Friday, November 13, 2009

"... And now the news."

As strange as this may sound, this piece is not about Fox News. I imagine that anyone reading my work either already knows how Fox News operates (being directed here from a liberal blog, nearly all of which have something to say about Fox) without need for me to write yet another piece dissecting the process. I will briefly recap how Fox operates, however, on the off chance:

Fox's base journalism coverage carries a story and the initial broadcast is pretty much straight journalism. They report what happened. Often, this initial coverage will not be shaded at all... though it will usually lead to a few 'unanswered questions' which the news staff will note but not attempt to answer. The story will then carry over to Fox's opinion programming, where these 'unanswered questions' will be the topic de jour for much of the programming schedule. The hosts will feature 'expert guests' (who may or may not have some claim to actual expertise, but are frequently conservative bloggers or radio hosts rather than real 'experts') who will engage in answering those questions with the help of the stars of the opinion shows. It can also happen the other way, of course, with the opinion host expounding his own theory to the enthusiastic support of the 'expert guests.' Either way, when the next round of news coverage comes around, the theories communicated on the opinion shows are then presented in addition to the original news coverage. They are presented as expert opinion about the 'unanaswered questions' in the original reporting and many of the opinion personalities are frequently asked on as guests in the news coverage to discuss the issues.

That out of the way, let's get to the real point of the column.

Southern Beale wrote this about CNN's coverage of the Fort Hood shootings. The article is highly critical of CNN and journalist Ed Lavandera for writing gossipy speculation about the motives of shooting suspect Nidal Hassan.

What is notable is that this line of speculation was featured front and center on Sean Hannity's Fox show. (The link is not ABOUT the shooting, but the video excerpt from Hannity is all nearly all about the Ft. Hood attacks and Hassan.)

Wait, you cry, you said this isn't about Fox!

It's not, the Fox reference is merely to lead into my point: journalistic standards have changed beyond what the pioneers of modern journalism would consider 'legitimate news' and moved back into the 'yellow journalism' of the pre-New York Times Hearst-Pullitzer era.

The motto of the New York Times at the turn of the 20th century was 'All the News that's fit to print!' This was because the Times' founder, Adolph S. Ochs, was one of the pioneers of what we would call 'modern journalism' despite being a capitalist and not a reporter at all. Ochs believed that as interesting as speculation and narrative were, the public would be that much happier to pay to know what was actually happening in the world around them. Ochs developed the idea that news reporters should write about what actually happened according to verifiable sources and facts, rather than speculate on what may have happened in the interest of providing a narrative to events.

The leading papers of the country (the variuous papers of the Hearst-Pulltizer publishing empires, primarily) were focused so aggressively on competition for the reader that they considered a narrative that would keep the customer buying the paper more important than factual writing. The most notorious example of this was the Dr. H.H. Holmes affair... when the Hearst and Pullitzer papers created lurid murder scenarios out of whole cloth in order to keep readers hooked on the developing story and top each other's sensational coverage. Henry Mudgett (aka Dr. H.H. Holmes) really was the first documented serial killer in US history, but his actual body count was far below that speculated by the newspapers. Mudgett was actually convicted of one murder, and his confession to another 27 has more in common with Henry Lee Lucas than with Ted Bundy... several of the people he claimed to have murdered were found to still be alive after his execution. Yet the Hearst and Pullitzer papers gleefully reported it all. One Hearst paper, the Philadeplpha Enquirer, may even have added names to the list! Even Holmes' wikipedia article seems to have been taken in by the sensationalism of the original coverage, though the footnotes do make reference to some of the inaccuracies.

In the face of this kind of 'yellow journalism', Ochs' notion of reporting the actual news based on verifiable facts was tremendously radical. It was not something that had been done before and was a huge commercial risk.

It paid off, however, and for generations the standard of verifiable fact had been the decisive factor in determining whether or not news should be reported in the mainstream media. There were other media outlets of course: 'yellow journalism' still found a market for those more interested in narrative than fact in tabloids, television 'newsmagazines' featuring tabloid content, and a variety of other sources. Many political magazines, programs, and blogs have become outlets for this kind of 'yellow journalism' as well.

Unfortunately, as the media has changed, the ethics of journalism have changed as well. The past journalistic standard was 'objectivity', which meant that reporters covered objective fact regardless of whom it benefitted or harmed. In an increasingly supercharged political atmosphere the media has been attacked as 'liberal' as a result of an era (most notably the Nixon and Reagan administrations) during which objective reporting of the factual news was very damaging to conservative political interests. In the interest of avoiding such attacks (in my opinion a cowardly decision) the media has changed its policy from 'objectivity' to 'neutrality.'

This changes the standard of news, as well. Instead of the standard being the objective facts verifying the story, the standard is that someone really said it. The media then reports what someone says, often with no commentary on whether it is accurate or inaccurate, because someone said it. This can give the most ridiculous claims (such as Sarah Palin's 'death panels') the appearance of legitimacy because the story is reported seriously and there is no commentary on the factual basis of the claims. The fact that the claim was made justifies reporting the claim as news.

This is a very serious flaw in modern news-media reporting and is a definite step-back from Adolph S. Ochs. The 'legitimate' media, as it was before the 2oth Century, is once again reduced to 'yellow journalism.'

Keep it in mind: when it comes to the news, today, we live in an age where the buyer must beware.

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