March 28, 2005
Bonnie M. Anderson Calls for a Free and Responsible Press
This is Part 2 of a 2-part BuzzFlash Interview with Bonnie M. Anderson.
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Bonnie M. Anderson won 7 Emmy Awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize during her career as a print and broadcast journalist. Now the author of Newsflash: Journalism, Infotainment, and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News shares an insider's view of decision-making inside America's network news divisions. She laments sloppy journalism and the networks' regrettable decision to showcase high-cost celebrity news readers and "infotainment" stories instead of hard news. She talks with BuzzFlash in this, Part 2 of our interview, about responsible journalism and the professional corruption that follows from always watching the bottom line.
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BuzzFlash: At the risk of sounding as ignorant
of journalism as the CNN executive who asked you, ďWhat's a journalist?Ē
we also have to wonder, what is news? A lot of news seems to go all the
way back to the stories in the Bible. It is basically that Cain killed
Abel, and so you see a lot of murder stories. Or Sodom and Gomorrah were
destroyed, that's where you get reports about devastation like the tsunami.
These things were reported in the Bible as divine events. But the Bible,
in many ways, is filled with news stories -- actions of individuals against
individuals, or very natural upheavals. Certainly, the tsunami story was
an incredible example of that.
At a local TV station, the small, two-car wreck could be news. The story of a lion on the loose from the zoo would certainly be news in a small town. But is it truly news on the national and international stage? No, but thereís the human interest factor that might get it a lot of play on national and international newscasts.
Should it? I could certainly see it as a ten-second bump
on a network that says, before we go to commercial, have a look at what
the folks in this small town experienced today. Bingo. But what happens
is that youíll have networks doing almost the O.J. kind of car-chase coverage
of this. They may spend a great deal of time on something like this. Then
what is not being covered might be a coup in another country, or an earthquake
that may have killed a couple hundred people. Thatís certainly far more
newsworthy than the lion that escaped from the zoo.
Bonnie M. Anderson: How it was covered really brings us to the entire infotainment angle on all of this. Did the Michael Jackson pajama story deserve a minute-ten on NBC? Yes, probably it did, because of how absolutely out of the ordinary it was. You donít have too many people, much less celebrities, showing up in court in pajamas. Is it worth hours and hours and hours of coverage? No.
The same thing with O.J., which was coverer ed gavel to
gavel. I was a correspondent at the time, and my fellow correspondents
at CNN and I were commiserating on a daily basis. We were going out and
covering real news every single day, carrying on with our jobs, but our
stories were never seeing the light of air. That was a financial determination,
and thatís all that counts to the corporations. For them, it was a great
decision because CNNís ratings went up Ė I believe the number is 800%.
A lot of people tuned in. They wanted to see it. But from a journalistic
point of view, it was a disaster, and it was an atrocity.
The purpose of newscasts should be to truly inform the viewers
or the readers of the most important breaking news stories of the day.
Michael Jackson in pajamas doesnít deserve forty inches in the newspaper,
or forty minutes on air Ė not when there are all kinds of events happening
around the world, not when more and more soldiers are being killed every
single day in Iraq, not when there are questions yet to be answered about
Osama bin Laden or whatís happening in Afghanistan. Many more important
issues are being put on the back burner, just to provide viewers and readers
one more tiny detail about Michael Jacksonís pajamas. Thatís just irresponsible
Secondly, though, it points out a real fault of American journalism, which is that thereís very little follow up. You do overkill on a story, and then let it drop, and never go back to it, never continue an investigation. Whatever happened after the anthrax scare, for instance? After all, this nation was terrified. Even at CNN, all the mail was delivered to an outside building and sorted, and assistants had to go there to pick it up and bring it into the building. Any mail that was coming from unidentified sources was destroyed, which made recruiting rather interesting, by the way. You get a lot of tapes that are unsolicited. But whatever happened after that? You can't even go back to the whole hunt for Osama bin Laden. That was the number-one story for quite some time, and now it really has been overtaken by other stories.
