Media

Columbia Journalism Review

November / December 2011

What He Knew

Anthony Shadid saw the deeper story in Iraq

By Terry McDermott

Anthony Shadid is the most honored foreign correspondent of his generation: two Pulitzer Prizes, a George Polk Award, an Overseas Press Club award, book awards—the list is long. He grew up wanting to be a foreign correspondent. His grandparents had emigrated from Lebanon to Oklahoma, and he knew from a young age that he wanted to return to the Middle East, to try to comprehend it. He graduated from the journalism school at the University of Wisconsin and, with the help of a professor, landed a job on the night shift at the Milwaukee bureau of The Associated Press. He quit after a year and went to Cairo to study Arabic. He returned to the AP in 1992, and three years later was sent to Cairo at age twenty-six. “That was the great thing about the wires,” he says. “I can’t say it was all that good for the journalism. At twenty-six you think you know more than you really do. But it was great to be young and in the middle of a great story and a great city.” After the AP, Shadid worked for The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. He is currently the Beirut bureau chief for The New York Times. He was wounded by sniper fire while on assignment in Ramallah in 2002 and was kidnapped in Libya this spring. Terry McDermott interviewed him in Boston earlier this year, mainly about Iraq. Shadid first went to Iraq for the AP in 1998, reporting a series on the rise of political Islam. He went again for another month in 2002, this time for the Globe. Then he returned in March 2003, just before the American invasion, for the Post. When he got there, he quickly realized the story was more complicated than he had thought.

A Broken Society

People were buying guns. Iraqis always knew the potential within the society to go bad. That was another misconception of reporters in Iraq before the invasion: you’re in a dictatorship, therefore no one will talk. It was always more ambiguous than that. There were always many more shades of gray. People, in fact, did talk. They may have talked in coded language. They may not have talked as honestly as possible, but even before Saddam fell there was always more dissent than outsiders thought. But it did go bad. And it went bad fast.

If you had spent any time in the Middle East, you would have known that there’s going to be big problems. I’ll never forget standing in Firdos Square the day that statue [of Saddam] fell. I just walked down the line of tanks and interviewed people, and it broke down like this: a third saw this as an occupation and they were going to resist it; a third saw it as a liberation and they welcomed it; and a third were unsure and couldn’t figure it out. And that breakdown stayed pretty much the same throughout. Until it went to hell in ’04. That kind of gets to your point—the power of reporting. If you talked to enough people you were going to get a sense of what was going on.

It wasn’t linear, like, okay, invasion, society traumatized, traumatized by Saddam, or whatever, and then things went bad. It was an accumulation of events that were easily reportable—from ’91 on, there was a decade of sanctions that destroyed that society. What they dealt with in 2004, 2005, and 2006 was a direct repercussion of the sanctions of the ’90s, it was the society coming to terms with the damage that was inflicted upon it. That was all reportable. And it was all reported. There probably should have been more, it was probably not done well enough. The connection probably should have been made stronger. But it was there before our eyes. What you saw was a broken society. It’s still broken, deeply traumatized. Very sad.

I think I was in Doha, one of those places, and I was talking to my editor, Phil Bennett, who is a brilliant editor. We were saying, okay, we’ll cover the invasion. This should be wrapped up in a month or two. Then let’s start thinking about where else we’re going to go in the region. Seven years later, 2010, I was still sitting in Baghdad. Through that first year, there was that notion of trying to get a better sense of repercussions of the invasion on the region. But in the end, the region changed Iraq; Iraq didn’t change the region.

Shades of Gray

On the first day, the first couple days, I was reporting on, I forget what they called it, fear and awe? Shock and awe? Shock and awe. So I was covering the bombing, but even in those first two days I was trying to get out on the streets and talk to people, and I was putting all that color at the bottom of the story. And I’ll never forget, we were editing the story the second or third day, and Phil said, “You know what’s interesting, Anthony? This stuff at the bottom, the popular sentiments, is the most compelling part of the story. The top of the story was just trying to find enough adjectives to describe the violence, the bombing and so on, but here you’re seeing nuance and ambiguity and again these kinds of shades of gray in what people are saying. I think you ought to focus on that and make it part of the story.” And it did prove to be the most compelling part of the story. The sentiments in the end were the arena in which the whole experience was contested. And it unfolded very quickly.

I had had it in the back of my mind to do some of that. Before the invasion started, I had talked to some friends there and made contacts so that I could go see them once the war started. I got lucky because I had a minder who did not stand in my way. I was able to see this woman who had sent her son off to fight; I was able to visit a former diplomat; I was able to see a psychiatrist whose son was doing his residency at Johns Hopkins. Those three, and then a professor who I had met before the war, those four characters, became the spine of the book that I wrote later on, Night Draws Near. Even in those first meetings, I knew if I could follow them, if I could understand what they were saying, and how they changed as the events unfolded, it was going to be something very compelling, and would somehow tell us what this war represents. In some ways the legwork was done ahead of time.

How to Understand

In moments of crisis, in moments of trauma, people want someone to bear witness. It was amazing how forthcoming everyone was, and how much they wanted to talk. This was no less an event for them than September 11 was for Americans. I think that cauldron of sentiments, often contradictory, often conflicting, kind of came forth. We knew how important popular sentiment was, so the challenge was, how do we bear down, how do we find that place? It sounds elementary but I hadn’t heard it before. Phil Bennett was all about, “You need to intersect environment with dialogue. Intersect the environment with interviews.” That became a really powerful tool. How can I tie those two things together? This event unfolds while I’m talking to them and they will intersect with everything going on around them.

There was a young boy who was killed in a bombing and I was able to stay with him the entire day. Somehow I had to tie the day in the life, in the death, of this boy, to the broader events going on in Baghdad. It worked okay. You’re on deadline; stories never match what you want them to be. In some ways, that’s the task of a reporter: I don’t understand this story. How do I go about making sense of it, understanding the forces at work and how those forces are interacting? We’re not only trying to help our readers understand it, we’re trying to help ourselves understand it at the same time.

