old-fashioned whopper since it was uttered with the prior knowledge that it was untrue.

Or for instance the Today show used the word “Exclusive” six (6) times about a single guest.  Exclusive appeared twice in anchor copy and four times as a graphic.  Are producers so desperate to convey the appearance of superior coverage that they cannot let that content speak for itself but must instead wrap it with banners and bravado to drive the point home?  Or maybe there is such churn in the viewership that the constant reminders of exclusivity are the only hooks remaining to lure viewers?  But if that’s the case then all the exclusives that appear day in and day out are not attracting audiences but may instead be repelling viewers who are tired of being abused with adjectives masquerading as important content.

It seems the corruption of the profession runs deep… as deep as our own self-identity.  A national radio show on journalism featured a guest who said, “reporters are now packagers” of news and claimed that he didn’t need to report because he had sufficient “listening posts” to tell him what was going on.  It feels a little absurd to ask, but I am mystified because  if reporters are not going to report, then who is?  And listening posts, who are they… and how do we trust his definition of who is responsible, and ultimately, who is vouching for them?  It is the proverbial slippery slope and, whoops!  We’ve started sliding.

Another panelist on this NPR program spoke of reporters whose job it was to now contextualize the news.  And a third said it was now completely correct for reporters to have an opinion and allow that to be reflected in their work.  I always thought that was opinion… not reporting.  Isn’t that what Op-Ed pages and Editorials  are for?  Is the new era of reporting relegating those columns to the dust bin of old journalism too?
We’re mired in the new words of the language – we have “commoditized” news to the point that it is most important to monetize it… even at risk of becoming homogenized content so as not to offend or challenge any one.  We are all now “content producers” which I suppose means we are all – as I am here – able to write and self publish, somewhat regardless of our authority or authenticity.  We speak passionately of being in touch or tune with our communities, although that seeks somewhat murky and ill-defined.  Is my community that of those who are overweight white 50-somethings of general affluence living in well-to-do communities featuring overpriced homes that represent much of our life-worth and that we fear could be depreciating in the current economic downturn?  Is that my community?  And if it is, pray tell, how is any one going to monetize me?

Look – the point is this – let’s watch our words.  Our boasts.  Our claims when we really know better.  Words matter.  That’s my clarion call.  Let’s think about the new clichés that serve little purpose but to make us sound au courant and quote-worthy.  Adjectives are colorful but when we use them intentionally to be misleading aren’t we all guilty of cheapening our profession?  Of course.  What’s wrong with reporting being the benchmark of what’s important, significant – the adage: news is the first draft of history?
What do you think?  Leave a comment… let me know.