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Those Pesky Lines Between News and Commentary

In a commentary in The Washington Post on November 14, Ted Koppel, the host of ABC’s Nightline for 25 years, analyzed the modern news landscape, in a piece titled “Olbermann, O’Reilly and the death of real news.” In it, he bemoaned the loss of a unified view of the news, a nightly perspective we can all agree on. Koppel made clear the world he longs for: “…we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers. We’re now a million or more clusters of consumers harvesting information from like-minded providers.”

Koppel started out his article—which had a different title in the print version, “The case against news we can choose”—making the same point I made about the recent incident with MSNBC and Keith Olbermann. Olbermann was suspended for two days from being on the network after it was revealed that he had given the maximum political donations to three Democratic candidates.  Koppel described Olbermann as “the most opinionated among MSNBC’s left-leaning, Fox-baiting, money-generating hosts.” The absurdity is MSNBC getting all high-minded about Olbermann having made political donations, when he is clearly on their network to act as a political partisan. Koppel, and I, wondered what sort of journalistic avoidance of the appearance of partisanship was violated by the “unabashedly and monotonously partisan” Olbermann. “It is not clear what misdemeanor his donations constituted. Consistency?,” Koppel asked.

But then Koppel seems to confuse and mingle some issues that aren’t really related. Back in the day, the national news on the three broadcast networks was 15 minutes a day when the 1960s began, and 30 minutes a day when the decade ended. The only national newspaper was The Wall Street Journal, which was primarily a business publication. It was a decade later that national TV news moved out of its dinner time box. ABC took to the airwaves after the late night local news broadcast with daily coverage of the hostage crisis in Iran, which became Nightline. After about four months of being all about the hostage crisis, they began covering other topics.

That was followed closely by CNN and C-SPAN, extending news coverage around the clock to people who were getting their TV through cable, rather than by radio or TV waves being beamed out. It was nearly a decade later that opinionated talk radio came on the scene following the end of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, a Federal Communications regulation that had existed since the late 1940s demanding equal time for opposing views on all broadcasters who licensed airwaves for radio or TV broadcasts. Then came the Internet, and cable news beyond CNN. The days of Walter Cronkite telling us, “And that’s the way it is,” were gone.

Koppel is not the first to long for those days, when we all supposedly were on board with the same set of facts. But the fact is that there really was no one to keep them honest. Accuracy in Media came along in the late 1960s just for that purpose, the first to identify itself as a “media watchdog.” And the media weren’t nearly as “objective” as Koppel recalls. Just because they weren’t quivering their lip, Olbermann style, or speaking in mocking tones and voices, doesn’t mean they were shooting straight. Bias can be by omission just as easily as by commission. And it can be based on carefully selecting quotes to support one’s position, and by heaping ridicule or scorn on those with different views. It can be by mischaracterizing and mislabeling the intentions of groups or leaders like Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, and treating them as revolutionary heroes or liberators.

Koppel’s critique clearly hurt Olbermann’s feelings. We know that because Olbermann went on another of those crazy rants, where he gushed about how much he is just like his heroes Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, and even like Koppel, though Koppel seems to have lost his way. Their finest moments, Olbermann argued, were when they were showing their liberal backbone and standing up to some evil conservative or another. And it wouldn’t be an Olbermann rant without linking Republicans and Nazis in the same sentence.  And yes, of course, MSNBC is a real news organization, while Fox makes up its stories, and it all happened “organically” and he was there for every “step of the way.” And of course Koppel stood by while Bush lied us into war, and tortured away. Are those opinions, or facts? I guess that depends on the definition of opinions. And facts. Olbermann clearly cannot separate the two. If it’s his opinion, he believes it’s a fact.

In the end, MSNBC buckled under Olbermann’s pressure, according to an article by Howard Kurtz in The Daily Beast. Olbermann threatened to take his grievance public, on Good Morning America, and the network caved. They had been talking about a suspension of weeks or months, but instead made it for only two days. And they didn’t dock his pay. Nor did they demand a letter of apology they had asked for. The network kissed Keith’s you-know-what. Didn’t want to offend their golden boy. The article also makes clear the degree to which many of the staff at NBC and MSNBC disapprove of Olbermann: “From the moment Olbermann was found to have donated money to three Democratic candidates, there has been a deepening sense of anger and frustration among his colleagues, according to interviews with eight knowledgeable sources. These sources, who declined to be quoted by name because of the sensitivity of the situation, say that several of NBC’s front-line stars, including Tom Brokaw, have expressed concern to management that Olbermann has badly damaged MSNBC’s reputation for independence.”

