Should Objectivity Still Be The Standard In News?
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
Last week, the popular and outspoken MSNBC anchor Keith Olbermann was briefly suspended for violation of the network's ethics policies. He made financial contributions to Democratic political candidates.
Ted Koppel, who provides commentary for this program and was the host and managing editor of ABC News "Nightline," from 1980 to 2005, took that as an opportunity to criticize the TV news business in a Washington Post op-ed titled, "The Case Against News We Can Choose." Broadcast news has been outflanked, Koppel wrote, and will soon be overtaken by scores of other media options. The need for clear, objective reporting in a world of rising religious fundamentalism, economic interdependence and global ecological problems is probably greater than it ever has been. But we are no longer a national audience receiving news from a handful of trusted gatekeepers. We're now a million or more clusters of consumers harvesting information from like-minded providers.
Koppel compared Keith Olbermann to Bill O'Reilly of Fox News, and described him as one of the individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship, and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable. Last night, Olbermann fired back.
(Soundbite of TV show, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann")
Mr. KEITH OLBERMANN (Host, "Countdown with Keith Olbermann"): The stories of Mr. Koppel's career will emphasize the light he so admirably shown on the Iran hostages. Those stories, though, 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 Iran, 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 someday occur to Mr. Koppel, and the others of his time, was that their choice to not look too deeply into Iraq before or after the war began was itself just as evaluative, just as analytically based, just as subjective as anything I say or do here 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, we now have to fix it.
CONAN: So who's right? Is objectivity a false standard? When news programs are held at the profit standards of entertainment, does that compromise journalism? Our phone number: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website: npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ted Koppel provides commentary for this program from time to time, and as we mentioned, is the former host and managing editor of ABC's "Nightline." He joins us here in Studio 3A.
Ted, always good to have you on the program.
TED KOPPEL: Bleeding and battered but here, Neal.
CONAN: And would you like to respond to Mr. Olbermann's points?
KOPPEL: Well, first of all, I think Keith Olbermann is a very bright and clearly, a very passionate man, but I think he has his perspective a little screwed up. He has some facts screwed up, too. First of all, the program that ultimately became "Nightline" did not, as he suggests, for the entire 14 months that the hostages were held in Tehran, cover that subject every night.
In fact, once we became "Nightline," we stopped covering it every night. We did for four months because at that time, it was not a regular scheduled program. It was an effort by the then-president of ABC News to create a regularly scheduled program. And he quite shamelessly used the hostage crisis as a means of doing an ABC News special every night until he had demonstrated to the bosses at the network that this kind of a program could, indeed, draw an audience night after night after night.
CONAN: And the other well, you've been criticized for your facts in your piece, too. Jack Shafer at Slate magazine, in a piece titled "Ted Koppel: Bad Reporter"...
CONAN: ...you've been having a tough week - says that, in fact, your argument in the piece that network television news was unprofitable until the advent of "60 Minutes." Well, that's accepting the network's creative bookkeeping and that, in fact, none of those programs lost money.
KOPPEL: Well, the fact of the matter is, whether they lost money or didn't lose money - and I don't know whether Mr. Shafer is right on this - the news divisions, as he acknowledges, always maintained that they were losing money. What they clearly did do in these in those days, with whatever money they were earning, was to maintain somewhere between 12 and 20 fully staffed, overseas bureaus.
If you watched the evening news in those days and I'm talking now about the 1960s and into the 1970s foreign news was very much a part of the nightly diet of what was being reported. And one of my contentions that Mr. Olbermann did not address is that in this day and age, precisely because everyone is in such a competitive struggle trying to make money, what the major networks have done is effectively close down all but a tiny handful of those bureaus. And in fact, for the most part, they operate out of one bureau, London, and then they ship correspondents wherever they need them to go.
But - whereas at one point in the 1960s, when I was a foreign correspondent, we had, I guess, about 25 foreign correspondents and bureaus around the world. I think these days, my old alma mater, ABC, has about five.
CONAN: And this is, obviously this is, I think, probably roughly comparable to the other networks, with the exception of CNN.
KOPPEL: With the exception of CNN and also, I should say, with the exception of NBC, because it does have a cable association. It has its own cable network, Mr. Olbermann's cable network, MSNBC. But I don't think you see a great deal of foreign news coming from NBC correspondents around the world.
CONAN: What about his other point, the false god of objectivity? He's saying that the great pieces by you, among others, but certainly by Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow were no less subjective than anything he does.
