Friday, September 25, 2009

Let’s Blame Somebody Besides Ourselves

It’s the Media’s Fault

Blame it on the media. It’s the media’s fault. What is “It”? It is whatever you want it to be. Whatever “it” is, it’s the media’s fault.

This excuse has deep roots. The Vietnam War was the first television war. Former President Richard Nixon blamed the nightly media coverage of the war as the main reason for the ultimate fall of Saigon.” Of course, Lyndon Johnson said much the same before Nixon’s watch after Walter Cronkite opined that the war in Vietnam was unwinnable.

Cronkite first made a fact-finding trip to the tiny battle-torn country before issuing his opinion: “After his return, Cronkite took an unprecedented step of presenting his "editorial opinion" at the end of the news broadcast on February 27th. "For it seems now more certain than ever," Cronkite said, "that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate." After watching Cronkite's broadcast, LBJ was quoted as saying. "That's it. If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost middle America." (© Dennis Simon, Southern Methodist University)

Well, yeah. The media did its job. To use Mr. Cronkite’s words, the media speaking as one said, “That’s the way it is.” If middle American or a majority of Americans believe it, call it democracy.

Now comes the ongoing debate over health care/health insurance reform. Why don’t we have a bill? The current president is blaming whom? The media, of course. He said so in several Sunday shows last weekend. For example, on "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" (ABC), President Obama argued that "the media encourages some of the outliers in behavior, because, let's face it, the easiest way to get on television right now is to be really rude.” (© Chris Cillizza, Washington Post, 9-25-09) President Obama made similar statements on other interview programs. The irony is that a new Sacred Heart University poll indicates: “A large majority, 89.3%, suggested the national media played a very or somewhat strong role in helping to elect President Obama.”

Just Thursday (September 25, 2009) here in Austin, Washington Post colleague E. J. Dionne, speaking at an event sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network, said essentially the same thing, and he is himself part of the media. Dionne is correct in that conflict will make headlines more often than quiet discourse, and he joked about himself being part of the media himself.

"The polarization we are seeing around an issue such as healthcare is being reflected in news media preferences. Those same media outlets are covering, framing, and interpreting the issues for the public, so it becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy," said Dr. James Castongua, associate professor of media studies and digital culture at Sacred Heart University.

So, even a member of the media says the media is part of the problem, and now new research seems to back him up.

Perhaps. I’d rather accept that as truth than having no media watchdogs at all. It is good that there was at least one camera capturing our governor when he made glib statements hinting at secession from the Union. His comments came at one of those run-of-the-mill rallies/protests/whatever on the steps of the state capitol. I’m confident that Mr. Perry, like his friend ex-governor Sarah Palin, doesn’t like the media much either.

Since Austin is the seat of state government, there is a rally/protest/whatever du jour, most of which are routinely ignored by the local media. Some group or somebody is all torque-off about something most of the time in Austin. There was always a vigil outside the governor’s mansion on the evening of planned executions. I don’t know where they are now that the governor isn’t living there. (That’s two other matters.) Anyway, whatever the occasion at the capitol or city hall, I’d tell news photographers to do a “drive-by”, often in an unmarked news car. If there were only a dozen or so citizens there waiting for the media before waving their signs, keep driving. A dozen or so people look mighty lonely on the steps of the capitol.

Viewers in the rest of the state and elsewhere will never know how many rallies/protests/whatever the local Austin media does not cover. If Austin media does not cover it, there is no video of the event to be fed to the rest of the state and on. I’d ask the photographer when he or she returned, “Did you shoot video?” If there was no video, “It didn’t happen,” I declared. That’s what editors do.

The last really good demonstration in Austin was in the early 1970s when the Austin Police used tear gas on the hoard of anti-war marchers on Guadalupe near UT. The literal blow-back also caused reporters and police alike to wet down handkerchiefs to wipe their eyes and cover their faces. That one really did happen, and it didn’t happen because TV cameras exacerbated and escalated the near riot.

Of course, if the media is lax—and the media has been lax or lazy—and doesn’t cover something that turned out to be truly newsworthy, rightly blame the media for that too. The media caught flack for not asking the tough questions about everything from the run-up to Iraq to the financial collapse last year. Local media is criticized for not pursuing Capital Metro with more vigor, for instance. They are catching up as the clock ticks and the trains still aren’t running.