Part of Olbermann’s defense was that “Joe did it too.” That would be Joe Scarborough of Morning Joe on MSNBC. According to Kurtz, “Olbermann’s side asked why he was being penalized when Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman who hosted Morning Joe, had given $5,000 to a state candidate in Alabama the previous spring. Griffin checked and Scarborough provided the bank record showing that his wife had made the donation to a friend.”

But Scarborough has discovered what happens if you offend Olbermann, and the network’s rules. On November 19, Scarborough got a matching two day suspension for a total of eight donations for $500 each. According to Politico, when this originally came up, Scarborough said he “did not recall” some of the donations. Maybe that is why he is being docked for two days of pay while Olbermann wasn’t docked at all.

This reminds me of when I was on CNBC’s Kudlow and Company with Eric Alterman of The Nation magazine, talking about this very issue. He said, “If I were going to give money to a candidate, I wouldn’t want a call from an investigative reporter about it. So you know what I would do? I’d have my spouse give it or I’d give it under my kids’ names, which is what people who give money do all the time.” Sounds like a plan. I wonder how many others are doing this.

Koppel goes on to say in his article that “The commercial success of both Fox News and MSNBC is a source of nonpartisan sadness for me. While I can appreciate the financial logic of drowning television viewers in a flood of opinions designed to confirm their own biases, the trend is not good for the republic.”

He continued, “Beginning, perhaps, from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unattainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it. They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) at either end of the political spectrum would like it to be.”

This is what is so galling to Olbermann—the equating of the two networks. Koppel got it right when he said that “We celebrate truth as a virtue, but only in the abstract. What we really need in our search for truth is a commodity that used to be at the heart of good journalism: facts—along with a willingness to present those facts without fear or favor.”

Koppel made a big deal of what he described as the fact that news had been a “loss leader” for the networks, and their big entertainment arms, and that CBS’s “60 Minutes” changed all that. But Jack Shafer of Slate.com wrote a persuasive rebuttal to that notion, showing how hugely profitable news networks had been for a long time. Shafer writes that “The myth that network news didn’t make money owes its origin to artful bookkeeping…” He cites a 1965 Time magazine article that says that “NBC News’ nightly news program, The Huntley-Brinkley Report, brought in an estimated $27 million a year in network advertising revenues, making it NBC’s highest-grossing show. CBS News’ evening broadcast, anchored by Walter Cronkite, collected an estimated $25.5 million.” Again, those facts can be stubborn things, or interpreted differently. Koppel answered back on National Public Radio that he was repeating what the networks claimed. He said in the same interview that Olbermann’s perspective is “a little screwed up.”

The fact is that today, we all are consumers of news, and have more places we can go to find news. People should read The New York Times, and The Washington Post, but they should also read The Washington Times, National Review and the Wall Street Journal, as well as some reliable blogs. They will see that there are certain facts that we all agree on. For example, the unemployment rate is 9.6%. But does that really tell the story?

The reality of news today is that there are many, many sources of it available.

I, too, bemoan the loss of more newsmen covering foreign affairs. But the reality is that it forces people who care about it to dig out sources, usually on the Internet, that over time they come to trust. Others prefer to follow the meanderings of Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton, or fantasy football, or stay plugged in to their IPads, IPhones, or IPods, listening to who knows what. These are choices every individual has to make for him or herself. Limiting those choices, if we are to remain a free society, is not an option. At least it’s not an option for the government to choose. Parents, peer pressure, national leaders, sports heroes, all may have some influence. The bottom line is that we are living in the Wild West of news, talk, entertainment, sports and game info, and there is no turning back.

The answer is for people to become responsible consumers of news and other information relevant to their lives. But the idea of Sen. Jay Rockefeller having the FCC overstep its authority and go after the content of cable news networks because their existence makes it harder to pass certain legislation he would like to see is dangerous. Rockefeller, like the rest of us, wants to see quality news. But he goes way too far: “I hunger for quality news. I’m tired of the right and the left. There’s a little bug inside of me which wants the FCC to say to Fox and to MSNBC, ‘Out. Off. End. Good-bye.’ It’d be a big favor to political discourse, our ability to do our work here in Congress and to the American people to be able to talk with each other and have some faith in their government and more importantly in their future.”

