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Rachel Maddow & Jon Stewart. Ted Koppel & Keith Olbermann. Major names grapple with weighty topics. What is the distinction between opinionated journalism and political satire? Are FOX News Channel and MSNBC symmetrical or is that a false equivalence? What should the balance be on cable TV news between journalistic commentary and objective journalism? And is there such a thing as objective journalism in the first place?    
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TYNDALL BLOG: DAILY NOTES ON NETWORK TELEVISION NIGHTLY NEWS
WHEN JON STEWART MET RACHEL MADDOW Rachel Maddow & Jon Stewart. Ted Koppel & Keith Olbermann. Major names grapple with weighty topics. What is the distinction between opinionated journalism and political satire? Are FOX News Channel and MSNBC symmetrical or is that a false equivalence? What should the balance be on cable TV news between journalistic commentary and objective journalism? And is there such a thing as objective journalism in the first place?

Big thoughts. Thoughts that make one's brain hurt.

Here are the original texts:

MSNBC's Maddow invited The Daily Show's Stewart for a 50-minute one-on-one interview about his Rally to Restore Sanity on the DC Mall and the critique of cable TV news for its political polarization that he made there.

Koppel wrote an op-ed for Washington Post in which he singled out the opinionated journalism of MSNBC's Olbermann and FNC's Bill O'Reilly as egregious examples of what ails contemporary TV news, with its drive for profits and its neglect for fact-gathering. He dismissed Olbermann as "avowedly, unabashedly and monotonously partisan."

Olbermann responded in a Special Comment on MSNBC's Countdown criticizing Koppel's so-called objective style of journalism for what he saw as TV news' most catastrophic recent failure, its credulous coverage of the case for the invasion of Iraq and the conduct of its occupation between 2002 and 2005.

Here is a trio of aftermatter:

BuzzMachine's Jeff Jarvis appears on npr's Talk of the Nation to argue with Koppel. Jarvis rejects Koppel's either/or argument that opinionated commentary supplants objective fact-gathering. Jarvis asserts that as the Internet supersedes television (both broadcast and cable), viewers have access to both more opinions and more reporting from the field than they ever had during Koppel's heyday.

Media Decoder offers a discussion between The New York Times' media columnist David Carr and its media reporter Brian Stelter on Olbermann's observation that Walter Cronkite and Edward Murrow, the icons of broadcast TV news' so-called objective era, achieved most impact as journalists when they became commentators. Carr pointed out that the power of their commentary derived from the fact that it was occasional; Olbermann's is continual.

Jay Rosen at PressThink ruminates about Maddow and Stewart over a glass of Johnnie Walker Black. He picks up on Stewart's suggestion that cable TV news should stop filtering its political coverage through a partisan prism--left-vs-right, blue-vs-red, liberal-vs-conservative—and should adopt a new template, virtue-vs-corruption: what is salubrious for the body politic and what causes it harm?

Let me make five points to try to cut through the clutter:


1.THE LEGACIES OF CRONKITE & KOPPEL Koppel and Olbermann each invoked the shade of Cronkite to bolster his argument. Olbermann recalled how Cronkite refused to shrink from the conclusion he was led to by his reporting that the Vietnam War was unwinnable and did not hide behind the codes of objectivity in order to make that commentary. Koppel invoked Cronkite as one of that pantheon of anchors that supplied the shared facts the body politic needed to arrive at consensus: "The ritual permitted, and perhaps encouraged, shared perceptions and even the possibility of compromise among those who disagreed."

Both points are sloppy, to say the least. Media Decoder's Carr is correct to point out that Cronkite's Vietnam commentary was the exception not the rule. Koppel is flat-out misleading to imply that the CBS Evening News under Cronkite's anchorship was a paragon of neutrality. Cronkite's newscast had a definite worldview, and glorifying it with the label "objective" makes that worldview no less ideological. Cronkite was the elitist voice of the liberal, Eastern establishment. I use "liberal" in the sense of a liberal arts college--tolerant, curious, undoctrinaire, cosmopolitan--not left-wing progressive. But liberal nonetheless.

For a detailed analysis of Cronkite's newscast, see Climbing Down From Olympus, the research I conducted for the Media Studies Journal in 1998.

As for Koppel, his decision to draw the bright line between the so-called objective journalism of his days in broadcast television and the contemporary content of cable news is rich, to say the least. Olbermann correctly pointed out in his Special Comment that the original venture into the incessant, politically charged coverage of a single story was made by Koppel himself. America Held Hostage, the origin of Koppel's Nightline, was created as the result of a "subjective" decision by ABC News executives to hammer away at the Teheran Embassy crisis night after night, no matter that it dovetailed so neatly with the partisan critics of Jimmy Carter that his Presidency was spineless, undermining the global prestige of the United States.