KOPPEL: Yeah. What he was saying - and I completely agree with this - is that what is most remembered about what Ed Murrow did is the extraordinary "See it Now" piece that he did on Joseph McCarthy. What is remembered, perhaps most, about Walter Cronkite is the piece that he did about Watergate, and the piece that he did when he came back after a couple of weeks in Vietnam and of which President Johnson famously said, if I've lost Walter Cronkite, I've lost the country.
What Mr. Olbermann does not say, however, is that what made those pieces so powerful is that they came within the context of a lifetime of objective - not subjective - reporting. What made Walter Cronkite's piece stand out as it did was precisely the fact that we rarely, if ever, knew where Walter was coming from politically. And even on that occasion, he wasn't making a political statement about Watergate or a political statement about Vietnam. He was, as an old-time reporter, coming back and saying, you know, I can no longer restrain myself. And on this particular occasion, I'm going to step out of my customary role of just as a reporter, and I am going to do some analysis and commentary. And he did. But what made it stand out as it did was precisely because it was so rare.
CONAN: Let's get some callers on the conversation; 800-989-8255. Email us: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tom's calling us from Cincinnati.
TOM (Caller): Yeah, hello.
TOM: Thanks for taking the call.
TOM: Yeah, I respect both of these guys immensely. I think that journalism has let us down, though. In education, just to make a parallel, from high school on, you're taught that it's - the issue is not that there are two sides that someone can take or multiple perspectives, but that in order to get a truth and - you get to a synthesis. And you look at all of that. And then you, at some point, present the facts in such a way that something that's greater than the sum of the parts becomes apparent.
And indirectly, the lack of synthesis has, I think, led to this dichotomy in reporting. But it has also lead to an inability to follow a very important story, say, for the country, or very important news. It never gets followed. We have things that are news one minute and then dropped, and you never get follow-up because the lack of attention to synthesis and reporting the truth rather than sort of this fiction of objectivity - which even in higher science, we know is a fiction - sort of leads us to saying, well, we're doing our job, but we haven't done all the work. And we don't keep the public informed, as a consequence.
CONAN: Ted, go ahead.
KOPPEL: No, I agree entirely with what the caller is saying - that, you know, there is a responsibility to put things into a proper context. And nothing would drive me crazier in the old days, when I was still a managing editor, than the suggestion that someone go out and do a man-on-the-street interview. And you'd get one for, one against, and one who really hadn't made up his mind - and the end result is, you had nothing. I am not presenting objectivity as though it were some form of castrated truth. I'm presenting objectivity as something that is presented to the public at large so that you out there have enough information that you can make intelligent decisions of your own.
CONAN: Make that synthesis?
KOPPEL: Make that synthesis if - yes, I have no objection with that, you know, with that construction. The whole point is, if everybody is expressing his or her opinion on the air, then I don't know where we turn - well, I do know where we turn for objective reporting; And I hope NPR is one of those places. And I also do a little work for the BBC, and I hope that's one of those places.
And there are still some excellent newspapers out there, and the Lehrer "NewsHour," I think, does a terrific job at it, too. But the networks - the broadcast networks and the cable channels, I think, are largely failing either in terms of objectivity, or in terms of focusing on the really serious issues that are out there before us.
CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.
TOM: Thank you.
CONAN: We're talking with Ted Koppel about objectivity in the business of journalism. When we return, Jeff Jarvis will join us to argue that this old bottle of news comes off as sterile, gutless and distant. So who is right? Is objectivity a false standard; 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com.
Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.
In an op-ed in the Washington Post over the weekend, Ted Koppel wrote: We now live in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and were encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary is highly profitable. Beginning perhaps from the reasonable perspective that absolute objectivity is unobtainable, Fox News and MSNBC no longer even attempt it.
We've posted a link to that op-ed at our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Ted Koppel, a commentator for this program, host and managing editor, of course, for ABC News "Nightline" for many years, so who's right? Is objectivity a false standard? When news programs are held to the profit standards of entertainment, does that compromise journalism; 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Jeff Jarvis is a media critic, and associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York - joins us from our bureau in New York.
Nice to have you with us today.
Professor JEFF JARVIS (Interactive Journalism, City University of New York): Great to be here.
CONAN: And is it not Keith Olbermann's job to prevent - I don't think Keith Olbermann presents his job as providing straight news.
Prof. JARVIS: Well, I question whether there's any such thing as straight news. That's what we're really debating here. Mr. Koppel's headline in the Washington Post - News You Can Choose - which he decries, I celebrate, because it takes news out of the hands of a few people at a centralized, controlled place. And we have now the tools to do news collaboratively, many - and many of us. Television was responsible, singlehandedly, for killing many of the voices in media, the cacophony of democracy.
