Tag Archives: 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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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: 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 nytimes.com 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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