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Friday, April 25, 2008

To Fix the Media, Kill Phony Objectivity

I've been ripping on the media lately and not without good cause. We've seen what may have been the worst and most uninformative presidential debate of our lifetime. Well, worst and most uninformative to date, anyway. There may not be any lower limit to just how bad television news can make things. We've seen the media give John McCain the kid gloves treatment, meeting terrible campaign decisions and appearances with near-applause. We've seen the media acting as stenographers to power, repeating everything they're told without examining whether or not any of it is true.

Still, the fourth estate is not dead, merely sick. Perhaps dying. But it's not done yet. Print journalism, at least, is still kicking. And sometimes producing great work. We see the difference in coverage of Iraq. Where TV media tends to show us Iraq as a big map, print journalists show us that people live and work within the borders. When watching cable news or the networks, it's often as if you're watching from the moon. Everything you see is shown as a matter of nations, not people. And, since nations are at their most basic entirely conceptual, coverage of Iraq becomes an academic exercise. It's not a war, it's a game, and Iraq is that weird shaped piece in the middle east. Take Iraq and the grand plan to capture Yakutsk and Kamchatka moves apace.

McClatchy Baghdad Correspondent Leila Fadel reprints part of a letter from a mother that reminds us why a more focused and earthly approach to the news is still important. In response to an article and accompanying video about US troops in Sadr City, she wrote:

Lt Adam Bowen is my son. You were with him and his platoon a few days ago in Sadr City. When I read your article, which so accurately depicted him, I could hear him talking and hear his tone of voice in each quote. But then I saw the video. I watched it, with lots of trepidation, hoping for a just quick glimpse of him. When the camera panned around the room, and I found myself face to face with him, it was such an incredible moment. I’ve watched it over and over and have paused it repeatedly just to be able to look at him, to see if he’s okay. (He looks well—I hope you found him so.) I play it again and again, hearing him in the background on the radio.


"Something Lt. Bowen said to me has stuck with me," Fadel writes. "'Nobody cares about what we're doing here, nobody but our families.' I hope that's not true."

At the risk of conjuring memories of Soylent Green, I'd remind TV media outlets that the news is people. Maps are just some crap we made up and arbitrarily imposed on the world.

Another print journalist who demonstrates this is columnist Dana Milbank in a piece for the Washington Post. Titled "What the Family Would Let You See, the Pentagon Obstructs," it's about the micromanagement of media coverage of the funeral of Lt. Col. Billy Hall.

The family of 38-year-old Hall, who leaves behind two young daughters and two stepsons, gave their permission for the media to cover his Arlington burial -- a decision many grieving families make so that the nation will learn about their loved ones' sacrifice. But the military had other ideas, and they arranged the Marine's burial yesterday so that no sound, and few images, would make it into the public domain.


Milbank tells us that the roadblocks put up to the media, who were invited by the family to cover the service, "fits neatly with an effort by the administration to sanitize the war in Iraq."

He reports what he can and tells us that there's a bigger story here, one the military goes to extremes to keep out of the news. These fallen have families and Hall was no exception; he leaves behind two daughters, 6-year-old Gladys and 3-year-old Tatianna. "In the front row of mourners, one young girl trudged along, clinging to a grown-up's hand; another child found a ride on an adult's shoulders," Milbank writes. "It was a moving scene -- and one the Pentagon shouldn't try to hide from the American public."

But not even TV news is hopeless. There are times when everything is so big and so overwhelming that reality seeps into the detachment. Where TV journalists tend to be robotic, the emotional context of the story can't be denied and it's at this point -- sadly, when all their TV news training fails -- that we see excellence.

Both of my examples of this come from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was so huge and so overwhelming and so tragic that it was difficult for journalists to maintain their objectivity and became, if only for a moment, human.

This is video of an interview of Katrina survivor Hardy Jackson by Jennifer Mayerle, a reporter for WKRG, Mobile, Alabama. It was shot in Biloxi, Mississippi:



This was the best video I could find and it's a little quiet (at least, on my machine), so I went looking for a transcript. I totally lucked out and found one, as well as great commentary on it by G.E. "Skip" Lawrence of the Phoenixville News, a small paper in the Philadelphia area.

[Mayerle] tries out a conclusion, that "Hurricane Katrina is proving to be a powerful, destructive, and maybe deadly storm here along the Gulf coast. We know that people will remember this storm for years to come."

