“News” is not “Journalism”…or Why I Miss Walter Cronkite

What do Dan Rather, Bob Greene, Jayson Blair, CNN, FOX, CBS, NY Times, LA Times, Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, et al, ad nauseum, share in common? Each and all have been cited for one or more documented acts of deception. Most were deliberate, some were not. All have shared a common disregard that personal integrity is the absolute, essential, indispensable foundation of a journalist’s and his publisher’s credibility.

The media is revealing its dirty underwear lately. And it’s been wearing the same set for years and years…even my beloved conservative Fox News Network and its unsurprising sibling of Mother News Corporation. The only anchors I fully trust on Fox these days are Brit Hume and Neil Cavuto. But don’t presume my diatribe to come is a blast of Fox News Network. Oh, no. Fox is in very good company down below.

I interrupt my verbose rant to offer an important clarification:

“News” is not “Journalism.”

“News” is mere information, any of a billion random events that have occurred.  

“Journalism” is the writing of news through research and verification of the facts surrounding this information and the direct presentation of these facts with as little personal analysis or interpretation as a writer can provide. At least, the code of ethics of professional journalism teaches and reveres that doctrine. To the profession of Journalism, providing fact-based information for individuals to form their own opinions upon is of preeminent importance in a free society, a cornerstone of democracy. But to the business of news, getting the coup interview by any means necessary translates into big bucks every time.

Today’s press is all about the money.

The lengths to which individuals and institutions will go to grab that attention-getting, profiteering byline is sickening. And We The People bloody-well enable them to do whatever they want, with near impunity. News and its facts and sources no longer need to be verified before publishing. The worst apparent punishment for those who are caught short-cutting, cheating and downright lying is early retirement (ala Dan Rather and the Killian documents), being fired or reassigned (scores of references), providing and burying a legally crafted retraction that states anything but mea culpa (Boston Globe, May 13, 2004), or merely having the slight quietly pulled from view (Houston Chronicle, Nov. 2002).

Ironically, the Ombudsman program begun by the NY Times in July 2003 to counter its hemorrhagic loss of credibility after Jayson Blair got caught repeatedly fabricating story details and quoting witnesses he never interviewed in nearly every story he ever wrote is perhaps nearing its end. Four years later, in May 2007, the Times will either replace its first-ever Ombudsman (a public editor to bolster accuracy in reporting and mitigate complaints and errors), or kill the program entirely.

News of child terrorist Michael Devlin’s two-session interview over the weekend by Susannah Cahalan, a contributing writer to the NY Post and apparent freelancer, has achieved some notice by the public, after she apparently gained access to Devlin by claiming to be a family “friend” and specifically not identifying herself as a reporter to jail authorities. The only real outcry came from Devlin’s defense team, who certainly don’t want him talking to anyone and would certainly be motivated in diluting any of Devlin’s statements as much as possible. They’ve already asked the court to relocate Devlin to another facility that can provide “better security” for their client, when security was not breached, but their client agreed to be interviewed by Cahalan on Friday and again on Saturday. 

Point 1:  The defense counsel can’t control their client. 

Point 2:  Since they can’t, expect them to ask the courts to do it for them (gag orders don’t work that way, folks). 

Point 3:  Expect to hear soon and frequently how the defense cannot achieve a fair jury.

Let me be clear: The jail is not at fault. Devlin CHOSE to speak with this woman. So, it seems to me the defense counsel can’t control their client. I can’t wait to see how this weekend event plays out.

Then again, the more notorious Devlin becomes to the masses and the greater the misinformation and useless information about this case is perceived as fact, the better their ultimate chances of a mistrial to come.

Cahalan’s misrepresentation is easily believable and considered completely unethical by the Society of Professional Journalists. She lied about her intentions, now very clearly seen in print of her interviews, to deliberately circumvent orders that would otherwise have prevented her requesting access to Devlin. Had she listed herself on the visitors log as a “writer,” or “reporter,” or “student,” or anything else other than “friend,” Devlin would never have had the chance to say “Sure. Meetcha at the thick glass.”

How said that her actions seem rather benign in contrast with the myriad of scandals involving writers and reporters and news organizations over the years. Wikipedia has a long list of them. Just search “journalism scandals” and see for yourself. Jayson Blair is a good one to start with. And Dan Rather’s history is a clear window into the beginnings of theatrics to gain ratings. Remember “Gunga-Dan”?

