November 19, 2010

Koppelesque on NPR

Generally not a fan of Keith Olbermann (I don’t even own cable, SIR!) but his calling out of Ted Koppel’s false equivalencies of FOX NEWS and MSNBC was finely welcomed. Of course, it is hardly controversial to say that “objectivity,” though altogether not an appalling idea, by nearly any measure inevitably falls short of pure, perfect impartiality. More importantly, and as Olbermann emphasizes in his response to Koppel,  the discourse and norms of objectivity in journalism have all too often  served propagandists and talking-heads of all stripes to spin, mislead, or downright lie to the public without critical scrutiny. Indeed the Nothing-But-The-Facts brand of journalism that Koppel and others venerate itself tries to delude the public into thinking that “facts” are simply out there waiting to be conveyed as “unbiased accounts” in all-too-brief news segments and spaces. The truth is that Nothing-But-The-Facts is myopic and slightly misleading at best, it is irresponsible and downright disingenuous at worse, the work of, in Olbermann’s words, “glorified stenographers” who edit, aid, and abet – often unknowingly – ideological and partisan thugs.  

Koppel admitted in the WaPo, 11/14/10, that “the commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me.” Both networks, he continued, were to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to financial investment. “He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone.” Surely, Koppel could also be referring to Charlie Rose, Jim Cramer, Anderson Cooper, and, one of Teddy’s favorites, sleepy Jim Lehrer and his gang at the NewsHourbut he isn’t. Koppel points his finger at the two most politicized cable networks on American TV, and is even careful enough to balance his naming of names to three each side, (Olbermann, Maddow, Matthews for the partisan liberals, Beck, Hannity, and O’Reilly for the childish and emotionally challenged partisan blowhards on the right.) More remarkably, Koppel reserves special ennobled status for the three major news networks, at least as he knew them years back, writing that “fear and innocence” made network news a more “virtuous operation” in comparison. The three networks, according to Koppel, “offered relatively unbiased accounts of information that their respective news organizations believed the public needed to know. The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed…It was an imperfect, untidy little Eden of journalism where reporters were motivated to gather facts about important issues.”

In his long career, Koppel seems never to have fully reflected on the benefits to journalism if some of that “untidy little Eden” were to be abandoned for more investigative sensibilities – prejudices even – which don’t easily fit the sheltered template of impartial and neutral reporting but are still informed, incisive, and intelligent nevertheless to yield real insights. Isn’t a poor person’s reality different than a rich person’s? So why not clarify those differences by calling attention to them openly? Asked more generally, does not "objectivity" in the best sense of the word only require the kinds of impassioned interest and dedication Koppel only decries?   

Today the news networks and cable outlets are not just part of the partisan banter; they not only air all kinds of extreme and simplistic viewpoints but are at the forefront in pushing what one ex-media executive aptly described as “a fun, non-linear creative environment” for political analysts as well as political hucksters and demagogues to attract their audiences. They provide caricatures of all sorts, and exhibit some of the most garish yet yawningly predictable forms of political neuroses and fears, some surely more informed than others.

That Olbermann made a couple donations to Democratic candidates, thus breaking MSNBC policy, we are now well aware. Big fucking deal. I only wonder what Koppel thought of Rachel Maddow’s honest and direct commentary on the issue which pointed out how FOX, unlike MSNBC, has no prohibitions on hosts making political donations, and has even openly  solicited for Republican candidates and causes. Ahh, Teddy’s silence here speaks volumes. Perhaps he hasn’t gotten around to doing the research? Or maybe he’s just too indifferent or impartial to even care about such details? And, as Olbermann suggested in historical context, it has been exactly this kind of “that’s all we have for tonight, folks” treatment that so often enabled Koppel and the networks  to fluff up the experts and partisan hacks as they monumentally failed the public during the leadup the war in Iraq.

Most recently, Koppel sounded a little more thoughtful in an interview on NPR where he fielded good questions from callers, and debated Jeff Jarvis who pushed Koppel on several points. Yet when Koppel admitted to his dread of the “man on the street interview,” he concluded that you'd get one for, one against, and one who really hadn't made up his mind - and the end result is, you had nothing.” Come again, Teddy? “I am not presenting objectivity as though it were some form of castrated truth. I'm presenting objectivity as something that is presented to the public at large so that you out there have enough information that you can make intelligent decisions of your own.” But isn’t it the job of journalists to let subjects speak while using their informed judgment qua journalists to provide relevant context to what “the man on the street” know, so that we don’t end up with “nothing?” Even more revealingly, when asked directly by a caller about his false equivalencies of FOX and MSNBC, Koppel refused to answer by fleeing into Parrot mode: “But if you ask anyone who considers himself right of center whether he regards MSNBC News, and the people who appear on MSNBC, and the information that is conveyed on MSNBC as being objective, you're clearly going to get a different kind of answer.” My god, can you, Mr. Kopple, just answer the question put to you in the first person? Can you for the love of sweet Jesus just say it already!!! “The test, I suppose,” he then added, “is whether someone watching who is a regular MSNBC viewer can watch Fox without feeling that it is totally biased - and whether the opposite is also true. And if the equivalency is not perfect, I think there is enough equivalency there to justify the central point that I was making.” Huh? “Enough equivalency”? This is all getting very Koppelesque! I’ll just let the man with the whitey-fro speak for himself, and give him the last word…you decide. 

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