Fact and Opinion

Name a national news organization that commands the respect both of Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. Can’t do it? Neither can I, but as the head of The Media Institute, and as a citizen, I wish I could.

At a time when there is no governmental institution in America—and scarcely any institution of any kind– that is not the subject of contempt or contention, the news media have a rare opportunity right now to play a meaningful and unifying role, and in the process to do wonders for their own flagging fortunes. But it’s not happening.

The United States today is fairly seething with fear and anger. It is no overstatement to say that many people in this country, left and right, literally hate some of their fellow Americans– a state of mind that will only be exacerbated as the presidential campaign yields a winner, and as the financial crisis takes its inevitable toll. A few years ago I used to say jokingly that I didn’t think the country was up for any more foreign wars, but that I thought there might be an appetite for a good civil war. I don’t think it’s funny anymore.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong, and a lot that is right, with opinion journalism. But when, as now, people in large numbers are fearful about the future and questioning what’s best for themselves and for the country, it is as ominous as it is lamentable that we don’t have at least a few national news organizations that are trusted, for their rigorous commitment to thoroughness and objectivity, by people of different political persuasions.

There is no need to define objectivity with mathematical precision; two parts of this to two parts of that. Neither is there any suggestion that objectivity means pleasing everyone, even some of the time. There are, after all, some people–like Marxists on the left and fascists on the right– whose views can’t be reconciled with any strain of objectivity.

But the larger point survives, and is all the more dolorous for those of us whose careers are linked with these organizations, by the fact that this glaring void exists at the same time that the news media are facing a difficult present and a parlous future.

At what better time, and in what better way, could the legacy media demonstrate their continuing and essential value to this country than by recommitting themselves, at this very moment, to a journalistic standard that strictly adheres to objectivity in the gathering and reporting of the news?

 

Political Reporters, the Economy, and the Presidential Race

In 1991, the Greek-owned cruise ship Oceanos sank off South Africa’s eastern coast. All of the crew, including the captain, abandoned ship before many of the passengers got off, leaving them to the safekeeping of the shipboard entertainers.

Watching the presidential candidates mumble and fumble their way around the country’s financial mess, it’s hard not to feel as those passengers must have felt—abandoned and alone, and every man for himself.

In fact, though, the more astute will have felt that way for some time. This, because though you wouldn’t know it from the stories filed by this country’s political reporters, the nation’s financial agony isn’t something that just sneaked up on us in the last few weeks.

From the extraordinarily high price of commodities like oil and gold, to the drying up of business and consumer credit, to the collapse of the housing market, to the sinking value of the dollar against foreign currencies, to the erratic and downward spiraling action in the equity markets, the U.S. economy has been sending out SOS signals for at least a year.

Like the presidential candidates, though, political reporters have been serving up economic mush, when they haven’t ignored the economy altogether in favor of “horse race” stories.

It’s in this environment that John Harris and Jim Vanderhei, co-founders of Politico, accuse Obama and McCain of putting on a bad show. “Tuesday’s debate,” they say “was a look through the wrong end of the telescope. Men with fascinating biographies seemed conventional.”

No argument with that assessment here. But then they come up with this: “Both Obama and McCain were once cult-of-personality candidates, running on their inspirational personal biographies and reformist profiles more than on their policy records.” D’ya think?

In my lifetime there have never been two candidates more uncritically acclaimed by the media. No Republican politician has ever gotten the kind of press coverage that (prior to this campaign) McCain received. And as for the press coverage of Obama, well, to say it’s been fawning is like saying that an eon lasts awhile.

So as the country’s staggering economic problems cast a giant shadow across the land–and in the process reduce the two presidential candidates to dwarflike proportions—it seems kind of late in the day for political reporters to blame the candidates for their lack of substance, much less because they no longer seem “inspirational.”

Journalists have had innumerable chances, over a long period of time and in an eerily declining economy, to explicate and challenge the presidential candidates’ economic policy views. Why haven’t they?