As she does, a man who had started to pass her doubles back, two small boys in tow. "I lost my wife", says Hardy Jackson, 434 Heidenheim Avenue. She doesn't hear him.

Mayerle: How are you doing, sir?

Jackson: I'm not doing good.

Mayerle: What happened?

Jackson: The house just split in half.

Mayerle: Your house split in half?

Jackson: [inaudible] We got up in the roof, all the way to the roof. And water came in high, just opened it up, divided it.

Mayerle: Who was at your house with you?

Jackson: My wife.

Mayerle: And where is she now?

Jackson: [inaudible] She's gone.

Mayerle: You can't find your wife?

Jackson: No, she told me, I tried, I hold her hand as tight as I could. And she told me, 'You can't hold on.' She said, 'Take care of the kids, and the grandkids.'

Mayerle: What's your wife's name, in case we can get this out there?

Jackson: Tonette Jackson.

Mayerle: Okay. And what is your name?

Jackson: Hardy Jackson.

Mayerle: Where are you guys going?

Jackson: We got nowhere to, I don't know where I'm going. I'm, I'm lost. That's all I had. That's all I had. Don't know what we'll do.

Mayerle: [to the camera] Katrina is proving to be a dead...

Jackson: There's six, a few more bodies over there where I stayed at. Laying, laying right there in the mud.

Mayerle: You guys, you take care of your boys, okay? [to the camera] Katrina is proving to be a deadly storm. Now reporting in Biloxi, Jennifer Mayerle, News 5.


"In print, this scans as if Mayerle is doing nothing more than being a good reporter, structuring the occasion with reporter's questions, asked with reporters' objectivity," Lawrence wrote. "But at 'I'm lost' - which was, of course, not an answer to her question of geography - she starts to cry. Her questions now come with a tremble. Her practiced line 'Katrina is proving to be..'" becomes her salvation. She drops the 'maybe' from 'maybe a deadly storm', and hangs on to the rest as tightly as she would have done to a piece of flotsam on what used to be Heidenheim Avenue."

It turns out that the pretty blonde news-robot isn't a robot at all. At the moment her objectivity fails her, we fall from our detached orbit and find ourselves on that ruined street, worried about this man and his boys who have suddenly become inarguably real to us. Hardy Jackson became a minor celebrity because of this, the footage was widely circulated, and people around the world wanted to help him specifically and other survivors generally. One year later, Jackson was living in a donated home. TV journalism made a difference, but only because objectivity was lost and humanity shown.

It may be that the most revealing video footage from Katrina (Windows and Quicktime, courtesy of Crooks and Liars) came from the most unlikely source -- FOX News. On the BS spin show, Hannity & Colmes, Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera pretty much lose it. Sent to the center of the devastation, the Superdome, these guys find themselves in a situation that's impossible to spin. At one point, Rivera tries to explain just how awful it all is, finally going with "What the hell?" He just doesn't have the words.

Sean Hannity is clearly unprepared for this sort of truth-telling. He was looking for FOX-style "the rest of the media says this is bad because they hate Bush" spin and he gets truth jammed down his throat. At one point, he tells Smith "I wanna get some perspective here..." (which is Hannity-speak for "let me spin this") and Smith bites his head off.

"This is perspective!" Smith says. "This is all the perspective you need!" Both reporters are visibly upset and genuinely angered and grief-stricken and appalled by what they're seeing all around them.

"The government said, 'You go here and you'll get help' or 'You go into that Superdome and you'll get help.' But they didn't get help. They got locked in there and they watched people being killed around them. And they watched people starving and they watched elderly people not get any medicine," Smith reported. "And now they know it's happening. Because we've been telling them, repeatedly. Over and over, every day..."

Shepard Smith changed from Leni Riefenstahl to a mix of Edward R. Murrow and Tom Jode that night. I wish I could say he never changed back. Given the enormity of what he was seeing, the tremendous mismanagement that was turning a disaster into a catastrophe, and seeing from the ground what needed to be done and what wasn't happening, he stopped being a robot too. And once again, we fell out of that detached TV news orbit and found ourselves face to face with unimaginable tragedy.

In terms of journalism, the sad thing is that these people needed to become emotionally defeated to get past all the maps and graphs and polls and pundits to actually report the damned news honestly. But it proves that TV news isn't hopeless, it can be done right. The problem is that there aren't many out there who are doing it.

The news is people -- even TV news.

--Wisco

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