Monthly Archives: June 2010

King of bad journalism

Amid all the praise for Larry King as he prepares to depart, I hate to rain on his parade but the truth is that much of what he did was bad journalism. He used up an entire hour at an all-news network to give celebrities free publicity, at a time when I and other CNN Washington correspondents were trying to ask the tough questions that journalists need to ask. Most of the time King’s questions weren’t even softballs. They were  invitations to celebrities to tell us how wonderful they are. And the worst moment of all came on Jan. 18, 2001.

That was when King was on the stage with newly-elected President George W. Bush. It was at a pre-inaugural party paid for by Bush supporters and carried live on CNN. The decision had been made by CNN to let King host the event, a decision that CNN execs later regretted, since this clearly created the appearance of pro-administration bias by an employee of a news organization. Good journalists are supposed to not only be detached but adopt an adversarial relationship toward the powerful. That evening Larry King did the exact opposite.

To make it worse, at one point he rushed up to Bush and hugged him.

I watched in dismay, and so did most other journalists. As CNN reporter John King (no relation) later put it: “I watched in shame and horror.”

For the many people in this country who suspect that news media are biased, this seemed to be proof, live on TV, that journalists take sides in politics and distort the news. The reality is that I did everything I could in my thirty-four years as a journalist to be as objective as is humanly possible, and so did most other journalists I knew. But all of our efforts to be impartial seemed undercut by that one shameful hug.

To be sure, King did provide entertainment for viewers, and, at least until recently, high ratings for CNN. Occasionally he did ask a good question. But most of the time he missed opportunities to confront the powerful. Journalists are supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but Larry King just comforted the comfortable. What a shame.



Filed under CNN, media bias, news media

The Kagan hearings: what to expect

The New York Times seems split on whether the Elena Kagan confirmation hearings will shed any light on how she would vote on the Supreme Court. An Adam Liptak article emphasizes a study of past hearings showing that we learn a lot about a nominee from these hearings. But in the same newspaper, the Times’s own editorial refers to the usual “information-free set pieces.” Based on my experience covering the Souter, Breyer, Ginsburg and Thomas confirmation hearings for CNN, I would say the editorial is closer to the truth than the Liptak article, although there are a few exceptions.

The Senate Judiciary Committee hearing is usually a ritual with a foregone conclusion, if the President has the votes. Senators make speeches with an eye on the next election. Nominees stonewall ever so politely. Clarence Thomas actually claimed that he never once discussed the Roe decision even though it came down while he was at Yale Law School, at a time when it dominated the conversations of most law students.

When the senators ask questions, each party has its pet code words. Republicans use “judicial activist” to mean “liberal,” conveniently forgetting that the main activist judges on the current Court are conservatives who are busily shredding our protections against the power of big business. Democrats use “avoid a litmus test” to mean “don’t ask about abortion.” As in “nominees should not be forced to pass some kind of litmus test on how they would vote on specific issues.”

Abortion never seems to go away as an issue. Both the GOP and Dems ask questions of the nominee’s attitude toward precedent (known as “stare decisis” in Courtspeak) but again these are often code words for “abortion.” “Adhering to established law” means not overturning Roe. “Recognizing the value of Brown v. Board” (which overturned Plessy v. Ferguson and outlawed school segregation) means admitting that precedent doesn’t always hold and therefore Roe could be overturned.

Nominees inevitably dance around these distinctions and leave no clear impression how they would vote. Asking about “judicial philosophy” usually produces few real insights. Nominees always say they firmly believe in the rule of law, but who doesn’t? What if there are two laws in conflict, such as a statute passed by Congress, on the one hand, and the mother of all laws, the Constitution, on the other? Well, then it comes down to how you interpret the Constitution and the nominee isn’t going to tip his or her hand.

Then there is “original intent.” Conservatives like to use that term to mean “stick to what the Founders actually said, not what you think they meant,” and then they read into the Founders’ words some conservative position. Liberals talk about the Constitution as a “living document,” meaning it can evolve over time and change with changes in culture, which opens the way to reading into it a liberal stance. Parts of the Constitution are pretty vague, anyway. What is “cruel and unusual” punishment? Cruel in whose eyes? Unusual compared to what?

You might say we know how a nominee will vote because we know what the policies are of the President who picked her. But knowing a President’s policies may not help us know what his nominee will do once on the Court. Bush 41 picked Souter expecting a fifth vote to overturn Roe, but instead Souter provided the key vote to reaffirm it.