Pining for the candidates lost allure, Harris and Vanderhei close their article with this: “Obama and McCain are men with large life stories, asking to lead the country at a large moment. With one more debate to go, could someone turn the telescope around?”

Perhaps a better question would be when political reporters are going to turn that telescope on themselves.

 

The Good and the Bad of It

Because, as they say on TV news promos, "you need to know," herewith some thumbnail opinions of certain journalists and media outlets:

Daily Kos—Not since the Ku Klux Klan started wearing sheets has anonymity been put to a more malevolent use. If you worry only about the right, spend a little time reading the anonymous posts here and see if you still feel that way.

Drudge Report—If anyone had told you, back in the day, that Matt Drudge and his Drudge Report were destined to become the news leader in American journalism, would you have believed it? Well, you should have, because these days that is not only the fact, it’s the acknowledged fact. News organizations from the great to the obscure fall all over themselves trying to get a link to one of their stories on the Drudge Report. As Drudge himself says, “they kiss the ring.”

Christopher Hitchens—The scourge of all things politically correct, and a very entertaining writer. Wrong about a number of things, but who cares?

Charles Krauthammer—Smart, clever, serious.

Mainstream media (generally speaking)—In immediate and urgent need of more (and more prominently displayed) economic reporters. Looking back on the financial crisis gripping the country at this time, historians will marvel at the shallowness of the media coverage of it. In significant part this is owing to the fact that the media have too many political reporters covering economics and not enough economic reporters covering politics (or economics).

Keith Olbermann—If he’s not deliberately channeling Howard Beale he gives a good impression of it.

Politico—Though its coverage of politics is devoid of anything even remotely artful and features an overabundance of “horse-race” analyses, this relatively new journal is already the best in class. The online version is updated frequently, including on weekends, and taken as a whole its political slant is neither pronounced nor off-putting.

RealClearPolitics—One of the best of the political news aggregators, though they provide too many links to the same few (and politically predictable) sources. The greater value is found in their links to less familiar outlets, including blog sites, and in their own contributors like Jay Cost.

Robert Samuelson—Though he writes impressively about many things, Samuelson’s greatest strength is his understanding of economics. His pieces last month and this about the financial crisis are far and away the best things written on that subject by anyone at the Washington Post.

Tom Shales—In the way that some people are said to have a perfect ear, Shales has a perfect eye. His take on everything from speeches to TV shows is almost always spot on, and the class of the field. Unfortunate, therefore, that he occasionally wanders into matters of politics and policy. Note to Tom: Don’t do it. You’re not good at it, and it diminishes you even to make the effort.

Slate—Not perfect but a serious place for serious people, and marked by terrific writing. If the Washington Post, which owns Slate, were more like it, it would be a fresher and more widely admired newspaper.

George Will—The best of the commentariat. Made his journalistic bones, so to speak, during the Nixon regime where, second perhaps only to Woodward and Bernstein, he was the leading critic of that Administration. Though a conservative Republican, not averse to taking on conservatives and Republicans, as seen in his recent scathing criticism of John McCain (McCain Loses His Head). One of the very few journalists (Robert Samuelson being another) with a broad understanding of the speech clause of the First Amendment.

 

Journalists, and the future of the media. Part II

From Johannes Gutenberg to the dawn of the Internet, the press (or the media as we now call it) has been characterized by two things: It has been one-way, and it has flowed from the few to the many.  Comes now the Internet, where everyone’s a publisher/broadcaster, and all that has changed.

As we’re seeing already, tomorrow’s media will be two-way and many to the many.  (And a generation from now, when Virtual Reality is prevalent, many to the few as well.)

A change so fundamental poses real challenges to professional journalists, because in the age of user-generated content — whether in the form of blogs, or social networking sites, or YouTubian video creations, or who knows what — many of the “stars” are likely to be what we used to think of as the audience.

In this tumultuous new world, professional journalists will not only have to share the stage with amateurs, they will have to put up with their slings and arrows, and even to defer to them in those instances, which will be legion, where some amateur’s expertise or diligence on a given subject is greater than that of the professional journalist.

