Category Archives: media bias

Keith Olbermann was wrong

The third principle of the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is “Act Independently.” The SPJ specifies that this means avoid any behavior that could create even the appearance of a conflict of interest. MSNBC’s own code of ethics says the same thing. Keith Olbermann has violated that principle of acting independently, and MSNBC was right to suspend him. But MSNBC needs to do more.

Olbermann was caught by Politico making political donations to three Democratic candidates, one of whom appeared on his show. Ordinary citizens can donate to political campaigns, but journalists who value their integrity cannot. Not even if these journalists are “commentators” or “analysts.” It is one thing to have a liberal or pro-Democratic outlook. It is quite another to give money to political candidates. Just because Faux News anchors do that does not make it right. And just because Bernie Sanders and Elliot Spitzer take Olbermann’s side, that still does not make it right.

The reason is simple. Journalists — even commentators — must behave professionally and avoid overtly partisan behavior, so that audiences will trust them as credible independent observers and not see them as individuals who are working for the election of certain candidates. Earlier in American history journalists were clearly partisan, but since the middle of the 19th Century the profession’s ethics clearly forbid giving money to candidates and parties, and taking other actions intended to benefit parties. Journalists concerned with ethics were up in arms when CNN’s Larry King literally embraced President-elect George W. Bush onstage while hosting a GOP event.

I supported CNN’s decision earlier this year to fire Octavia Nasr for tweeting a favorable comment about a Hezbollah leader, and I supported NPR’s decision to fire Juan Williams, who was employed by both NPR and Faux News. While appearing on Faux, he had expressed fear of Muslim passengers of airlines. By the same token, I support MSNBC’s punishment of Olbermann. In each case, the journalist failed to behave professionally and avoid even the appearance of excessive bias.

But what MSNBC needs to do now is change its name, which executives of the parent company are considering doing. Never mind having the silly slogan “Lean Forward.” What the cable channel MSNBC needs to do is make it clear that it has nothing to do with the website msnbc.com, which is basically the website of NBC News. It is one thing to lean to the left (or “forward”) as a commentary cable channel with occasional news cut-ins. It is quite another to have the same name as a legitimate news organization which strictly avoids any partisanship in order to maintain its credibility.

If the cable channel wants to call itself the Lean Forward Channel, or whatever, that is fine. Or if the website wants to change its name to NBCNews.com, that is fine, too. But it is too confusing to have TWO separate and different organizations both called msnbc. Having the cable one be opinionated damages the credibility of the online one. And when the most popular anchor on the cable channel gives money to Democratic politicians, it further damages the credibility of the online news organization.

I would be even happier if all of the news-oriented cable channels forbade partisan bias by their main on-air personalities, especially the ones who also anchor major shows. And if they have guests with partisan agendas, when those guests are on-air there should be some visual cue that this is commentary and not news and information. For example, there could be a red border around the screen and the word COMMENTARY onscreen throughout this segment. Otherwise it is too confusing for the audience, especially when the same person is both reporting and commenting.

(Photo: capitalhillblue.com)

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Juan Williams had to go

I’m against censorship and don’t approve of journalists being punished for their views, but I also believe that journalists should avoid discussing their personal opinions in public. Much of the troubles of American journalism today stem from too much opinion being expressed by reporters. And so for that reason I think Juan Williams had to leave NPR — even though it touched off a firestorm.

NPR clearly handled the matter badly, but I think the more important issue is opinionated journalism, which has gotten out of hand. We need to get back to the basics of reporting — telling the public the facts and letting the public make up its own mind. Journalists need to regain the public’s trust by being true, reliable, unbiased reporters, not “analysts” or pundits.

If Juan Williams had said “I have spoken to airline passengers who say they are afraid when the see passengers in Islamic garb,” that would have been an example of useful reporting that sheds light on an important issue. But when he says that he himself experiences that fear, we the public no longer see him as a professional journalist who carefully reports the facts and keeps personal biases out of it — and he loses some credibility.

