Hindsight – journalists, Ferguson, and what Americans should know about media

The events in Ferguson, Missouri have drawn attention to our nation’s long-festering racial wounds.  They also have fanned the flames of intolerance on both sides of the aisle, and exposed many for the sort of political attention hogs they really are.  One profession, however, managed to, yet again, besmirch its name, its honor, and the public trust it has been granted.  No, this is about the police.  While they botched their own response, it was actually those who consider themselves the watchdogs for the public. 

The news media, to quote the Big Bang Theory, managed to “screw up the screw up.”

Thanks to Ferguson, Americans distrust journalists as never before.  What’s more, the media managed to actually alienate themselves from not just whites, but also minorities with their behaviors.  At first, residents of Ferguson welcomed the notion of reporters and cameras in their city to document the perceived injustices.  Unfortunately, the media committed a fatal error, and it some outlets may have damaged their credibility beyond repair.

The media bought into its own hype and violated a fundamental tenet of journalism – they actually sought to make themselves the story.

To contrast, the murder of journalist James Foley was an abhorrent act of violence, but one which was covered in accordance with journalism standards.  That can’t be said of the instance of two journalists who were detained by Ferguson police officers.  These journalists chose, rather than focus on the story they were covering, to make the story about their own experiences. A great opportunity was presented to display daily life in the Ferguson jail, document the police officers’ points of view, or even interview those being detained.  Instead, the journalists botched their charge in favor of their ego, tweeting their own experiences.  Credibility would have been earned by tweeting inmate statements instead.  It smacked of the classic opportunistic writer whose only worry was advancing their career.

This segues to five things Americans should understand about journalism as a profession.

  1. Not all writers and journalists, and not all journalists are writers!  It takes a special personality type to be a true journalist, a true reporter, or a true news writer.  The desire to serve the public, rather than be served and adored, is essential for a journalist to excel.  Without that quality, a so-called journalist will eventually turn into an attention hog.
  2. No journalist is 100% objective! Sure, Fox News calls itself “Fair and Balanced,” but note that they don’t advertise themselves as “objective.”  MSNBC never even attempts to promote their network as “objective.”  That is fundamentally impossible.  As journalists are human, their own worldview often influences their writing, their coverage, and how they present the story to readers.  A journalist who grew up in poverty is far more likely to focus on the impoverished that a journalist who grew up in an affluent family.  A sports reporter who played quarterback in high school is more likely to consider baseball boring than a writer whose father coached Little League.  Background and personal experiences influence how journalists do their work.  It’s just that simple.
  3. Media honchos choose the most marketable face, not the best! Would it surprise anyone to know that Fox’s Gretchen Carlson was a former Miss America (1989)?  Would it really stun the world to learn that Anderson Cooper is a Vanderbilt family legacy?  Of course not – because the American media, like it or not, is a business and, as such, it must market itself.  How does it do that?  Look at the faces and voices of your media outlets.  Radio wants smooth and authoritative voices listeners can trust (Atlanta’s Scott Slade of WSB, Tampa Bay’s Jack Harris of WFLA, Vin Scully of the Los Angeles Dodgers).  If they read a script into a microphone, they get the job!  Notwithstanding the actual ability of the aforementioned three, most radio anchors have little to no field experience.  Ditto for news anchors and top field reporters.  While some anchors and hosts get their jobs through honest, hard work and dedication, the vast majority as identified by talent scouts – headhunters whose job is to present potential talent to focus groups for surveys.  Anyone who thinks that MSNBC, CNN and Fox aren’t using some sort of statistical sampling to decide who the stand-ins for Chris Matthews, Gretchen Carlson, and Anderson Cooper will be is smoking a cohiba loaded with enough good stuff to bring down Mr. Ed.  As great and talented as Walter Kronkite and Bob Hite, Sr. were, they represent broadcast journalism’s first generation, before marketers got involved.  Thanks to the latter, we get the Happy Face Barbie and Ken Doll Parade, instead of (mostly) capable reporters.
  4. Some of the most well-known journalists (one way or another) didn’t get a journalism degree! As stunning as it may be to consider, Walter Cronkite never graduated from college, but went on to an illustrious career as America’s most celebrated journalist.  Fox’s Bill O’Reilly’s Bachelors Degree is actually in History (though he did later receive a Masters in Journalism).  Barbara Walters, widely respected as one of America’s pre-eminent female journalists, received a Bachelors in English, while Katie Couric, largely regarded as the modern face of female American journalists, actually received a Bachelors in American Studies.   Oddly enough, these individuals have enjoyed much greater success in their respective media careers than those with Journalism Degrees.
  5. The decision makers of American media don’t give a hoot what you think! The reality is that American media heads are mostly of the opinion that they shape the public opinion to match their content and ideology, not the other way around.  William Randolph Hearst is widely attributed to saying “You provide the pictures, I’ll provide the war,” and that attitude has been carried by most News Directors, Editors, Publishers, and network executives.  The New York Times, News Corp, NBC/Comcast and CNN all work hard every day to shape opinions, rather than respond to the opinions of those who consume their product.  Americans, for the most part, are regarded as lemmings who follow what talking heads on both sides of the ideological aisle dictate, and the media plays to that for one reason – it makes the most money.

It’s an ugly truth to consider, but most journalists are looking for that big, cushy newspaper or network job when incidents such as Ferguson erupt, and that’s because the current generation of big-namers and execs got to where they are mostly by connections or gross self-promotion.  Good, solid, ethical journalists (who are mostly overlooked for one reason or another)  will focus on the story and report – the true foot soldiers who should be protected, but not given extra protection simply because they are the media.  Journalists know the risks of becoming part of the story, rather than simply stand on the sidelines and report the story.  It is the former which has truly put this noble profession at risk of becoming more than reviled – it is now in danger of becoming irrelevant, and that would spell the beginning of end of our great republic.

We as Americans deserve better, and those who style themselves as journalists should behave better. Our nation deserves people who will report the facts, display things as they actually happen, and avoid (to the degree able) injecting their own opinion into any story.  Leave the opining for the real attention hogs – commentators, bloggers (self-deprecating humor there), and politicians.

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