I’m taking to my keyboard to deconstruct just why two recent news items seem to have stuck in my brain, pressed my nostalgia button, and maybe even roused my conscience.
Item #1 concerns the recent appearance by The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace.
After Stewart asked Wallace if he believes that Fox News is "exactly the ideological equivalent of NBC News," Wallace responded, "I think we're the counterweight. I think they have a liberal agenda and we tell the other side of the story."
Item #2 involves the debut of the New York Times “Sunday Review” and the death of the Times' venerable “Week in Review” -- in which “opinion journalism" replaces news, according to the Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane, an old-school watchdog type.
Quoting email correspondence, Brisbane concludes that we live in “an age where the ratio of news to opinion in American journalism as a whole is falling.”
Oh my! All this talk about journalism has hurled me back to my roots as a recovering member of an ancient fellowship known as “activist journalism."
Journalism was passion I discovered in high school and continued college in the late 1960’s. Along the way, journalism delivered most of the lessons I learned about American society, power, and social change.
Before the Great News Maw
As I reflect back, I guess I’m stunned at how far different the conversation feels today, the Era of the Great News Maw, by which I mean the 24-hour torrent of information, personality, gossip and opinion that spews forth from TV, cable and the web.
For my generation, journalism had transcended its grubby origins to become something noble, provided that you could play by the rules.
Establishment Consensus & the Myth of Objectivity
One needed to stay within the bounds of the Establishment Consensus, an ideology conveyed by journalism schools and editors by means of the Myth of Objectivity.
Regardless of a reporter’s own beliefs, she was obligated to play fair, and to quote individuals whose positions “balanced” each other within the frame of the story. Typically, we were urged to find sources within a fairly narrow definition of worthiness. (Two points of view were usually sufficient, since everyone knew that there were only two sides to every debate.)
All of which conflicted with the world that we were living through in the 60s, a time of great social and political upheaval. It became impossible for many of us to believe that there was a credible “side” in debates over civil rights for blacks, the morality of the Vietnam War, or equality for women, to name but a few issues.
Louisville, Kentucky, was where I my struggle began – it was my mother’s hometown, where we moved after years of the gypsy life of an Army family. Not long after we arrived, I managed to become both editor of my high school paper and president of the junior class.
My popularity was sealed by an act of hair rebellion. 1965 was the year when every kid wanted to look like the Beatles. Our principal, a former Marine, would have none of it, requiring “normal” haircuts. I led a mass march across the street to a barber shop where 37 of us had our heads shaved in protest. And then wrote about it in the newspaper. Which was promptly banned. My first lesson in activist journalism.
Establishment 1 – Nick 0.
By the time I became editor of the University of Louisville’s “Cardinal” campus newspaper in 1968 I had a mission, to use the paper to radicalize a sleepy and largely commuter student body.
I had the skills to pull it off too, having interned that summer at the Louisville Courier-Journal, one of the top papers in the U.S. at the time. I co-authored a multi-part series on “drug use in Louisville,” that landed on Page One, in part because of colorful but anonymous drug tales by the children of Louisville’s elite, including the daughter of the publisher.
We expanded the Cardinal’s editorial pages, columns and snarky jabs at the Establishment and attracted a gaggle of countercultural writers who helped me make the paper a lightning rod. The paper became an advocate for the feeble but earnest new left movement on campus and around the country.
At one point we turned the whole paper over to the Black Student Union, which had occupied the administration building. During spring break I reported from inside a sit-in on the campus of the University of Chicago. I reviewed “Hair” on Broadway.
What got me briefly suspended, however was not politics, but rather our April Fools’ Day edition that featured a front-page banner headline that read: “Dean of Students Bans Publishing Fuck.”
The incident triggered an editorial in the Courier, which decried our “juvenile out-house humor” that was unworthy of the “public trust” granted to the sacred profession – you get the drift.
The next year I took over the yearbook, which I transformed into a series of high-gloss investigative journalism magazines modeled on Esquire and New York, and relegated the head-shots and club photos to a single final issue. We published stories about the defense ties of the University’s Board of Trustees.
More than anything, I wanted to cover Washington, and so I applied for an entry-level reporter slot at the Washington Post. I did not get the job. I later learned from friends at the Courier that my college escapades had consequences, namely in the person of Executive Editor Norman Isaacs, whose son Steve Isaacs was then Managing Editor of the Post. I had been blackballed from mainstream journalism, or so it seemed at the time.
Instead, I became editor of something called the College Press Service, a daily news service syndicated to college papers. To compete for that job, I flew to D.C. in May, 1970, a week after the killings at Kent State University, which had been part of a student protest of the Nixon Administration’s invasion of Cambodia.
My future employer booked me to appear on a national news show, produced by National Educational Television, the forerunner of PBS. Students like me were intended to “balance” the Administration talking-head, in this case Elliott Richardson, Undersecretary of State for Far Eastern Affairs. He was calm and level headed. I was not, screaming such memorable lines as “Why are you killing your sons and daughters?”