And there is one other thing.  As we see even now, all of the amateurs will have opinions, and some will be able to express them very well.

Given all of this, one might ask who will want to be a professional journalist, and what, exactly, will be the role of one?  Though no one knows for sure, the answer to that last question may lie in the advantages available to the professionals.

Because they have financial resources, whole departments of reporters, vast networks of contacts, and the best equipment, professional journalists have now, and will continue to have, something the amateurs don’t — the ability to engage in the practice of gathering and reporting the news.

It follows from this that the media of the future may put a greater emphasis on thoroughness and objectivity, not necessarily out of high-mindedness or J-schoolish exhortations, but because this kind of reportage, unlike opinion and analysis, is something only they can do.

If this is in fact the future of journalism, it will mark a return to a journalistic standard that’s lately  been honored more in the breach than the observance, and it will be another example of how great societal benefits often derive from the pursuit of self-interest.

Journalists, and the future of the media. Part I

“Ladies and gentlemen, The Network News Hour with Sybil the Soothsayer … Jim Levitt and his Almost Truth Department … Ms. Madahare and her Skeletons in the Closet…. Tonight, another segment of Vox Populi….  And starring the mad prophet of the airwaves: Howard Beale!”  (From the movie “Network,” 1976)

Everyone of a certain age remembers the story of the unhinged anchorman, Howard (“I’m mad as hell and I won’t take it any more”) Beale.  Examples abound that playwright Paddy Chayefsky was onto something.  Keith Olbermann comes to mind – and all the more so after MSNBC took the highly unusual step of removing him from his anchor post for being too far over the top.  Where journalism is untethered to standards of professionalism, and ratings are all, journalism suffers.

But the sullying effect of entertainment values on journalism is well understood.  The thing that’s less well understood, and a much more intractable problem, is the role of journalists in the decline of journalism.

From their tiny and parochial grasp of the speech clause of the First Amendment, to their growing embrace of opinion rather than objectivity, to their response to all things Internet, the performance of much of the national press corps these days seems – to borrow a phrase from Malcolm Muggeridge – like the antics of an exhausted stock.

Journalists’ knowledge of and support for the First Amendment can be measured by the things they promote and the things they do not. They favor access to government information, the right not to have to reveal their sources, and weak libel laws.  And leaving room for a little quibbling around the edges, all of these are good things.  But note the parochialism.  Journalists want access to information in the same way, and for the same reason, that fishermen want access to nets.  The point being that, whatever the intrinsic public good, and it’s manifest, access to information is a practical need of journalists.

But what about the speech needs of people who are not journalists?  Like the commercial speech of advertisers of legal products?  Or the speech of college students, circumscribed by campus speech codes?  Or the political speech of groups or individuals who, close to the date of federal elections, wish to make political arguments through issue ads?  Or, even within the industry, of the right of media companies not to have to yield to onerous and government-mandated “public interest” obligations?

On these and other First Amendment issues, far too many journalists are silent if, as with campaign finance reform, they aren’t actually on the other side.

Controversy over media coverage of this year’s extraordinary presidential election campaign opens a window on another journalistic sore spot, the twinned issues of objectivity and media bias.  In an article dated 9/3, Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post observed, without a hint of irony, that “denouncing the news media as biased plays well with many Republican voters.”

A similar observation was made the next day in an article in the New York Times. “If there is one mission Mr. McCain wants to accomplish at his convention,” it says, “it is to galvanize conservative voters who have shown signs of depression this year.  Traditionally, one surefire way to do that has been to attack the ‘elitist’ mainstream news media.”

But whether we’re talking about conservatives, who represent maybe one-third of the country, or Republicans who, at least at election time, represent half, the obvious question is why do they feel this way?  Why is it that attacking the media is a “surefire” way to galvanize Republicans and conservatives?  In all the years that I’ve been watching presidential campaigns, I don’t ever recall reading a similar line about Democrats, or about liberals for that matter.