The Most Chilling Story I Ever Covered

I did a long piece in 2009, but it was a story that began in 2003. I must have gone to this village fifteen or twenty times. There was an American military operation in May 2003, kind of a precursor to the counterinsurgency. They went into this village, made a mess of the place, arrested a lot of people. I went there to cover the aftermath of this raid. We were sitting there talking in one of these tents. All of the elders were there, sitting together. They started talking about this informer. This guy named Sabah. You could tell people were nervous because there were two tribes inside the tent. I kept asking questions and could tell they didn’t want to answer. So I asked what’s going to happen to this informer. Finally, a guy leaned over to me and said, “He’s a dead man, but not yet.”

I was stunned. They’re going to kill this guy for informing to the Americans. So I kept going back to the town to find out what happened to him. Finally, he was killed. His father killed him. The actual reporting on the story, how it happened, didn’t take that long. I’d say a week. The key was to see the father. The father actually did talk to me. It was the most chilling story I’ve ever covered. I think about it a lot. When the father said those words to me, “Not even the prophet Abraham had to kill his son,” it took my breath away. I’ll never forget that line, because in just one sentence it captured the whole biblical tragedy of it. The story really did haunt me. A lot of people thought the story showed the brutality of what this conflict had done to the country, but I never saw it that way. I saw it as this kind of footnote to the war, the way the smallest intervention alters a society. The American military enters this town. Sets off this chain of events that forever changes the landscape. That’s what was so compelling to me about it. Finally, in 2009 I got a chance to go back and write it that way. When I went back in ’09, I saw the father. He didn’t want to talk, but the brother did. He took me to the grave. We talked about it. This footnote in 2003 led us to this point in 2009 and still it is far from over. There’s a saying in Iraq, something along the lines of, someone’s father is killed, forty years pass and the son hasn’t exacted revenge. The son says, “It’s still early.”

Write It the Way You Feel It

The first or second morning after the invasion, I was so tired and I had spent so many years at the AP, learning the rules of keeping your distance from the story, and I said to myself, I’m just going to write it the way I feel it. From then on, I kind of just did that. I think you have to care about these stories to do them justice. And I did care about it. I care about the Middle East. You have to be careful and still there are certain rules you have to follow. But I think there’s enough gray there that you can kind of get away with being a little more interpretive. It’s not easy. What’s so rewarding about the reporting in Egypt, the reporting in Iraq is, if you just tell peoples’ stories, then they become the vehicles for these sentiments, these emotions. It becomes much more real in a certain way. Also much more honest.

The thing I see so often, especially with foreign correspondents, the longer they do this, the more the story becomes about them. I think it’s almost unavoidable for some of these guys who stay there for as long as they do. They’ve seen so much, they’ve experienced so much, they’ve talked to so many people, that in some ways to them it feels repetitive. Their own experience is so much more interesting and compelling. Which is a disaster; the antithesis of what we should be doing as foreign correspondents. It should be about the people we cover. That lesson gets lost over time. It is cynicism.

A Story Worth Dying For

What so powerfully strikes me when I go back to Iraq now, the very fabric of the place has been torn, how Iraqis consider themselves, how they see themselves, how they identify themselves, how they relate to the government, what the government represents—all those things are broken. Identity and politics have become so visceral, so tied together, it’s hard to see any broader notion of state or nation.

That’s kind of a feature that is writ small across the region, these conflicts over how we identify ourselves as Arabs. Those two notions, is it a broader identity or a smaller identity? I think it’s in part a legacy of the Ottoman empire, and a consequence of colonialism—the ideologies that have tried to live up to the ambitions of what the region wants to be. The dysfunction of all that, and of course the conflict with Israel, have fundamentally impacted these notions of identity. I think that’s where we’re at right now. That’s what’s so compelling about this Arab Spring—people at some level, consciously or unconsciously, are trying to heal the wounds of a century of, not just dysfunction, but of having governments fail to meet their ambitions.

Often, editors will say no story is worth risking your life for. I don’t believe that. I think there are stories worth taking risks for. The way these wars have been happening in the region for so long, it produces a certain dehumanization. Such a remarkable amount of violence has been deployed in these places, so I think it is incumbent upon us as journalists to kind of recapture some of that humanity, those stories of individuals, of lives, whether they’re broken or not. That felt a part of the job in Iraq, to understand these people on their own terms, in their own context, how their lives played out in ways they never expected, and maybe shouldn’t have expected.

I don’t know if I was always successful or not, and I think that’s the frustration with journalism, the stories never match your ambition, what you want to write and say. But I was lucky, especially in 2003 and 2004, I had the full engagement of the paper, I had a story that was reportable and coverable, and I got lucky in meeting the right people and becoming a part of their lives. I do look back on it as a good time. Not a good time, but….

 

Columbia Journalism Review

March / April 2010

Dumb Like a Fox

Fox News isn’t part of the GOP; it has simply (and shamelessly) mastered the confines of cable

By Terry McDermott

Last December 10 was a big news day. U.S. Senate negotiators announced they had agreed to a compromise on health care reform, final preparations were being made for a global conference on climate change, President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, and new details emerged on five young American men who had been arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of plotting terror attacks. Not to mention that America was involved in two wars and was still in the throes of the worst recession in eighty years.

That night, the main news programs on the three cable news networks—CNN Tonight on CNN, Fox Report on Fox, and The Big Picture on MSNBC—all led with approximately five minutes of coverage of Obama, cutting between video of his acceptance speech and reports from on-the-ground reporters in Oslo. CNN and MSNBC also included on-air analysis of the speech by a variety of commentators. Fox had no such commentary on its news show, just a more-or-less straightforward report on the speech.

This might seem surprising, given the charges of bias leveled against Fox by members of the Obama administration. Charges, for example, like this from Anita Dunn, then the administration’s director of communications, speaking last October on Howard Kurtz’s CNN program, Reliable Sources:

The reality of it is that Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party. And it is not ideological. . . . What I think is fair to say about Fox, and the way we view it, is that it is more of a wing of the Republican Party. . . . They’re widely viewed as a part of the Republican Party: take their talking points and put them on the air, take their opposition research and put it on the air. And that’s fine. But let’s not pretend they’re a news organization like CNN is.

