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Friday, April 08, 2005

Fox and CNN

I was watching a bit of the Pope's funeral last night. And although I appreciate the historical significance of the event I found it extremely boring. So I was flipping back and forth between Fox and CNN. In some ways they were the same. The certainly had the same pictures on the screen and were telling us the same facts but there was a difference, and although it took me a bit to pin it down, I think it very significant. Fox commentators tended to use words like ‘we’ and ‘all of us’ a lot. CNN tended more towards words like ‘them’ and ‘people world-wide.’ I don’t want to get into charges of bias or faulty reporting by either outlet. That is often in the eye of the beholder and certainly it is something that if you look for it you will tend to find it. What is interesting to me about this is that for a long time journalists have held to the idea that they should be disinterested, outside, third parties. Fox has obviously abandoned this as a goal. Personally, I think that more than being conservative this is what truly separates Fox News from the other news channels. They not only admit to being connected to the story, they strive to enhance that connection. I am unsure if this is a good or a bad thing. Historically I would guess that journalists developed the idea of impartiality as a way to mimic the scientific process. The dispassionate, pure scientist who deals only with facts is a powerful mythic figure in our culture. The scientist has certainly replaced the priest as the fount in truth in our society, even for most religious people. Interestingly enough, science has shown in many cases that such disinterest is impossible. Quantum Physics has of course presented us with the quandary that it is impossible to observe something without affecting it. In less esoteric areas concern about scientists’ personal beliefs impacting their data is a concern as well. I think it is obvious that presenting your news organization as disinterested and external to events when you are intensely personally involved (or at least perceived as being so) is a major turn-off for a large number of viewers. This is unsurprising. If an audience perceived you as being dishonest about your own nature they are unlikely to trust your reporting of facts. This, more than anything else, explains CNN’s rating woes. So is it good or bad for a news organization to try and be a disinterested observer? Is it even possible to be a disinterested observer? Does the answer to the second question affect the answer to the first? I am currently pondering these things. I would welcome any comments.


Blogger Andrew Watkins said...

I am going to come back to this, b/c I love both quantum physics and mass media discussion, but above all I love weighing in on issues I don't really understand in the slightest. It is now officially the weekend, though, so I need to blow off some paper-writing steam.

Good stuff though.

4/08/2005 03:31:00 PM  
Anonymous GuyK said...

Dave, I do believe that trying to be an objective journelist is a relatively new idea in the USA. From what I have read about reporting in the past from Ben Franklin to the present objectivity was never the goal. It is always about pushing an agenda. Using words such as they and the people tend to support the one world government ideas of the leftist press, or at least that the way it appears to me. And For has never been coy about its support of the political right.

Thats why I read the blogs. Darn few of them even try to claim they are objective. I like the honesty.

4/09/2005 04:09:00 PM  
Blogger Greg said...

I think it's good that Fox isn't trying to separate themselves to an untouchable higher journalistic plane. The moment they think of themselves as "better" because they are journalists, that they're always right, the more prone they are to make the kind of errors that the average citizen would immediately notice.

4/10/2005 10:41:00 AM  
Blogger The probligo said...

Sorry about the length, Dave...

I can see this reflecting some of the points that you make – the “inclusiveness” and “ownership” apparent in Fox reporting, the “impartiality” and “objectivity” of CNN. I put the adjectives in quotes for the same reasons as you have - this is very much in the eye of the beholder.

Which is best? There is no basis for the “declaring of political interest” to parallel that which exists in the commercial world. There are some reporters whose politics are known world wide – who could ever doubt where John Pilger’s politics are, or whether Michael Moore supported President Bush?

Your question, I hate to say, does seem to relate to whether a reportage is “partial” or “impartial”.

In the case of John Paul’s funeral the “differences” are apparent as you have said, and can be given other names – “detatchment and involvement”, “personal” and impersonal” – and those differences can be readily accepted. That acceptance comes with knowledge that the “event” will impact only to a known extent upon personal affairs. I suspect that the same kind of reporting could be seen from the two channels on the Sumatra tsunami. Again, both would be comparatively dispassionate and factual but with the same different approaches as you have noted.

I believe that the “detatched, disinterested observer” died in the ‘60s, probably but not entirely as a result of the Vietnam War. The likes of Walter Cronkite and perhaps Dan Rather were certainly among the last vestiges of the “truly impartial” reportage and were also a good part of the cause of its demise. The last true “dispassionate” reporter, I believe, was Alistair Cooke whose knowledge and experience of the American political scene was without peer. ( What he would have thought of the war in Iraq, of the politics of GW can only be speculation – greater is the pity… )

The printed media has, with some very embarrassing and prominent exceptions in recent times, managed to maintain an aura of impartiality and reliability. That appearance is deceptive in itself as I have said earlier because the editorial policies and affiliations have become more remote and less apparent as ownership is concentrated into fewer hands and editorial dictatorship is applied by shareholders. There was a story in the Herald some three or five years back about a news item broadcast on a Canwest owned tv channel here in Auckland. It was made very clear by Canwest management (according to the Herald) that no news item even remotely critical of Israel’s internal policies could be broadcast on that channel. I do not doubt that similar editorial strictures are applied by the likes of APN and Fairfax.

Radio and television on the other hand are being driven by two additional and quite different fundamentals; the immediacy and impact of those media (that is where Vietnam comes into the picture along with the assassinations of Jack and Robert Kennedy and the moon landings), and the perpetual drive for market share - the “ratings”.