Newspaper - six, seven, eight newspapers in a town became one or maybe two because television came in and in essence, killed them. Television was given a government mandate to have this apparently neutral voice to serve all of the people, to become, you know, one-size-fits-all. And I think we lost a great deal of democracy. And I think we're now returning to a time of hearing these voices of democracy and the opinions that do, indeed, make up a populace.
And we're not used to it because we're so used to the tapioca we've had, and been fed, from television for so many years.
CONAN: Well, I...
Prof. JARVIS: And so the standard now - one more. The standard now, I think, is not objectivity. It is transparency. So the fact that I know where Keith Olbermann stands gives me the ability to judge what he says better.
CONAN: To be fair, the newspapers which you're talking about - the New York Timeses and the Herald Tribunes and the Washington Posts - they, too, also took up the banner of objectivity.
Prof. JARVIS: Yes. I think that's what happened because - again - of television, you ended up with one newspaper in a town. And it had to try to serve everybody, and it became this new standard to bear. Whereas in the old days of media, we had many different voices serving the working person, or left or the right. And we had a choice and a way to triangulate - as one can, for example, in London, and get many newspapers there and judge, in the end - as Mr. Koppel says - for ourselves by being able to triangulate these different views.
KOPPEL: Well, I think, as Professor Jarvis would probably acknowledge, the new media are probably going to be responsible for the elimination of the last few newspapers that are still out there. I don't think the newspapers are going to survive it. My larger point, though, is that what is happening on the cable networks, particularly MSNBC and Fox, has nothing to do with anybody's search for truth.
It has to do with the corporations that own those two networks and their interest in making money. And operating foreign bureaus, for example - whether they're operated the way they used to be run 20 or 30 years ago, or whether there is some new and better way of operating them - is not the issue. They're expensive and, as I said in my piece, talk is cheap.
And the fact that you have these many voices on cable television, in effect, debating one another day in and day out, is an inexpensive way of attracting an audience and making money. And that's why they're there - not because of any search for a new, brighter form of journalism.
Prof. JARVIS: But Mr. Koppel, inherent in what you wrote in the Post, and have said so far today, is that somehow, making money besmirches journalism. It almost corrupts it. And I teach entrepreneurial journalism to my students because I see the opportunity now to find, indeed, great efficiencies now - and new ways to get audiences, new ways to gather news and collaborate.
And we can make news sustainable, and that means profitable. And that's not a dirty word. Quite the contrary. I think that - when I came through journalism school, I was told to stay away from business; it was corrupting. And that made us terrible stewards of journalism. A lot of the reason we're in the mess we're in right now is because we're bad at business.
KOPPEL: When you talk about the mess we're in, I think it's also fair to mention the kind of political mess that we're in. America is, these days, in the grips of such extreme partisanship on both sides that I don't think you can totally exclude the role...
Prof. JARVIS: I don't necessarily buy that.
KOPPEL: May I finish, please?
Prof. JARVIS: Yeah, sure.
KOPPEL: That I don't think you can exclude the role, either, that talk radio or cable television plays in that.
Prof. JARVIS: Well, but also, let's listen to what Jon Stewart said at his rally two weeks ago in Washington, where he did, indeed, criticize both Fox News and Keith Olbermann, specifically. And I do think that we are being put into a position by news of all sorts - not that we are a partisan country, but we're painted as partisan.
As Jon Stewart said - probably our most trusted newsman there is now - we do what we do every day. We get along every day. We make this country work. And if you look at the portrait of us painted by news of all sorts, it paints us as just that - that picture that you just drew, of this horribly divided country. I don't buy it.
CONAN: I understand what you're saying, Jeff Jarvis, but Jon Stewart himself would hasten to say, our most trusted fake newsman, which is what he says he does.
Prof. JARVIS: Well, but I listen to young people who see him as their most trusted newsman, no matter what he says.
CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. This is David, David with us fromChester in South Carolina.
DAVID (Caller): Yes. Good afternoon. It's an honor to be in this conversation, particularly with Mr. Koppel. I have a deep respect for you, and I really feel where you're coming from with this. And I really think that objectivity is something that can be found in the news. It is not being found today. It's not even being sought after.
I think what's happening is, is that information - they looked at the news people as just being what they're seeing now, like models with a microphone, but there was testing of information. And with the advent of the Internet and so many ways to reach so many people, no matter how extreme a person's position is, or no matter how perverted a person's thoughts may be, there's always a group of people around the world that they can connect with to validate themselves. And that didn't exist before. And I'm really concerned about our country.
I think the one professor - the professor that's on here, that speaks about the profitability, that it's not bad in information, well, one of the things in business we know is that time is money. And good information requires time. And so often now, what's being presented is information that is found out to be false, it's not retracted, or it gets lost so that the people are not getting the information they need to be responsible citizens.