At hearings there are sometimes bits of humor. During the Ginsburg hearings, Strom Thurmond listened to powerful feminist rhetoric from three witnesses, then said, “I want to thank you lovely ladies.” During the Alito hearings Biden, then a senator, asked a “question” (meaning made a statement) that lasted so long there was no time for an answer.

But other than occasional comic relief, the hearings usually produce no surprises or insights. What they do produce are self-serving partisan speeches by Senators and coy non-answers by nominees. It would be surprising if the Kagan hearings produce anything different.

(Photo: Harvard Law School)

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Does Wall Street get off easy?

Is the House-Senate financial reform deal sweeping or not? It depends which news organization you go to. The Miami Herald calls it a “sweeping revamp of financial regulation” and notes that Obama called it the “toughest financial reforms” since the Great Depression. But an early Washington Post headline specifically said the deal “leaves Wall Street intact.” (A later headline said “Bill does not break up the nation’s largest firms; ‘Volcker rule’ on derivatives was softened in response to lobbying from banks.”)

Are we talking about the same House-Senate agreement? One news organization makes it sound earth-shaking. The other makes it sound like small potatoes.

How it is characterized is important. Opinion polls show that the public distrusts Wall Street (although they keep gambling at that casino), so how people feel about the reform package depends on whether they think it goes far enough to curb the worst excesses of greed and prevent another Great Recession. Public opinion will put pressure on representatives and senators, who are scheduled to vote on the final deal next week, and that pressure will help determine whether it passes and by how many votes.

That’s where news media come in. They need to be careful to characterize precisely and contextually what the agreement actually does and does not do. How much does it tighten regulations? Does it leave the banks as powerful as ever? After the Depression, truly sweeping reforms were enacted (until they were cast aside by deregulation). How does this one compare, and why is it so limited? These are some of the questions that need to be answered so the public can make up its mind whether this is the reform we really need.

(Photo: Rainforest Action Network)

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Beyond McChrystal

Even France’s soccer team at the World Cup seems not as dysfunctional as the administration’s Afghan policy team. President Obama’s confidence in McChrystal may be coming unraveled, but what may be even more important is whether the whole war policy itself is coming unraveled, not that it was very raveled to start with.

The Rolling Stone article revealed not only Gen. McChrystal’s contempt for his civilian superiors but also how badly things are going in the war. We need more of that kind of reporting on what is really happening in this, the longest war in U.S. history, a war that is starting to look more and more like another Vietnam-type fiasco.

The question is not whether one general or another should be replaced but whether the war policy itself makes any sense, based on what is happening on the ground. To answer that question we need the kind of in-depth, careful reporting seen in the excellent PBS Frontline documentary, “Obama’s War.” One of its more memorable segments showed a frustrated American lieutenant unable to persuade Afghan villagers to cooperate with his unit — unable, in other words, to win their “hearts and minds.” The look on his face captured the near-impossibility of this mission, trying to impose American will on people who don’t want us there and who know that we will be gone in a matter of months.

Whatever personnel and policy changes ensue in the aftermath of the McChrystal affair, our news media need to dig deeper into what is really happening in Afghanistan and tell us the truth, so that we don’t sink deeper into this deadly quagmire.

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BP oil disaster: Joe Barton’s “kernel of truth”

New York Times columnist David Brooks, appearing on the PBS NewsHour, couldn’t bring himself to totally condemn Joe Barton. While saying Joe was politically stupid, Brooks said Joe was only two-thirds substantively stupid. And what was the smart one-third? “…we have a set of laws, when somebody does something bad, does something negligent, to force them to pay and compensate those who were damaged. And that’s all on the books. And what President Obama did when he very publicly and very brutally strong-armed BP into setting aside this $20 billion, is, he went around those laws.”

Brooks called that a “kernel of truth” at the core of what Joe said. But perhaps it’s more than that. Perhaps it’s a kernel of truth at the core of what the Republican Party stands for, and at the core of columnists like Brooks who support the conservative philosophy. Deep in their hearts they are more worried about government power than corporate power, even when corporate power takes the extreme form of the BP oil disaster. They would rather have BP’s victims use “the rule of law” (which means get lawyered up and spend twenty years in court) than get speedy, certain compensation.

