Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Bad journalism knows no partisan bounds

My column last week on Fox News anchor Chris Wallace’s statement that the network sees itself as a “counterweight” to more liberal media outlets spurred some interesting feedback.

The main thrust was that I had been pretty hard on Fox News but not hard enough on the “liberal” media. That would be valid if my column were taken in isolation. The truth is, though, that I’ve been much tougher on so-called liberal media in the past few years than “conservative” outlets.

Here are some snippets from the past couple of years:
“Neither MSNBC nor its commentator, Keith Olbermann, would be considered a bastion of good journalism,” I wrote last November.
In another column, I wrote this:
"Perhaps understandably, we are all too eager to accept as gospel information or stories that conform to our personal politics or values, regardless of the veracity of the source. We tend to drift toward sources that skew toward our value set. Sources that want to be seen as credible all too often insert a particular political spin to their coverage include such TV networks and web sites as MSNBC, Fox, Huffington Post, and The Drudge Report.”
Two years ago I wrote: “What Keith Olbermann, Bill O'Reilly and Nancy Grace do is entertainment, not journalism.” How’s that for cutting across the whole spectrum?

It may or not be comforting to know that I’ve reserved some of my harshest criticism for Huffington Post, a web site that clearly attempts to advance a left-wing agenda.

Last summer, I wrote:
“Arianna Huffington clearly wants to be taken seriously. She is a regular on the Sunday morning talk show circuit, writes and speaks articulately and convincingly as a liberal advocate, and clearly has worked tirelessly on developing a highly successful web site with millions of monthly visits. And yet, Huffington Post is the best example of what's so wrong with ‘news’ on the Internet.”
Journalism is journalism, and very few cable TV networks or web site practice it. When I was asked at a Rotary Club speech a few months ago where I’d recommend people go for journalism, I revealed my true bias: “Newspapers,” I said. I say it again. Newspapers – most of them, anyway – are still abiding by ethical journalism standards that most other media don’t even know exist.

Do you really want to know whether an information source can be trusted? Start by looking for its code of conduct or ethics. If you don’t find one, take the information with a good dose of skepticism. If the outlet has such a code, hold it accountable to its standards. That’s a good start toward becoming a successful consumer of information in the Age of Entertainment.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fox the counterweight

Well, so much for “fair and balanced.”

Fox News’ Chris Wallace admitted what any objective viewer already knew: Fox News sees its job as providing a conservative alternative to the “liberal” media, most specifically, NBC.

Here’s part of an exchange between Wallace and Jon Stewart last Sunday morning:

Stewart asks Wallace if he truly believes that Fox is "exactly the ideological equivalent of NBC News."

Wallace: "I think we're the counterweight. I think they have a liberal agenda and we tell the other side of the story."

You have to give props to Wallace for speaking the truth, even if he didn’t exactly set out to do so. It appears that Fox intends to provide, from its point of view, one-half of the “fair and balanced” equation -- the conservative half. It is doing so, ostensibly, because other media are firmly ensconced in the liberal half.

There is, of course, some symmetry to this. There is no doubt that MSNBC airs a string of liberal commentary in its daily lineup (though there’s much less evidence that the parent network, NBC, is equally left-leaning). The business model on TV and radio “news” is to serve a political niche, and Fox has found a fairly broad one. It’s working.

But why pretend to provide journalism based on any definition of objectivity? Why cling to the “fair and balanced” slogan?

One of the problems with pretending to be a news organization instead of a “counterweight” is that a lot of people apparently buy into the idea that Fox is all they need to watch to get the news. People have every right to get their information from whatever sources they choose, but someone wishing to be well-informed will understand that no single source will do that on its own.

CNN has used “The Most Trusted Name in News,” for awhile now, and it clearly irritates Fox. (Fox has run print ads claiming IT is more trusted than CNN.) Given the self-selection of audience members, trust is probably over-rated.

So, I have a few suggestions for a new, more appropriate slogan for Fox News: “Counterweight to Lying Liberals.”

OK, that’s probably too heavy-handed and too long.

They could just go with “The Counterweight,” but that’s a little vague and some might confuse it with that great song by The Band from the Sixties. That is certainly not the image Fox wants to portray.

MSNBC is experimenting with a slogan that at least hints at its leftward tilt: “Lean Forward.” It’s too cute, but at least they’re trying. No, Fox should not go with “Lean Backward” as the counterweight slogan.

