In many ways, I agree and sympathize with Howell Rains who bemoans the loss of journalistic integrity in this Washington Post op-ed. What is truly unfortunate - and a little bizarre - is that Rains only sees a lowering of standards at Fox News.
Is he trying to be funny? Or just very selective in his outrage?
A couple of hard truths along with a little history. Until around the turn of the 20th century, newspapers were wholly owned subsidiaries of political parties. Sure, there were independent voices here and there, crying in the wilderness to, as Rains put it, “afflict the comfortable.”
But the dominant media template of the day was partisan hackery. You had Republican newspapers and Democratic newspapers vying for readership in big cities while the hinterlands weren’t as lucky; people had to settle for usually one editorial voice that dominated a township, or county.
There was no attempt to “balance” opinion and plenty of effort put into spinning the news to make one side look good and the other side appear to be the spawn of Satan. This was the age of the front page editorial screaming bloody murder about something the opposition had done, or failed to do. It was the golden age of political cartoonists who skewered their targets with the nastiest of captions while drawing opposition figures in the most vile, and unflattering ways imaginable.
Ironically, the New York Times - a paper Rains was, at one time, executive editor - sought to change all of that. Always something of an independent voice from its founding in 1856, the Times strove over the years to stay above the fray of day to day politics and concentrate on delivering a reasonably factual product relatively free of bias. When the Ochs family purchased the Times at the end of the 19th century, an even greater emphasis on reporting the news in a style that highlighted the old “who, what, when, where and how” notion of factual storytelling came into vogue. The Times didn’t invent this kind of reporting, but editorially, they mastered it.
They also perfected the crafting of the “why” of a story, usually by separating the carefully wrought opinion of the reporter from the facts reported in the original story. Below the fold analysis of why a story was important contributed to the notion that the Times was responsibly separating journalistic opinion from the raw facts of a story.
Is this what Mr. Raines is talking about here?
Why haven’t America’s old-school news organizations blown the whistle on Roger Ailes, chief of Fox News, for using the network to conduct a propaganda campaign against the Obama administration — a campaign without precedent in our modern political history?
Through clever use of the Fox News Channel and its cadre of raucous commentators, Ailes has overturned standards of fairness and objectivity that have guided American print and broadcast journalists since World War II. Yet, many members of my profession seem to stand by in silence as Ailes tears up the rulebook that served this country well as we covered the major stories of the past three generations, from the civil rights revolution to Watergate to the Wall Street scandals. This is not a liberal-versus-conservative issue. It is a matter of Fox turning reality on its head with, among other tactics, its endless repetition of its uber-lie: “The American people do not want health-care reform.”
That “rulebook” was trashed nearly 40 years ago. It was ripped to shreds by the Times, the Washington Post, and most other major newspapers in America when Mr. Rains’ precious “standards” of “fairness and objectivity” were tossed aside in order to compete with Walter Cronkite, Huntley-Brinkley, and whoever was the flavor of the month anchor at ABC whose de-objectification of the news was already an art form.
As the viewership and influence of the Big Three TV news shows grew to an astonishing level, newspapers began to die in unprecedented numbers. Afternoon and evening mainstays like the Chicago Daily News, the Washington Star, and the Cleveland Press disappeared altogether while hundreds of other PM publications merged with their more successful morning competition. And the reason most often cited was the arrival on American airwaves of a new brand of journalism - one where images, rather than copy ruled the broadcast. And these images, manipulated by experts to wring drama and pathos out of a story in order to keep America glued to the channel, made a mockery of Rains’ “standards.”
In order to compete with network news, newspapers abandoned straight, factual news reporting and went into the business of using news as a way to convey opinion, infusing “drama” into stories. A young black kid did not kill the old white lady for her purse because he’s a criminal. Racism killed the old lady as surely as if George Wallace had pulled the trigger.
An exaggeration, but nevertheless, the entire concept of “objectivity” had been turned on its head in order to both sell newspapers and satisfy the “new journalism” that was making a mark in publications like Rolling Stone and Village Voice. The young, strongly opinionated writers for those publications and others were the vanguard of new kind of “journalist” who saw newspaper reporting as more than just a means to inform the public about what was going on in their part of the world, but viewed their mission as “reforming” the staid, old institutions of the media in order to promote a decidedly liberal point of view.