People should look at Fox News and MSNBC, particularly the evening shows, as opinion sources, like the editorial and op-ed pages of the newspaper, or, if they prefer, as entertainment, or as their source of news. Hopefully they will also decide to read publications and seek news from sources that they are not likely to agree with, so they can better understand where the other side is coming from. The stakes are enormous, and they manifest themselves in elections every two years.

The problem unique to MSNBC is that part of their name is NBC. And as such, they often have many of the same people reporting on the news and then commenting, or offering opinions, later on a different show. As a result, they are the envy of the other broadcast networks, but they have done more than any to blur the line between news and opinion and advocacy.

The reality is that, as maddening as the news media can be, and as coarse as the national dialogue has become, we are better served by the many voices that now make up The Media as opposed to some idealized memory of “That’s the way it is.”•

Media Continue to Slam Sarah Palin

Don Irvine

These days it seems that the media feel justified using any excuse—any excuse at all—to slam Sarah Palin and her family.

Between the midterm elections, Palin and her husband hosting “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” and Palin’s daughter Bristol appearing on “Dancing With the Stars,” the media have had a field day.

CBS News reporter Brian Montopoli wrote an article published on November 15, 2010, entitled “Lisa Murkowski: Sarah Palin Lacks ‘Intellectual Curiosity’ to be President.” The highly biased article is based on a highly biased interview: CBS News “reporter” Katie Couric interviewed Alaskan senatorial candidate Lisa Murkowski on November 15.  At the time, Murkowski had not officially won the race for Senate.

While many viewers may have expected the Couric-Murkowski interview to focus on the Alaskan Senate race that was still being hotly contested, those viewers would have been disappointed.  Instead of focusing on the election, Couric focused on Sarah Palin. Examine the following questions Couric asked during the course of their interview:

•“There’s been an awful lot of speculation and analysis about your relationship with Sarah Palin. What’s up with your relationship with Sarah Palin? Can you explain it?”

•“If I were Sarah Palin, what would you say to me?”

•“You have said you would not support Sarah Palin for president because she is not ‘worldly enough.’ What role do you think she is best suited for?”

In addition to all that, Couric prompted Murkowski to slam Palin with the following non-questions: “[Sarah Palin] is considered largely responsible for Joe Miller’s primary success…” and “But she’s responsible also for getting the Tea Party Express to pour in a lot of money in that race. Or at least she’s given credit for that.”

Do these questions and leading lines seem appropriate for an interview with the woman who, against her party’s wishes, ran an unwelcome write-in campaign for U.S. Senate?  At the time, the 100,000+ write-in votes were still being counted, and she was not a sure winner for the race.  Why was Katie Couric asking Murkowski about her relationship with Sarah Palin when there were so many other newsworthy things to discuss about the Senate race?  Does Murkowski’s answer to the question “If I were Sarah Palin, what would you say to me” really qualify as news?

While Couric asked biased questions, Montopoli chose to highlight only Murkowski’s answers which portrayed Palin in a negative light.  Montopoli opened the article as follows:

Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowki told CBS News’ Katie Couric today that she would not support Sarah Palin for president because Palin lacks the “leadership qualities” and “intellectual curiosity” to craft great policy.

“You know, she was my governor for two years, for just about two years there, and I don’t think that she enjoyed governing,” Murkowski said. “I don’t think she liked to get down into the policy.” The Alaska senator added that she prefers a candidate who “goes to bed at night and wakes up in the morning thinking about how we’re going to deal with” important issues.

Meanwhile, other news outlets were busy demonizing Palin without the help of Couric and Murkowski. The Washington Post writer Lisa de Moraes wrote a piece on November 16, 2010, called “Bristol Palin gets viewers heated up on ‘Dancing With the Stars.’”  The piece began:

It’s the most important vote since the mid-term elections. It’s a bellwether for 2012. Expect instant analysis from political pundits. We’re talking, of course, about ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars.”

ABC’s ballroom dance competition series has paso-dobled its way to the top of the TV ratings based on its quaint escapist appeal, but this season, with Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol among the “celebrity” dancers, it has become the most politicized non-political race of the year.

De Moraes uses the article to call Bristol “no hoofer,” “the McCain campaign do-as-we-say-not-as-we-do poster child turned celebrity-in-training,” and “The Cinderella Girl—just like Susan Boyle, only younger, prettier, and without the jaw-dropping talent.” De Moraes attributes Bristol’s success to a “complete lack of sophistication” and quotes “Dancing” executive producer Conrad Green as saying that older women were voting for Bristol in “a bad case of ‘gone maternal.’”  The article also quotes the liberal Daily Kos blog, which accused Republicans of “conspiring” to “fix” the “meaningless election” of who would win Dancing With the Stars.

