Thursday, July 30, 2009

I really don't get the appeal of opinion-y TV journalism

A Chalicesseur sent me a clip from the Rachel Maddow show about "the Family" and suggested it as a subject for this blog. I watched it.*

If you want to watch it, it's here.

But I have to say that as I watched it, I didn't find myself thinking about the subject of the piece, though I stuck that in a footnote on the off chance than somebody cares.

I was like "People actually WATCH this stuff?"

For the past few weeks, I've been listening to radio and TV personalities wax on about Walter Cronkite. Let me say up front, loud and clear, that I am certain that Cronkite was a great guy. But the way people talk about him kind of creeps me out.

First off, he is usually talked ABOUT by old white guys going on about how nothing is as good as it used to be and technology is ruining everything. I'm a pretty serious believer in free speech, but if I had the power ban old white guys bitching about technology and how life used to be better, I'd give the matter serious consideration.

But even looking at how Cronkite's contemporaries talked about him creeps me out. I mean, everything I've seen suggests that LBJ actually said "If I’ve lost Walter, then it’s all over. I’ve lost Mr. Average American" when Cronkite came out against the war.

Even assuming the less scary interpretation of those words, that Cronkite was a bellwether and that LBJ thought Cronkite would figure out the war was a crock around the same time a majority of Americans would, it still gives Cronkite a creepy amount of power.

I'm really cool if my reporters never come out against a war, and watching Maddow made me realize how strongly I feel this way. Y'all know from my previous post today that I pretty much agree with Maddow when she says that Birthers' cause is the "Fringiest of Fringey McFringerson conspiracy theories."

Yet I really don't want to get my news from somebody who says that. I'd just like to hear the arguments and bssic facts, then make my own judgments**, looking up primary sources up on the internet as necessary.

At the same time, the Maddows and the O'Reillys and the Olbermanns and the Hannitys have no lack of fans, so maybe I'm alone on this one. And I can accept that. I mostly get my news from the internet, and I can't deny that Maddow is the latest in a proud tradition.


*IMHO, the best way to judge the spookiness factor of "the Family" is by their results. One of the reasons that Obama's win was a relatively easy one is that the Christian right didn't get much of what it wanted from Bush despite his promises. While Roberts and Alito don't make my top five Supreme Court justices, they are hardly as scary as what the Christian right had in mind. After eight years of the Bush presidency, Roe wasn't much weaker than it was when he took office, mainstream acceptance of gay marriage was looking more and more likely and one of the few things the Christian right got out of the administration, abstinence-only education, has lead to more pregnancies in the places where it was implemented and will be abandoned in some of them as federal support decreases.

So yeah, the "Family" doesn't exactly have me shaking in my boots despite their attempts to be kingmakers. Frankly, with their bit about dictators, they sound more like a bunch of frat boys than an actual political organization. That they keep cheating on their wives and making racist comments on the floor of Congress is not a big surprise.

If the Family DO turn out to be evil overlords, my bad, but there's my take.

** As someone who likes creative legal arguments, I have to give the Birthers props for "The constitution say that to be president you have to be 'a natural born citizen.' but the founding fathers didn't define 'citizenship' the way we do. They likely were thinking of something like the definition from "The Law of Nations” by Emmerich de Vattel written in 1758, which requires your parents to both be citizens for you to be a 'natural-born citizen.' de Vattel's definition was likely what the founding fathers meant and we should use a definition of the word "citizen" that matches what the definition of those writing the law would have been. Ergo, Obama isn't a citizen."

It's bull hockey, but it's really enjoyable bull hockey.


PG said...

I have the same problem with Maddow.

Why does it not surprise me that a theory that seeks to deny that Obama could be president is one that involves ignoring one of the Civil War amendments?

Unknown said...

I really enjoy Maddow, but I take her for what she is. She's not an impartial observer by any means. But I don't watch her for impartiality.

(I was tempted to say that I watch Fox for impartiality as a joke, but I couldn't force the words out ...)

Diggitt said...

Does anyone remember when Rachel Maddow first appeared on Air American Radio? She was the wonk, the PhD, who had languished in academic obscurity and then all but lay down in traffic to get AAR attention. She was paired with another woman, I forget who, who was apparently somewhat known to media inhalers.