It’s true, of course, that there are people to the left of liberals who are critical of the media.  But the great divide in American political life isn’t between Republicans and conservatives on the one hand, and Marxists and leftists on the other. It’s between Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals.  And thus, when journalists suggest, as they have for decades, that the existence of critics on the left as well as the right proves that their efforts are balanced, they miss the pregnant truth by a mile and persuade no one.

At what may be a tipping point for all of the professional media, isn’t this a problem that the industry should redress?  Is there any other industry that, upon hearing that half of their market feels they’re being dissed, wouldn’t move to correct, or at least ameliorate, that problem?

Of course the media are different from other industries in another way too.  Owing to the “firewall” erected over time between the journalistic “product” and the management of the companies that own that product, the news industry is the only one in which corporate management exercises little control over what its writers, reporters, and editors produce – little control, in other words, over their very products.

So with management hamstrung by the firewall convention, who is willing and able to mind the store, so to speak?  Certainly not those institutions that exist to fund, study, promote, and chronicle contemporary journalism.

Of the handful of foundations – like the Knight Foundation – that routinely provide funding for journalism-related programs at universities and nonprofit organizations, all share a mindset, whatever their funding priorities, that can be characterized as Old Newspaper.  As such, they cling to journalistic notions that are outdated, uninformed, and fundamentally irrelevant.  And what is true of the foundations is true, and then some, of the rest of the journalism infrastructure: TV critics, media reporters, ombudsmen, and the journalism reviews.

If, as they say, war is too important to be left to generals, perhaps it’s not too much of a reach to say that journalism is too important to be left to journalists.

Next: The Internet and its growing impact on journalism.

Is China Big Enough for Free Speech?

The Olympics are now in full swing in Beijing after a spectacular opening ceremony that displayed many of the Chinese people’s finest attributes.  The Chinese government and free speech, however, are another matter.

Our friend Kurt Wimmer has written an excellent piece for us on this topic titled “The Beijing Olympiad: A Fleeting Opportunity for a Freer China.”  Kurt notes that by July, Chinese officials had imprisoned almost 50 Chinese writers whose opinions the government found subversive or threatening.  And the clampdown was not limited to native Chinese.
 
Western journalists were ordered out of the ravaged Sichuan province following the earthquakes there, and at least 10 foreign journalists covering Tibet have had their lives threatened since March.  Meanwhile, the “Great Firewall of China” blocks access to Internet content that criticizes the government, lest Chinese citizens hear anything untoward about their leaders.

The drumbeat continued in the days just prior to the games with stories about journalists denied access, activists deported, and even the U.S. press corps plane being delayed for a baggage search.  Subtlety is not in the playbook of Chinese censors, from all indications.

Still, Kurt finds a glimmer of hope in all of this.  If the United States and other nations can bring enough media pressure to bear, perhaps the will of the Chinese people can prevail and usher in a new era of greater transparency, he says. 

It’s a big “if,” as Kurt acknowledges.  There are no guarantees that free speech will take root just because the Chinese are hosting the Olympics.  But as the Games focus the world’s attention on China, they do provide an opportunity – however fleeting – to begin a process that could just lead to greater freedom of speech and press. 

Some People “Get It.”

Imagine our relief, just when we thought that nobody cared, as we read the editorial in the Dallas Morning News.  Published on July 4th, and titled "All hail the First Amendment," it recounts the ordeal of Canadian journalist Mark Steyn, the subject of recent posts here. The editorial is reprinted below, with permission, in its entirety.

Editorial: "All hail the First Amendment"

On the Fourth of July, the day we celebrate America’s liberty and independence, it’s worth contemplating how much more free America is than most other nations in the West.

Why?  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  How very much depends on these 45 words:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

"The First Amendment really does distinguish the U.S., not just from Canada but from the rest of the Western world," says writer Mark Steyn, who’s learning it the hard way.  Mr. Steyn and Maclean’s, the top-selling Canadian magazine, have faced human rights charges in British Columbia.  Their alleged offense?  Maclean’s published a Steyn essay critical of Islam, which prompted Muslim activists to
file formal charges accusing the writer and the magazine of violating Canada’s hate-speech laws.