Rains has got to know that the New York Times does not report news the same way it did in the 1950’s, doesn’t he?
Whatever its shortcomings, journalism under those standards aspired to produce an honest account of social, economic and political events. It bore witness to a world of dynamic change, as opposed to the world of Foxian reality, whose actors are brought on camera to illustrate a preconceived universe as rigid as that of medieval morality. Now, it is precisely our long-held norms that cripple our ability to confront Fox’s journalism of perpetual assault. I’m confident that many old-schoolers are too principled to appear on the network, choosing silence over being used; when Fox does trot out a house liberal as a punching bag, the result is a parody of reasoned news formats.
My great fear, however, is that some journalists of my generation who once prided themselves on blowing whistles and afflicting the comfortable have also been intimidated by Fox’s financial power and expanding audience, as well as Ailes’s proven willingness to dismantle the reputation of anyone who crosses him. (Remember his ridiculing of one early anchor, Paula Zahn, as being inferior to a “dead raccoon” in ratings potential when she dared defect to CNN?) It’s as if we have surrendered the sword of verifiable reportage and bought the idea that only “elites” are interested in information free of partisan poppycock.
Mr. Rains and the Times surrendered that sword many years ago. It was the network news that accepted the capitulation of newspapers to the notion that objectivity and fairness in news reporting was part of the ancien regime and that in order to stay alive, print media would have to ape some of the worst attributes of bias found in the manipulation of images on TV in order to make them “interesting” or “dramatic.”
Where was Rains during coverage of the Katrina disaster? Where was his outrage at the lack of objectivity and fairness when CNN, MSNBC, and even Fox News reported rumors as being true, routinely added political commentary to their remotes, and shamelessly vied with each other to see which outlet could outdo the other in vitriol directed at the government?
Guess that sort of slipped his mind.
In their heyday, 80 million Americans tuned into one of the three network news broadcasts. Their power was incredible. It was they who set the nation’s agenda, deciding as they did which stories merited attention and which could be left on the cutting room floor. A half hour program just didn’t allow for in depth exploration of issues, nuance, or much explanation. And a dry recounting of the facts of a story would have viewers changing channels to something more interesting. Hence, storytelling via images was born - and in order to keep eyeballs glued to their product, news producers would indulge themselves by trying to create controversy, or take words out of context (easy enough to do with so little context given anyway). While copy may have been vetted for obvious bias, images, by definition, were different. Images were show biz and everyone from news executives down to segment producers didn’t want the viewers walking out at the end of the first act.
Rains and his old timers in the newspaper business followed right along, aping their electronic relatives by choosing angles for news stories that highlighted the dramatic impact a story would have on the reader; the goal being, to move the reader emotionally. At times subtle, at times blatant, the reporting of “news” was no longer a craft, but an art form.
Is Fox News any more at fault than CNN, or MSNBC? In the case of the latter, we have the senior vice president of NBC News Phil Griffin making no bones about the ideological nature of their programming:
“The network has evolved a lot in the past few years. We went from doing a little bit of everything to doing lots of politics under Keith from 2003-05. We first began to get traction after the Iraq war started, after ‘Mission Accomplished.’ Then, more and more, politics led the way. When we did well with it in the 2006 elections, we made a decision to become ‘the place for politics,’ as the late Tim Russert dubbed us - and all of a sudden began to take off a little.”
Griffin says that both Olbermann and fellow MSNBC stalwart Chris Mathews “both had a strong point of view about the war — but our strategy then was simply to hire smart people, allow them to have a point of view, and to be authentic. At the same time, we moved even further toward politics and away from trying to be ‘all things to all people.’”
Is Fox any worse than MSNBC? Nitpickers might discover a hair’s width of difference between the two, with CNN and their emotive journalism brand of weepy, touchy-feely storytelling not too far behind.
I agree with Mr. Rains that Fox is a travesty of journalism going by the standards of the 1950’s. But not including CNN and MSNBC, as well as his former employer and hundreds of newspapers, magazines, and the over the air TV networks in his diatribe is ludicrous. Journalism has changed. And Rains is kidding himself if he believes he and his “old timers” are immune from criticism for propagating those changes and foisting their own biases and politics on the rest of us.