This is a great fault of American journalism, and itís lousy
journalism. There should be room in newscasts for the story you just mentioned
on wealth and lack of wealth in this country, and poverty in the world.
So many issues like this drive policy decisions and drive political fallout.
These are things that people need to know about, so they can put the stories
A perfect example of technology pulling the wool over peopleís eyes is the coverage of the invasion and the beginning of the war in Iraq, where every station had hours and hours of very stunning live pictures of the tanks going across the desert, and dusty correspondents speaking into microphones as theyíre in the midst of a battle.
The live pictures were very impressive. But what did they
say? Nothing. Because of the censorship rules and the agreements the news
organizations had to sign, the public didnít find out where this was happening,
what was actually happening, whether anybody had been killed, whether
towns had been taken Ė not on the live part, only afterwards. But they
couldnít say who they were engaging, whether there had been fatalities
or injuries on either side. Basically, all the viewers were getting was
very dramatic videos with bang-bang in the background and lots of dust
and dirt. People were eating it up without realizing that they were feeding
their eyes, but not their brains.
BuzzFlash assumed this was the U.S. militaryís way of saying we donít want covered what weíre about to do to Fallujah. And indeed, one of the first things they did was bomb a hospital, saying that the hospital harbored "insurgents." Curiously enough, the Italian reporter Giuliana Sgrena, who was shot at during her controversial kidnap release, had written about that attack on the hospital.
But in a situation like that, letís say thereís a nightly
newscast. The Pentagon has said to pull your reporters out because we
canít guarantee their safety, and the Iraqi government says the same thing.
The news editor either accepts the U.S. government version of whatever
is happening, since they have no reporters in there, and they made their
decision to pull their reporters, or of questioning why the U.S. is asking
all the reporters to leave and trying to find some alternative account
of whatís going on inside Fallujah through the Internet or any possible
means. It seemed to us from what we saw that most news editors chose just
to go with the U.S. government account of Fallujah. And the town was decimated,
but the American government said while it was going on that that was not
the case. They were using "precision bombing."
I was a war correspondent for several years. First of all, I donít want to be protected by the U.S. forces or by the Iraqi forces. I donít want anybody to feel responsible for my well-being. That problem was created when they embeded journalists with troops because then the troops felt that they had to protect you, and you felt protected. But then you also are bound by their decisions. They say youíve got to leave, youíve got to leave. Thatís one of the big problems I had with the whole embed program.
Independent journalists traveling on their own do put themselves at risk. A lot of my colleagues have lost their lives. But it is the only way to really be able to independently confirm and document what is happening in these areas. Even journalists who are truly dedicated to the First Amendment and to informing the public, these folks will have to make up their own minds at some point whether or not itís time to get out, whether itís too dangerous.
Iíve been in a number of situations where you talk with
your camera crew, your producer, and you say, you know what? This is a
little too dangerous for us. The risk factor is too high. But at that
point, the news organization should be reporting to the public that we
donít have anybody in there. It was what we chose. We decided it was too
dangerous. And if government Ė any government Ė said get out, or you must
leave, then you report that as well. You report that the Pentagon ordered
your people out of this area.
A good example from the other side was during the first Gulf War when CNN had the only U.S. reporters in Baghdad. They were being fed information directly by the Iraqis. I have stood up for Peter Arnett and his fellow reporters many many times, because they were really clear in saying, we were taken to this place. We were told it was a milk factory. We donít know. And please understand that we are here under guard, that everything we say is being reviewed, and every piece of video we send out, they go through first.
Is there value in this? Sure, because youíre still getting
part of the story. There is no way that these reporters could do anything
but what they were doing. You certainly couldnít get the American point
of view at the time from Baghdad. You have to let the network's other
correspondents try to fill in those blanks. But they were being honest
with the public and with the viewers by saying, this is what they want
you to know, and we canít corroborate it.
Most television journalists are far too lazy, or they may
not have the capacity to write in such a way that they can draw pictures
with words and inform people by keeping their attention. You can make
a story compelling with words. We know that; itís been proven by radio.