Hmmm. I wonder how much the NY Post paid Ms. Cahalan for this scoop…? Hopefully, it was substantial. To quote Journalist and media watchdog Jack Shafer, “Journalism ain’t perfect, but it loves to eat its sinners.”

Also coming over the weekend was an article about Shawn Hornbeck’s natural father being a convicted sex felon. This article published in the NY Post has been further reported by its sibling Fox News and specifically by Bill O’Reilly, Hannity & Colmes, and Greta Van Susteren as recently as last night. This one absolutely baffles me. Why is this story such hot “news” at all, if not for pure smut value? If Shawn’s birth father had been Idi Amin, it STILL would have no bearing whatsoever in the matter surrounding Hornbeck’s abduction, four-plus years of victimization and terror, or his miraculous recovery. So why is the story about his birth father such a hot story?

Two words: Yellow Journalism. It sells big time. Not a single news organization can be exempted from having practiced it, yet their greed in capitalizing pales in comparison with We The People’s greed for smut. Hence, its profitability.

“Yellow Journalism” is a phrase coined more than a century ago in response to two publishers (Pulitzer and Hearst) who were accused of sensationalizing the news published in each of their NYC newspapers merely to increase circulation. Fierce rivals for the newspaper readership in the city, both men were scorned for filling their papers with stories deliberately written in such a style as to deliberately incite fear and anger to drive more and more readers seeking information from these heretofore trusted sources in search of answers to their fears and angst.

Messrs. Pulitzer and Hearst were not as concerned with adhering to the dogmas and tenets of professional journalism as they were their respective pockets. Profiteering worked well in the late 1800s and absolutely thrives today.

Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation – among the largest media conglomerates worldwide today and proud owner of FOX, the NY Post, DIRECTV, and a host of papers and TV networks on nearly every continent – boasts a revenue jump of 45% between the Q1 stats of 2005 and 2006 (according to their own PR). This huge gain is the direct result of our world-wide need for more news “as it happens.”

In 2000, News Corp. posted revenues of $14 Billion. In 2003, the revenues had increased to $16 Billion. Their earnings statement of FY2006 showed an operating revenue of nearly $24 Billion. 2007 should be an even bigger windfall for them. But they’re not alone. Overall last year, according to Forbes, the four largest media outlets in the
US enjoyed a cumulative revenue of more than $120 Billion. Those four are Time-Warner, Disney, News Corp. and Comcast.

Hearing “news” immediately it is paramount to We The People. Knowing it is accurate….well, that’s not so important apparently. Blind trust of any media source? Not any more.

We The People constantly reinforce the fact that sensationalism sells. While we happily blog ourselves crazy in our outrage of continued maligning of already terrorized Shawn Hornbeck, especially in the posting of the story about his deceased birth father that has no relevance whatsoever to this case, the Post has more hits on its website on Sunday and Monday than ever before. Even Greta Van Susteren pipes in a Post reporter last night to speak about their “uncovering” the father’s background and offers a new carrot that more news is developing…they’re just not ready to publish yet.

Armchair America is like a moth drawn to a flame in its rampant, purulent, festering, voyeuristic need to see the dark side, the smut, the base need to pat ourselves on our backs because we’re so much better than the poor souls on the “news.” We’d never do that. That’s such an outrage. Thank Heaven, that could never happen to me or us.

The real outrage should be directed inward. We The People are quite accustomed to having issues tried in the media, and the Devlin case is not showing all of its cards. We can’t understand how a child can be hidden for four and a half years without someone discovering him. We can’t rationalize why the child didn’t try and escape, when he apparently hand ample opportunities toward the end, at least, of his captivity. And how indignantly surprised we are to learn the child actually had a date! But we demand to know. And bless his heart – Devlin is still afraid to tell his parents what he has done! 

Thank you, Missouri police and prosecutors and FBI investigators for doing your jobs here and keeping your mouths shut! We The People don’t need to know! And the sanctity of the Devlin’s future criminal trial must be protected judiciously to send this monster to his appropriate end. But wait a minute! We WANT to know more, everything! Every sordid detail! And We want to know right now! Give us the juice and if you screw up along the way in breaking the news before anyone else, we’ll be sure to hunt for that retraction or correction buried in papers and damned near impossible to find online.

Indeed, our outrage should look inward. What does all of this say about us? Has our sense of propriety finally died a victim of the Jerry Springer Syndrome?