Then Maddow became bigger than her cohost and the rest is history.

I think, CC, that you're stumbling over the gap between UUs and fellow-travelers (or as we botanists say, UUs and their allies), and the rest of America. Maddow crossed the gap personally, and I am glad of it, because maybe there are people on the far side she can reach and share some memory of who we are over on this side.

I am trying not to sound scornful. Consumers of popular media are probably 99% of the country. Popular media validates and vindicates but doesn't necessarily have a lot to do with reality.

My dad called Cronkite "Old Sickness Himself" (auf Deutsch, I guess krankheit = sickness) so I grew up not necessarily buying into the myth. I think his fame just confirms what we already knew. People want voices of authority and their first requirement is believability, not accuracy or rationality.

Incidentally, I watched Nixon's resignation in the middle of the night on BBC when I was living in London. All my (English) flatmates sat up with me. BBC took the main feed from Cronkite's network, than a BBC announcer came on to say that it would go to a -- he said the word as if it were totally unfamiliar, "commentator" -- and added that American television always told Americans what they had just seen, and then explained it to them.

This was seen as a bizarre part of American culture, like putting up outdoor Christmas lights. My English flatmates were fascinated. The ritual of the commentator commenting was as foreign to them as [flounders for comparison] staying in on Christmas afternoon to watch the Queen's speech would be to us.

DairyStateDad said...

"I'd just like to hear the arguments and basic facts, then make my own judgments, looking up primary sources up on the internet as necessary...."

A couple of points, and this is only going to scratch the surface.

Ironically, what you describe is (minus the looking up stuff on the internet) was what was the same reason Cronkite is cited with such reverence upon his passing. It's why when he opined about Viet Nam it was such a shocker. Cronkite and his colleagues were exactly the opposite of the "opinion-y TV journalism" of which you speak. But most of the time the broadcast journalism style in those days was very serious, very evenhanded, and only rarely inclined to outright editorializing. (**Disclaimer: yes, even-handed within very narrow margins. The details of that debate are beyond what I have room for here.)

Journalism (and I am a practicing journalist) is in all kinds of crises right now. The economic model is failing, the means of delivery have fragmented, but also, traditional conventions are up for question and maybe even up for grabs. (And let's not even get into the debate about whether "objectivity" exists or is possible.) Suddenly journalism is blurring with commentary, and commentary is passing itself off as journalism.

One thing that I can only begin to get at in this comment is that point of view isn't only reflected in the rhetoric (eg, how Maddow writes/speaks about her subject) but in the topics chosen about which to speak (eg, in this case, The Family...)... By not being bound by the same conventions as her nightly news colleagues, Maddow is perhaps more free to even explore a story like "The Family"; the conventions of regular journalism would largely prevent a Cronkite successor to do that story without someone to talk to who is "a critic" of the group.

And finally, a thought about your initial premise, quoted above... I think the percentage of the media consuming audience who will have the time (much less take it) to go hunting for primary sources against which to assess what they heard on the news last night (or think they heard) is a tiny fraction of the media-consuming public. Combine that with the atomizing of the news sources, often along ideological lines, that's what further drives the nostalgia for the Cronkite era: Whatever its faults, it at least created the illusion of a shared media reality and a common explanation of what was happening in the world.

Bill Baar said...

I remember Cronkite well. As I well remember Huntley and Brinkley. And Fahey Flinn and PJ Hoff on local Chicago TV. (Flinn later a guy I'd sit with at the bar at the State Lake Lounge below the station.

I don't mind that era's passing at all.... good riddance.

Anonymous said...

Re: "Journalism (and I am a practicing journalist) is in all kinds of crises right now. The economic model is failing, the means of delivery have fragmented, but also, traditional conventions are up for question and maybe even up for grabs. (And let's not even get into the debate about whether "objectivity" exists or is possible.) Suddenly journalism is blurring with commentary, and commentary is passing itself off as journalism."

All true. But journalism flourishes on chaos. No profession is better suited to deal with chaos than journalism. And, since there will always be a need to know what is really happening, there will always be a need for journalism.

Technical journalism and economic journalism are needed more than ever. Political journalism has simply been over covered. There have to be new and different ways of arousing interest in political journalism, possibly by totally ignoring commentary and focusing only on articles that reveal new and interesting (or better still startling) facts.

