In search of real news

It was quite a segment on National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation today when the iconic Ted Koppel defended an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that managed to put Keith Olberman and Bill O’Reilly on the same side of an issue.

As you may know, Olbermann returned to his MSNBC program after just two days of enforced absence. (Given cable television’s short attention span, two days may well have seemed like an “indefinite suspension.”) He was gracious about the whole thing, acknowledging at least the historical merit of the rule he had broken: “It’s not a stupid rule,” he said. “It needs to be adapted to the realities of 21st-century journalism.”

There is, after all, not much of a chance that 21st-century journalism will be adapted to conform with the old rules. Technology and the market are offering a tantalizing array of channels, each designed to fill a particular niche – sports, weather, cooking, religion – and an infinite variety of news, prepared and seasoned to reflect our taste, just the way we like it. As someone used to say in a bygone era, “That’s the way it is.”

Olbermann, who’s become a caricature of himself, fired back last night:

Koppel’s problem was using Olbermann as an example at all. There’s simply no ethical guideline in the present, past, or future that’s ever going to OK giving someone a campaign contribution, then inviting that person on your show, and not revealing the tie. Somewhere between that extreme, and the “old days” lies journalism in 2010.

So it was a good idea for the Talk of the Nation producers to book Jeff Jarvis instead, but perhaps a bad idea to chase the question of objectivity. Jarvis suggested if news is dead, Koppel’s industry killed it.

“Television is responsible for killing many of the voices — the cacophony of democracy — newspapers, many times 6, 7, 8 newspapers in a town became one, maybe two because television came in an essentially killed them, “Jarvis said. “Television was given a government mandate to have this neutral voice… to have this one-size-fits-all… and I think we lost a lot of democracy.”

He called television’s news offerings “tapioca.”

“The new media is probably going to be responsible for the last few newspapers that are still out there,” Koppel replied. But he said his op-ed has nothing to do with a search for truth, but with the corporations who own the cable TV networks “and their interest in making money.” He says the problem is too many voices on cable TV.

Here’s the full segment:By the way, next month I’ll participate in a Policy and a Pint discussion at the Varsity Theater in Minneapolis that considers “The Line Between News and Opinion.” I suspect some of these same themes will emerge. It’s on December 15. Details later.

  • MB

    What exactly is today’s definition of objectivity given the numerous new and info sources? People have access to all sorts of information, this diffusion gives people more context than they had in the days of 3 networks and 1 or 2 papers in town.

    When comparing to what they read and hear to traditional sources they find it wanting. It is incomplete in context and meaning and, most importantly, value.

    Ted Koppel offers false equivalence and self serving nostalgia. MSNBC and FOX are not counterweights. The good ol’ days did not offer a range of views. TV networks made plenty of money from news in the past. It was never a loss leader though network accountants made it appear that way.

    Obviously Koppel has decades of experience and insight. I wish he would let his listeners in on his real opinions (not what he thinks of cable however), tell us what is really going on rather than sanding off the edges so as to offer his “objectivity”.

  • bsimon

    “Jarvis suggested if news is dead, Koppel’s industry killed it.”

    Koppel would agree. In fact, in his op-ed, he explicitly points to TV ‘newsmagazine’ 60 Minutes as the initial cause of the problem. He notes that as soon as networks realized news could be a profit center (a feat first achieved by 60 Minutes), the accountants and executives started looking for ways to boost profits in that programming segment.

    The error that Koppel made was in using the Olberman kerfuffle as the lede. Olberman’s suspension is beside the point. The point is that objectivity is dead in TV news. The viewers don’t demand it, so the the providers don’t offer it. The networks are glad to cede that tiny percentage of the market that demands real news to Newshour and NPR. There’s money to be made in infotainment, so that’s what the networks provide.

  • Bob Collins

    I would argue — and have — that there’s really no such thing as “objectivity,” and it’s silly for journalists to argue there is. What they should be asking is whether there’s “fairness.”

    When Koppel took Nightline to South Africa, it wasn’t out of a sense of “objectivity.” He went there because apartheid was inherently wrong. That assessment does not come from objectivity.

    What he strove for — and I think, achieved — was a fairness in discussing the topic.

    Objectivity, especially among news consumers, is defined by a dispassionate telling of one side, then the other side and then saying to you, “you decide.”

    Edward R. Murrow didn’t do that. He didn’t do that with joe McCarthy, and he didn’t do that with Harvest of Shame. And yet, people will invoke his name in the same sentence as the yearning for “objectivity.”

  • MB

    To Bob, I would argue that fairness is spared at the expense of accuracy. Having a source of both sides is fair, but it enables media savvy pundits to make claims that are not challenged because it would seem unfair.

    Koppel’s trip to South Africa is not a good example. Stating that apartheid is wrong was not, even at that time, a profile in courage. How about during the run up to the Iraq war? Look at who was wrong and who was right, then look at who was given more air time and who saw less access.

    You offered your view of Olbermann in your post. But in Olbermann’s response to Koppel he gives a pointed telling of what happened to Murrow’s career after Murrow challenged McCarthy. The sustained attack on Murrow’s political views and patriotism wore on network management to the point they made the decision to limit Murrow’s airtime. This has been constant since then. News organizations are overly sensitive to charges of (liberal) political bias. Organized, directed feedback campaigns take their toll and people wear down and management makes sure to not offend anymore. Sound familiar?

    What do journalists and editors learn from that?

  • kennedy

    Does it strike anyone else as odd that the beginning of the Jarvis quote extolls the “cacophony of democracy” represented by a multitude of newspapers, yet is ended with the statement that there are too many voices on cable TV?

    It seems like a bias toward news in print over other outlets.