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Sunday, November 08, 2015

Journalism 101

The Third Corollary to Borenstein’s Law states:

A lawyer who loses his credibility by making unsupported assertions ruins his case. The same is true for “journalists.”

The movie, Truth, is about a blunder that CBS news committed in 2007. Sloppy reporting led to a loss of credibility and firing of Dan Rather. The subject was an investigative piece that claimed to have found documents that proved that G.W. Bush, then running for president, had used influence to avoid service in Viet Nam. The rush to air the news meant poor vetting of the documents, which turned out to be false. A smug W was elected.

This month, CNBC botched its questioning of Donald Trump and Marco Rubio by lazy preparation, fumbling the sources related to the queries. These “reporters” left themselves open to visceration by Republican politicians to whom this was blood in the water. They tore into the red meat for their base for which the news media is an old and common enemy.

Now, Ben Carson has been “investigated” by multiple media snifferes seeking to verify or debunk his “stories” about his own biography. Politico reported that his claim of a scholarship to West Point was wrong. Carson replied that the co-author of his book used that word instead of “grant.” So what? CNN “investigated” his claim about his wild and violent youth (before he found religion). They reported that they couldn’t find victims of his assaults, inferring that he it was not true. He answered that he hadn’t used the real names to protect their privacy. Easy rebuttal. Another search failed to find a Yale class and photo that he mentioned. He answers: so, I forgot the real name of the class after forty years? This is merely a typical witch hunt by media. His supporters cheer, and more are drawn to him because his assertion that the media is out to get him is credible.

The lesson is that when the journalistic media shoots a silver bullet, and it turns out to be a blank, it does far more harm than good.

I don’t remember very many things I was taught in high school. Most of the science, math, poetry, and Victorian novels I had to memorize, analyze, parse, and cram into my addled teen brain have vanished along with my acne. But I did learn a few valuable lessons in those classrooms. For instance, I credit my journalism class with preparing me for my future life as a lawyer and as a citizen.

The discipline of writing paragraphs for news articles helped me to write legal briefs. The basics of the five w’s translated well for judges whose patience was as limited as that of morning newsreaders. I learned to get to the crux of an issue at the top (whether arguing orally or in writing), and then to complete the thought in coherent order of relevance.      

I found that those principles were also helpful in considering public issues. When listening, watching or reading news reports, I was better able to separate known facts from speculation. It helped me to distinguish evidence from beliefs.

The classic rules of journalism that I learned are simple. A newspaper is supposed to be divided into separate sections: News, Features, Editorials. There is a bright line between news, feature stories, and opinion columns. Opinion is for the editorial section. Features include “human interest” stories, investigative reports, and follow-ups to earlier news. Outside of the editorial / opinion pages, bias should be avoided, even if a story has to have a “slant,” which really means that it is told from or with a point-of-view. 

The essential and traditional function of newspapers was to report the news. The first American newspapers mimicked their English counterparts; they were blatantly biased. In politics, each party had its own trumpet that did what modern parlance would called “spin,” informing partisans of their version of any issue. When the daily press became “mass media” the editorial policies of each publisher infected their reporting. The goals were pushing an agenda, defeating opponents, and of course, selling more newspapers than the competition. All was fair by those principles.   

Thomas Jefferson has often been quoted as the source of the dictum that a free press is essential in a republican democracy because such a government demands an “educated and enlightened” electorate to function. The People have to be informed of the facts in order to make the decisions that a democracy requires of its citizens. Newspapers exist to serve that purpose. (Jefferson, as we all now recognize, had trouble living up to his own beautifully articulated principles, such as “equality.” The same is true of his ethics regarding news: he was suspected of spreading the “news” of his rival Alexander Hamilton’s adultery to a scandal sheet.)

Like most ideals, the journalistic standards have been more theoretical than practical. Tabloids have dominated the industry; readers have always preferred the flamboyant style of The Daily News to the dry reportage of The Times. Yet The Times has been considered the journal of record for the elite class: government, academe. Other periodicals follow the lead of The Times, and rely on its sourcing for its own reporting.   