CONAN: And that brings us to - thank you, David. That brings us to, also, Jeff Jarvis, to Ted's earlier point about - news is simply not being gathered, whether that's from the...
Prof. JARVIS: Well, let's bring it back to Iran.
CONAN: Beijing -
Prof. JARVIS: I'd love to hear Mr. Koppel's view of this, is that if you look at what happened in the last election and the punitive revolution that almost started there, there were no journalists on the street there. We wish there were, but there weren't. They were out of the country or locked away. And it was the people themselves who were at least able to share what they knew through new tools like Twitter.
Was everything on Twitter correct? No, obviously not. And journalists added value to that, added perspective, added experience. But I'm terribly excited about the new ways we have to gather news, including and especially foreign news. How did you look at the coverage that occurred during the election, Mr. Koppel?
KOPPEL: Well, as we looked at what was passed over on Twitter - and I assume you were referring, in particular, to the photograph of the young woman, the beautiful young demonstrator who was killed during the course of those demonstrations, and how that was conveyed to the rest of the world on Twitter. It turned out later on - and I am not quite sure how this information came out, but I'm fairly sure that it's accurate - that those Twitter postings were put out by Iranian intelligence. That for that...
Prof. JARVIS: Well, some were, but many were not, including the video of Neda was not put out, certainly, by intelligence. They were trying to argue that she wasn't shot.
KOPPEL: Yeah, the point I was trying to make, though, is that knowing the provenance of information can sometimes be particularly helpful. And a good reporter - and one of the reasons that I so regret the fact that we no longer have bureaus around the world and reporters who, in many instances, spoke the language, understood the culture, and had local contacts that they cultivated over a period of years...
Prof. JARVIS: But I'm asking a different question.
CONAN: Excuse me, Mr. Jarvis. Can we talk one at a time, please?
KOPPEL: One of reasons that I regret the absence of that so much is that we have no way anymore of judging the validity of information that we get from overseas. As often as not, if you listen to the accents, it's no longer even American reporters over there.
CONAN: Jeff Jarvis.
Prof. JARVIS: Well, what's wrong with - wait, wait, wait. What's wrong with that? We have people who actually know the territory and are natives. Do you think we have to have Americans tell Americans the news?
KOPPEL: I would like to have American reporters conveying the news to Americans, yes.
Prof. JARVIS: Whoa. That seems like a kind of strange bit of xenophobia, journalistic xenophobia. I would love to have people - I love being able to go to blogs and elsewhere and read the people who are in Iraq and in Iran explain it to me far better than someone who just jetted in.
KOPPEL: You're making precisely my point. I don't want someone who just jetted in. I want someone who's lived there for two or three years, speaks the local language, and knows something about it.
Prof. JARVIS: How about someone who's lived there for 40 or 50 years and truly understands it and can use these magnificent new tools - which you still haven't answered for me. What do you think of the new tools? Do you see new hope for journalism here?
KOPPEL: I don't see new hope for journalism, I see new hope for the exchange of information. But you haven't responded to my part, which is unless one knows the provenance of the information, unless I know who's putting the information out, I can't judge the validity of that.
Prof. JARVIS: It's ever thus, of course it is. But we do have ways - in the case of Iran, there were people who knew the person who was tweeting, who knew someone else, and that's exactly the process that went on. Just because it's on the Internet and we can't verify it all, doesn't mean a thing. The Internet is a magnificent new tool to reach more people, and new voices and places.
Go to someplace like Global Voices at Harvard, where they read and interpret, and talk to bloggers from around the world. And we get into places that there haven't been journalist in years.
KOPPEL: You're trying to get me to condemn the Internet, which I'm not going to do. I'm merely suggesting that the American public would be better served if in addition to the Internet, it had some television organizations out there that were still covering foreign news in a more traditional fashion, subject to the supervision of editors and producers and executives, so that we know something about the people who are putting that information out.
Prof. JARVIS: And to serve what audience? I mean, I hate to say this, but the audience for network news in the evening, the age - median age is now well over 60. It's serving a very small portion of the population, whereas the Internet, as a tool, is serving many people in new ways...
KOPPEL: It's still...
Prof. JARVIS: ...and don't we have to adapt journalism to that?
KOPPEL: It's still serving about 20 to 30 million people a night, even if you just count the three major broadcast networks.
CONAN: Here's an email we have from Travis(ph). Please make the point to your audience that every journalism school textbook that discusses objectivity starts with this basic idea. Of course, objectivity is impossible, then why is it the journalistic ideal? Objectivity is not an achievable goal; it is a professional standard.
