Sunday, July 25, 2004

THE RIGHT WING AND THE NETWORK NEWSCASTS. Do the major network newscasts bend in the face of conservative and corporate pressure? At a panel discussion on Sunday at Harvard's Kennedy School, the Big Three news anchors - Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings - all said no. But they admitted that the pressure is real, and is something they feel.

It was Rather who broached the topic. As he put it, there are certain types of stories where "you can't afford to be wrong," adding, "That can be a positive or it can be a negative." If it means more checking or possibly holding a story for a day, he explained, that could be a good thing. But, he warned, someone inside the network might kill it, saying, "You know what? This story is going to be trouble with a capital 'T.'"

NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw followed Rather by observing that the pressure has always been there. But now, he said, it's easier to apply that pressure - "just flip a switch" and the e-mails come flooding in, spurred by conservative media activists like Brent Bozell. Brokaw added that he has someone screen his e-mails for him - he deliberately avoids wading through all of them himself lest he be overly influenced.

Which led Jennings to walk up closest to the edge of admitting that, yes, conservative groups do influence the news. "I hear more about conservative concerns than I did in the past," Jennings said. Just recently, he said, a man walked up to him and yelled, "America-hater, leave the country immediately!" This "wave of resentment," Jennings said, has found its way to "the corporate suite" and to advertisers, which these days are urging greater caution.

It was an enlightening moment. But the crack Jennings had opened was closed quickly. Rather responded to Jennings's remarks by saying that he has never gotten any pressure to change the content of his newscast. "At CBS I have not felt this one iota," he said. To which Jennings chimed in, "My boss has been terrific, too ... 100 percent supportive.... But I feel the pressure of the anger all the time."

And Brokaw slammed the door shut by observing that conservative voices were almost never heard in the 1960s, leading to the culture of resentment that prevails among those on the right today. So there you have it: the conservatives are angry, and they attempt to use their power to influence the evening newscasts. America's best-known anchors acknowledge the anger, feel the pressure, and, in Jennings's case, admit that the corporate bosses and the advertisers would rather appease the right-wingers than tell them to shut up and go away. But none of this, we are to understand, actually has an effect on the nightly news.

What's frightening about this is the Big Three might actually be right. It may be that their prestige and long record of accomplishment allows them to protect their newscasts from the crassest of market and political pressures. Once they pass from the scene - and Brokaw's retirement has already been scheduled, with Rather and Jennings perhaps to leave before the 2008 election - who's to say whether their successors will be able (or be allowed) to take the heat?

Sunday's event was sponsored by the Kennedy School's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Center director Alex Jones moderated, and pushed the participants hard. Jones began by asking whether they should do a better job of pointing out when politicians and public officials are not telling the truth. You can't do "he said/she said," Jones noted, when people are saying things that "aren't true."

"It's not my job to say, 'Candidate Y is lying,'" Rather replied, explaining his job is to report that one person said this, one person said that, and here are the facts.

But is that really the case? As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and others have noted, major news organizations in 2000 repeatedly allowed then-candidate George W. Bush to deny Al Gore's claim that Bush's proposed tax cut would disproporationately benefit the wealthy. The problem, of course, was that Gore was right on the mark and Bush was - well, lying.

If anything, Jim Lehrer, the anchor for PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, was even more emphatic than Rather. The mild-mannered Lehrer said, "I am never tempted to yell, 'Liar!'", making his point so loudly that the audience burst out laughing. He added, "I am not a lie-detector machine, that is not my function.... There are very few things that are black and white.... For journalists to declare, 'This guy is a liar and that guy is not a liar' is risky business, and those of us in the mainstream don't do it."

The fifth member of the panel, Judy Woodruff, anchor of CNN's Inside Politics, expanded on Lehrer's point, saying, "Politicians have always shaded the truth." Her examples: Franklin Roosevelt's promise to balance the budget, John Kennedy's fear-mongering about a phony "missile gap," and Richard Nixon's "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War. Much of what politicians say is "shaded," she said, noting that a point about the economy will be made on the basis of wages or household income depending on which is more supportive of that point.

To which a somewhat exasperated Jones replied, "If everything is true, then where am I?"

What Jones was driving at, though he didn't say the word, was that there are real limits to that old-fashioned concept of "objectivity." Journalists are used to covering "both" sides (as if there was always a duopoly when it comes to the matter of sides), and letting the reader or viewer or listener sort it out. But what qualifications does a news consumer have to sort things out? If Bush - or, for that matter, John Kerry - is clearly lying, isn't it better for Dan Rather to tell his 10 million or so viewers rather than to require that they figure it out for themselves?

Another way of getting at this was articulated by Democratic congresswoman Anna Eshoo, of California, who asked whether the networks could have done anything differently in the run-up to the war on Iraq. Rather replied that when the president tells the public that there is a direct threat to their security, there is "heavy prejudice" to take him at his word. "I'm not apologizing" for that presumption, Rather said, but allowed that tougher questions should have been asked. Added Brokaw: "It was our responsibility to put up more caution signs than we did."

Jennings, by contrast, said that ABC News - and especially Nightline - repeatedly pointed out how little evidence there was that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda.

Granted, there is no way the network newscasts could have prevented Bush from going to war, even though, with their combined audience of 20 million to 30 million viewers per night, they remain the largest, most influential news media in the country. And as Rather properly observed, this was not a story that could have been reported independently: reporters could not travel to Iraq and determine whether Saddam Hussein had WMD. Remember, the UN had an entire team of inspectors swarming across the country, and they were unable to reach any definitive conclusions in the short time that Bush gave them before going to war.

But even the New York Times has acknowledged that it was too credulous in its coverage of the White House's claims about Iraq. It was not a shining moment for the media.

BUSH TO FOREIGN REPORTERS: SCREW! The international media have been notably critical of the Bush administration for thumbing its nose as the world before, during, and after the war in Iraq. Well, the Bushies know how to get even.

According to MediaNation - a joint project of Harvard's Nieman Foundation and UMass Boston - the White House has cut the $15,000 to $25,000 normally budgeted for helping some 400 foreign reporters navigate the two political conventions.

The story, by Seth Effron, will likely appear in MediaNation's print debut, in tomorrow's Boston Globe. But you can read it now.

IS THIS ANY WAY TO RUN A CONVENTION? After getting my credentials, I decided to check out the media center at the DNC this afternoon. Big mistake! I couldn't get my umbrella through security; an apologetic guard told me umbrellas have been classified as contraband, but that I could get it back at a table on the way out. (Wrong.)

Then, no one seemed to know how to find the media filing center for reporters who are not affiliated with large organizations that are renting their own space. A few of us finally located it, on the third floor of the FleetCenter (nice, actually, since the big orgs are stuck in a tent outside), but some techs were still setting up the Ethernet network.

So my plan to blog earlier today was put off till this evening, when I was able to get onto the Net from a Starbucks in Harvard Square.

Tomorrow will be different. I hope.

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