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America could do with a few feral beasts (in the media)

Jemima Lewis, UK Independent
There is a thin line between respectable and supine, and US journalism is on the wrong side
There is, it seems, a limit to how much celebrity trivia a person can take. I have yet to find mine, but I like to think that’s because my brain is atrophied by pregnancy. Mika Brzezinski, on the other hand, is a woman in full command of her journalistic principles – as she demonstrated this week on live television.

Brzezinski presents the news on the popular US cable breakfast show Morning Joe. On this particular morning, however, she simply could not bring herself to present the lead item chosen by her producer: Paris Hilton’s release from jail. “I have an apology,” she began, “and that is for the lead story. I hate this story. I don’t think it should be the lead.”

While the programme’s host, Joe Scarborough, berated her with vague, panicky insults – “That’s a cop-out”; “Take control of your life” – Brzezinski wrestled a lighter from another co-presenter and attempted to set fire to the hated script. When that failed, she ripped it up and crumpled it into a ball. But her trials were not yet over: she was simply handed a fresh script, with Paris still at the top. “I’m about to snap,” she declared grimly. “My producer is not listening to me.” She then stalked away from her desk and proceeded to feed the script through a paper shredder.

…The British long ago accepted that their press is, as Tony Blair would have it, feral. Journalists in this country are despised, and we know it. Indeed, we embrace our lowly status with a perverse, distinctly British pride: we call ourselves “hacks”, lest anyone should think we take ourselves seriously, and delight in Fleet Street legends of debauchery and low cunning. British journalism – both the profession and the end product – is tough, unscrupulous and, at its best, riotously good fun.

In America, different standards prevail. When I went to work at a current affairs magazine in New York a couple of years ago, my editor warned me that I was in for a culture shock. “American journalists,” he said, “believe they belong to a kind of priesthood. Ever since Watergate, we have seen ourselves as guardians of the truth. That,” he added ruefully, “is why our newspapers are so boring.”
(30 June 2007)
Also at Common Dreams. The “feral beasts” in the headline is a reference to Tony Blair’s June 12 attack on the media. (Guardian article / the original Blair speech).

Ironically, the only newspaper he named by name is the Independent, a relatively small newspaper aimed at an intellectual audience. The Independent has been one of the fiercest advocates for global warming and the environment; They have also mentioned peak oil on a number of occasions.

Blair does not mention the real feral dogs in British journalism, the tabloids. In fact, he has carefully cultivated friendships with tabloid owners such as Rupert Murdoch, as well as with Italian media magnate Silvio Berlusconi. Blair’s criticism, like that of most polticians, is not about the real problems of journalism. Instead, it is directed against those media outlets with integrity, against those that are difficult to control. -BA

Investigative journalism (and the Washington elite)

Steve Benen, Washington Monthly
Ken Silverstein wrote a fascinating expose for the July issue of Harper’s about DC’s lobbying industry. Silverstein wanted to understand how, exactly, these firms operate when approached by an ethically-dubious client, and what lobbyists would/could do for a price.

Of course, if the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine calls up one of these firms, he’ll get plenty of spin and very few answers. If “Kenneth Case,” a consultant for “The Maldon Group,” a mysterious (and fictitious) London-based firm that claimed to have a financial stake in improving the public image of neo-Stalinist Turkmenistan calls up, he’ll get a candid assessment of what services are available.

So, Silverstein went undercover, took on a fictitious persona, and gained some fascinating, albeit disturbing, insights.

In some circles, what Silverstein was unethical. In short, he misrepresented himself — a journalistic no-no. “No matter how good the story,” Howard Kurtz wrote, “lying to get it raises as many questions about journalists as their subjects.” Kurtz was hardly alone; the DC media establishment has been less than shy about denouncing Silverstein’s tactics.

Silverstein responded today in an LA Times op-ed, arguing that a) this media establishment is far too close to the political establishment; and b) until news outlets start taking investigative journalism seriously again, the public will suffer.

The decline of undercover reporting — and of investigative reporting in general — also reflects, in part, the increasing conservatism and cautiousness of the media, especially the smug, high-end Washington press corps. As reporters have grown more socially prominent during the last several decades, they’ve become part of the very power structure that they’re supposed to be tracking and scrutinizing.

Chuck Lewis, a former “60 Minutes” producer and founder of the Center for Public Integrity, once told me: “The values of the news media are the same as those of the elite, and they badly want to be viewed by the elites as acceptable.”

I suspect this will make Silverstein even less popular with the media establishment, but he makes a very compelling case.
(30 June 2007)
Op-ed by Ken Silverstein (also at Common Dreams).

Stung by Harper’s In a Web Of Deceit by Howard Kurtz (Washington Post).

Which side are you on? Howard Kurtz protects the interests of the Beltway lobbyists, Ken Silverstein speaks up for real journalism. -BA

Moyers on Murdoch

Bill Moyers, Bill Moyers Journal
…You will not be surprised to learn that Murdoch’s company paid little or no federal income tax over the past four years. His powerful portfolio positions him to claim a big stake in Yahoo and his takeover of The Wall Street Journal, now owned by the Bancroft family, which, like Adam and Eve, the parents of us all, are tempted to sell their birthright for a wormy apple.

Murdoch and THE JOURNAL’s editorial page are made for each other. They’ve both pursued the right’s corporate and political agenda of the past quarter century. Both venerate what THE JOURNAL editorials call the “animal spirits” of business. But THE JOURNAL’s newsroom is another matter – there facts are sacred and independence revered. Rupert Murdoch has told the Bancrofts he’ll not meddle with the reporting. But he’s accustomed to using journalism as a personal spittoon. In the months leading up to the invasion of Iraq, he turned the dogs of war loose in the newsrooms of his empire and they howled for blood. Murdoch himself said the greatest thing to come out of the war would be “$20 a barrel for oil.”

…But the problem isn’t just Rupert Murdoch. His pursuit of The Wall Street Journal is the latest in a cascading series of mergers, buy-outs, and other financial legerdemain that are making a shipwreck of journalism. Public minded newspapers are being dumped by their owners for wads of cash or crippled by cost cutting while their broadcasting cousins race to the bottom. Murdoch is just the predator of the hour. The modern maestro of a financial marketplace ruled by money and moguls. Instead of checking the excesses of private and public power, these 21st century barons of the First Amendment revel in them; the public be damned.
(29 June 2007)
Also at Common Dreams.