Dunn’s strong talk set off a round of finger-pointing that hasn’t abated since. Her statement was attacked by political professionals for its form, and by Fox adherents for its content. The pols said the form of the complaint was too overt and thereby bad political tactics, somehow raising the news channel to equal standing with President Obama. The basic advice from this quarter was a president should never stoop to conquer.

Apart from the wisdom of the White House tactics, the content of the criticism was said, mainly by Fox, to be mistaken in that it failed to differentiate between Fox’s news programming and its opinion programming.

A close look at Fox’s operations seemed an obvious way to examine the claims and counter-claims. When I approached Fox to gain access to their studios and staff for a story about the nature of their news operations, I was told that if I wanted to do a piece on Fox, I should do a profile of Shepard Smith, their main news anchorman. I should be careful, they told me, to distinguish between Smith, a newsman, and their bevy of more notorious personalities—Bill O’Reilly, Neil Cavuto, Glenn Beck, and Greta Van Susteren*. They aren’t really news people, I was told; they are editorialists and ought to be analyzed as such. They are analogous, Fox suggested, to the editorial and op-ed opinion pages of newspapers, which ought not be confused with the straight news coverage.

The proposal to do a story on Smith was fair enough, but would not in any way address the central issue: Was Fox a political operation? I declined. A Smith profile would be a wonderful story for another time, I told Fox, but it wasn’t the story we felt relevant at the moment. That being the case, Fox “declined to participate” in my reporting, which is another way of saying I should go do something to myself and possibly the horse I rode in on, too.

I’ve been told worse, so I wasn’t offended, but this put the story in a bind. I had thought a reported story on how Fox assembles its daily programming would be useful. Doing a story on Fox without access and cooperation necessarily changes the nature of the story. So in lieu of talking to Fox, the main thing I did was let Fox talk to me. That is, I watched a lot of Fox News, and I must report the Fox spokeswoman was absolutely correct. Shepard Smith is an interesting guy. He is far and away the most charming personality on Fox. Not that this takes special effort. Generally speaking, Fox doesn’t do charm. O’Reilly, for all of his considerable talents, blew a fuse in his charm machine years ago, and it’s not clear Beck ever had one to blow. Let’s not even start on Sean Hannity and Cavuto.

Smith’s show—or, rather, shows; he hosts two of them every weekday—are absent much of Fox’s usual cant. They are odd in Smith’s own ironic, idiosyncratic way, but not so unusual that you couldn’t imagine them appearing on one of the other cable news networks. In sum, they seem a perfect rebuttal to Dunn’s critique.

Now Dunn is no political naïf. She’s a seasoned, winning political operator. She didn’t wander accidentally into this thicket. She strode straight to it with nary a side step. Neither are Fox’s leaders naïve. In particular, Fox CEO Roger Ailes is a seasoned, some might say marinated, political operator. One or the other of the two sides to this discussion about the true nature of Fox News is being disingenuous. Or perhaps both are. Shocking, I know.

There is no shortage of people eager to comment on Fox and the nature of its news. We thought it simpler and potentially more valuable to just watch its programs and see what they said. We decided to examine and compare the prime time cable news programming of a single day, and we picked December 10, a Thursday. The newscasts that day and the programming that surrounded them offer some clear testimony on the question: What is Fox News?

The big event of the day was Obama’s Nobel prize speech, and its coverage provides a handy schematic for the three networks’ typical modus operandi. As noted above, all three led their nightly newscasts with the speech. The speech occurred early in the day, our time, so it was a subject of comment throughout the day and into the prime-time big money shows.

CNN had, as it almost always does, by far the most diverse array of commenters, including partisans from each side as well as others regarded as centrists. Their reaction contained by far the broadest range of the three channels, ranging from Jack Cafferty—“a great speech . . . . mesmerizing” and David Gergen—“transcendent quality”—to Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant who thought it too self-absorbed—“It was I, I, I all the time”—and Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, who termed it a “complex, intellectually rich, impressive speech.”

MSNBC offered generally effusive praise. Chris Matthews called the speech “a morally powerful speech worthy of a Jack Kennedy.” Chuck Todd labeled it “realistic idealism.” Cynthia Tucker thought it was “a very powerful speech . . . a speech for grown- ups . . . that embraced complexities.” Lawrence O’Donnell and Howard Fineman agreed it was humble. Historian Michael Beschloss said it was “elegant as always.” Rachel Maddow summarized it as “an eloquent speech on the nature and responsibilities of war.”

Fox News—in its hour-long news broadcasts—generally praised the speech or quoted others who did so. Major Garrett, the network’s White House correspondent, reporting from the scene of the award in Oslo, termed the speech a “muscular defense of war.” Others invited to comment on it during the news show were generally favorable. Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, termed it a “very historic speech. And the president, I think, did a very good job of representing the role of America.” Charles Krauthammer demurred somewhat, saying “it was the best speech he has ever given on foreign soil,” implying that other prior speeches were limited in their effectiveness.

It was all downhill after that. On Fox’s array of hosted opinion shows—O’Reilly, Beck, Cavuto, Hannity, and Van Susteren, the speech rode the down escalator through the evening. Said Hannity: “President Barack Obama joined the likes of Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore earlier today when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a ceremony in Oslo, Norway.” Hannity later said Obama, whom he called the “anointed one,” had appeased the crowd with criticism of the U.S. “Obama just can’t seem to give a speech overseas without bashing America,” he said. Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard praised the initial portion of the speech but said, “the second two-thirds was filled with typical Obama rhetorical flourishes and excesses.” John Bolton, Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, wrapped up the night’s commentary by telling Van Susteren the speech “was a pretty bad speech—turgid, repetitive. I thought it was analytically weak, sort of at a high school level. It’s like he didn’t have any lead in his pencil left after his speeches at the U.N. and the speech on Afghanistan. So all in all, a pretty surprisingly disappointing performance.”

The same pattern repeated itself through the three networks’ coverage of the other events of the day. The formal newscasts for all three networks were fairly straightforward but the commentary that came before and after was anything but. MSNBC, in its commentary, tended to love whatever the Democrats had done that day. CNN has so many commentators it almost can’t help but be on all sides of every issue. Fox, meanwhile, was raising an army to overthrow the government.