Last Friday, the national Human Rights Commission dismissed the charges, but they’re still pending in front of a provincial panel.  The victory is less than what it appears.  For one thing, defending against the charges cost the magazine hundreds of thousands of dollars.  For another, it is frightening to think that a human rights panel has the right to decide what can and cannot be published in a
free country.

It’s not just Canadian critics of Muslims whose speech is under attack.  The Alberta Human Rights Commission ruled that the Rev. Stephen Boissoin had broken the country’s hate-speech laws by criticizing homosexuals.  Last month, the panel ordered the minister to pay damages, apologize and desist from criticizing homosexuality for the rest of his life.

Similarly, the Ontario Human Rights Commission recently ordered a large Christian social service ministry to abandon its statement of faith as discriminatory against gays and to send its employees to diversity training.

Free speech also is in trouble in Europe.  Last month, a French court fined actress and animal rights activist Brigitte Bardot $23,000 for violating hate-speech laws.  Complaining about Islamic sheep-slaughtering customs, Ms. Bardot had said Muslims were "destroying" France.  In May, British police arrested a teenager for calling Scientology a "cult" at a peaceful demonstration.

Also that month, police in The Netherlands arrested Dutch cartoonist Gregorius Nekschot on suspicion of incitement to hatred and discrimination for cartoons alleged to be anti-Muslim.  The Dutch police, who have established a branch to
investigate cartoons, recently brought in proprietors of a Website critical of multiculturalism to explain comments left on the site.

None of this could have happened in the United States, where the right to say what’s on your mind, no matter whose feelings it may hurt, is considered vital to the self-government of a free people.  The First Amendment means that in our liberal democracy, we have to tolerate speech many of us find obnoxious or offensive.  But it affirms that enduring hateful or distasteful oratory is far less dangerous than giving taboos on controversial speech the force of law.

It is not too much to say that all of our freedoms depend on the First
Amendment, for if we cannot speak and worship freely, we are on the road to tyranny.  On Independence Day, and every day, we must be grateful for the foresight of the Founders, who understood as no others in their position had before or have since, how sacred freedom of speech is.

When Thomas Jefferson famously said that he would rather have newspapers without a government than government without newspapers, he meant that freely and widely expressed opinions are the true foundation for a successful government of the people, by the people and for the people.

In an observation that cannot be improved upon, the Colonial-era Freeman’s Journal editorialized: "As long as the liberty of the press continues unviolated, and the people have the right of expressing and publishing their sentiments upon every public measure, it is next to impossible to enslave a free nation."

God bless America – and God bless the First Amendment, which protects and serves rich and poor, liberals and conservatives, secularists and believers, and all those privileged to call themselves Americans.


 

The Silence of the Lambs

The failure of mainstream U.S. journalists even to mention the abominable trial of Canadian journalist Mark Steyn speaks volumes about the state of the industry, and about the speech-killing nature of political correctness.

As my colleague Rick Kaplar posted here last week, Steyn is being tried in Canada by one of that country’s “human rights” tribunals.  His crime?  He wrote a book, subsequently excerpted in the Canadian journal Maclean’s, to which members of the Canadian Islamic Congress took offense.

Never mind for a minute the impact of this on Mr. Steyn, or on those Canadians who, even without the benefit of a First Amendment, understand and believe in freedom of speech.  The stomach-turning aspect of this affair is the ovine response of virtually the entire U.S. press corps.

With the exception only of a handful of conservative journalists, plus a New York Times reporter writing for the International Herald Tribune, the saga of Mark Steyn and his persecution by a kangaroo court, formed under the auspices of Canada’s Human Rights Commission,  has been completely ignored.

In private conversation, a number of explanations have been offered for this phenomenon: It is a foreign affair; the U.S. media, newspapers particularly, are preoccupied with more pressing matters; worse things are happening to journalists, and to freedom of speech, all over the world.