The different between journalism and opinion is that basic idea, that unlike the rest of us, journalists start by recognizing their biases and conduct their business trying to prove themselves wrong, opening their minds to different ways of looking at things. That's why journalism is a valuable civic institution that forces us to consider the merits of every point of view. That email, from Travis.
Our guests are Jeff Jarvis, a media critic and associate professor and director of the Interactive Journalism Program at the City University of New York. And of course, Ted Koppel, who does commentary for TALK OF THE NATION, managing editor and host of ABC "Nightline" from 1980 to 2005. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And let's go to Jason(ph), Jason on the line from Buffalo.
JASON (Caller): Hi. I'm a journalism major out of Buffalo State College. And what I - from all of the classes that I've taken, the most that I have taken from it, as far as objectivity goes, is that every journalist should strive to be objective. It's a very, very hard thing to attain. If the intent is there, that's fantastic.
What I think would be better for journalists as a whole is to be able to follow a story, follow up with a story, like a previous caller had mentioned, and be able to really go in depth, get as many interviews as you can, and be able to publish it knowing that you have every single fact straight. That, I believe, should be the utmost responsibility of any journalist - is to first check your facts, then perhaps go back, check objectivity if you know you're not intentionally already trying for it.
CONAN: Jason, good luck to you. Thank you very much for taking up the profession.
JASON: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we go next to Shannon(ph), and Shannon's on the line from Davenport, Iowa.
SHANNON (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call.
SHANNON: And actually, this is exactly the sort of informed, educated and experienced disagreements I wish I could hear on the news, with your guests today. But my concern is that Mr. Koppel, along with other - a lot of other people, recently have been making this equivalency that does bother me, between the MSNBCs or even the CNNs compared to Fox News. And while I understand that they're both biased, I don't really look for news sources that echo my own opinion.
It is very difficult to find some news sources that do challenge my beliefs. But when I watch Fox News, there is a difference. They don't - the facts - they do abuse the facts, in my opinion, much more so than the left-leaning organizations do.
And like your guest mentioned Jon Stewart, if you watched Jon Stewart interview the president, he did actually challenge him. You know, they do attack their own party. They will criticize the left. When you watch Fox News, Sean Hannity interviewing President Bush, it's not the same. And so I guess that's my question. Do you really see them as equivalent?
CONAN: And Ted, that - the comparison seemed to have stung Mr. Olbermann. He said: We are different from Fox News.
KOPPEL: Yeah. And they may well be different qualitatively. But if you ask anyone who considers himself right of center whether he regards MSNBC News, and the people who appear on MSNBC, and the information that is conveyed on MSNBC as being objective, you're clearly going to get a different kind of answer.
The test, I suppose, is whether someone watching who is a regular MSNBC viewer can watch Fox without feeling that it is totally biased - and whether the opposite is also true. And if the equivalency is not perfect, I think there is enough equivalency there to justify the central point that I was making.
Prof. JARVIS: But Shannon, part of what you talked about was the fact that there's a debate going on here, and across media now, not making any equivalencies. But I think we're trying to find a new voice where we're seeing right and left - and argue. And I think that there's some health in that. The problem is, it's made too simplistic. It's made simply right and simply left, and we're much more complex than that. But having a discussion, having an argument, indeed, is what makes up a democracy - not having something just fed us from a centralized place.
CONAN: Jeff Jarvis, though, would you agree that gathering the news is critical? That if the boots are not on the ground to cover the criminal courts and the - and City Hall and the city council meetings, and not to mention the bureaus in Beijing and Tokyo and wherever, that's not going to happen?
Prof. JARVIS: Yes. And we - I think we have all kinds of new ways to do that, new ways to get information. And that's what I teach my students. We're working with the New York Times in Brooklyn on their blog, The Local, and it's our job to encourage the ecosystem of news and information in Brooklyn itself. People can share news and information themselves. And then we, as journalists, have to ask where we put our precious resources to bring the most value - not to do the same stuff, not to be a stenographer, as Keith Olbermann said, but instead to bring that higher value.
CONAN: Ted, you're the commentator on this program, you get the last 15 seconds.
KOPPEL: Well, I would just like to go back to something that Professor Jarvis said earlier on, and that is that the country really is not in such bad shape. I think the country is in dreadful shape right now. The economy is in terrible shape. Unemployment is in terrible shape. We are engaged in two overseas wars. We have a deficit that is unbelievable. And 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.
CONAN: Shannon, thank you for the call. Jeff Jarvis, thank you for your time. And Ted Koppel, we'll have you back again.
When we come back, cholera. This is NPR News.
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