Koppel coyly corrected Olbermann on Talk of the Nation that the drumbeat coverage of Teheran lasted only for four straight months not the entire 14 months of the crisis. Nevertheless such disproportionate--owning the story, as it is called--coverage was certainly the blueprint for editorial decisions by cable news executives in decades to come. Koppel himself admitted on npr that Roone Arldege's call to go all-hostages-all-the-time was "shameless."


2.FNC VS MSNBC Maddow's decision to interview Stewart and Olbermann's to push back so forcefully against Koppel both addressed the notion that MSNBC is the left-leaning equivalent to right-leaning FNC. They followed the suspension of Olbermann by NBC News for making unapproved campaign contributions to candidates in the midterm elections, contributions to Democrats that were equivalent to Sean Hannity's contributions to Republicans at FNC.

By suspending Olbermann and by challenging Stewart and Koppel, MSNBC appears eager to disabuse us of the notion that it is FNC's mirror image.

The contrast between MSNBC and FNC, and Stewart's suggestion of an equivalency, accounted for a protracted portion of the Maddow-Stewart discussion. At PressThink, Professor Rosen came away unconvinced that Stewart succeeded in persuading us that "he has no commerce" with such a notion. On the one hand, Stewart reminded Maddow that FNC occupies "a special place in our hearts" on The Daily Show as a target for his satire. He singled out FNC for its success at deligitimizing other news media while simultaneously granting them clout by maintaining a sense of persecution by them. Yet at other times Stewart described the two networks as being "in an arms race." He argued that first Olbermann and then Maddow, unabashed liberals, would never have appeared in primetime on MSNBC if it had not been for FNC's success with unabashed conservatives. Maddow herself admitted that Olbermann had "made it OK to come out of the closet as a liberal."

False equivalency is a classic Culture War tactic of conservatives and at the same time the lazy refuge of those who seek to speak with authority by finding a trustworthy place equidistant from dueling partisans. Koppel, for example, epitomized the quest for such a neutral refuge at the end of his Talk of the Nation discussion with Professor Jarvis: "If there is one thing we desperately need in this country, it is the ability to come together to debate the issues without rancor or partisanship."

There is no denying that MSNBC's primetime line-up is liberal and that FNC's is conservative. What I do deny is that MSNBC's ideological and cultural role in the body politic is symmetrical with FNC's. Generally speaking, the conservative wing of American politics is organized differently from the liberal-progressive wing and it is inconceivable that their news media would not be different too.

I see FNC as the journalistic wing of the Conservative-Populist Entertainment Complex (C-PEC) that also includes talkradio, the lecture circuit and book publishing. C-PEC's non-FNC luminaries include Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter; Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, a pair of non-journalists, move seamlessly between FNC and those other media.

Indeed, FNC is much more than a news channel: Beck is an entertainer and Hannity is an activist. The channel is the debate forum where the various strains of the Republican Party rehearse their talking points in advance of the Presidential primary season; Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove are all on the payroll. FNC embodies many different strains of right wing politics, with Beck leaning towards the Tea Party, Hannity representing the GOP establishment, O'Reilly the cultural Reagan Democrat, newsman Shepard Smith the straight-talking southerner. The reason this diversity of outlook works as a line-up is that conservatism in the United States is as much about identity as it is ideology. The FNC audience is concentrated by region and religion--and first and foremost by race. Identity-based stories on topics such as illegal immigration and the domestic role of Islam and reverse racism get more traction on FNC than on other news outlets. FNC's audience so homogenously Caucasian that Stephen Colbert famously joked about the 1.4% that is African-American: "7% are white people who just enjoy watching in black face…and 23% are Juan Williams."

By contrast, MSNBC represents the liberal wing of a journalistic institution, NBC News, which also includes its mainstream broadcast division and CNBC, its financial channel (Wall Street turns out to be the only major component of the conservative coalition that FNC has failed to embrace). MSNBC's line-up is a mixture of liberals, centrist Democrats (Chris Matthews) and mainstream NBC News personnel who strive for Koppelesque neutrality (Chuck Todd, Savannah Guthrie, Andrea Mitchell). MSNBC, like FNC, has a couple of non-journalist hosts: Ed Schulz is a progressive activist; onetime Republican congressman Joe Scarborough is a fiscal conservative. MSNBC has a much smaller audience among liberals than FNC does among conservatives, so it neither speaks for nor speaks to the entire left-liberal coalition. Where is its Hispanic and African-American programing, for example? It does not stand in opposition to the remainder of the news media in the way that FNC stands in opposition to centrists-and-liberals combined. On the contrary, MSNBC is in fact and in presentation an extension of NBC News, the place in that organization where liberals are allowed to come out of the closet, in Maddow's words.

