Fair and balanced…. blech……

For the past two days I have been involved in simultaneous discussions both on b-roll.net and vergenewmedia.com: what is a ‘journalist’.

A great deal of this has been precipitated by Josh Wolf’s release after 226 days in jail for refusing to turn over to police video materials that he shot during a street demonstration.

The issue about ‘who is a journalist’ seems to revolve about the larger issue of ‘what is journalism’. Last week I gave a lecture at SUNY Stony Brook to the journalism department. The students there were aghast at the notion of an open platform where any ‘citizen journalist’ might publish. “They are not trained journalists”, they argued. (As they are paying thousands of dollars for such training, they might well be aghast that anyone can call themselves journalist, sans a diploma that would seem to say so).

The core issue for them, (and for many of the folks on b-roll) is the question of balance. A ‘real’ journalist presents a balanced story. When anyone can get their hands on a camera, you run the risk of ‘advocacy’.

My reply is, ‘so what’?

What is wrong with advocacy?

I would rather say that the problem with television journalism today is a distinct lack of advocacy; a lack of passion.

The ‘original’ journalists were all driven by passion and wrote as advocates. Thomas Paine, great journalist, was surely an advocate for a certain point of view. And good for it as well. He never asked for George III’s response to his ‘reporting’.

In the late 80s, when I did my first VJ stories from the Gaza Strip for MacNeil/Lehrer, I was confronted by Robert MacNeil over the ‘lack of balance’ in the pieces they had just purchased.

I had spent a month living in Jabalya Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. I lived with a Palestinian family. It was the first intifada. Many US television crews came to Gaza every day to ‘report’. They would arrive with Israeli film crews and military protection. They would do stand ups near the Israeli army posts, shoot some b-roll and then leave. Kids would wait for the TV crews and dutifully throw a few rocks from the distance. It was all kabuki theater, and it was all fake.

Living in Gaza for a month, I experienced first hand what drove the passions that fed the Intifada, and would later drive people to strap on explosives and blow themselves up. It is a pretty brutal life.

When I presented the pieces to MacNeil, he complained that there was no ‘balance’.

“Where is the Israeli perspective on this?” he wanted to know.

There was none. And there was not supposed to be one. I was not looking for balance. I was looking for a piece that would allow the viewer to feel what the Palestinians felt, and so to understand why they were so angry.

“When you do a piece on Soweto in South Africa”, I asked MacNeil, “do you include Praetoria’s point of view? “When y0u do a piece on the Gulags, do you we ask ‘where is Moscow’s point of view on this?’ When you do a piece on 4 little girls killed in the Birmingham bombings, do we ask ‘where is Lester Maddox’s point of view on this?’.

He got my point.

This notion of ‘balance’ is a relatively recent phenomenon in journalism. When Upton Sinclair wrote ‘The Jungle”, an expose on the meatpacking industry, it was first class journalism. No one then asked for the meat industry’s perspective.

The problem with balancing every story is that it leads to Oatmeal Journalism. Well, there is this.. but there is also this. There is this… but then again there is also this. Journalism has lost its teeth. And its bite. And for many its interest.

The same Oatmeal mentality now often infects politics. Hillary Clinton and John McCain are both Oatmeal Politicans. Midde of the road on everything. All sides pandered to.

We need something with some bite.

It won’t hurt.

What would you rather have? Oatmeal… or spicy curry?


12 responses to “Oatmeal

  1. i always know a good news show by how much i find myself yelling at the tv.

  2. I agree… except…

    I would say in a world of the web, with infinte resources, there’s room for both. Indeed, there’s a place for both — for all — viewpoints.

    I think “journalists” (I’m not even sure who deserves to be called that anymore, due to the stunning lack of content made by the “professionals” these days) should be finding and telling stories, sharing experiences, much as you described above. Especially in politics there’s far too much he said/she said and here are the two sides, you decide (as if there are only two sides anyway).

    I think your Upton Sinclair reference is perhaps the best example. There’s a story to be told when the meatpacking industry is examined from the bottom up (no pun intended), but what story will you tell from the top down? A story on Mr. Hormel and his fabulous fortunes would be a puff piece. But telling the story from the perspective of the people that are — figuratively and literally — getting ground up by the industry makes for a better story and tells us something we didn’t know before.

    To me, the “professional journalists” can just shut their yappers at this point. It’s not like they’ve come up with scintillating content in the last several years. I think they should be allowed to comment on “who’s a journalist” as soon as they themselves try their hand at the profession.

    (For the record, I’m thinking of mainstream media folks here. There are pockets of professional journalists out there. But only tiny pockets and handfuls of individuals.)

  3. I was one 0f the those SUNY Stony Brook students, but I prefer the spicy curry journalism. I like my journalism with passion and I want to tell intriguing stories about people’s live. I think the problem is that we’re trained to be the future generation of objective and detached reporters because we’re told that’s going to make us good at our jobs.

  4. Very well said, Michael. Ever since the Kevin Sites article hit, I’ve been getting blasted with having to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that I really am a journalist. Some of the exchanges seemed have since been published in conversational form such as my dialog with Anthony Lappe, who you’ve worked with in the past.