Here are some more representative examples. They might seem chosen to make a point; they were not. They are admittedly impressionistic, but we think a fair sampling of what was on the air that day.

On the Senate compromise on health care reform:

MSNBC—Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon called it “a godsend.” Howard Dean said “the Senate bill really does advance the ball.”

CNN—Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, called it “the type of coverage that they [her constituents] deserve.”

Fox—Neil Cavuto posed this question to independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut: “Senator, they just didn’t put lipstick on a pig? It’s still a pig, right?” Lieberman was noncommittal on the porcine nature of the compromise, but assured he would vote against it. Hayes of The Weekly Standard said, “it is absolutely insane.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said, “It is the lump of coal in our Christmas stocking.”

On climate change:

MSNBC—Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, addressing Sarah Palin’s claim that climate change is not necessarily the result of human activity: “Her bigger problem, if she wants to be a candidate, is that she’s on the wrong side of history. She’s on the wrong side of science. She’s on the wrong side of politics here.”

CNN—Kitty Pilgrim, CNN correspondent: “The United States is falling behind the rest of the world in what some see as the cleanest energy option available, nuclear power.”

Fox —Amy Kellogg, Fox correspondent: “. . . stolen e-mails suggest the manipulation of trends, deleting and destroying of data, and attempts to prevent the publication of opposing views on climate change . . . .”

We could go on, but the pattern would not change.

The three networks are, of course, all in the same television business, but even apart from expressions of ideology each approaches its business differently, each seeking its own distinct niche in the modern television ecology. One large difference is apparent in their staffing structures. Of the three, CNN produces and broadcasts much more news content and has many more reporters reporting from many more places. It has a total staff of about 4,000 people, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s latest available report. On December 10, for example, it was the only one of the three networks to feature on-the-ground reporting from both Pakistan and Virginia on the case of the five Americans arrested in Pakistan. CNN’s newsgathering superiority was even more striking in the aftermath of the January earthquake in Haiti.

With the exception of Larry King’s interview show in the evening, it runs news programming more or less all day long. CNN includes opinion and analysis as feature inserts on its news shows, an adjunct to its news operations, but its great strength is news. The commentary often feels forced and superfluous. Fox is the opposite. It includes the news operations as an adjunct to opinion and analysis. It is much more of a talk-show network than a news network. In fact, it mimics one of Ailes’s first ventures into television news programming, an NBC-owned all-talk channel called America’s Talking. Fox News uses this model much more than it does CNN’s news model.

The perceived problem is not that Fox’s straight news is relatively bias-free and its opinion programming overwhelmingly conservative. The problem is that the news portion is very small and the opinion portion very large. It would indeed be like a traditional newspaper opinion-news division if the ratios were reversed.

Fox has a reporting and editing staff about one-third the size of CNN’s. Fox has many fewer bureaus, both domestic and international (again, about one-third CNN’s total). From personal experience covering news around the world, you almost always run into a CNN crew or stringer. You almost never run into a Fox reporter, and never one from MSNBC.

In essence, MSNBC has no news operation whatsoever. It has about half the total staff that Fox employs, roughly one-sixth that of CNN, but none of these people are reporters. It is almost purely a talk network. It regularly runs even less news content than Fox. In primetime, it runs none at all. At 7 p.m., when Fox and CNN are running hour-long newscasts, MSNBC airs a re-run of Chris Matthews’s interview show, Hardball. Even when it puts news on the air, the content is almost entirely drawn from its corporate big brother, NBC, and NBC’s news operation pales compared to that of CNN. From a business standpoint, MSNBC is useful as a means to amortize the costs of NBC’s newsgathering. This can produce genuinely awkward moments—as it did frequently during the 2008 election campaign, when NBC’s relatively straight news staff joined its more opinionated studio hosts in covering election results.

Ironically, Ailes left NBC because he was piqued that NBC in 1995 had gone into partnership with Microsoft to create MSNBC, infringing on his authority as president of CNBC, he thought. He then went to Murdoch and established Fox News. And now MSNBC, having long since divorced itself from Microsoft, has essentially copied the model Ailes established at Fox—a little news, a lot of opinion, and theatrical presentation of it all. It’s no accident that one of MSNBC’s most outsized personalities—Matthews—was promoted by Ailes when he was at CNBC.

Yet as striking as are the differences among the channels there is one overwhelming similarity: whatever it is that dominates cable news, it is largely not journalism.

There is, as has been remarked upon often, an awful lot going on on-screen all the time. There is the central image that is being broadcast at the time; plus a chyron, or label, identifying the scene and/or the people in it; plus the ever-present scrawl at the bottom of the screen, sometimes commenting on the scene being broadcast, sometimes referring to something utterly different. But for all of this hyperactivity cable news is surprisingly old-fashioned. There is much less use of moving pictures than one would think, and very few actual images of news events.

Mainly, what is going on instead is just talking. Studio hosts talk to reporters and sometimes to themselves. If there are multiple hosts, they talk to one another. The hosts talk to guests, either gathered in the studio or at another studio or occasionally by telephone. The guests are a familiar collection of politicians, political operatives, journalists, some experts, and a group we could call expert commentators. (What, for example, is David Gergen’s expertise beyond commenting?)

Even on news shows like Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room on CNN, the ratio of news to everything else is preposterously tilted toward everything else. During high news events, Blitzer will often have not one but two separate panels of analysts/commentators in the studio. The result is that even when there is news to be broadcast, more time is spent assessing it than reporting it.

Over the course of an average day, all this talking on the three channels adds up to more than half a million words spilled on cable-news air. That’s a phenomenal amount of verbiage—by volume, a new War and Peace every single day. It does not, as you might guess, approach anything like the art and coherence of a novel. Rarely does a single sentence rise to that level.

What are they talking about all the time? Usually, they’re talking about what a particular little morsel of news means. What is that bit of news good for? Whom is it good for? Who’s up, who’s sideways, who’s selling the country down the river? There is a very large measure of performance involved in all of this. The studio hosts typically play some amped-up, over-the-top version of themselves. They bring to mind nothing so much as one of the vibrant monologues from the Howard Beale character in the movie Network: “Television is a Goddamned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!”

