Friday, November 12, 2010

Next up

I have only two real thoughts about the immediate case of Keith Olbermann. One is that the rapidity with which MSNBC President Phil Griffin responded (hear about it in the evening, announce the punishment the next morning or maybe it was afternoon if so BFD) and the severity of the punishment (immediate, indefinite suspension without pay) suggests to me that Olbermann's breaking of the rules was not the reason, it was the excuse. Griffin just wanted to slam down his fist and make clear that "I am the boss!" and this gave him the opening to do it. That is, it had a great deal more to do with office politics and battling egos than with the donations themselves.

The other thought is that the speed with which Olbermann was returned to the air says to me that Griffin was unprepared for the intensity of the response and rather quickly realized he had blundered into a PR mess.

That said, what I actually wanted to comment on is the issue this raised of journalists (or commentators or whatever) making political donations and the rules imposed on them by their employers. Y'see, aside from technical arguments over NBC News rules applying to MSNBC or whether or not KO knew about the rule that he had to get clearance since (according to him) it wasn't mentioned in his contract, or any of the rest, there is something about this that bothers me:

The rule in question says that those to who it applies "should" (which is apparently taken to mean "must") get permission from higher-ups before they may make contributions to political candidates or causes. The thing is, what if those higher-ups say no? Saying you have to ask permission means, by definition, that permission could be denied. It is one thing to argue that people in the news business should not make political donations - and while I disagree for reasons that will be made clear as we go along, it is an arguable position. It is quite another to say that your boss can tell you that you cannot do so - or, to put it a different way, can decide to who and to what causes you can and can't contribute. That idea - which clearly allows for a corporation to, for example, allow all contributions to those on a list it makes up of reactionary pro-corporate candidates while disallowing contributions to anyone else - is disturbing to say the least.

Something to keep in mind is that the whole notion of journalists staying away from politics was based on the self-created image of the "impartial" reporter, the "unbiased" journalist. That is, because you as a reporter are supposed to be completely impartial, you were to stay away from anything that would indicate a preference for a certain point of view. (That same idea is largely responsible for the inane practice of false balance - you know, like how an article about some racist white nut shooting up a black neighborhood has to then say "there have been examples of similar black-on-white violence; here's a case from four years ago where some black guy said 'fuck off, whitey' to some guy he didn't know.")

The problem with that notion, of course, is that viewers and readers have long come to accept the reality that people in the news industry are people before they are newspeople and that they do have biases and preferences and those can leak into (or, if you prefer, be inserted into) their reporting. It is simply a part of being human. So the studied "I have no preferences, no political convictions one way or the other" pose just doesn't impress anyone any more and so serves no purpose.

I'd divide newspeople into two sorts here, slightly different ones from the ones that have been bandied about: straight journalists and opinion journalists.

"Straight journalists" are the reporters, the anchors, the correspondents. They are not completely impartial or unbiased; again, they are people, so they can't be. What they can do and should do and are ethically charged to do is to strive to be impartial, strive to be as impartial as they can in their reporting. (Note well I say impartial, not "balanced." Not only does being impartial not prevent you from saying one side in a dispute is right and one side is wrong, it can require you to.)

"Opinion journalists" would be best understood by considering syndicated newspaper columnists. They are expected to have opinions, in fact the whole purpose of the column is to express their opinions and their interpretations. What they are called on to be is not impartial, but fair. That is, they should base their observations and interpretations on fact, not on wild hypothesizing or idle speculation (although even the latter can be fair provided it is labeled as such). Print columnists are expected, that is, to fact-check their assertions. That idea of having and expressing opinions, openly acknowledging preferences, but still being constrained by and committed to fact, defines what I'm calling "opinion journalism."

By that definition, I'd call the evening line-up of MSNBC "opinion journalists." That does not mean they are right, it does not mean they interpret matters correctly, it does not mean they do not overlook or even ignore relevant facts. It does not mean they can't be infuriatingly stubborn about seeing events through a "what's good for the Democrats" filter. It does not mean that they are not (because by all appearances they are) consciously concerned about being seen as "too far" left. It does mean that unlike the Hannitys, the Becks, the O'Reillys, the Stossels, and the rest, they don't actively distort or misinterpret data and they don't simply make shit up.