    It’s amazing how everyone has such a neat and clean definition of who is and isn’t a journalist and yet everyone carries a different definition. It seems like the use of the word *press* might be better but it evokes the printing press and in some people’s opinion only applies to print media… So many conundrums, so little time…

  5. michael, i went back and re-read this piece because it jogged my memory. i recall the daily pictures of those kids throwing rocks at the israeli soldiers and wondering why the heck it always looked so staged. did they insert a burning tire for effect too?

    i also seem to recall them showing a soldier they said shot back with rubber bullets appearing to shoot in the direction of nothing.

  6. There was a spot near Gaza Beach Camp where the reporters would come for their standups and the kids would show up to throw the rocks. While it was not directed, there was a tacit understanding among all parties who shared one thing in common – they all wanted to get on TV. The burning tires were also for effect.

    I was in Korea for the ’88 Olympics for CBS and shot a ‘student riot’ in downtown Seoul. You have no doubt seen these things – a line of cops with plastic shields and truncheons pushes against kids throwing rocks and molotov cocktails. great footage.

    We had just about wrapped up when one of the old timers suggested I hang around. I did. About a half hour later, the kids and the cops both gathered back on the street to clean up the broken glass and rocks and stuff. Very Asian. Very neat and orderly. I shot this too for CBS news but that part of it never made it into the story.

  7. Well, it’s lamentable that CBS News decided not to report that the “riot” was staged. I’m sure that you, as a journalist, did go public with that information. You did, right?

  8. My previous comment was insufferably snide.

    Okay, let’s assume you didn’t go public with what you knew.

    Let’s talk about why.

    (1) Have the standards for journalism changed since that time, in light of what’s been learned from the episodes involving Janet Cooke, Jason Blair, Dan Rather and others?

    (2) Should journalists be held to a lesser standard than lawyers, accountants and company directors, who are subject to civil penalties, loss of their livelihood and in some cases criminal penalties for failing to report falsehoods of which they are, or should be aware?

    (3) Is so, is that because journalism is less of a profession than law, accountancy or corporate management? Because reasonable people don’t believe it anyway, just as they don’t put much stock in what a used car salesman tells them? Or is it because it’s easy to argue for rigorous standards for others, so long as similar standards don’t apply to oneself?

    (4) What should be the obligation of a journalist who believes his story is being presented in a distorted way? To do nothing? To complain to his immediate superior but take no further action? To make his information known to the company’s board of directors? To go public with the information?

  9. Boy, that is a tough series of questions. Lemme do the best I can, but probably others can do better.
    First, of course, I actually did try and ‘go public’ with the Korea riot story becuase we shot that stuft into the piece I delivered to NY. They cut it out because they though it slowed the piece down… what are you gonna do?

    Have the standards changed and should Journalists be held to a set of standards, like doctors? Well, not to be too radical, but I think that journalism is a whole different thing from medicine. I mean, in medicine its pretty objective – a guy lives or dies, it worked or it did not. Journalism on the other hand, is entirely subjective. I can tell you this because I live in both the UK and the US, and as a result follow things like Iraq through US news and UK news. Could be two totally different wars. One person’s ‘surge’ is another person’s insanity. Is one ‘the truth’ and the other ‘a lie’? When a Palestinian journalist and an Israeli journalist cover exactly the same event, you get two totally different reports. Which is the ‘truth’? I don’t know.

    The best response to bad journalism or skewed journalism is more journalism. The more angles we get on a story, the more perspectives, the better the odds that we will be able to ferret out some measure, not necessarily of ‘the truth’ but rather of the spectrum of truths and perspectives and points of view. (This is why I think it is so tragic that no one will carry Al Jazera in the US).

    I think each journalist is obliged only to be true to themselves. To tell the story the way they see it as best they can. If the ‘company’ wants to change their story (and this happend to me several times), then it is their choice really to leave the company. In this country, it is the company taht owns the equipment and the transmitter, but they don’t own your mind.

  10. Thanks for your thoughtful response, Mike.

    Your conclusion, as I understand it, is that a journalist has an obligation to tell a story fairly, by his lights. If his employer’s editing distorts the story he submitted, the journalist may choose to continue with the employer or resign, but he has no ethical obligation to inform the company’s directors or the public that his story was edited in such a way that the result was misleaded or distorted. (Informing the public could occur, for example, by alerting those reporters who cover the media of his disagreement with the way his piece was edited.)

    I’d simply note that lawyers, accountants and corporate directors also have the choice whether to resign or not, but they have additional obligations imposed by law if they become aware that something is not kosher. Lawyers and accountants are obliged to inform the company’s directors. Directors, as well as lawyers and accountants, may have an obligation to inform the S.E.C. These obligations put these folks in as tenuous a situation as a journalist within CBS News would be in if he were to tell tales out of school about stories being presented in a way that he knew to be distorted.

    Should we treat journalists differently from these other professions? I expect your answer is yes, and I believe I agree. The reason for treating journalists differently, I think, is that people have learned to be skeptical about what the media report and probably should be even more skeptical than they are. Creating the illusion that journalists will act as whistle-blowers when they observe distortion within their own news organizations might well be counterproductive to this healthy skepticism.

    And while I agree that the best response to bad journalism is more journalism, that would work even better if journalists were more willing to criticize each others’ work. That would not only be very informative for the public but would also tend to deter news organizations from distortion.

  11. that’s odd, i just recalled seeing david gregory dancing with karl rove.

  12. To borrow a device from Unspeak.net:

    I am a journalist;
    you are an advocate;
    they are a sinister cabal.

    It is this type of narrow-minded thinking that is going to be eradicated by the new media forces. Your VJ network is the “Army of Davids”.

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