During my suspension weekend before last I got an email from the delightfully and improbably named Autumn Brewington, inviting me to contribute an Op-Ed piece to The Washington Post on the topic of journalistic objectivity (and, I’m assuming, how political contributions or mere identification fit into that sphere). Discretion being the better part of valor, I had to turn down all requests for comment at that point. Vanity being the better part of me, I have to assume she then turned to the former ABC anchor Ted Koppel.
The results were what you might expect. Sanctimony, condescension, nostalgia for a time when tv news was objective and neutral and giants walked the earth and they didn’t worry about profits and it was a point of pride that they lost money and everybody trusted them and it was never about ratings and hey you kids get off my lawn. Around dinner-time tonight, the fabulous Jack Shafer at Slate dismembered the we-lost-money meme with a splendid deconstruction of the cooked books of the news operations of the ‘50s and ‘60s that I have to admit was an education even for me. By accident, Mr. Shafer presented a wonderful preamble to the point I wanted to make in tonight’s Special Comment, a point I hope you’ll permit me to present here in the form of the script from tonight’s show:
When Walter Cronkite died sixteen months ago, he was rightly lionized for the quality of his work, and the impact he effected on television news. He was praised for his utter objectivity and impartiality, and implicitly – and in some cases explicitly – there was wailing that this objectivity had died with him.
Yet invariably the same few clips were shown with each obituary: There was the night Cronkite devoted fourteen minutes of the thirty-minute long CBS Evening News to a report on Watergate which devastated the Nixon Administration, one so strong that the Administration pressured CBS just to shorten the next night’s follow-up to eight minutes. There was the extraordinary broadcast on Vietnam from four-and-a-half years earlier in which he insisted that nothing better than stalemate was possible and that America should negotiate its way out, “not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” All that newscast did was convince the 36th President of the United States to not seek reelection. The deserved and heartfelt sadness at the loss of a great journalist and a great man had been turned into a metaphor for the loss of a style of utterly uninvolved, neutral “objective” reporting. Yet most of the highlights of the man’s career had been of those moments when he correctly and fearlessly threw off those shackles and said what was true, and not merely what was factual.
It has been the same with every invocation of Edward R. Murrow: Murrow would never have stood for the editorializing of today in his newscasts! The Murrow radio reports from London rooftops during the Blitz of 1940 are replayed – and forever should be – and their creator is offered as a paragon of “straight” reporting. Yet it is never mentioned, that as they happened, CBS was pressured to stop those searing explosions of truth, because our political leaders believed they would unfairly influence Americans to side with the British when the nation was still officially neutral and the Republican Party was still completely convinced that there was a deal to make with the Nazis. President Roosevelt did not invite Murrow to the White House to congratulate him on his London reports because they were “fair and balanced.”
Similarly, the journalism students of now seven different decades have studied the Murrow broadcasts about Senator Joseph McCarthy from 1954. These are properly lauded as some of the greatest moments not merely in the history of American Journalism; they are considered such in the history of America. The story is told that a cowering, profit-hungry press stood idly by – or even rode McCarthy’s paranoia for circulation and ratings – while the blacklist and the fear grew. And then Murrow slayed the dragon.
Always left out, sadly, is the fact that within hours of speaking truth based on facts, Murrow was attacked as a partisan. The Republicans, and the Conservative newspapers, and the Conservative broadcasters described – in what they would have insisted was neutral, objective, unbiased, factual reporting – that in smearing the patriotic McCarthy, Murrow was a Democrat, a Liberal, a Socialist, a Marxist, a Communist, a traitor. Always left out, sadly, is the fact that these attacks worked. Within 12 months, Murrow’s “See It Now” program had lost its sponsor and been reduced from once a week to once a month. Within 18 months it had been shifted from every Tuesday night at 10:30 to once in awhile on Sunday afternoons at 5 -- becoming, as one CBS producer put it “See It Now And Then.”
Mr. Koppel does not mention – nobody ever does – that the year in which Edward R. Murrow helped save this democracy by including his own editorial judgment in “The News,” was the last year of his life throughout which Murrow appeared on a regular prime-time news broadcast. He would be eased out of CBS entirely in seven years and would be dead in eleven.
The great change about which Mr. Koppel wrings his hands is not partisanship nor tone nor analysis. The great change was the creation of the sanitized image of what men like Cronkite and Murrow – and H.V. Kaltenborn and Elmer Davis and John Charles Daly and H.R. Baukhage and Howard K. Smith and Eric Sevareid and Dan Rather and Peter Jennings and George Polk and even Ted Koppel - did. These were not glorified stenographers. These were not neutral men. These were men who did in their day what the best of journalists still try to do in this one. Evaluate, analyze, unscramble, assess – put together a coherent picture, or a challenging question – using only the facts as they can best be discerned, and their own honesty and conscience. And if the result is that this story over here is a Presidential chief of staff taking some pretty low-octane bribes and the scandal starts and ends there, you judge all the facts, and you say so. And if the result is that that other story over there is not just a third-rate burglary at a political office, but the tip of an iceberg meant to sink the two-party system in this country, you judge all the facts, and you scream so.
Insist long enough that the driving principle behind the great journalism of the television era was neutrality and objectivity -- and not subjective choices and often dangerous evaluations and even commentary -- and you will eventually leave the door open to pointless worship at the temple of a false god. And once you’ve got a false god, you’re going to get false priests. And sooner rather than later, in a world where subjective analysis is labeled evil and dangerous, some political mountebank is going to see his opening and seize the very catechism of that false god, words like “objective” and “neutral” and “two-sided” and “fair” and “balanced,” and he will pervert them into a catch-phrase, a brand-name. And he can create something that is no more journalism than two men screaming at each other is a musical duet.