So of those groups, who is it that must be isolated from political involvement in order to protect their supposed neutrality which in one case isn't believed and in the other is not even claimed? What artificial notion of "neutrality" is there to protect?

Here's another thing: How high up the ladder does this go? No one is suggesting that the parent corporations can't make donations on the grounds that would "compromise the impartiality" of their news divisions. And what of corporate executives as individuals? Why is a ban on political donations okay for the employees but not for the bosses, if such a question does not answer itself?

Debating the issue on Countdown the day Olbermann returned, media critic Howie Kurtz insisted, rather bizarrely I think, that journalists of any stripe should not contribute to campaigns because, for example, as a viewer watching Keith Olbermann interview Rep. Raul Grijalva he shouldn't have to be wonder "Did KO give money to him?" I say bizarre because besides all the ways there are to disguise contributions if you really want it to be a secret (do it through friends, family members, organizations, and so on, as well as new ways opened by Citizens United) - which means Kurtz could be wondering the same thing anyway - it omits the other half of the question: "Did the corporation which owns this media outlet give money to them?"

Not an issue, according to Kurtz: Asked by Olbermann how high up such a ban should reach, Kurtz actually said it would be okay above a vaguely-defined level above which executives "are not meddling with newsroom decisions."

Seriously? I mean, seriously? There is a level above which what goes on the news is of no concern to those occupying those high positions? You mean Phil Donahue was not fired by MSNBC because of a corporate decision that his anti-war views were not good for the corporate image? You mean those memos from a senior vice-president of Fox News telling on-air staff how to slant the day's stories didn't exist? You meant that infamous memo from CNN Chair Walter Isaacson saying it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan" was never sent? Seriously?

Now, do the very top executives at major media corporations spend their time micromanaging day-to-day operations of their newsrooms? Of course not. The lofty people in those lofty positions have far loftier things to think lofty thoughts about loftily. But do they "meddle with newsroom decisions?" Will they "meddle with newsroom decisions" if they think corporate interests are at stake? Damn straight they will. Proposing to exempt them from the same "no, never, ever contribute" standard you would apply to lower-level staff is not to protect the sanctity or independence or the whatever it is you think you are protecting of the media, it is simply to embrace the worldview - the frame, if you will - of the powerful in which the rules for others do not apply to them.

Which leaves one last thing: Kurtz also argued that journalists must not become "partisans" and that making a contribution is being partisan. Where does it stop? he wondered. If you can contribute, can you consult for a campaign? Can you raise money for it? Can you write speeches on the side?

In addition to thinking that it's much easier to draw a line between being a supporter of a campaign (that is, a contributor, something any citizen can do) and a participant in a campaign (a consultant-fundraiser-speechwriter-whatever, something only a handful can do) than Kurtz would allow, this is a classic slippery-slope argument and I generally refuse to address them.

However, in this case the slope does not only slant one way. What of the reverse direction? If you can't contribute to a political campaign because that is "partisan," what can you do? Can you sign a petition for ballot access or to get a certain public question up for a vote? Can you talk to a neighbor about who you like in an election or how you feel about a public question? Yes, that may be only one person or a few people, but it still makes the information public and therefore able to spread. In fact, can you even vote? Sure, it's supposed to be secret, but if Howie Kurtz says he shouldn't have to wonder if a host gave money to an interviewee, why should he have to wonder if that host voted for that person (or who they voted for at all)?

The ultimate point for me is that I would rather an outlet admit to its biases or at the very least to refrain from pretending they don't exist. I said in another discussion that many different news sources, even conservative ones, can be valuable if you apply the right filters - that is, if you know their biases and how to read past them. Having a journalist make a political contribution does not damage their ability (or obligation) to strive to be impartial and it does not damage their ability (or obligation) to be fair. What it does do is create another filter.

And even if I didn't feel that way, the idea of your boss being able to decide when and to who you can contribute still makes me incredibly uncomfortable.

No comments:

// I Support The Occupy Movement : banner and script by @jeffcouturer / (v1.2) document.write('
I support the OCCUPY movement
');function occupySwap(whichState){if(whichState==1){document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}else{document.getElementById('occupyimg').src=""}} document.write('');