The next day I was asked to produce a story on deadline. My subject was the persecution of the Black Panther Party, and I got an interview with a local member. I did not include a representative of the police, the Justice Department or the FBI. A pattern was fixed. I was an activist. I was a journalist. No reason not to combine the two. Mainstream media had blackballed me, after all. (Sound familiar?)
I covered the White House and the Congress during that turbulent year, and helped organize conferences for student editors, including a summer-long workshop held in Manchester, New Hampshire, home of the Union-Leader, edited by arch-conservative William Loeb.
Commie Hippie Youth
Our project was to create an underground newspaper in Manchester, an effort that earned a very prized Union-Leader Page One headline: “Commie-Hippie Youth Get Out of Our Town.”
Another conference we convened in Hollywood was called “Look what the Done to My Brain, Ma!”, and featured left-wing media analysts like Herb Schiller as well as a range of student radicals including the Quebec Liberation Front, Black Panthers, Gay Liberation Front, Radical Feminists. This was not your father’s journalism.
After the year-long CPS gig I stayed in D.C. splitting my time between political activism and “new media.” 1971 marked the introduction of small-format portable video, a bulky but revolutionary way to get real television into the streets.
A left-wing think-tank called the Institute for Policy Studies hired me to raise hell about cable TV, which was coming to the cities.
Portapaks and Video Freaks
We used community organizing to alert the population to cable TV as a political issue, and by extension, to the power of the media. Along the way, I made friends with a gaggle of video freaks, a mixed bag of activists, hippies and storytellers were trying to get their short programs seen in any way possible.
I started making tapes too, covering political demonstrations from the inside, as well as more personal topics. I cofounded one of the country’s first so-called “community video centers” in Washington, D.C., a storefront production and training center designed to prepare citizens for the coming of cable television and public access. Ironically, the largest funder was the foundation created by the founders of the Washington Post.
While waiting for the grant to arrive, I spent the summer of 1972 in Miami, where I began producing freelance reports for a radical radio network, affiliated with a much-loved album-rock radio station. Because our reports were carried on radio stations that were licensed by the FCC, we made every effort to provide balanced points of view in our coverage.
The Big Fig Leaf
Gaming the System of Consensus Objectivity was easy: just use the Big Fig Leaf technique.
And yet, the System kept surprising me, namely via the legend of Watergate, in which two Washington Post reporters brought down a corrupt government. As vividly portrayed in Alan Pakula’s “All the President’s Men,” the conflict revolved around their use of sources, especially those without attribution and probably an ax to grind. I identified with Woodward and Bernstein, two guys who managed to defy the overall system by bending without breaking the rules.
But my die was cast as an outsider. I had moved on, not only from mainstream journalism, but from print.
The dream of using cable’s public access channels as a viable medium was a naïve failure. While certain communities managed to support the channels and their adjunct access production centers, viewership was low and funding was sporadic, most of it coming from city governments, foundations, the newly created National Endowment for the Arts, and sometimes from the cable operators themselves. Few examples emerged for self-sustaining business models.
Pioneering video groups like TVTV focused upon public television, which had was organized and was receiving federal subsidies through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
The Ideology of Op-Ed
PBS at the time was a classic Establishment Liberal institution, nurtured by foundations like Carnegie, Ford and Rockefeller, and very nervous about permitting unfiltered perspectives from counter-cultural rabble like the video movement. Stations in New York, Boston, and San Francisco created units that served as vetting portals for innovators, both artistic and journalistic.
But many of us argued that television, particularly public TV, should be required to systematically give much more of its airtime, facilities, and funding to independent producers. We envisioned a kind of “op-ed” page that did not get hung up on objective reporting. As an article of faith, we insisted that balance should come over the entirety of the channel – in this case, PBS – and not always within a single show.
I organized 20 alternative video producers into the “Coalition for New Public Affairs Programming” and began to lobby Congress, PBS, CPB and influential foundations. Our testimony and other efforts swayed committee chair Lionel Van Deerling from San Diego to amend legislation to require public TV to broadcast independent film and video, and strongly urged its funding. Soon funds were from CPB and the Ford Foundation, among others, and in 1977 I was awarded the first “Indie” award from the Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers for my efforts, along with director Barbara Kopple, for her Oscar-winning film “Harlan County U.S.A.”
Live from the Front Lines
In 1978, following the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island, several dozen producers came together to create innovative coverage of the mass demonstration at the U.S. Capitol Building. Not only did the production involve a mix of indies and moonlighting network news personnel, Nuclear Power: The Public Debate became the first indie use of the PBS satellite system to distribute live programming to stations around the country. We raised the money and cleared the stations in a week. “The future of television tip-toed into your living room yesterday” wrote Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales in a positive review.
Ironically, we worked very hard to include “diverse” points of view in that program, even though we were covering an event that had a point of view. I interviewed National Review publisher William Rusher and a Troskyist spokesperson for preroll segments that were interspersed with the live coverage.
Trying to Fix Public Broadcasting
That same year I read a front page story in the New York Times announcing a new Carnegie commission to study public broadcasting.
The foundation was concerned with the failures of the ten-year-old public TV system, especially its lousy business model and its political vulnerability. New technologies like cable, pay TV, home video and teletext also presented challenges.