If you talked all day every day you’d say some pretty stupid stuff and, no surprise, the cable talkers are no exceptions. Much of what gets said, in fact, is just barely above gibberish. On his December 10 show, O’Reilly led with an attack on Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law & Ordertelevision franchise, for allowing a character on one of his shows to criticize O’Reilly by name. To buttress his rebuttal of Wolf, O’Reilly quotes—who better?—himself. Later in the show, he interviews fellow host Glenn Beck about President Obama’s Peace Prize, which Beck says was given as a sort of affirmative action award.

Beck: I used to believe in a meritocracy. I used to believe you would. . . .

O’Reilly: Earn things?

Beck: You would earn things. I have no problem with the president winning a Nobel Peace Prize.

O’Reilly: No, I agree he didn’t earn it, but so what? It’s Norway. You know? It’s Norway. You know what I’m talking about?

Beck: Well, now that you put it in that context.

O’Reilly: Right. And I love Norway.

Beck: You’re exactly right. Who doesn’t love Norway?

O’Reilly: I love the fjords.

Beck: Sure.

O’Reilly: I’ve been to Oslo.

Beck: I have never.

O’Reilly: Right. I believe I have some Viking blood in me.

Beck: Do you? I think you do.

O’Reilly: OK. So. . . .

Beck: I want him to wear the hat with the horns. Don’t you? Seriously.

O’Reilly: It’s Norway.

Beck: Send him the hat with the horns. He’ll wear it. But [singing] la la la la. [speaking] He’d do it.

O’Reilly: Easy, Mr. Fascination. Calm down.

There’s a loopy self-absorption to this that is peculiar to Fox and that derives from its origin narrative as the network for the unrepresented, for the outsiders. There is a strain of resentment, of put-upon-ness that pervades almost everything Fox puts on the air. Beck, in particular, was born to play this part. He would be Beale. On his own show that night, Beck spent fully two-thirds of his time in an agitated defense of himself against charges few would ever had heard of had he not spent so much time defending them.

No reasonable person would sincerely deny that Fox has a distinct bias favoring Republicans, and conservative Republicans especially. Even Fox used to admit as much. When he started the network, Ailes was straightforward in talking about his desire to redress what he saw as ideological bias in the mainstream media. He wanted to address the same “silent majority” his old boss Richard Nixon had sought to serve. This is nowhere more apparent than in the guests who appear on the network. On the day in question, other than short video clips of news conferences or other public appearances, Fox didn’t put a single Democrat on the air except as a foil for Republican or Fox commentators.

This appears to be politically motivated, but that could be just an artifact—the content seems political but the primary aim is much more likely commercial. Cable news is not literally a broadcast business, but a narrowcast. At any given moment, there are a relative handful of people (in peak hours less than five million and in non-prime hours half that, out of the U.S. population of 320 million) watching all of these networks combined. American Idol, in contrast, routinely draws 30 million. Although cable news is a comparatively small market, it is a small market with a much larger mindshare, mainly because the media are self-reflective, creating a kind of virtual echo chamber. It is also lucrative. Advertisers want exactly the sort of educated, higher-disposable-income audience news programming tends to attract.

Ailes has proven an extraordinarily acute businessman who has, according to an excellent piece by David Carr and Tim Arango in the January 9 New York Times, turned a fledging news operation that barely existed a decade ago into the runaway market leader in cable news and a profit engine that turns out more than $500 million annually for Rupert Murdoch’s global News Corporation.

Ailes’s most valuable insight was that sharp opinions do not necessarily chase an audience away. In fact, they seem to have created one. There is no worry of offending a broad audience, because there is no broad audience to start with anymore.

It’s worth noting that MSNBC languished in the cable news ratings competition until becoming more sharply opinionated, in that way becoming a left-leaning analog to Fox. It’s highly doubtful this change was due to political considerations. In other ways, though, MSNBC is not a Fox analog at all. Although its overall operation is sharply to the left of Fox, it offers a wider array of guests and doesn’t completely shut out Republicans. Matthews, for example, on the day in question conducted a friendly interview with two Tea Party Republican activists. The existence ofMorning Joe, starring outspoken conservative Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC’s morning air offers further evidence.

Ailes, by his programming choices, sees no need to have a liberal counterpart to Scarborough on Fox. Why should he? He’s got the ratings, the money, and a political operation that is nearly pure in its adherence to contemporary populist Republicanism.

But is it an arm of the GOP? Not unless you think Roger Ailes would actually work for Michael Steele. It is more likely the other way around. Steele, in some broader cultural sense, works for Ailes, who is without close contest the most powerful Republican in the country today. The national Republican Party has shrunk to a narrow base with no apparent agenda other than to oppose everything the Obama administration proposes. This extends even to opposing policies Republicans either created or once supported. In explaining these reversals, Republicans frequently say that their changes of position—for example, on deficit-reduction measures that they routinely dismissed when in the majority—owes mainly to changes in national circumstances. But the main circumstance that seems to have changed is their loss of formal power in Washington. This suits Fox perfectly, and gives heft to its self-definition as an insurgency.

 

 

Columbia Journalism Review

January / February 2010

A Thousand Cuts

As long as the monopoly money rolled in, who noticed?

By Terry McDermott

Spencer Ackerman, who reports on national security issues for The Washington Independent and blogs about the same—and does both at a consistently high level of quality, which is not a simple task—last year posted an item on his blog, Attackerman, explaining how to deconstruct a typical piece by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker. He said Hersh was ill-served by the conventional journalistic habit of shaping reporting into stories that needed to signify their importance. Lots of Hersh’s reporting, Ackerman argued, would be better understood as pure reporting and read simply because it was what Hersh had learned, whatever it portended. Shaping it into traditional journalism structures warped it.

One day, journalistic convention will decide that placing reporters like Hersh within the box of a lede (the intentional misspelling of “lead” is yet another journalistic convention that makes little sense) for a piece that needs no lede is a silly idea. Then, my friends, we will finally have the free play of notebook material. But until then, we have to read Hersh with a bit of a knowing eye. You can hate all you like, but god’s son is across the belly and he’ll prove you lost already. [Parenthesis mine, italics and capitalization his.]

