Category Archives: media history

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, 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, 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.



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Filed under CNN, live TV, media bias, media history, news media

Daniel Schorr, a real journalist

Reading obits of Daniel Schorr, the independent-minded journalist who had the courage to defy the powerful (he was on the Nixon enemies list), I remember how Schorr stood up to Ted Turner in the early days of CNN.

When I joined CNN in April of 1981 I was worried that Turner, loud-mouthed and erratic, would do something so embarrassing that it would ruin the credibility of the fledgling all-news experiment. Soon after I joined, Turner almost succeeded in doing that. He did an on-air editorial in which he said that the producers of the movie “Taxi Driver” should be put on trial for John Hinckley’s shooting of President Reagan. Turner’s logic was a bit skewed. He said the producers were at fault because their movie had inspired Hinckley: “The people responsible for this movie should be just as much on trial as John Hinckley himself … Write your Congressman and your Senator right away, and tell him that you want something done.”

Just when I thought CNN’s reputation would be destroyed by this nutty comment by its owner, to its credit CNN ran an on-air reply by CNN commentator Schorr contradicting Turner. Schorr said having Congress take action against film producers could violate First Amendment protections against government censorship.

Schorr had a checkered career, and not everything he did was above criticism, but standing up to his boss at CNN was an example of Schorr at his best. He spoke truth to power, and in that he was a real journalist.

(Photo: NY1)

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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