How about this: “We’re Right!” It’s cute, but not too cute; a pun with a message.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The news/information paradox

The theory that easy access to more information does actual violence to the quantity and quality of journalism now has some research behind it.

“In many communities, we now face a shortage of local, professional, accountability reporting,” wrote Steve Waldman in a report for the Federal Communications Commission and reported last week in the New York Times. “The independent watchdog function that the Founding Fathers envisioned for journalism — going so far as to call it crucial to a healthy democracy — is in some cases at risk at the local level.”

What began as a business issue – how newspapers can remain profitable in the Age of Entertainment – is now becoming a vastly more urgent one. It’s one thing for newspapers to shrink in size or even for a few of them to go out of business. It’s quite another when the result of less local reporting is the loss of accountability for local governments. Waldman, a former reporter himself, fears it’s already happening.

It may come as no surprise that I have a theory or two about this.

First, more and more people are turning to a narrower selection of information sources. This sounds initially like a contradiction, but think about it. A generation or two ago, there were fewer information sources but they tended to be broader in scope. Information consumers were exposed to a wider selection of ideas. Today, there’s reason to believe that Americans increasingly turn only to information sources that reinforce their already-held ideas.

So, liberals rely on MSNBC and Huffington Post, conservatives on Fox News and the Drudge Report. For every narrow niche there is a source of information that caters to it.

In turn, this has exploded the advertising options for businesses, many of which used to spend almost exclusively with newspapers and television stations. As revenues got tighter, newsrooms got smaller. The issue for newspaper isn’t reduced readership – most of us have more readers than ever. Advertising, however, is being split among more competitors. The Post Register has not been immune to this.

Our response has been to refocus our resources onto covering local news with a lesser emphasis on national and world news. We’d like to have more feet on the streets covering local stories, but we’re doing pretty well. If anything, the value of our local news has never been greater.

For newspapers, the challenge is to discover sustainable business models in a vastly more complex world. For information consumers, I offer this simple but heartfelt proposition: Love it or hate it, read your local newspaper. It’s where journalism starts, and journalism is a vastly different thing than most of what you read on your laptop, smart phone or TV screen.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Tips for the serious Post Talker

More than a year now into our experiment of moderating Post Talk, it could hardly be labeled a rousing success -- though we have managed to drag the quality of the commentary from raw gutter level to something resembling a bar-room brawl.

Simply requiring people to use their real names and moderating the content to take out the very worst insults don’t result in an enlightening debate. More likely, each thread deteriorates into a conservative/liberal, Republican/Democratic, right/wrong thrashing about, more often than not targeting other people instead of ideas.

I personally take care of a good share of the moderating work, mostly because it’s such an unpleasant task that I don’t wish to foist it on other folks who are already overburdened with work and sorrow. This job has taught me some posting tips I wish to share with Post Talk’s participants and lurkers alike, in the hopes of raising the level of conversation even a smidge.

1. Before making a claim of fact, do your research. You may not be a journalist, but a simple combination of common sense, Google skills and some tenacity will usually lead you to accurate information. Don’t post something just because you want it to be true.

2. Don’t make accusations in the form of a question, like this: “Baby killer?” Putting the question mark on it doesn’t make it OK. If you want to make some sort of accusation, do it forthrightly, with the facts to back you up.

3. Don’t immediately dive into an Internet tête-à-tête with a person holding an opposing view that leaves the philosophical argument behind and gets right into issues of character or personality. These are painful to watch and don’t gain either participant any points.

4. Don’t use glittering generalities or loaded language. In the former, the writer either intentionally or unknowingly uses positive terms so broad in scope as to render them meaningless in an effort to further his case. In the latter, the writer tosses in emotional words with negative overtones, also in an attempt to persuade people to her side. Fortunately, most readers see right through these efforts.

5. Don’t feel like you need to comment on everything. If you don’t have anything thoughtful to add, don’t post. Some posters seem to think that short, meaningless posts on nearly every topic are pithy and display a broad range of knowledge. They are more likely to serve as distractions.

None of this is to say that Post Talk shouldn’t be a place for sharp disagreement; that is, after all, its main purpose. But somehow, when people debate on the faceless Internet, they are willing to type things they’d never dream of saying to someone’s face.