The effect of those changes in the broadcast media has had the totally deleterious effect of confusing the boundaries between “news”, “entertainment”, and to a lesser extent “advertising”. I took one of our local channels here to task for presenting as a news item what they subsequently admitted was a “supplied presentation piece” from a finance house which they had broadcast simply because the personality on the tape was a “well known New Zealander”. They conceded that the decision to broadcast was wrong without the disclosure of the source of the item and the fact that it was advertorial. They conceded too that the item had been broadcast without proper editorial review (in other words no one bothered to look at it first).

Even more importantly, the introduction of “entertainment” and “advertising” into the editorial mix has drawn the readers’ attention away from validity and objectivity of the content toward emotive and sensory response. Film of US troops in action in Iraq is accompanied by commentary that is supportive; terms that support, words that make the viewer feel good about what they see. Film of "the enemy" is accompanied by adjectives that express horror and reinforce feelings of insecurity and hatred. Watch an Arab channel and you will see the commentary and emphasis changed completely.

So, to a Fox viewer, the personal “feel-good” responses to news items that reinforce the reader’s personal expectations (a direct parallel to my piece on “confirmation bias”) conditions the viewer into overlooking the omission of contrary or adverse points of view. The denigration and assassination of alternative interpretations of an event is preferred by the viewer. Obviously, the same is said for a CNN or VOA or AlJazeerha viewer.

Should we be concerned about the content and presentation of the news as we “hear” it? Yes, I believe that we must. It is a fundamental of our political system. It is paramount to the survival of the freedoms we have left.

We must be equally aware and concerned about what is not reported as we are about how reported events are presented. As I have commented in my pieces on propaganda, that is one of the easiest ways of misleading an electorate – just don’t tell them. That way you are not lying, not misleading, just not informing.

Should we be concerned about the source of the "news" that we are given? Yes, I believe that we must. It is even more important than the content and presentation. There is an increasing tendency for the NZ tv news to make use of video footage that is prepared and edited by parties involved in the “event” rather than by reporters for the broadcaster. There is a name in the trade – I can’t get my head around it at present. It came to prominence here last year when the highest rating news programme showed a clip as part of the news and left three frames of the source at the end. It was in effect like reading a press release from the PM without any analysis or criticism and at the same time giving the impression that it was prepared by the broadcaster. Among the excuses presented in the resulting furore was that it was “common practice” to use “independent reporting”. At that level there becomes little difference between “outsourced” video and the orchestrated and choreographed “press conferences” that have become the norm worldwide, patsy questions and all.

From there too, is it only a very small sideways step to the news media (individual parts of it) becoming an integral part of a political propaganda machinery.

Yes, we must listen most carefully for the questions that are not answered. We must be most suspicious of the answers that start “I am glad that you asked…”

The truth is that whether in NZ or US, the news media and its reporting of political “events” is no longer controlled by editorial staff, or even by the Board of Directors.

Reporting of political news is controlled by the politics; by the granting or with-holding of the right to access to the news and the news makers. The media, print or broadcast, is the principal tool of the politician. They use it as skilfully as a master violin-maker selects his woods and uses his planes and gouges to make an instrument that produces a beautiful sound.

4/10/2005 10:58:00 PM  
Blogger The probligo said...

A final thought -

Do you think that we will ever see the likes of Watergate again?

I believe not. Why?

Could WaPo (as an example) survive a "life-time ban" if they repeated such an exercise again? No.

Would the political power structures ever trust the publishers of a news item such as Watergate ever again? No, and all of the major publishers know it.

To bring down an administration now, without the assistance of the political machine, would be suicide for any media publisher.

There is no "uncertainty" in the relationship between politics and media. Both know there place in the scheme of things and there is no doubt who is dancing and who is playing the tune.

4/10/2005 11:06:00 PM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

GuyK: I agree that it is relatively recent, pretty much an industrial age phenomenon. I expect this is tied in with the primacy of science that really became obvious around 1900 or so and grown considerably ever since.

4/11/2005 06:04:00 AM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

Greg: I certainly have sympathy toward that view myself. On the other hand, I would love to be able to recieve factual, unbiased, uninvolved news if someone was able to produce it. I suspect that this is impossible, but is it better to aim high and miss or not even try?

That is the quandry I am toying with right now.

4/11/2005 06:09:00 AM  
Blogger Dave Justus said...

Probligo: It is interesting that you chose Cronkite and Rather as your examples of unbiased newsmen.

Cronkite certainly was able to maintain the appearance of an unbiased objective source throughout his career, but his personal political views are most definately fairly far toward the left. How much this influenced his coverage could be debated, he worked in a different era though where bias was less likely to be noticed.

Rather of course has long been accused of being extremely biased, most spectacularly of course with the recent forged memo incident that has forever tarnished his reputation.

AS to your question about Watergate, I believe we certainly could see such a thing again (indeed one could easily argue that we have, with the Lewinski/Clinton scandal.) True, this scandal didn't bring down Clinton, but he certainly did suffer politically, and if he had been any less charismatic personnaly (say more like Nixon) he certainly would not have survived.

I don't see any signs here that a political party or the government is able to control and 'sanitize' the press. In fact, I think more often the danger we are facing is the reverse, the press is now constantly searching for a 'watergate' that the quest for such a thing tends to influence reporting. This effort ecplises, at least in my mind, any bias the media themselves may hold politically. Their primary bias of course is to ratings and their own power. This is true of Fox and CNN and all the rest.

4/11/2005 06:19:00 AM  
Blogger The probligo said...

Dave, I disagree on CLinton/Lewinski. That was politically generated from the start.

As I recollect the Rebumlicans had at least three cracks at Clinton before they finally got some mud to stick.

As for "sanitising the press", think about who controls access to the Presidential press conferences.

I have seen it in NZ, though far more overtly than would happen in the US.

Rob Muldoon closed his press conferences until one gent, a satirist and cartoonist by trade, was NOT present.

4/11/2005 01:38:00 PM  

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