I have no idea what that last sentence about God’s son and the belly means, but it’s a blog post so I don’t have to understand it and Ackerman doesn’t have to care that I don’t. This is part of the nature of blogging. The writer can assume I know exactly what he means, or not care that I don’t. Somebody else will get it. This kind of writing is directed at a very particular, almost personal, audience. It’s like writing in dialect and as far from a mass medium as you can get. While it happens to be available via the Internet to millions of people, it is certainly not aimed at them.

What Ackerman is advocating is that Hersh be liberated from the formal conventions of journalism, and the constraints that accompany them. Then he can simply say, “Here, look what I found.” Ackerman is asking, implicitly, that Hersh be regarded as a blogger. I think he’s right. I think blogging would suit Hersh. I also think blogging is saving journalism.

I worked at newspapers for thirty years and loved every day of it. Wait. It’s more complicated than that. Much more. In fact, to say I loved newspapering wholeheartedly is a bald-faced lie. I hated at least half of those three decades worth of days and swore at the end of many that it would be the last. I carried out these vows to quit several times, never for very promising prospects. I left to write speeches, to write fiction, to pound nails—none of which was I as good at as pounding a beat. So what was I fighting for or against? Sometimes, those who knew me would suggest that it was nothing more than myself. Sometimes, though, I actually had a point.

I hated the conventions that bound daily journalism, the stilted, odd language in which it was written as well as the contrived structures into which that odd language was shaped. The common newspaper style is so heavily codified you need a Berlitz course to interpret it. More than formal, the style is abstract and artificial. I once (on the very first day at a new job) got into a frighteningly intense argument with a city editor who had objected to my use of the word “slumbered” to describe the behavior of two political candidates during a debate. They didn’t really sleep through it, did they? he asked. Of course not, I said. I meant it figuratively, not literally. We don’t use figurative language here, he told me. Then he changed the word to “lumbered.”

That was one benighted guy, but the problem was nearly universal. Until recently, you couldn’t escape it. Now you can. The advent of the Web and the proliferation of smart, aggressive bloggers around the globe have torn journalism loose from its hinges. The hounds have been unleashed.

While disliking it intensely, it is easy to forget there was a reason for the soporific style of newspaper writing. Newspapers were actually trying to do something good. They recognized that they held powerful, uncontested positions as conveyors of news to their communities. After much coaxing, they took it upon themselves to shed their partisan pasts and don a cloak of social responsibility—a practice that they called objectivity. They did it in part to sell papers—they thought if they made fewer people angry they would have more readers—but mainly they did it because they thought it was the right thing to do.

I never worked in a newsroom where these responsibilities were seriously questioned. I also never worked in one where they were seriously honored. I don’t mean that people didn’t think they were being honored. And they were, but only in the most formulaic way imaginable. A balanced story about a political debate, for example, would carefully include the points of view on both sides of whatever issue was being examined. Never mind that there might actually be three-dozen points of view, not two. The bigger problem was that this removed the newspaper from its function as a seeker of truth. That’s not our job, we said. Instead, we wrote what we were told.

The net result was that even the best newspapers became predictable and stultifying. Color and flourish in the writing were banished. Curiosity was discouraged. At one job, there was a respected senior reporter who routinely wrote his stories before doing much if any reporting. Then he would go out to find people to tell him what he had already written. He was an extreme case—almost literally filling in the blanks—but hardly alone. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been asked what a particular story would say before I had done a lick of reporting on it.

Stories were edited with the idea that every reader was going to read every word and therefore the words and, more damagingly, the ideas had to be of a certain simplicity. This is such a crackpot notion it barely seems fair to critique it. No one reads the entire paper; few read most of it.

The point is that newspapers have been killing themselves slowly for a long time. So long as the monopoly profits rolled in, the death by a thousand cuts wasn’t paid any attention. When the Internet arrived to eliminate the advertising monopolies, the newspapers already had a foot in the grave.

That said, it wouldn’t hurt the Web triumphalists to acknowledge that there is something more than jobs being lost in the process of newspapers dying. Whether you liked the way they did it or not, monopoly newspapers often performed civic functions.\

The real power of a big paper is most apparent in a couple of specific circumstances. The first is when something really big happens, usually a disaster, causing huge portions of the paper’s resources to be thrown at the story. This is a sort of a reserve power, there when you need it but invisible when you don’t. I often was assigned to rewrite on these stories. It was a frustrating, exhilarating job. I could sit at my desk for the whole day, watching the inanity of cable news and waiting for reporters in the field to file. Then, as deadline for the day’s first edition approached, I would suddenly be overwhelmed with more great reporting than I could possibly use. Reporters I’d never heard of were giving me incredible stuff.

The second circumstance is when breathtaking stories you knew nothing about, but that people had been working on for months or years, suddenly appear in the paper. The depth of the newspaper’s staff allows for this relative luxury.

These two quite different kinds of reporting power are both threatened as newspapers decline. Because of their irregular, episodic nature, readers will not necessarily know they are gone, but their absence will make a community’s news culture considerably poorer.

I once gave a talk to a group of business executives about coverage of 9/11. My assignment back then was to profile the hijackers. My editor’s instructions were to go wherever I needed to go and stay as long as I needed to stay. Neither of us imagined the reporting would take three years and require travel to twenty countries on four continents. But it did. In the middle of my talk one of the executives interrupted. “This is fascinating,” he said, “but I can’t help asking: How does it cost out?” It doesn’t, of course. There isn’t much a newspaper does that pays for itself. I suppose you could think about this sort of reporting as brand management, reminding your readers you’re a serious organization. But without the subsidy of the monopoly profits, there will be less and less of this kind of coverage, if any at all.

Ours is a newspaper family. My wife and I met in a newsroom. She takes her BlackBerry to bed so she can read the next day’s New York Times the night before. We have three papers delivered every morning. I read them in thirty minutes, thirty-five if there are box scores to scrutinize. Clearly, there’s much more looking than reading going on.