UPDATE: PressThink's Rosen offers another 15 minutes of videotape musing, this time courtesy of The Macallan. He picks up on the paranoid resentment that Stewart alludes to and he picks up on FNC's entertainment role--"More Blondes per square foot"--which I was driving at with my C-PEC.


3.THE POLITICS OF CABLE TV NEWS Irrespective of the political ideology of the individual cable TV news channels, Stewart explained to Maddow that the reason he lumped them all into the same category was their approach to the politics beat. So the defiantly non-partisan CNN came under fire from Stewart for its political coverage just as much as FNC or MSNBC. The 24-hour Conflictinator he called it.

Stewart had two complaints. First, the reflex instinct of the cable news channels is to shoehorn every development, every dispute into a political template: "We have all bought into the idea that the conflict is red-vs-blue. It is not the right fight." Stewart pointed out that this politicization preceded the primetime ideologues on FNC and then MSNBC. From its invention, CNN specialized in concentrating on political stories over non-political ones and also framing stories by default as binary left-vs-right disputes. No triangulation there--everything was Crossfire. Writing in Mediaite earlier this year, Spud from Inside Cable News criticized all three networks "for going for the low hanging fruit of the cable news ratings world, the ideological partisans and political junkies. Like talk radio, cable news now looks to feed the political beast out there." In this aspect, these complaints match Koppel's in his Washington Post op-ed: political disputes and political commentary represent the low-cost content that attracts audiences without the expense of real newsgathering.

Second, "proportionality is not their strong suit." Even the most trivial developments are covered with urgency; even the mildest of opponents are demonized. A medium that was invented to provide minute-by-minute coverage of massive breaking news stories knows no way to handle mundane developments and disputes. Thus, Stewart argued, coverage of the legality of torture degenerates into namecalling about war criminals. Please, he implored cable news partisans, "fight on the most precise and proportional terms possible."

I find both of Stewart's complaints persuasive. Especially on a light news day, especially in primetime, these networks do not deserve to be called news channels; they should be called politics channels instead. A major reason why Tyndall Report continues to monitor the broadcast networks' nightly newscasts is that, unlike on cable, they continue to try to cover all beats, political and non-political; public policy and elections; domestic and foreign; breaking news and features; human interest and societal institutions.


4.THE SATIRIST & THE JOURNALIST A funny thing happened--actually it was unusual rather than amusing--during the course of the Maddow-Stewart encounter: it changed from an interview into a discussion. Maddow surrendered the initiative; Stewart started asking his host questions. It makes for a fascinating video. Can you imagine Larry King or Charlie Rose or Ted Koppel agreeing to relinquish control on his own show?

What the pair was trying to work out was the precise distinction between their roles in the public square. Both document what goes on in the political world and both offer commentary. Stewart, Maddow pointed out, has a rigorous staff of fact checkers, just as a journalistic organization does. She herself has tried to crack jokes in her reportage: "This sucks for me," she complained, when it turned out that Stewart is funnier. In one exchange, "You are in the game," Stewart suggested to Maddow, referring to the game of political activism. "You are in the game too," Maddow insisted. When Stewart demurred, demeaning the satirist as an impotent political actor, Maddow backtracked: "I am not on the field either." PressThink's Rosen, reflecting on this exchange, contradicted both of them: "Everyone is a player," was how he concluded his contribution.

Talking his book, Stewart claimed the ancient mantle of the court jester. "There has been a form of me around forever," he claimed, "a haughty but ultimately feckless perch." He explained his fact checking not as a journalistic activity but as a comedic one: things are funnier if they are true. He described his humor as following Jerry Seinfeld, an attempt to "comedically articulate an intangible." He admitted that his intervention into politics at that Rally to Restore Sanity was an aberration and asked for Maddow's indulgence. By contrast, journalism, he insisted, has a "high-mindedness," a political responsibility that the satirist avoids. "We are getting to be a bit more like you not you like us," was Maddow's reply.

If what they were talking about was the political sphere, then I believe that both the activist and the journalist and the satirist all engage in the public square. By activists, I refer not only to political organizers but to elected politicians and their partisans, to lobbyists, and to campaigners on the issues. Yet they do not occupy the same space, even an ideologically opinionated journalist is not the same as an activist; even a politically-acute satirist is not a journalist.

This is the distinction:

An activist is interested in wielding political power, crafting an agenda in order to change the relationship of the state to its citizens, and those citizens one to the other.

A political journalist has to report on the wielding of power--court reporting on who is up and who is down; but also on its wisdom, whether a given policy agenda addresses the problem it purports to solve; and also on the underlying conditions, the facts on the ground that activists are deciding, effectively or not, to address or to ignore. It was these second and third aspects that Koppel was rightly pointing to when he criticized cable news for its failure objectively to pay attention to facts.

