by Michael Abernethy

27 May 2005

We've all heard too much about filibusters, gay marriages, Terri Schiavo, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, red states and blue states, steroids, and Condi's 'Evita Goes to Europe' Tour.

We’ve all heard too much about the death of the Pope and selection of Pope Benedict XVI, the war in Iraq, the tsunami, filibusters, gay marriages, Terri Schiavo, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, red states and blue states, steroids, and Condi’s “Evita Goes to Europe” Tour. A baseball curse ended, Camilla married Charles, Gwyneth had an Apple, Britney got married… one more time, and Paris and Nicole finally did something intelligent by parting ways. In short, the year was a journalist’s dream come true.

Unless you were a journalist under investigation. In recent months, the reporting of the news was the news, as media bias and government sanctioning of journalistic payola were alleged and news veterans left. Questions were raised over the credibility of almost all major news outlets, and Americans continued to turn increasingly to the Internet for their news, as blogs became the hot source for breaking stories. Not since the rise of yellow journalism has news reporting been in such ill repute.

Whether or not the news is reliable should be of the highest concern. Our understanding of government policy—the effects of legislation passed and the need for impending legislation—as well as our knowledge of how well our elected officials address our concerns depends on accurate reporting. Enter Armstrong Williams, Maggie Gallagher, Michael McManus, and Mike Vasilinda, all labeling themselves journalists and all hired to promote the agendas of the Bush brothers, George and Jeb. Vasilinda is a Florida freelance journalist who also runs a public relations firm frequently hired by Governor Bush and the Department of Education. Radio host Williams was hired to promote No Child Left Behind, while columnist Gallagher was paid to promote the President’s abstinence programs and marriage initiatives. McManus’s selling of his column to Department of Health and Human Services in exchange for donations to his organization, Marriage Savers, Inc., is especially noteworthy, as his column’s subject matter is ethics.

The White House has denied knowledge of payments to the journalists, arguing different agencies are to blame, but they cannot as easily disavow any knowledge of Jeff Gannon. A gay, conservative ex-Marine and sometime prostitute, Gannon was given a press pass to the White House, where he soft-balled questions to the President. This was only the latest sign of how the Bush Administration has sought to control the media. In its first four years, this administration has increased contracts to public relations from $39 million to over $88 million, according to the House Government Reform Committee. The Pentagon has begun an internal investigation to determine if journalists were paid to write favorable articles for a website supporting government policy in the Balkans, and the Department of Health and Human Services has allegedly produced its own “reports,” with scripts endorsing Bush’s Medicare reforms, and distributed them as actual “news releases.”

Why the current Administration feels compelled to stack the news while Fox News remains on the air remains a mystery. Never has a President had a greater friend in the press than this one has in Roger Ailes, CEO of Fox News. Despite the popularity of Robert Greenwald’s documentary Outfoxed, which exposed the blatant right-wing bias prevalent in Fox’s reporting, and the publication of several studies showing that Fox viewers have an inaccurate understanding of major stories, Fox remains the highest rated news network.

Fox’s success means the network has little reason to change, which can’t be said of most other news outlet. With a new president and a shake-up in its staff and programming, CNN chased Fox’s ratings with more entertainment programming and more bickering among talk show hosts and guests. Two of the networks, CBS and NBC, lost their nightly anchormen, as Dan Rather and Tom Brokaw retired, and the future of ABC’s anchor, Peter Jennings, is in question as he battles lung cancer.

These departures will result in shake-ups in the format of the networks’ nightly news, according to Peter Johnson of USA Today (“Anchors May Not be Only Change in TV News,” 26 April 2005). Viewers can expect to see less of the anchor and more of the on-the-scene reporters, in an effort to let viewers “know” those reporters. In addition, all three networks are working to make their programming available 24 hours a day through the internet. The goal is to increase viewership, which has been steadily declining. Still, as ABC News President David Weston told Johnson, 30 million Americans get their nightly news from the networks; each network reaches more people than the top 10 newspapers combined.

However, a new round of accusations about liberal bias makes the challenge of gaining new viewers more difficult, particularly after Rather and the CBS staff relied on false information in covering the story of President Bush’s military service. CNN’s chief news executive Eason Jordan fueled the allegations of bias when he suggested some journalists killed in Iraq where targeted by the U. S. military. Jordan subsequently resigned.

Charges of bias among journalists should give pause. But they can also be distracting. Those who spearheaded the attacks on Rather’s credibility not only tarnished his legacy, but also squashed questions about whether or not Bush had lied about fulfilling his military obligations. Likewise, Fox News Watch, on 14 May, reported the Media Research Center’s finding that network news used the word “liberal” 39 times and the word “conservative” 395 times in the last year. Host Eric Burns suggested this indicates liberal bias, but failed to analyze the contexts in which the words were used.

In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, two-thirds of Americans reported having faith in media reporting, and Walter Cronkite was the most trusted person in the nation. Affording the media that much influence is perhaps unwise; nevertheless, many Americans were willing to rethink their views of the Vietnam War after Cronkite questioned its validity, because they assumed he was guided by an extensive knowledge of the subject, not partisan posturing.

That sort of trust is a thing of the past. Many of the issues which have dominated the news in the last year—Social Security, the War, judicial appointments—have an immediate impact on the lives of Americans. But most consumers tune in to news that shares their views rather than challenges them. Truth and trust are not at issue, only the desire to have assumptions reconfirmed. And that’s not news.


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