Clearly, Sarah Palin is still on the media’s hit list.•

Red Bookstore Hosts Leftist Cartoonist

By Cliff Kincaid

The communist book shop known as Revolution Books in New York City recently hosted a party and celebration for a 91-page book called Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America. The book is officially published by the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), a Maoist cult that follows the rants of Bob Avakian, a former comrade of Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn in the Students for a Democratic Society. On November 18, Revolution Books was hosting nationally syndicated cartoonist/columnist Ted Rall, a recent guest on the MSNBC television network who was going to read from his new book, The Anti-American Manifesto.

Rall was a guest on the Dylan Ratigan show on MSNBC, where he claimed the title of his book is “partly in jest” but added that he wants to “change the system entirely” and a “revolt” is necessary. Saying that peaceful avenues for change had been fruitless, he said that violence was a last resort.

It is disgusting that a network such as MSNBC, whose on-air personalities have been so critical of the Tea Party movement, would give a platform to Rall and his statements that seem to endorse revolutionary violence.

Of course, the Tea Party wants to change the system as well. The difference is that, while some of its members have been unfairly depicted by the media as violence-prone, they have peacefully demonstrated their power through the recent elections. What’s more, the Tea Party recognizes the fallacies, dangers, and bloody record of Marxism. They want to avoid in America what happened to Cuba and the old Soviet Union.

A critic of the Tea Party, Rall has no problem in appearing at a bookstore that celebrates an ideology that has resulted in more than 100 million deaths since the Communist Manifesto. Rall seems proud of his scheduled appearance at the communist bookstore, having posted it on his blog.

Can you imagine the media hue and cry if a leader of the Tea Party movement were to show up for a book signing at a Nazi bookstore? MSNBC personalities Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann would be falling all over one another to cover the story.

This isn’t just a communist bookstore devoted to theoretical discussions of Marxism; it is devoted to promoting the ideas of Chinese Communist mass murderer Mao Tse Tung, himself responsible for 65 million deaths.

So who is this despicable person named Ted Rall? Described as one of America’s top five syndicated editorial cartoonists, his work is distributed by Universal Press Syndicate to more than 100 newspapers and magazines. Ironically, one of his cartoons, which concerned the late Pat Tillman, the NFL player who quit football to join the Army, was considered so offensive that it was pulled from the MSNBC.com website because it fell short of “standards of fairness and taste.” It depicted Tillman as an idiot because he favored America’s war on terrorism.

But Ted Rall isn’t the only left-wing personality to sell his wares at Revolution Books. Chris Hedges, a former New York Times correspondent, appeared at the Community Church of New York on November 8 for the “first release party” in New York City of his book, The Death of the Liberal Class. It was a benefit evening for Revolution Books, with proceeds from ticket and book sales going to the Maoist bookstore.

Fellow travelers, or dupes, have made communism and its crimes possible over the course of history. But when or if the “late imperial America” becomes a reality and the communists take over, the dupes will be among the first victims of the “New Socialist Republic in North America.”

They will probably be begging for mercy in front of the communist criminals their appearances helped raise funds to “educate.” Mao showed them the way.•

Editor’s Message

Dear Fellow Media Watchdog,

Glenn Beck did a sensational series of programs in November on George Soros, the leftist billionaire. Beck emphasized the Soros economic and financial agenda of global government. What he neglected to mention was that Soros has a cultural and social agenda – subverting America’s traditional values and poisoning the minds of our young people.

Beck was clearly irritated that Soros had made a highly-publicized contribution of $1million to Media Matters, the left-wing media “watchdog” organization that seems to exist primarily to silence Beck.

We share Beck’s concern. At the same time, Beck should have emphasized that Soros also gave $1 million to the campaign to legalize marijuana in California. This campaign failed. But it succeeded in Arizona, where a “medical marijuana” initiative passed. Soros has been behind the “medical marijuana” movement from the start. The effect has been to increase the numbers of users and abusers of marijuana and other dangerous drugs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy has released new information reporting that overall teen drug use is up. Numerous studies show that marijuana use impairs the mental abilities of our young people.

It is time to expose the marijuana movement as a dangerous fraud financed by a dangerous individual who is destroying the ability of young people to think for themselves. We need clear-thinking on the part of the next generation if we are going to have any hope of saving our country.

For Accuracy in Media,

Cliff Kincaid