Facts, facts, facts. Only facts can save us.

If a bill is 1,000 pages long, someone must read the entire thing and spew out the startling facts. If a special bill is introduced that gives tax breaks for specific companies, someone should uncover it.

If the Federal Reserve Board ignores Credit Default Swaps, someone should find out.

No one should be proud of journalism if she or he has not found out something new and interesting every day.

Volly said...

I hate what the news has become. I'm old enough to remember Cronkite, and many others like him, such as Huntley and Brinkley. It's not just old white guys who have the ability to report news in an objective and factual manner -- most NPR reporters do it if they're being careful.

I can't abide today's crop of anchors giving out with "Last night, an eight-year-old girl -- I said, AN EIGHT-YEAR-OLD GIRL!!!!! Was RAPED!! by FOUR BOYS UNDER THE AGE OF FIFTEEN! RAPED! EIGHT YEARS OLD! People, what is this world coming to? They LURED her into a SHED and...."

That sort of commentary is what we should expect sitting around Aunt Melba's kitchen table after the newscast is over. It is the news media's job to report WHAT HAPPENED. Give us the who, what, when, where, why and how, in a clear and accurate manner. Then leave the viewers to toss opinions around. Nowadays, it's as though you're tuning in so that someone else can voice your outrage. Do they believe us incapable of holding strong enough opinions? Do they think we're so dumb that we can't sort out that certain actions are considered criminal?

That was the magic of Cronkite and his generation. Cronkite eventually concluded that we could not win in Vietnam. But he never came on the air and said "Okay, listen up, people. You and I are both SICK TO DEATH of this war! We're tired of our sons coming home in body bags! Enough! Wake up and smell the coffee, Mr. President!..." Cronkite was so low-key that unless you were really listening, sorting out the words, constructing those sentences along with him, and occasionally consulting a dictionary, you wouldn't know that what you were listening to was opinion. Opinions were reserved for a 1-minute spot at the END of the news program, with the caption "Editorial" at the bottom of the screen. Then some executive would pop up and remind the audience that it was OPINION, which was separate from the actual news.

I really miss those days!

hafidha sofia said...

I watch cable news maybe 2-3 times a year, so when I saw 5 minutes of Rachel Maddow's show sometime last fall, it was very surprising. The sarcasm and smugness! I don't even remember the topic, just the attitude. And I've seen a few minutes of Keith Olbermann online - again, the level of obnoxiousness there is high!

But I guess they are the liberal response to Bill O'Reilly (another blowhard).

And in response to Volly's comment about the media's "reporting" of news (mainly crime): AMEN. On the occasion that I do catch a snippet of local news or read a local news article, I am usually left wondering about the WHY and often even the HOW. WTH? So much information is missing that I think disclaimers should be added under the bylines: "No questions were asked in the process of writing this article."

Bill Baar said...

It used to be I'd have to go downtown Chicago for Foreign and Out of Town papers. Only a few spots for Foreign Language Press except for the Chicago ethnic papers. Now the world is at my finger tips.

Sunday night TV news in Chicago is all murders... so we turn it off. I can watch any of three c-span stations instead.

I think Brit Hume's panel on Fox is some of the best analysis I can get.

I turn off O'Riley when he gets wacky. Sometimes I watch Madow especially for the dismay she shows over Obama sometimes... her smugness really annoying though...

UUs tell me Hannity spouts hate but last night I stumbled on his panel with a Conservative Fem Columnist, a guy from Green Peace, and Lynard Skyner (sp? I guy I know little about, he looked wild, but made a lot of sense and was fun).

So I should trade in all of this variety to go back to Cronkite, Hunt, and Brinkly? Three old wisemen who in hindsight I'm not certain History will find to have been so wise.

Bill Baar said...

PS... Larry Sabato's column today on Conkrite's collaboration with Bobby Kenndy in 1967.

The reporter or anchor has classically been portrayed as the outsider, battling the establishment to deliver the truth in the public interest. In the modern day, many of these reporters and anchors have become millionaire celebrities, part of the semi-permanent floating establishment they are supposed to check. How often do they succumb to the temptation to use their fame and position to influence elected and appointed officials, or gain access as the social equals of those elected officials for self-aggrandizement?

What we've just learned about "the most trusted man in America" gives us the right to ask.

