Sunday, November 18, 2007

CNN, Fox, MSNBC All Guilty of Hucksterism

My blog yesterday expoused the right of seasoned reporters to express opinions, within responsible limits. It's my feeling, as I explained, that this contributes to the credibility of the press rather than detracting from it, because readers want to know where a reporter is coming from. It helps them to decide whether they agree with the reporter or not, and how seriously to take him. If reporters claim to be above all opinions, which some do, the readers know not to believe it, because they know reporters like all human beings cannot be above opinions. The most they can do is to try to be fair to both sides of a question.

But limited expression of opinions does not mean hucksterism, and hucksterism, the unlimited expression of demagogic views with the aim of conning the public, is what we have today with Bill O'Reilly at Fox News, Lou Dobbs at CNN and Keith Olbermann at MSNBC. These men are not so much reporters as rabble rousers allowed by their networks to run rampant simply as a means of improving the networks' ratings.

Fox has been biased -- for Republican candidates -- for some time. It built superior ratings over CNN and MSNBC at a time when President Bush commanded a majority, and liberals looked like they were out of the national mainstream. O'Reilly leads Fox in this direction.

Now, persistently anti-administration, Olbermann is building ratings by being against the administration. MSNBC is boasting of him in its promotions on this basis. I suppose, in a sense, turnabout is fair play.

More perturbing is the commentary of Lou Dobbs on CNN. I wrote critically of him as long ago as last May, and nothing that has happened since, despite the growth of the issues concerning illegal immigration that are his obsession, has changed my mind. I believe Dobbs to be a dangerous demagogue reminiscent of Father Coughlin, the Catholic priest who in the 1930s built radio ratings by espousing fascist views.

That CNN has not reined in Dobbs leads me to conclude that the network's executive will do anything they can to challenge Fox in the ratings. They have abandoned all pretense of journalistic respectability in this mad rush to compete.

Saturday, there was another of the fine media columns we have come to expect on this very subject by Tim Rutten in the L.A. Times. He reports something that I had not been aware of -- namely the suggestions that Dobbs may be seeking to build an anti-immigration independent presidential candidacy for himself.

I'm pleased, as written last week, that Rutten is about to become an Op Ed Page columnist for the Times. I think he deserves the promotion to better space, on the editorial pages. But I will be sorry to see Rutten abandon his media columns to comment on local and cultural affairs as he now promises. Rutten has been a tremendous media columnist, responsible and pungent at the same time. Many of his columns in Calendar have done a public service, and at a time he was in a low mood after being ousted as a metro editor, it was laudable of editor John Montorio, to invite him to do the column.

Certainly, one of Rutten's most important columns was yesterday. It is not only Dobbs he was concerned with, but the whole politicization of the cable news networks. He writes about "CNN's descent into hyperbole and histrionics," but he also declares, correctly, that "the three all-news cable networks each have aligned themselves with a point on the political compass."

Even the formerly respected CNN reporter, Wolf Blitzer, has not been able, assuming he would wish to do so, to resist the trend.

Citing last Thursday's debate between Democratic candidates in Las Vegas which Blitzer moderated, Rutten writes "about the shamelessly high-pressure pitch machine that has replaced the Cable News Network's once smart and reliable campaign coverage.

"Was there ever a better backdrop than Las Vegas for the traveling wreck of a journalistic carnival that CNN's political journalism has become?" he asks. "And can there now be any doubt that, in his last life, Wiolf Blitzer had a booth on the midway, barking for the bearded lady and the dog faced boy?"

Well, you get the idea, I don't need to repeat the whole column. But Rutten's commentary was not the only criticism of CNN in connection with the Las Vegas debate. The New York Times yesterday also had a story questioning CNN's use of James Carville in its post-debate campaign roundtable without ever reminding the audience that Carville is a close friend of the Clintons and a contributor to Hillary Clinton's campaign.

The NYT story by Julie Bosman quotes Jonathan Klein, the CNN president, as acknowledging in an interview that the network should have disclosed Carville's connections. "He's not on the Hillary payroll, but he's on the Hillary bandwagon, and that should be disclosed as much as we can," Klein said. "I wasn't comfortable with it myself as I watched it." Not disclosing the relationship, he said, was "an unfortunate omission."

How gallant of Klein. But the fact is that as the president of CNN, he is responsible for the descent of the network into hucksterism. Just because Fox panders to one side of the political spectrum doesn't mean that CNN should pander to the other. That is, figuratively, jumping into the same pot, and that pot is now boiling up an unsavory stew for the 2008 presidential campaign.

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One need look only at the lead stories in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times this morning to conclude that the New York Times is far more imaginative and innovative in its foreign coverage than the L.A. Times.

Both stories are on the subject of Pakistan. But the L.A. Times story by Peter Spiegel is a pedestrian one about how the U.S. isn't seeing much good result from its billions of dollars of post-9-11 aid to Pakistan, while the New York Times story by David E. Sanger and William J. Broad reveals a highly-classified, $100 million U.S. effort to guard Pakistan's nuclear arms from falling into the hands of the extremists of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The story was initially delayed at the Bush Administration's request, but now, since parts of have been divulged elsewhere, the New York Times is printing it.

Safeguarding the nuclear weapons from the terrorists is, fundamentally, what the present crisis in Pakistan is about. The New York Times has its eye "on the prize," as it were, while the L.A. Times does not. One consequence of the loss of Doug Frantz at the L.A. Times is that the LAT doesn't have the information on nuclear proliferation and attendant issues that it used to.

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