To make it worse, Williams calls himself a “political analyst” and was drawing a paycheck from both NPR, which tries to be nonpartisan, and Faux News, which, in effect, is a propaganda arm of the Republican Party and has such other luminaries on its payroll as Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. If Williams had wanted to be taken seriously as a journalist, he should never have allowed himself to be paid by a cable network that foments Islamophobia and whose owner contributes large sums to the GOP. And for NPR to be taken seriously as an independent and impartial news network, it can’t have people on its payroll who are also being paid by rightwing propagandists. In fact, NPR would be better served by avoiding or at least minimizing the use of any “analysts” and instead have journalists on its payroll who report what politicians and academics are saying, while keeping their personal views out of it. That’s what journalists like Jim Lehrer do, and he is highly trusted and respected.

(Photo: Baltimore Sun)

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Koran burning coverage: a tough call

If the Florida pastor had gone through with his threat to burn the Koran, should news media have covered the event? And if so, how much coverage should they have given?

This is one of the toughest decisions in the news business. News organizations differed in their plans. Fox, CNN and the AP said they would not provide pictures. The New York Times did not rule it out but indicated it was leaning against publishing pictures.

To come up with the right decision, editors and producers have to conduct a balancing test, weighing two important ethics principles of the Society of Professional Journalists, the main professional association of American reporters. The first and most important principle is Seek Truth and Report It. The second principle is Minimize Harm. In this case, the two principles are in conflict.

Burning the Koran would have been an event, and the journalist’s job is to report the facts of newsworthy events in an honest, reliable and truthful way so that the public has enough information to make an informed judgment. So the first principle would apply.

But burning the Koran clearly would have caused great harm. Already people have died in demonstrations in Islamic counries over the mere threat of this happening. In fact, today (Sunday, Sept. 12), even though the Koran burning never took place, two people died in violent protests in Afghanistan. Had the Koran burning actually happened, American troops would have been at risk. We’ve already seen how, in 2005, an erroneous Newsweek report of a Koran being flushed down a toilet at Guantanamo touched off riots in Islamic countries in which people died. (In one two-day period in Afghanistan, the BBC reported, seven people were killed.) So the second principle also applies.

How do you reconcile these two?

Before the threatened Koran burning gathered public attention (hyped by a Tweet and Facebook item by the pastor and then excessive news media coverage), there would have been little need to cover it. It would have been a minor stunt by an obscure church. But once Gen. Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Gates and President Obama, among many other leaders, had issued public calls urging the pastor to cancel the event, it would have been improper for journalists not to cover it, including providing images of the event. For one thing, there was no guarantee that all news organizations would boycott coverage, and all it would take would be for one news organization to take one picture for it to become viral on the Internet. So any one news organization’s not covering it would not minimize harm.

For another thing, even if no news organizations covered it, some individual with a cell phone camera undoubtedly would have put images on the Internet. The damage would have been done, and riots and even killings of Americans would likely ensue. In this situation, the value of coverage by a serious, credible, professional news organization would be to make sure that, since the story is going to get out anyway, a truthful, reliable, impartial and undistorted account should be made public, to counter any false reports, rumors or propaganda about what exactly happened. And that includes accurate, contextual images of the event.

Just because something is offensive and disturbing does not mean it should not be covered. The AP photo of a monk immolating himself in an anti-government protest during the Vietnam war was highly disturbing but it was important for the public to know that such protests were taking place, and to know what exactly happened.

The third SPJ ethics principle is Act Independently. If news organizations censored themselves because of threats of violence, they would violate that principle. It’s vital that our news organizations be free to act without fear or favor, so that we the public can be confident that important information will not be suppressed and that we can trust our journalists to be fearless and forthright in making sure we get all the facts.

So, a tough call, but on balance I would favor limited coverage, not hyping the story but not ignoring it either.

(Photo: boston.com)

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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.

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Imagine a world without oil

As news media expand their coverage of the BP oil disaster, some enterprising journalist should look at the wider historical perspective – and the possibility that many of our worst foreign policy and security problems can be traced back to oil.

It’s doubtful that the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq would have taken place if Iraq had not had oil. That invasion was Bush’s follow-up to his father’s 1991 war to drive Iraqi invaders out of Kuwait – a war that probably would not have taken place if Kuwait had not had oil. That 1991 war caused a massive presence of U.S. troops on Saudi soil, which Osama Bin Laden said was a desecration of sacred Saudi soil by infidels. That argument may have helped recruit supporters for al Qaida, which in turn may have helped create conditions for the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. responded to 9/11 by invading Afghanistan, launching the longest war in our history, and we are still there today, with few prospects of any clear “victory.”