Which isn’t to say I don’t read. I read a lot, but selectively. When I’m working on an extended reporting project, I tend to read exclusively on that subject. This does not a well-rounded person make. Or a well-rounded news consumer. In truth, though, I’ve never much liked reading news, even when I was reporting it. I’ve written a couple, but haven’t read a murder story in years, or a campaign-trail dispatch in many more. I’m a big sports fan but almost never read newspaper sports stories. Here’s why:

Cliff Lee looked like Neo on top of the building at the end of the Matrix. Like the game slowed down just for him and he could see everything in ten different ways while the Yankees were stuck in their little three dimension [sic] world.

This was Craig Calcaterra, a lawyer with too much time on his hands, blogging on The Hardball Times about the first game of last year’s World Series. This is almost the perfect beginning for a blog post. It assumed you knew what had happened. It cast its subject into pop culture and it was dead-on smart. Compare it to any newspaper game story and tell me which you would rather read. Yeah, me too.

Even when I still worked for a newspaper, I was already spending more time reading things that were connected to the news, driven by it, but that weren’t newspapers. This has only been exacerbated since I left the newsroom. I used to argue that newspapers ought to return to their mass-medium roots—the high-voltage days of the penny press. That now seems silly. Newspapers have a product that is mismatched to their audience, but becoming more of a mass medium is no longer possible. There is increasingly no mass to be mediated. Everything’s been blown apart. It’s as if somebody set off a bomb in a crystal museum; there are shards of audience scattered from here to kingdom come.

The shards, though, are empowered to reassemble outside the museum. I and thousands of others have built our own newspapers out of rss feeds. I subscribe to about a hundred different Web sites and have organized them in Google Reader. The material is automatically fed into a system of folders that I designate. Think of the folders as newspaper sections. My A section is science news. My B section is sports, baseball and professional basketball only. The C section is politics. D is books and movies.

After I spend my half hour reading the three newspapers, I spend a solid two hours reading through my subscription list. It’s customizable, specific, highly organized, idiosyncratic, and immediate. How can a newspaper compete with that?

 

 

Los Angeles Times

COLUMN ONE
Blogs can top the presses
Talking Points Memo drove the U.S. attorneys story, proof that Web writers with input from devoted readers can reshape journalism.

By Terry McDermott
Times Staff Writer
March 17, 2007

New York — In a third-floor Flower District walkup with bare wooden floors, plain white walls and an excitable toy poodle named Simon, six guys dressed mainly in T-shirts and jeans sit all day in front of computer screens at desks arranged around the oblong room’s perimeter, pecking away at their keyboards and, bit by bit, at the media establishment.

The world headquarters of TPM Media is pretty much like any small newsroom, anywhere, except for the shirts. And the dog. And the quiet. Most newsrooms are notably noisy places, full of shrill phones and quacking reporters. Here there is mainly quiet, except for the clacking keyboards.

It’s 20 or so blocks up town to the heart of the media establishment, the Midtown towers that house the big newspaper, magazine and book publishers. And yet it was here in a neighborhood of bodegas and floral wholesalers that, over the last two months, one of the biggest news stories in the country — the Bush administration’s firing of a group of U.S. attorneys — was pieced together by the reporters of the blog Talking Points Memo.

The bloggers used the usual tools of good journalists everywhere — determination, insight, ingenuity — plus a powerful new force that was not available to reporters until blogging came along: the ability to communicate almost instantaneously with readers via the Internet and to deputize those readers as editorial researchers, in effect multiplying the reporting power by an order of magnitude.

In December, Josh Marshall, who owns and runs TPM , posted a short item linking to a news report in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette about the firing of the U.S. attorney for that state. Marshall later followed up, adding that several U.S. attorneys were apparently being replaced and asked his 100,000 or so daily readers to write in if they knew anything about U.S. attorneys being fired in their areas.

For the two months that followed, Talking Points Memo and one of its sister sites, TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings. The cause was taken up among Democrats in Congress. One senior Justice Department official has resigned, and Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is now in the media crosshairs.

This isn’t the first time Marshall and Talking Points have led coverage on national issues. In 2002, the site was the first to devote more than just passing mention to then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott’s claim that the country would have been better off had the segregationist 1948 presidential campaign of Sen. Strom Thurmond succeeded. The subsequent furor cost Lott his leadership position.

Similarly, the TPM sites were leaders in chronicling the various scandals associated with Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

All of this from an enterprise whose annual budget probably wouldn’t cover the janitorial costs incurred by a metropolitan daily newspaper.

“Hundreds of people out there send clips and other tips,” Marshall said. “There is some real information out there, some real expertise. If you’re not in politics and you know something, you’re not going to call David Broder. With the blog, you develop an intimacy with people. Some of it is perceived, but some of it is real.”

Marshall’s use of his readers to gather information takes advantage of the interactivity that is at the heart of the Internet revolution. The amount of discourse between writers and readers on the Web makes traditional journalists look like hermetic monks.

Duncan Black, an economist who writes as Atrios on his website, Eschaton, receives hundreds of comments for almost anything he posts. Thursday morning, he posted a short note saying he would not be writing much that day as he was going to be traveling. Within the hour, 492 people posted comments on that. A political reporter at a metropolitan daily might not get that much reader response in a year.

“With Abramoff, I was getting a lot more tips than I could handle,” Marshall said. “I thought if I hire two people, pay them, marry them with these tips, what could we do then?”

That led to the creation of TPM Muckraker, which has two full-time, salaried reporter-bloggers and is where many of the stories on the U.S. attorneys were originally published.

In much of its work, TPM exhibits a clearly identified political agenda. In this, it is no different from dozens of other blogs across the political spectrum. It distinguishes itself by mixing liberal opinion with original reporting by its own staff and actively seeking information from its readers.

This was most apparent in 2004-05 when Marshall turned the site’s focus to President Bush’s proposed privatization of Social Security. Marshall asked readers to survey their own members of Congress on the issue. This distributed reporting helped TPM compile rosters of where every member of Congress stood on the proposal, something no newspaper attempted. By making apparent the lack of enthusiasm for the plan, TPM helped kill it.