Carnegie hired me to study independent production. From this work I proposed a new “Center for Independent Television,” intended as a well-funded access point to the system for independent production.
I stayed on to write the text of the full report, and then co-authored a follow up report. Ironically, the system ignored most of the Carnegie recommendations, except for the indie idea. With the founding of the Independent Television Service (ITVS) a top-flight indie organization was created. From my perspective, it exemplifies the idea that television with a point of view can be viable and credible. Indeed, one of its most successful series was called “P.O.V.”, e.g., “point of view.” These days, ITVS programming consistently earns more awards than any other on public television.
My final reminiscence is in the area of Labor Journalism, a concept that almost nobody thinks about any more. In 1982 I helped Larry Kirkman create the Labor Institute of Public Affairs (LIPA), a wholly owned production unit of the AFL-CIO, e.g., the American labor movement.
This was the Reagan era of union-bashing and anti-labor policies. LIPA was about media that would fight back, in order to energize labor’s base and to provide at least a sliver of “balance” to the overwhelmingly pro-business messages shoved at America.
Oddly enough for an avowedly partisan organization, we bent over backwards to create fairness, even if we did use the Big Fig Leaf ploy to do it. The point is, we felt we had to try, in part because we needed to attract mainstream journalism talent to host our programming, including people like Daniel Schorr, Marie Torre, Daniel Zwerdling.
Our biggest-budget project was the $14 million “Union, YES” advertising campaign. This was effective propaganda, created with the help of Madison Avenue.
But a LIPA series called “America Works” was balanced enough to run on many public television stations. Unabashedly portraying the lives of ordinary workers (who happened to be in unions), the series used documentary techniques that humanized labor’s messages.
“CableLine” was an experiment to prototype a labor cable network. We mimicked the content-vertical channels that were defining the new “500 channel” cable model. The network, which ran on cable systems in major markets, offered labor-themed documentaries.
“Laborvision” was an originally produced and very conventional weekly news magazine. If anything, it was too bland, because we felt we had to prove that we could operate within the prevailing standards of fairness.
I can tell you one thing: those shows were dramatically less biased than anything coming from either Fox or MSNBC these days, much less the Internet, and we were a political organization that practiced “message discipline.” My how times have changed.
Our newsreader, a freelancer with CNN credits, made sure that the prose was fair, if not strictly balanced. Weekly roundtable discussions featured unedited views from journalists who covered economics and politics for mainstream publications. They were not in the employ of our program, unlike today’s cable news outlets. We rarely featured politicians as guests, and never as editorialists.
Though interest in new media continued after I joined the American Film Institute in 1990 – it was the era of desktop video and then, of course, the Internet – in truth, I became voiceless within the confines of an organization in service to lots of masters in the mainstream media.
While students at the AFI were urged to find and use their voice to tell stories, I wasn’t. The blogosphere heated up, with millions of voices now being heard, first in print and then, thanks to YouTube. Mine voice was not among them.
Unwatchable News, Unforgettable Documentaries
Thusly have I arrived at the two news items about journalistic objectivity, and somehow I just wanted to explode because:
—I can barely stand to watch any newscast.
— I find network newscasts and PBS to be leaden and dreary affairs aimed at a demographic that is even older than me.
– CNN is a bit more tolerable, especially during a crisis, especially during an international crisis. If I’m energetic, I’ll click around to try and find the BBC. During the Arab spring, I got used to Al Jazeera, which, like Hillary I find is more fair and balanced than any U.S. channel.
— Fox News is a stomach-turning mouthpiece for the most venal and sensationalistic aspects of the paranoid right, and I can’t leave the channel on for more than a minute without hating myself and the world, even though I know I should try if only as a matter of self-preservation.
—I can no longer watch MSNBC either, even though I have similar politics. Why? The Great Maw of Cable forces these otherwise very smart professionals to talk down to the audience, to endless repeat, repeat, repeat. And to fixate on the minutiae of inside-the-beltway politics until I just want to scream. I usually switch to Turner Classic Movies after about 15 minutes.
—I still subscribe to several physical newspapers, and I consume vastly more news than ever, thanks to my iPad, RSS feeds, great apps like Zite , and Twitter, which allows me to benefit from the curatorial insight of hundreds of smart people I’ve never met, many of them reporters and editors.
--- Most days I watch more nonfiction video on my computer, iPad and iPhone than on my television. The web brings me content that’s always on and always on-demand. I don’t even have to remember to set my DVR. I control what and how I watch.
— Perhaps not surprisingly, after all these years, I find that the most consistently credible and challenging information on television comes from documentaries, particularly those broadcast by ITVS, Frontline, HBO, Link TV and a few other sources.
A good documentary sidesteps issues of “balance” and “objectivity” in favor of depth and empathy. The filmmaker is telling a story, and to do so requires bringing the audience into the real lives of real people. Whether the form is “verite” documentary, which goes inside a special world, or a news-narrator style like “Inside Job,” documentary is an art form that provides perspective, intelligence, and meaning.
Which is what I wanted out of journalism all along, I think, even though I probably didn’t know it.