But as long as there are two men, as long as they are fair, and balanced, is not the news consumer entranced by the screaming – and the fact that his man eventually, and always, out-screams the other – is not he convinced that he has seen true journalism, true balance, true objectivity?
I have read and heard much, of late – including from Mr. Koppel in The Washington Post Sunday - about how those who succeeded his grand era of false objectivity are only in it for the money or the fame or the chance to push a political party. Mr. Koppel also implied – as others have -- that the men behind my network saw in the success of Fox News, a business opportunity to duplicate the style but change the content. Mr. Koppel implied that yesterday. In fact, nothing could be further than the truth, and the very kind of fact-driven journalism Mr. Koppel seems to be claiming he represents and I fail, would not stand for his sloppy assumptions and his false equivalence of “both sides do it.”
We do not make up facts at MSNBC and when we make mistakes we correct them. Friday night I found, as we rehearsed its presentation, that a segment implying former President Bush had lifted parts of his autobiography from other works of recent history was largely based on excerpts that mostly required heavy editing and still produced only weak evidence. We killed the segment. Would Fox have? Would CNN have? A week before “Anderson Cooper 360” presented a political story in the most cataclysmic of tones. There were three guests: an on-line magazine editor, a staunch Liberal, and a staunch Conservative. They were in agreement: the story wasn’t that big a deal. The segment ran anyway.
More over, while Fox may be such, we are not doctrinaire. I cannot prove it, so I’ll estimate it here and if I’m proved wrong I’ll happily correct it: but my intuition tells me I criticized President Obama more in the last week than Fox’s primetime hosts criticized President Bush in eight years. To equate this network with Fox, as Mr. Koppel did – to accuse us of having our own facts - is another manifestation of a dangerously simplified understanding of modern news. This guy says the moon is a planetary fragment orbiting the Earth; this other guy says it’s actually the body of the late Vince Foster – have them both on and let them debate. It’s fair and balanced.
And to the charge that a bunch of bean-counters seized upon a business opportunity: I have been here for every moment of my network’s evolution. It began in 2003 when slowly, one fact at a time, we began to challenge the government’s rationalization for the war in Iraq. A year later I was told by the former president of this network that he did not want me, or us, to be a liberal answer to Fox News. The man whose hour followed mine then, was a conservative ex-Congressman. The year after that, I offered evidence that there seemed to be a disturbing juxtaposition of government terrorism warnings or counter-terrorism detentions with political bumps in the road for the Republican party. The woman whose hour followed mine then, had been hired by us away from Fox. The year after that, I did the first of these Special Comments and I fully expected that I might be fired it. The year after that I had to spend urging my employers to give my guest host her own show. Now there are three shows in primetime in which the content usually lines up with the small “L” liberal point-of-view even as it needles and prods and sometimes pole-axes the Democrats. And that conservative ex-Congressman is still on the air here, every day, and he has as much time as the three of us at night do, put together.
If this was a business plan, it wasn’t as good as the one at the nearest kid’s lemonade stand. This network came to this place organically. And therein lies the final irony to what Mr. Koppel wrote. We got here organically in large part because of Mr. Koppel. His prominence, you will recall, came when ABC News and Sports president Roone Arledge - who never permitted business or show business to interfere in his judgments and journalistic pledge of allegiance or his decision to air “Battle Of The Network Stars” – made the subjective, and eminently correct, decision that the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Teheran merited half an hour or more each night of the network’s time in 1979. This was not the no-brainer retrospect may suggest. CBS and NBC and PBS certainly did not do it. Even when CNN signed on in the middle of the next year, it did not do it. Arledge made his decision just four days after the hostages were seized, and stuck with the story until it ended, defying the conventional television wisdom and constantly pressing the government and questioning the official line.
And even after those hostages were freed more than a year later, the half an hour of news, now called “Nightline,” continued. And each night, for 26 years, Mr. Koppel and his producers and his employers subjectively selected which, out of a million stories, would get the attention of his slice of American television for as much as half an hour. Which story would be elevated and amplified, and which piles upon piles of stories would be postponed, or tabled, or discarded, or ignored.
Just as the accounts of Mr. Murrow’s career emphasize McCarthy but not the fact that the aftermath of McCarthy buried Murrow’s career, the accounts of Mr. Koppel’s career will emphasize the light he so admirably shone on the Iran hostages. These stories will probably not emphasize that in 2002 and 2003 and 2004 and 2005 Mr. Koppel did not shine that same light on the decreasingly coherent excuses presented by the government of this nation for the war in Iraq.
Fourteen consecutive months of nightly half-hours on the travesty and tragedy of 52 hostages in Irahn, but the utter falsehood and dishonesty of the process by which this country was committed to the wrong war, by which this country was committed to dishonesty, by which this country was committed to torture – about that Mr. Koppel, and everybody else in the dead “objective” television news business he so laments, about that Mr. Koppel could not be bothered to speak out.
Where were they?
Worshiping before the false god of utter objectivity.
The bitter irony that must some day occur to Mr. Koppel and the others of his time was that their choice to not look too deeply into Iraq, before or after it began, was itself just as evaluative, just as analytically-based, just as subjective as anything I say or do on MSNBC each night. I may ultimately be judged to have been wrong in what I am doing. Mr. Koppel does not have to wait. The kind of television journalism he eulogizes, failed this country because when truth was needed, all we got were facts - most of which were lies anyway. The journalism failed, and those who practiced it failed, and Mr. Koppel failed. I don’t know that I’m doing it exactly right here. I’m trying. I have to. Because whatever that television news was before – now we have to fix it.