I don’t buy any of it.  In the first place, we’re talking about Canada, not Eritrea.  Secondly, how much effort or money does it take to write an editorial, news, or feature story?  And as for worse things happening, well, that may be, but this one is quite bad enough.

A better explanation would be that, second perhaps only to the academy, U.S. media are the most politically correct institution in American life.  And few people are more politically incorrect than Mark Steyn.

In February of this year Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece for Slate called “To Hell With the Archbishop of Canterbury.”  Written in the saucy style for which he’s well known, Hitchens’s ire was prompted by a speech given by the Archbishop in which he suggested that  aspects of sharia, or Islamic law, should be adopted in Britain as it would ‘help maintain social cohesion.’

There is little doubt that, had Hitchens’s piece been published in a Canadian newspaper or magazine, it would have given offense to the same people who have initiated the proceeding against Mr. Steyn.  The difference, of course, is that Hitchens’s piece wasn’t published in Canada, and so therefore neither he nor his publisher can be fined or sanctioned.

As shown in the link above, the excerpt from Steyn’s book is disturbing and provocative.  But it is also unmistakably political speech — the kind, in other words, generally accorded the highest value by those who believe the press is indispensable to a democratic society. 
 
Fortunately, there are some Canadians who understand that point.  In a press release issued last month, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association announced it had applied for leave to intervene in Steyn’s trial.  In the language of the president of the association: “Freedom of expression is a fundamental democratic value.  Citizens of a democracy should be trusted to form their own judgments about the views expressed by others, including controversial and offensive comments.  The BCCLA will seek to protect basic Charter rights so that opinions on all matters, including religion, can continue to be debated freely and without fear through all media of communication.”

Despite the mounting evidence of the harm it causes, political correctness in the U.S. has so far escaped the opprobrium it  deserves.  Far from being the language of the enlightened, political correctness is the lingua franca of those who believe in control rather than debate, the very essence of totalitarianism.

The Threat to Free Speech Is Just Across the Border

Note to American journalists: Step across the border into Canada and you will give up every vestige of your right to free speech and free press. If you write a piece that someone finds offensive or that merely hurts his feelings, you may end up facing trial before one of Canada’s “human rights” tribunals that collectively boast a conviction rate in the range of 100%.

Hard to believe?   Just ask Mark Steyn, widely regarded as one of Canada’s finest journalists.  He recently went on trial before one of these kangaroo courts in British Columbia because a group called the Canadian Islamic Congress didn’t like a book excerpt of his that appeared as an article in Maclean’s magazine. 

The Islamic group claimed that the excerpt from Steyn’s book America Alone engaged in “spreading hatred against Muslims” – despite praise from other journalists such as Rich Lowry, who calls the piece “a sparkling model of the polemical art” and lauds its “profound social analysis.”

No matter.  Before the national Canadian Human Rights Commission and its provincial counterparts, truth is no defense.  And there is no requirement to prove harm.  All you have to do is disagree with the writer’s point of view.  Forget freedom of speech.  Lowry quotes one of the national commission’s principal investigators as saying: “Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don’t give it any value.”

It is incomprehensible to think that freedom of speech and press have been so thoroughly brutalized within the borders of our northern neighbor.  Equally unbelievable, however, is the fact that the plight of Mark Steyn has been greeted with such a stunning and nearly universal silence by U.S. media.  With a handful of exceptions like Lowry, American journalists have completely ignored this travesty to the north. 

It’s true that Steyn and Lowry both are conservatives – Lowry is editor of National Review  – but I don’t want to say the deafening silence is driven by ideology.  (One of the few other Americans to break the silence, for example, is New York Times reporter Adam Liptak, writing in the International Herald Tribune.)  I think it’s a matter of journalistic indifference to something that’s not happening here.

Yes, it’s a Canadian matter.  But threats to free speech and free press transcend borders.  Especially when the threat is this serious, and the border this close.  That makes it our matter, too. 

Final note to American journalists:  WAKE UP!!