A satirist studies political rhetoric, equidistant from both the activist and the journalist. The satirist's comedy skewers the folly of both political actors and those who report on them. The underlying, serious, work of inquiring into the wisdom of public policy and the underlying conditions that it addresses is non-comedic. That is why Stewart, Seinfeld-like, relies on the aah! of recognition when he tells us of some unarticulated thing that we knew all along. He is looking for the truth that lies in laughter not the truth that is found from facts on the ground. The Daily Show satirizes the news as much as it satirizes politics. To do so, it stands in a third place, distinct from either.

Interestingly enough, Professor Rosen offers Stewart some support in thinking that the jester has the oldest public persona of the three. In the inaugural lecture he gave to the Ecole du Journalisme at Paris' Sciences-Po this September, Rosen argued, following Jurgen Habermas, that politicians (in the form of the state) only entered into public debate in the latter half of C18th, when the King of France was forced into transparency about the condition of his Treasury in order to raise war funds by issuing bonds to the nascent capitalist class. Hitherto, the king's actions were considered to be nobody's business except his own. The earliest political journalism evolved almost immediately thereafter in order to analyze the contents of these declassified ledgers. By this timeline, King Lear's Fool pre-exists both public politician and political journalist by centuries. And, as Stewart notes, the Fool's perch was "ultimately feckless," to say the least.


5.IS VIRTUE-VS-CORRUPTION THE ANSWER? So it comes as no surprise that Stewart, in order to demarcate his satirist's domain, should propose such a highfalutin' definition of the political journalist's task when Maddow asked him what could replace the stale he-said-she-said of red-vs-blue political journalism. The true calling of political journalists was exposing corruption.

At PressThink, Professor Rosen was particularly taken with this formulation, praising Stewart for avoiding a vacuous Can't We All Get Along? call for "a reasonable middle." He interpreted the Journalism of Virtue & Corruption expansively, covering not only Ponzi schemes and graft, but "the corruption of language, the corruption of public discourse, the corruption of our news systems and information channels, the corruption of a kind of democratic spirit, the corruption of our own sense of solidarity with our fellow citizens."

This is catnip for Rosen, the champion of civic journalism. For more than a decade now, he has been arguing that the appropriate role of the news media is to be actively involved in making the public square a more productive space in which to conduct politics. In this, he is a small-r republican, with a Roman belief in civic virtue and the citizen's forum, in a self-governing society that informs itself properly, that shines a light on corruption and purges itself in order to progress in a spirit of solidarity.

Such civic idealism finds itself in opposition to the view of politics as a contest between interest groups. At its most ambitious, such a view is leftist, seeing political struggle as the inevitable manifestation of contradictions between economic classes. So neither Stewart nor Rosen can be called left-wingers; for left-wingers what is at stake is who controls the economy, not whether citizens on either side of that control happen to be corrupt or virtuous. In such a view, the definition of the public square itself is at issue, not only the conduct of political actors within it. Indeed the very terms "virtue" and "corruption" would be produced by the political struggle rather than pre-existing as categories by which the conduct of politics could be understood.

But even a small-d democrat, who does concede the existence of the public square as a given, sees the stakes of politics as being different from the small-r republican's preservation of civic virtue. To put it crudely, what about a Journalism of Interest Groups? Whose ox is being gored? Stewart's complaint about the left-vs-right dichotomy included a second alternate view that Rosen did not mention. Besides virtue-vs-corruption, Stewart suggested that "people-with-kids-vs-not" divided more people into tribes than political ideology does. There are so many fissures in society that are a reporter's grist that do not fall along the left-vs-right dividing line--economic, psychological, sociological, demographic.

So sometimes Stewart was advocating a Journalism of Corruption and sometimes a Journalism of Interest Groups. His point was that to characterize how the population is divided as cleaving by default along left-vs-right partisan ideological lines amounted to inaccurate reporting. Why not report on all the other, non-political, ways that we fail to get along?

Taking the long view, we should remind ourselves of Professor Jarvis' observation to Koppel on Talk of the Nation: any of these discussions that rest on either/or choices are rendered moot by the Internet--where both/and is always the answer. The 24-hour cable news network was Ted Turner's invention in response to innovations such as Koppel's America Held Hostage on broadcast television. If TV news could migrate into innovative timeslots, why should it not move into every timeslot and be available round-the-clock?

It will turn out that cable news has been an interim solution to providing news on demand, a stepping stone between broadcast TV and online video. The critiques of the current state of cable news made by Stewart and Koppel still stand; their remedies may not be found on television but on the Internet instead.