But we are now in a new era. The internet is now the source of information for the computer literate generation. My son, 35, although he was the editor of an award winning prep school newspaper, never reads a newspaper in print. Most people his age or younger get their news on line.

The power of the print press began to erode as early as the 1950’s with the coming of television news. Before long, most people got their “news” from the rapid “bulletins” of live TV rather than “Extras,” special editions of newspapers that used to supplement the usual morning and evening editions. When I was in high school (class of 1961) there were seven major papers in New York and that was down from as many as fifteen at times.

Newspapers realized they couldn’t compete with the immediacy of news reporting on TV. The civil rights movement, the Cuban missile crisis, the Vietnam War, political campaigns, all were visually powerful stories that TV covered more vividly. Newspapers began to evolve: producing in depth analysis of stories, investigaitions that went beneath the headlines.
The internet revolution has even eroded the domination of the broadcast media today. With the possible exceptions of satire on SNL, the Daily Show, John Oliver, and youtube clips of late night monologues and local news bloopers, TV news is ignored by everyone 35 and younger. 

Eventually, “journalism” became an academic subject, guided by a rigid set of ethical standards that were deemed to be necessary to legitimize it as a worthwhile career. They included: accuracy, objectivity, and impartiality in reporting the discernable facts. Facts were reported as true only when proved by reliable sources. Gossip, innuendo, opinion and spin may be reported, but with clear labels to distinguish from facts.

Just as newspapers groped to find new uses when TV usurped the “news,” TV now struggles to keep its audience. The commercial mass medium depends on advertising, subscribers for cable networks, and sources willing to feed items. Entertainment is a goal that vies with the duty to provide information (thus, the pejorative term “Infotainment”).

As in all forms of entertainment, charismatic star power draws an audience. Newspapers always had star columnists who became powerful personalities: Walter Winchell, Drew Pearson, as examples. TV had Murrow, Cronkite, Brinkley. Walter Cronkite was a trained print reporter who brought his writing skills and reporting ethics to CBS. He edited and read the news each night with a stern, steady, neutral voice. He became “the most trusted man in America” because viewers sensed his innate credibility.

Cronkite also accepted entertainment assignments — You Are There — a show that dramatized history by his “interviews” of famous people: Eg: Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton before their duel. Murrow did Person to Person, celebrity “interviews.” But there was a clear distinction between these amusements and their jobs as reporters of news.

Because they had built credible reputations, Cronkite and Murrow had the most impact when they crossed the line into commentary. Murrow’s famous expose of McCarthy, and Cronkite’s investigations into the Vietnam War were departures from their objective reporting and thus had even more impact than if they had been ranting on every show.

Cable “news” shows such as those on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN, are not so different from the biased, party-based tabloids of the past. They present brief summaries of a few items from the news of the day. Each segment — that is strictly timed in order to accommodate advertizers — spins the news with opinion after opinion: by professional surrogates of politicians, and spokespeople for the government. Then there are opinions from “consultants,” who are supposed “experts” in various fields. They include former politicians, former print columnists, and academics, who are willing to express views on subjects, even without full knowledge of facts. They do so because exposure equals fame.
I’ve seen this sort of speculation turn my profession into a spectator sport. Every “trial of the century” attracts experts willing and eager to sell their opinions about the case. You rarely hear any of them say, “Gee, I really don’t know.” I presume that any rational person who gave that answer to a producer’s call would not make it to air.

The splintering of the news business, spreading from three broadcast networks to many cable channels and then to a plethora of websites, should be good: a few closely held corporations no longer control the news. But along with the new freedom from autocracy comes a loss of confidence in the reliability of reporting.

Another lesson I learned was that loss of credibility is fatal to advocacy. Your case is destroyed if you overreach, misstate, mislead, or rely on weak arguments that are easily rebutted. The corollary is that once lost, your credibility cannot be salvaged.