The State of Journalism

Ted Koppel, formerly managing editor of ABC’s “Nightline” and currently a contributing analyst for BBC World News America, penned a Washington Post op-ed last Sunday in which he deplored the current state of journalism – once an elegant croquet match, but now a bitter game of kickball played by partisan loudmouths:

“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.”

Keith Olbermann, recently returned to his perch at MSNBC after a laughably short suspension for violating its “ethics’ code, responded to Koppel in a very special “Special Comment” right out of Orwell’s 1984:

“The kind of television journalism [Koppel] eulogizes failed this country, because when truth was needed, all we got were facts, most of which were lies anyway.  The journalism failed, and those who practiced it failed, and Mr. Koppel failed.  I don’t know that I’m doing it exactly right here.  I’m trying.  I have to.  Because whatever that television news was before, we now have to fix it.”

Facts are lies that imprison those who lack the wisdom to allow Keith Olbermann to tell them how to think.  Olbermann spent the early moments of his “Special Comment” wailing about Koppel’s failure to expose the “utter falsehood and dishonesty of the process by which this country was committed to the wrong war,” which is the kind of tedious crap you get from someone who can ignore the lying facts of those endless United Nations meetings, broken Security Council resolutions, and cease-fire violations from the first Iraq War.  Curse Koppel for taking it too easy with the pro-Saddam propaganda!

You can make the case that Operation Iraqi Freedom was a mistake if you want, but it’s long past time we dispensed with the lazy myth that anyone was “tricked” into signing off on it.  The incorrect data on weapons of mass destruction was a failure of the intelligence community, not a prank.  There were plenty of other reasons for getting rid of Saddam.  To assert otherwise is to bleach history into camouflage for politicians who fear being held accountable for a historic vote.

We might also note that Olbermann’s network had absolutely no problem hosting Rachel Maddow’s idiotic smear attempt against a Republican congressman, a breach of journalistic ethics far worse than Olbermann’s controversial political donations.  I guess Maddow’s lies are really the deeper truth.  Some Rethuglikkan somewhere must have known about the Oklahoma City bombings in advance!

Every time someone like Koppel waxes nostalgic for the old days of “objective” journalism, two predictable responses occur: the old days really weren’t that objective, and objectivity is impossible anyway.  The first observation is indisputably true.  The media environment of Ted Koppel’s day wasn’t more objective, it was smaller.  Three networks could achieve a message discipline that became impossible with Rush Limbaugh blowing raspberries from the sidelines.  Alternative media grew into a strong underground presence in the 90s, and took center stage after the 2000 election.  One thing has changed since Koppel’s heyday: the TV news business is highly competitive now.

As to the existential hand-wringing over the impossibility of objective reporting: is it really so much for Americans to ask for a media that doesn’t lie to them?  We suffer sins of both deception and omission. Both of those sins have become harder to commit these days.  The last great media deception, the Bush National Guard memo of 2004, was dissolved by a Flash animation of Microsoft Word typesetting, and took Dan Rather’s career with it.  (Has Koppel spoken with the highly objective Rather lately?)  Nothing like that will ever work again.  There are too many intrepid bloggers packing search-engine chainsaws, eager to cut flimflam jobs to ribbons.

Sins of omission are even harder to pull off now.  Everything is discussed somewhere, and information bounces around the Internet until it slams into a TV news camera lens.  Sufficient attention from alternative media pushes stories into the mainstream press.  Back in 1998, Newsweek tried to ignore Monica Lewinsky to death… and gave us the Drudge Report.  That will never work again, either.  By the way, how is Newsweek doing these days?

The belief that news must be filtered through a priesthood of gatekeepers, who can shape public reality by deciding which facts to report, is a dead religion.  It was always based on disdain for an ignorant public, which needs to be led by the nose to the news.  Keith Olbermann’s “facts are lies” hogwash is an expression of the same contempt.  The public has used the Internet to be quite well informed, and they are happy to purchase the truth from a competitive marketplace.  They don’t like being called “ignorant” anymore.  Just ask a Democrat in the House of Representatives, if you can find one.  The “viewers are stupid” meme won’t help the dinosaur media, or electronic tar pits like MSNBC, any more than “voters are stupid” helped the Democrats.