We flock in unprecedented droves to watch a Sunday evening television show that is all about adultery, murder, lying, manipulation, fraud…all those things we occasionally find reprehensible, yet always entertaining in society today. Admittedly, while I haven’t watched Desperate Housewives in over a year, I found the few episodes I watched to be quite funny and downright captivating. What will those depraved, corrupt, immoral characters do next? And is the show’s wild popularity a statement as to our acceptance of the existence of these characteristics in the Real World?

The View’s market share and ratings soared off the charts recently as more and more folks tuned in to see if Rosie was going to disparage Trump again, or report of his disparaging remarks toward her. Why was any of this crap “news-worthy”? God knows, it made headlines in every paper and on every network. Repeatedly. To this day, any inflammatory comments O’Donnell makes (most recently about Paula Abdul’s believed drinking problem) hits national news bulletins. Are we really this bored and have nothing better to do than hang onto this as “news”? Are we really so gullible as to not see who is profiting from this?

And during the last week, more folks than ever have tuned in to Bill O’Reilly’s nightly program to watch and hear any further outrageous comments he might make regarding young Shawn Hornbeck. It was already the most-watched cable news program, and we’ve done nothing but reinforce its ranking. I wish I had penned the quip, “You can take the boy out of Inside Edition, but you can’t take Inside Edition out of the boy.” At least O’Reilly is being true to form…or actually to his proven formula of shock-success.

The days of Walter Cronkite, once long hailed as the most trusted man in America, are long gone. I wonder what his opinion is of today’s media? Modern technology has paved the way for an explosion of areas beyond CBS where our news can be obtained, and large metro papers are in serious decline in readership that now gathers its information online. Our faster-paced society demands faster information, and America has complained for years now their belief in the decline of media accuracy against the rabid expansion in grab-the-bucks-and-run-the-story-now news.

Journalists who have long and arrogantly scoffed at any diminishing of their importance are now facing up to the nearing extinction of their once carefully protected doctrines of truth, accuracy, and unbiased style. Speed at any cost, cross-marketing of sister outlets and cable news celebrity fan shops have become the norm.

So the sensationalism will continue.

When you get right down to it, sans the emotion, running a story about Shawn Hornbeck’s father being a sex offender and, through the story, implying therefore an inescapable irony in the life of this terrorized child, is no different in premise than the Boston Globe publishing a fake and extremely graphic picture on its May 12, 2004 front page accusing US soldiers of raping Iraqi women, that very same image taken from a porn website “Sex in War” and even debunked as a fake by other news media during the entire week prior to the Globe’s publishing of same. The very same thing could be said of Ann Coulter’s infamous shocking style of hate-speak. Let us not forget how Geraldo Rivera received his commemorative boxing gloves of profitability. And Cirrus has shared an unprecedented landslide of revenues recently with the most infamous Shock Jock of all, Howard Stern.

The common denominator in all of this is that shock sells. Big.

With apologies to Tim McGraw for clipping part of his mega-hit song, I find the lyrics offer a perfect explanation as to why the media gets away with sensationalism, moreover plagiarism and downright fabrication:

“We like it. We love it. We want some more of it.  We try so hard, but can’t rise above it.”

For anyone hoping to persuade FOX or The Post (now ranked in the top five papers and ahead of the NY Daily News in circulation) or any other media outlet to reacquaint themselves with and adhere to responsible journalism practices, you’ve lost your mind. There are only two reasons our modern media will even deign to consider policing policies of truth in reporting, verification of facts and sources, proper attributions, et al: 1.If there is any huge monetary reward in doing so; and/or 2. If there is a huge monetary punishment for not doing so.

Our media terrorism victim du Jour is young Shawn Hornbeck. This full-fledged media frenzy cannot possibly be escapable. One day, if not already, he is going to read about all of this insanity, perhaps on his page in Wikipedia, in innumerable blogs just like mine, and on countless video clips on YouTube to be carefully archived in perpetuity. And he didn’t do one damned thing to deserve any of this.

We The People can’t rationalize how he chose not to try and escape. I can, and I don’t need the media to provide me with lurid substantiations. What I can’t put aside, though, is my wonder and worry as to how young Shawn feels about Fate trading him from one nightmare into yet another against which his greatest defenses are futile?

Hang on, kid. Fairly soon, you’ll be old news. Paris Hilton just traded a nolo contendre plea for a reduced DUI charge. 

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