Of course, however, the media, of course, is composed of a bunch of left-leaning, neo-socialists, right? The media are forever known as "nattering nabobs of negativism" according former Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, who served under Richard Nixon until resigning in October 1974, after pleading no contest to charges of tax fraud, which was investigated and covered thoroughly by whom? The media.

Another thing Austin viewers will never know is how many politically and personally conservatives there are among the media in this town dubbed “The People’s Republic of Austin”. The media mirrors society. The viewers and readers will never know, because these local broadcasters and writers are professionals. They’re not paid for their opinions. They are paid for presenting truth. The blameless will be blamed by those who feel the white light of truth.

© Jim McNabb, 2009


Anonymous said...


If the media mirrors society, as you say, that's not reflected in what we see on TV news broadcast.

Local TV news all too often is filled with crime news, rather than with in-depth reporting on issues affecting the community. Hopefully, that will change somewhat, as a result of localism rules the FCC is expected to formally adopt this year.

Among the proposed FCC rules, TV stations would be required to establish permanent advisory boards made up of local officials and community leaders, to provide input on programming, and stations would be required to maintain their main studios in the cities in which they are licensed, rather than in a location some distance from their cities. (While it is not an Austin-licensed TV station, one station's main studio, for example, is located in a smaller town, 50 miles from the city in which it is licensed.)

The Texas Association of Broadcasters calls the FCC's proposed localism rules "onerous."

But KEYE-TV, for one, sees the value of staying in touch with the community. The station holds monthly meetings with representatives of government, the community, nonprofit groups and industy to identify matters that station programming should address. All local TV stations should be conducting similar meetings, to stay in touch with what the community wants. (I'm not employed by KEYE.)

The FCC is also considering adopting a rule that would require TV stations to conduct town hall meetings with viewers to get their two cents, as well.

The proposed FCC rules will help promote both localism and diversity, resulting in better news coverage.

Anonymous said...

KEYE is also the station that sells segments on an afternoon "news" presentation without notifying the public they are sold advertising. 4-5 segments a day in a one hour time period, in between news updates and weather, oh... and commercials. So let's not be so quick to pat KEYE on the back for being in the "communities corner" when it seems they only want to sell, sell, sell. (btw, they have every right to do so... but don't hide behind a news program, call it an infommercial and get on with it)

Chris said...

Hate to be picky... your font is four different colors today. Very hard to read this way. Tried two separate browsers to no avail. Love the writing, can't read the words!

NewsMcNabb said...

Editor's note: I'm sorry about the color issues. It's been happening with the last four or five posts. I got an email while I was posting on telling me about today's issue. (I don't have the problem when I'm posting to Austin Post. I draft posts in Word, sometimes copying and pasting from other sources. Then, I edit. I got rid of most of the wrong colors, but links that were copied are still black. I can't seem to change it. It's a blogger thing.

In response to Anonymous before deregulation under the Reagan administration, TV stations had to meet with community leaders and assess community needs that would be addressed with their programming. Not a big difference from what is being discussed.

Where KEYE is concerned, unless there has been a change, these meetings were irregular.

News 8, on the other hand, does meet regularly with nonprofits and others.

Were "Anonymous's" comments about their 4 O'clock program are concerned, I wrote KEYE President and General Manager Amy Villarreal several days ago asking specifically if those segments were sold as commercial content. She has not responded.

Anonymous said...

KEYE is not the only station guilty of the practice you mentioned, plus local stations sell blocks for informercials that in many cases come across as regular programming, not commercials.

Keep in mind that KEYE is owned by Cerberus Capital Management, which is a private investment firm that knows zip about the news business.

Anonymous said...


There is a difference between the ascertainment process that was eliminated in the 80s and the localism rules being proposed by the FCC. The FCC says the more cumbersome ascertainment process would be more costly and that it likely would not reap the benefits that the proposed localism rules would.

For those who don't know what the ascertainment process was, here's a little background.

In 1971 the FCC required a community "ascertainment" process to ensure that its television licensees operated to serve their communities' "interests, convenience and necessity." The mandate, abandoned by the FCC during the Reagan era, required station management to: 1) conduct on-going surveys of community leaders and residents, 2) develop a "community problems list" and programs designed to address those problems, and 3) maintain records of these efforts in the station’s Public Inspection File.

The on-going survey process was very time consuming and expensive, while the proposal to create community advisory boards and conduct town hall meetings for viewers would get the painful process over much more quickly and with less cost.