There’s more: Oil revenues fuel the Iranian government’s nuclear program and its support of Hezbollah and Hamas.  The Iranian government’s hostility toward the West dates back to the U.S. and British involvement in the 1953 overthrow of the democratically elected government of Prime Minister Mossadegh. The U.S. and Britain did this because Mossadegh was nationalizing the British-controlled oil industry, run by a predecessor of BP. The CIA-orchestrated coup that ousted Mossadegh led to the installation of the hated regime of the Shah. The human rights abuses of the Shah’s regime helped create conditions for the 1979 Iranian revolution and the current tension between the U.S. and Iran — historical context often missing from news media reports.

So, you could argue that if it weren’t for our dependence on oil, there might have been no Iranian hostility toward the West, no jihadists at the current level, no war in Iraq, no quagmire in Afghanistan, and no devastation of our Gulf coast. Oil isn’t the only factor in history, of course, but it’s a major one, and if we could live free of oil, we could avoid many of our current problems.

World without oil, amen.

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Israel and Gaza: media already losing interest?

Only three days since the deadly Israeli raid on the Gaza flotilla, already there are signs that American news media are beginning to lose interest in the story. While the BP oil spill understandably dominates much of the news, the Gaza story should also be getting continued media attention but instead is beginning to fade away, replaced by new stories such as the Gores’ divorce, Sarah Palin’s nosy neighbor, and a new murder by the suspect in the disappearance of Natalee Holloway. These may meet the water cooler test (what are people likely to talk about?) but not the public service standard (what do people need to know in a democracy to make enlightened policy decisions?).

As a former Middle East reporter for Newsweek and CNN, I know how quickly editors and producers lose interest in foreign news, but this is astounding. The few Gaza stories that are still being done are focusing on angles such as continuing protests abroad and policy discussions within the State Department on how to handle this crisis. (Update later in day: News that one of the dead was an American caused an uptick in some media coverage for a few hours.)

Journalists need to stay on this story. We still don’t know what really happened. And what about the plight of the people in Gaza? Whatever security justification may be made by Israel for its blockade, that needs to be weighed against the human suffering it has brought about. People born in Gaza have little to look forward to in life. Few can find jobs. Most are trapped and cannot leave. They are permitted little more than subsistence food and medicine. Today’s Washington Post does touch on their plight, but we need to be reading more about this and in greater depth. We need more stories like “‘Captives,” the excellent piece by Lawrence Wright in The New Yorker last November, with its distressing details of the prison hell that Gaza has become.

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Israeli attack on Gaza flotilla: what really happened?

Journalists will need to be careful how they report the developing story of the deadly clash between Israeli military forces and a flotilla of aid ships that were headed toward Gaza. The Israeli government says that its forces were fired upon as they boarded the ships. A spokesperson for the aid flotilla denies it. Diplomats from Turkey and other countries are registering disapproval of Israel. There are calls for UN action. Protest demonstrations are in the works. The Israelis defend their actions and accuse the aid flotilla organizers of links with terrorists. Critics say Israel used disproportionate force against civilians. What really happened and what are the facts behind this incident? That is what journalists need to stay focused on. They need to be careful not to be manipulated by either side, but that may not be easy. If there were no independent journalists aboard any of the ships, reporters will have to rely on statements by both sides, and the trick is figuring out how to present those viewpoints fairly and as objectively as is humanly possible.

Based on my experience covering the Middle East for Newsweek and CNN, we are likely to see the Israelis make full use of their communication skills to spin the story their way. If the past is any guide, the Palestinians and their supporters will put out a confusing, conflicting story, will fail to provide English-speaking spokespersons who give a clear account, and may miss an opportunity to influence public opinion in the United States, although so far they may have aroused sympathy in other countries such as France. Already you can see how the Israeli version of what happened is influencing news coverage. The headline for the lead AP story Monday morning said: “Israel blames organizers for flotilla deaths.” The story quoted Israeli officials, and had no quotes from the other side. This could be due to AP bias or the lack of usable quotes from the other side at that time. As for possible bias, in my experience, American journalists or their editors often worry about appearing to be unfair to Israel, and tend to place heavy weight on official Israeli versions of incidents. The same AP report had a caption on a photo of Israeli troops aboard one of the ships. It said the photo from a Turkish ship “purported” to show Israeli troops. Would the AP say “purported” when using a comparable Israeli photo? I wonder.

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