CNN has an interview with the lawyer for victims of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster, and it provides a nice counterpoint to Brooks’s sympathy for  poor, misunderstood Joe Barton. The lawyer, Brian O’Neill, says he doesn’t expect his clients to receive the remainder of the payments due them until the end of this year. He says Exxon treated the lawsuits like World War III: “They spent over $400 million on lawyers, essentially defending [against] our claims. They took every appeal they could take and they took every delay they could take and filed every motion they could take. Don’t kid yourself: the oil companies have the best lawyers money can buy.”

CNN did the right thing by interviewing O’Neill to remind us what lies behind the “kernel of truth” in Joe Barton’s apology to BP. We need daily reminders of the excesses of corporate power, the ability of enormous companies to beat the rap in court at the expense of what BP’s chairman calls “the small people.”

(Photo: PBS NewsHour)


Filed under BP, BP oil, news media

BP oil disaster: it’s not about Obama

All the instant media reactions to Obama’s oil speech missed an essential point: this isn’t about him. The question is not whether he is tough enough on BP, nor whether his Oval Office address will help him or hurt him. It’s not about whether he’s going to be seen as another “weak” President like Jimmy Carter. The question is: Did his speech help us as a nation solve our energy problem?

Obama actually said things that make sense. He outlined a plan to clean up the BP-caused mess, compensate victims, and protect the Gulf Coast environment. More importantly, he reminded us that we can’t go on any longer delaying an energy program to get off oil.

But because news media reports focused so much on the politics — whether his speech helped him or hurt him, and how politicians reacted – they didn’t fully report, in depth and contextually, what he actually said. The lead item this morning on the first page of was a so-called “news analysis” (meaning commentary) instead of a factual report that might have helped readers understand what he actually said and what the background is. This “news analysis” said he was “fighting his own powerlessness.” What’s the basis for saying that? None was given, and in any case that’s not the main point.

It’s true that people are fascinated by how well or how badly a President is doing, and it’s easy for lazy journalists to find plenty of people to quote about that, but that doesn’t mean news media should fixate on our leader’s ups and downs. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if Obama is doing well or not. What matters is whether we as a nation are doing well. That’s what journalists should use as their frame of reference. They should quote informed, impartial experts on how the clean-up plan will work. And they should do hard-hitting, investigative reporting on how much we are being hurt by Congress’s failure to enact a comprehensive energy plan.

(White House photo.)

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Marking media history: CNN’s 30th anniversary

There was a sense of media history in DC Saturday evening when former and current CNN hands gathered to celebrate the network’s 30th anniversary. The center of attention, as he had been three decades ago when he bankrolled the risky venture, was Ted Turner, 71 years old now, a bit subdued but still pleased with what he had done. “I’m very proud,” he said.

Chatting with him, I noted the three hundred guests milling around the National Press Club ballroom and said, “We’re all here because of you.” He shook his head. “Nah. You guys did it.”

Former CNNer Bernie Shaw, one of the network’s first anchors, acted as MC. Guests were so excited to reunite and talk that he had to ask them to be quiet so we could hear the speakers. When Ted Turner got up to speak, someone shouted: “You were cable before cable was cool!” — a reference to an early CNN billboard ad that showed Ted as a cable pioneer.

Judy Woodruff, a PBS NewsHour anchor, was one of the CNN alumni on hand. Wolf Blitzer, still with CNN, also was in the crowd. There were others, names not known to the public, who had been behind-the-scenes producers and camera operators and video editors, many of them having started at the new network when they were barely out of college. All of them helped this improbable upstart network (ridiculed by established media as “Chicken Noodle News”) get off the ground.

A blooper reel was shown, and it was a reminder how amateurish and slipshod the first programs were, marred by the wrong audio and camera shots that mysteriously drifted away from the anchors to show walls and doors in the background. A howl of laughter went up from the crowd when one camera mix-up on the blooper reel showed Larry King zipping up his fly. It was all part of the riskiness of live TV.

Other news organizations have reunions, but it’s doubtful any could match this one in emotion. Everyone there remembered how unlikely a proposition CNN had been when it first went on the air on June 1, 1980. It had not been until the 1991 Gulf War that CNN gained a large audience and was taken seriously by the other networks, so much so that imitators arrived in the form of Fox and MSNBC. Now twenty-four-hour television news is a fact of life, with both its harmful side and benefits, its sensationalism and mindless punditry on the one hand, and, on the other, its ability to bring distant events home to viewers around the world live as they happen. Like it or not, CNN has changed people’s lives, and Saturday’s event reunited some of the pioneers who helped bring about that change.

(Photo by Tony Umrani.)


Filed under live TV, media history