Why arenít these same skills transferred to television, especially when
there is a lack of video for a certain issue? A lot of people have done
a pretty poor job when it comes to stories about the economy, for instance.
The other thing is, you donít have your crack teams on on
the weekends. Weekends are when youíre training people. You wouldnít put
a Dan Rather or Tom Brokaw or any of your front-line anchors or correspondents
on for Saturday and Sunday. You figure more people are doing something
away from TV sets, going out to dinner or to parties or whatnot, and not
watching the news.
What's needed is a radical overhaul in thinking about what to do with the time they already have. Letís go back to the Janet Jackson incident at the 2004 SuperBowl halftime. Every network had enough time to cover that story in detail. Was it worth a minute and a half or two minutes of your 17- to 22-minute news hole in a half-hour broadcast? Of course not.
Itís about prioritizing what is news, and in any given time
frame, whether you have a half hour, an hour, three hours, or 24, it comes
down to how much of this are you going to truly dedicate to news? Sure,
on a 24-hour network, you could dedicate hour slots to debate programs,
to opinion programming. But within the actual newscast, whether a half
hour or an hour, it is really rededicating the news-gathering division
and the programming division to filling that time with the news that people
need to know about.
We were beginning to see this kind of stereotype, or story line, about people in the 2000 election. The Republican Party was very effective in stereotyping Al Gore as a liar, which doesnít seem, by any stretch of the imagination, to be accurate. But that got out there. The Republicans managed to insinuate it, and that became sort of a stereotype and a story line. Then in 2004, it was the issue of John Kerry being somehow weak, French Ė he liked the French and could speak French. He was portrayed as dishonest about his Vietnam record and so forth. And the media starts to accept certain story lines either implicitly or explicitly, and they donít wake up every day challenging such assumptions, but begin every story with an assumption. Isn't that sort of counter-intuitive to how journalism is supposed to work? Do you agree with that at all?
Bonnie M. Anderson: I totally agree with that. As I write in my book, Newsflash, the media have become lapdogs instead of the attack dogs and watchdogs. Part of this is, that the corporations and the top-level news executives have seen the success of Fox and the apparent mood of this country. They want to go after conservative viewers. One way to do that is to support this administration, right or wrong. Theyíre also feeling, especially at time of war, that questioning an administration leaves you open to attacks of not being patriotic, which couldnít be further from the truth. It is patriotic for journalists to question whatís going on. Thereís nothing more patriotic than to truly do the job of journalists the way it should be done. But you also have a very, very powerful right wing and Republican propaganda arm that is feeding information and manipulating these reporters.
And the reporters are to blame.The propaganda machine is
a very, very able one, but if reporters can be manipulated, shame on them!
In many cases, I believe strongly that there was a conscious effort to
avoid being tarred by the "unpatriotic" label. I think people
and news organizations were very afraid that the right wing would say,
X network is anti-American, for example, and their viewership would crumble.
Again, it is very poor journalism that does not serve the public well.
We need this, and it is not just a free and unencumbered press, but a responsible press, too. We donít have that, either. It is essential for a democracy, if people are going to be able to live free. Itís essential for our economic well-being, as well. It touches every aspect of our lives. Right now, we are sitting back and watching our freedom erode on all fronts. Among these freedoms are freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These freedoms are as important as any other element of a democracy. This is the rallying cry.
I donít care if people are left wing or right wing, whether
they support this president and administration or not, but we should all
be, as Americans, absolutely concerned about a free and responsible press,
and be demanding it of these news organizations. We must be willing to
make some sacrifices, frankly, and especially among the journalists. You
speak up, youíre going to get in trouble. But is it worth it? It certainly
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News Flash: Journalism, Infotainment and the Bottom-Line
Business of Broadcast News by Bonnie Anderson
Bonnie M. Anderson profile
David Cay Johnston, Author of "Perfectly Legal: The Covert Campaign to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich -- and Cheat Everybody Else," the Book on How the Middle Class is Getting Ripped as the Rich Pad Their Pockets -- A BuzzFlash Interview http://www.buzzflash.com/interviews/04/03/int04016.html