No way to I want to get back to this old-boy club style of journalism.

kim said...

American television always told Americans what they had just seen, and then explained it to them.

this has been going on for years. The American public now expects someone to tell them what to think and how to interpret what's going on.
So, yes, CC, you are almost alone in this. More than that, it looks like you have no objection to the right wing telling you what to think, but would prefer the left to refrain. That may be more gentlemanly, but it's completely ineffective. It gives the field to the Right. As a matter of fact, it's downright hippy-like.

PG said...

With all due respect to Sabato, he doesn't seem to have put much work into that column. For example, he says,

"In the late 1960s [presumably 1967], just after he returned from a long visit to Vietnam, Cronkite had sought a meeting with Sen. Robert Kennedy. ... Following Cronkite's famous 1968 Tet Offensive broadcast, viewers came to understand that Cronkite was opposed to the Vietnam War, though this opposition was presented as the result of the anchorman's immediate reporting during and after the Tet fighting. Assuming Mankiewicz' memory is accurate--and there is no apparent reason to question it--Cronkite had obviously made up his mind about Vietnam far earlier."

Except Sabato doesn't explain how he can safely presume that the meeting occurred in 1967, prior to the Tet Offensive. For one thing, Cronkite didn't visit Vietnam in 1967, though he went in February 1968 and witnessed the end of the Tet Offensive then. His 1967 broadcasts on Vietnam were based on others' reports, including interviews with newspapermen who had just returned from Vietnam.

Moreover, in January 1968, faced with what was widely considered an unrealistic race against an incumbent President, RFK stated he would not seek the presidency. It was at that point that people opposed to the war and seeking a Democrat to replace LBJ began pressing him to get into the race. But McCarthy already was in the race as the anti-war candidate. Then LBJ beat McCarthy in the NH primary on March 12, 1968, and four days later, RFK declared his candidacy.

So the more sensible construction of "late 1960s" is not "1967" but "early 1968" -- specifically February 1968, when Cronkite was fresh from the horrors of the Tet Offensive, and just before RFK threw his hat into the ring as the anti-war candidate who had a chance of beating LBJ.

Bill Baar said...

I still don't want to go back to the 60's... I don't want those guys with a news monopoly....

PG said...

[Shrugs] People like to believe that they are more sophisticated any time they have a wider range of choices, but if we don't regard those choices skeptically and cross check them against all the information available, I don't see how we're doing any better than when there was a monopoly. I suppose people now can more easily pick their preferred brand of bias (Maddow or Dobbs? O'Reilly or Olbermann), instead of being the Vietnam hawk cursing impotently at all the media for showing the war going poorly, but it doesn't make them any more knowledgeable than the benighted souls of yesteryear with their three nightly news channels. And when there were fewer channels, the concept of the airwaves being a public possession, and the requirement that their use be in the public interest, seems to have been felt more.

Comrade Kevin said...

I think the mild deification of Cronkite is that he caters to a myth that at one time the media was impartial and that journalists were noble purveyors of the truth.

I got a BA and the most of an MA in History, and one of the toughest things for me to choke down was that any historian writes with some degree of bias. In truth, every human has opinions and biases and that these color everything he/she writes or speaks. The key as I was taught was to be aware of one's own internal prejudices and limit them whenever possible.

These days, it's hard to know what the "real" truth is underneath the barrage of liberal versus conservative. The old adage of "you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts" seems apt in this context.

Bill Baar said...

People like to believe that they are more sophisticated any time they have a wider range of choices...

Heck, sophisticated people don't make choices. They just follow the other sophisticates. That's why there so easy to make fun of.

Free people like options and choices.

I don't see how we're doing any better than when there was a monopoly.

I can read Shia online with google translate. A little rough but the translations get better all the time.

Those universal translaters from star trek aren't so far off.

How that can't be a good thing, especially for people with the word Universal in the name of their Church, would be awfully hard for me to understand. That would defily translation.

Bill Baar said...

These days, it's hard to know what the "real" truth is underneath the barrage of liberal versus conservative.

Your one Comrade who has forgotten your dialictic! Thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. That's what any Hegelian will tell creates progress.

KRAKATOA!!! said...

pg yur uptight. i could fuck you hard and then you would scream like a whore and be nice again.