The Social Security campaign was straightforward political activism, with strict advocacy for a well-defined position.

“For me, that was sort of a little beyond my comfort zone,” Marshall said. “But the underlying issue seemed important enough to do it. There are still a lot of lines I don’t cross because of, for lack of a better word, the kind of institution we are. We do opinion journalism, we’re not campaign adjuncts.”

Blogging has famously unleashed the opinions of multitudes. There are, by very rough count, 60 million bloggers around the world today. Some projections have that number nearly doubling again this year. Depending on which side of a vitriolic divide you fall — that is, whether you think this is good or bad — this represents either the end of civilization or the rise of true democracy.

There are blogs for baseball teams, for fast food, for God and for Satan; there are lots of blogs on politics and Hollywood and at least one that deals exclusively with pharmaceutical industry research. There are hundreds of blogs on Iraq and more than you would imagine in Mongolia.

Though the numbers and breadth of blogging are indeed astonishing, it’s not at all clear what the numbers mean, if they mean anything at all. Much of what constitutes the phenomenon of blogging is apt to be inconsequential for the simple but powerful fact that nobody reads most of them. That is, aside from their authors, literally nobody.

Most of these blogs are the creations of individuals who have a passion to write, usually about a single subject, that subject often being themselves. Some of them are truly horrible and, thankfully, short-lived. The passion burns out.

Others, though, are remarkably good. There are sports blogs devoted to single teams that are far more acute in their analysis than mainstream media (MSM) covering the same sport. This is particularly true in baseball, where statistically driven analysis has been adopted wholesale in the blogosphere while the MSM has been slow to recognize its value.

The blogs that have captured the most attention are those that devote themselves mainly to politics and public affairs. These are almost always run by partisans of one side or the other. In that, they are nearly the opposite of the sort of coverage presented in traditional media, whose coverage at least attempts to be neutral on questions of policy.

This neutrality is a favorite target of bloggers who say that mainstream journalism objectivity disguises hidden biases of the form, if not the writer. The bloggers contend that these biases can render neutrality into bland, even neutered reporting that rewards those intent on manipulating it.

Many critiques from both sides of the blogging-MSM divide are accurate, if sometimes misplaced. The chief criticisms of blogging from defenders of the MSM are, one, the pajama charge — that is, bloggers are not professional journalists and don’t do much reporting (thus the image of them sitting at home in their pajamas) — and, two, the incivility charge, that many bloggers use impolite language.

Most bloggers, in fact, are not journalists and do little if any reporting. But most bloggers don’t claim to be journalists. They’re bloggers. The incivility charge is true too. Many bloggers use bad language, but so occasionally does the New Yorker, and no one accuses it of lacking manners.

“I’m familiar with the critique,” Marshall said. “I don’t feel it has a great deal to do with us, what we are doing. There’s a ton of stuff out there, and a lot of it is screechy and angry and undisciplined. I don’t have a problem with it, but it’s not stuff I’m particularly interested in reading.

“It’s totally in the tradition of political pamphleteering. … Individually, I think some of it isn’t necessarily that pretty, but I think the whole thing altogether is a great thing.”

Neither side in the blog-MSM debate seems to have great appreciation for what the other brings to the party. Simply put, while mainstream media does the heavy lifting of careful, day-to-day and occasional in-depth reporting, bloggers have revivified political commentary, mainly through their exuberance.

If the traditional media see their roles as delivering lectures on the news of the day, blogs are more of a backyard conversation, friendlier, more convivial. Bloggers publish in variable lengths at uncertain and unscheduled times. Blogs tend to be informal, cheap to produce, free to consume, fast, heavily referential, self-referential and vain because of it; profane, accident-prone yet self-correcting.

To say that traditional media were slow to appreciate the power of this form is to belabor the obvious. Even bloggers were slow to appreciate the import of what they were doing. The phenomenon appeared in its embryonic form in the mid-1990s. The term “blog,” a mash-up of “Web log,” was coined in 1997. By 1999, blogging software was widely available, and free, and the first political blogs appeared.

By that time, Marshall, a 38-year-old who has a PhD from Brown University in American colonial history, had become a freelance journalist, selling pieces mainly to small opinion journals. He wrote his first blog post in November 2000, commenting on the role of GOP lawyer Theodore Olson in Florida’s Bush-Gore recount.

“It just seemed natural. I liked the informality of the writing. The freedom of it appealed to me,” Marshall said. “It just looked like fun. I saw it as a loss leader for my journalism.”

Once he started, however, he never stopped. He continued to freelance, but gradually moved more and more of his attention to the blog, living in near poverty as a result. When he needed money to do something for the blog, he asked his readers for it. Remarkably, they gave it to him.

His economic turning point came in 2003 when he received a phone call from a man named Henry Copeland, who had an idea for selling advertising on blogs. Copeland saw a way to aggregate blogs and broker advertising to them. Essentially, he created a remote back office and a revenue stream for the mainly sole proprietors who blogged.

“He had the concept of Blogads, which turned out to be the funding mechanism for what I was doing. Within six months it was supporting me,” Marshall said.

It wasn’t until Copeland came along that anyone seriously contemplated making a career as a blogger. Since then, advertising has grown to such an extent that dozens of blogs are now profitable enterprises. They are also major sources of information for thousands of readers.

Copeland said the relatively small world of left-of-center political blogs now receives an estimated 160 million page views a month, in the same ballpark as some major newspapers and far more than any opinion magazine.

This professionalization of the blogosphere has been abetted by mainstream media’s increasing practice of hiring independent bloggers or deploying staffers to blog duty. No one in the blogosphere seems particularly worried about the competition.

Copeland, for one, doubts that the MSM will be able to stem the blogging tide, or even swim very far in it.

“We’re big believers that the Internet’s rule is ‘the outside is the new inside.’ That means that bloggers, with low overheads and nimble structures, can outmaneuver everyone else….

“A newspaper is a boat, a highly evolved mechanism designed and built to float in water. Blogs are bikes, built to cruise in another environment. Now, you can pull a bunch of planking off a boat and add wheels and pedals, but that won’t make it as light and maneuverable as a bike.”

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