July 22, 2010

Newscasts become the shell game

Filed under: Guest Comment — Tags: , , , — Bob Patterson @ 1:39 pm

How disconcerting would it be if Rush Limbaugh, Randi Rhodes, and Mike Malloy agreed on something? – Anything? On Wednesday, July 21, 2012, this columnist was totally flummoxed to hear that all three of those radio personalities were telling their respective audiences that Journalism in America is kaput.

Rush was asserting that the “state owned” media was giving President Obama a pass on criticism and letting a villainous politician get away with dastardly deeds. Rush has started to sarcastically refer to the media as “The Ministry of Truth.” Obviously all the teabag party members will get the sly reference to Orwell’s novel “1984.”

Conversely, Randi Rhodes was very critical of the media for their role as accessories in the Shirley Sherrod brouhaha because they (according to Randi) helped the Republicans take a deceptively edited video and inflated it from a virtual lie up to the major gaff level news story.

Mike Malloy was charging Fox News in general and Glen Beck in particular of inciting violence on an individual level and attempting to incite race riots.

One of this columnist’s (if not the most) favorite metaphor is the parable of the six blind Hindus touching an elephant and drawing some very diverse conclusions based on the information they had available. The first touched the tail and thought an elephant was like a rope. The second ran his hands over the trunk and said that an elephant was very similar to a snake. Three felt the ear and thought elephants were like a leafy tropical plant. The stomach made four compare an elephant to a wall. The guy who felt the leg jumped to the conclusion that elephants were like trees. The last guy touched the tusk and said with certainty that elephants are like swords.

[For a totally irrelevant aside, we must note that this writer’s favorite book title is “An Elephant is Soft and Mushy.”]

The three radio talkers may not agree on the conclusion to be drawn, but it does seem that on Wednesday July 21, 2010, they were agreed that in the USA Journalism is DOA.

It also seems to this columnist that one of the best reasons to live in Berkeley is that the University of California Berkeley has a journalism school, and that may explain why a goodly number of great books concerning journalism turn up in the Berkeley Public Library’s Used Book store (at very affordable prices). Hence, when we decided the topic and commenced to write this column, we quickly skimmed through a recently acquired copy of a paperback book we read (approximately) 50 years ago, “Citizen Hearst” by W. A. Swanberg.

William Randolph Hearst made a big success out of the San Francisco Examiner by striving for sensationalism. Swanberg describes the underlying philosophy of journalism (Bantam Book paperback page 68) thus: “Any issue that did not cause its reader to rise out of his chair and cry, ‘Great God!’ was counted a failure.”

To build his audience, Hearst exposed political greed and corruption, which sometimes embarrassed his father who was a U. S. Senator.

Hearst imbued journalism with a tone of sly mischievous rascality that in more recent times was personified by Hunter S. Thompson and not Rupert Murdock.

An incident in Swanberg’s book gives a hint of the devil may care attitude Hearst fostered. Examiner employees were prone to overindulging in liquor and Hearst was very indulgent in forgiving anyone who became inebriated. “One day Hearst met a reporter who was perfectly sober, yet was supposed to be on a spree. ‘On the scamp’s assurance that he had honestly intended to get drunk, but lacked the price,’ (Ambrose) Bierce recalled, ‘Mr. Hearst gave him enough money to reestablish his character for veracity and passed on.’” (Ibid page 71)

Would William Randolph Hearst or Rupert Murdock be more prone to sending a reporter to the Gulf Region to get arrested in a National Park for snooping on BP?

During George W. Bush’s Reign of Terror, wasn’t Rush Limbaugh very enthusiastic about shutting up the “pro-liberal” media, but now that a Democrat is in the White House, he seems to be a champion of the free press’ right to criticize any and all Presidents and he seems bent on excoriating the media for not doing so with President Obama. If the sudden reversal was sparked by party loyalty doesn’t that contradict Limbaugh’s self proclaimed right to be called “America’s Anchor Man”?

Is it fair to expect a cheerleading squad to be nonpartisan?

During the Bush regime conservative talk show hosts were always admonishing their audience to avoid any rush to judgment when sensational news was announced. When the torture at Abu Ghraib prison was first reported, didn’t the entire roster of conservative radio personalities stress the importance of withholding judgment until someone had been convicted in a court of law? When the Shirley Sherrod scandal erupted, didn’t the conservatives respond like a lynch mob?

After Bright Bart was confronted with photos of signs at tea party rallies that indicated that racism was alive and well at those events, didn’t he just ignore reality and second the Amy Sample McPherson attitude: “That’s my story and I’m stickin’ to it!”?

Was the “honest mistake” attitude provided for Bright Boy, also extended to Dan Rather when he fell victim to some planted false evidence regarding George W. Bush’s National Air Guard attendance record, which indicated that the (then) President had been a deserter?

Failure to adhere to reality is fine for writers who hope to emulate Hans Christian Andersen or to produce something that would delight the Brothers Grimm, but when it comes to a standard for reporters why has America suddenly given a pass to Fox and let reality become gelatinous? Oh, wait! Mike Malloy pointed out that Fox has established a legal president proclaiming that Fox News has a (God given?) right to lie. It seem, after refreshing our memory with a skim of the Swanberg book, that even William Randolph Hearst would want to debate Rupert Murdock on that point.

Does that mean that if Fox News reports a sudden “groundswell” of approval for Jeb Bush, that it doesn’t have to be true?

It seems that Fox has made a newscast into a “play along at home” version of the shell game. It is up to viewers to ascertain which statements are facts and which are lies. Doesn’t that defeat the whole purpose of a newscast?

When a manager asked permission to fire the Examiner’s Managing Editor, Samuel S. Chamberlain, Hearst replied: “If he is sober one day in thirty that is all I require.” (Ibid page 77.) Is it too much to ask Fox News to be unbiased for one day in thirty?

Now the disk jockey will play “Dark side of the moon,” the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” and the “Mickey Mouse Club” theme song. We have to go see if the Berkeley Public Library Bookstore has a bargain copy of Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” Have an “if I saw it on TV; it must be true” type week.

1 Comment

  1. But even in Hearst’s day, there were competing newspapers with conflicting points of view — in Chicago, just 40 years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times, for instance, was considered the ‘labor’ paper and its sister newspaper, the Daily News, was the JFK liberal rag. Today, the Daily News is out of business and the Sun-Times is decidedly corporate and the same applies to newspapers and other media outlets around the country. In 1980, there were 87 national news sources; today there are six, all owned by big corporations.

    BTW, great minds and all that: I thought of the Dan Rather connection to the Shirley Sherrod story as well — and it was never proven that Rather used forged documents or in any way edited the documents he did have. But he lost his career at CBS anyway, along with his experienced productions staff headed by Mary Mapes.

    Next time you’re at the Berkeley Library sale, see if you can find a copy of Philip Wylie’s “Generation of Vipers” written in the 1940s. Although somewhat conservative, Wylie predicted in many ways the media world of today. Wylie also wrote “The End of the Dream” in the early 70s which Wikipedia says: “foresees a dark future where America slides into ecological catastrophe.” He may have been prescient on that score, too.

    Comment by RS Janes — July 22, 2010 @ 5:00 pm

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