On May 6, 2004, Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll gave a hilariously self-serving speech about “the rise of pseudo-journalism in America” at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication. It was properly and widely derided at the time, mostly because of its pathetic attempt to defend the Los Angeles Times against the proper and widely held view that the paper has fallen on very hard times quality-wise as ideology has taken over its newsroom, a condition most obvious in the paper’s “coverage” of the California recall campaign of 2003, when Carroll and his troops did everything they could to beat back Arnold’s challenge and were stunned when the California electorate treated the paper as the partisan swamp it had begun.
Time to revisit Carroll’s thigh-slapper with CBS’ meltdown in mind:
“One reason I was drawn to my chosen career is its informality, in contrast to the real professions.”
This informality has its drawbacks, however, when it extends to the thoroughness with which one checks out sources bearing gifts.
“Indeed it is the constitutional right of every citizen, no matter how ignorant or how depraved, to be a journalist. This wild liberty, this official laxity, is one of journalism’s appeals.”
It was more appealing when the self-anointed were beyond reproach of widely read and instantly available critiques.
“Here is something else I’ve come to realize: The looseness of the journalistic life, the seeming laxity of the newsroom, is an illusion. Yes, there’s informality and humor, but beneath the surface lies something deadly serious. It is a code. Sometimes the code is not even written down, but it is deeply believed in. And, when violated, it is enforced with tribal ferocity.”
Oh? Where are the enforcers of the code this week and last? The Times’ own Ronald Brownstein, appearing on CNN’s “Inside Politics,” twice refused Judy Woodruff’s question about the authenticity of the Texas Air National Guard docs proffered by CBS as authentic. Some ferocity. Some tribe.
After referencing the Jayson Blair and Staples controversies at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times respectively, Carroll went on:
“What does all this say about newspaper ethics? It says that certain beliefs are very deeply held. It says that a newspaper’s duty to the reader is at the core of those beliefs. And it says that those who transgress against the reader will pay dearly.”
Of course, CBS isn’t a newspaper, but their co-conspirator in the fraudulent docs, the Boston Globe, is. The Globe isn’t living up to Carroll’s standards quite obviously, as the paper is maintaining allegiance to the docs in the face of overwhelming evidence that they are doctored.
“All across America, there are offices that resemble newsrooms, and in those offices there are people who resemble journalists, but they are not engaged in journalism. It is not journalism because it does not regard the reader – or, in the case of broadcasting, the listener, or the viewer – as a master to be served.
“To the contrary, it regards its audience with a cold cynicism. In this realm of pseudo-journalism, the audience is something to be manipulated. And when the audience is misled, no one in the pseudo-newsroom ever offers a peep of protest.”
Does that not sound like the bunkered-down Ratherites at CBS?
“Last Halloween, I was stuck in traffic on a freeway in Los Angeles, punching the buttons on the car radio to alleviate the boredom. That’s pretty much the way we live in Los Angeles, but I’m not complaining because that night I came across a very interesting program. It was a rebroadcast, 65 years after the fact, of Orson Welles’ famous dramatization of ‘War of the Worlds.’
“For those who don’t know the story, this radio drama portrayed a Martian invasion so realistically that it prompted hysteria. A study by a professor at Princeton calculated that the program had reached about 6 million people, of whom 1.2 million panicked, believing that creatures from Mars were actually invading the town of Grover’s Mill, N.J. Listeners ran out into the streets, jammed police switchboards and gathered in churches to pray for deliverance.
“As I listened to the broadcast, it became obvious why people believed the Martians were at hand. It didn’t sound like fiction; it sounded like journalism. The actors who described the unfolding events at Grover’s Mill had the same stylized cadences and pronunciations as broadcast journalists of the time. Their voices quavered with dread, a sound they had learned by listening to tapes of the Hindenburg airship disaster from the previous year.”
Carroll notes that Wells’ broadcast “didn’t sound like fiction.” Rather’s broadcast didn’t sound like fiction either. It, too, had the “stylized cadences and pronunciations [of] broadcast journalists of the time.” Indeed, this current fraud stars a man who used to be a broadcaster before he became a prop.
“This is how the 23-year-old genius Orson Welles learned that journalism can be faked, and that people will react to something that sounds like journalism but isn’t.
“Some of you may have guessed where I’m going with this anecdote. Yes, we’ll talking about Fox News. But not solely Fox News. Rather, I’d like to discuss a broader array of talk shows and websites that have taken on the trappings of journalism but, when studied closely, are not journalism at all.”
Of course Fox News has not fallen for the hoax, and has worked to expose it. Fox News also uncovered – ahead of all other TV journalists, though behind the blogosphere and talk radio, the fraud of Kerry’s “Christmas-Eve-in-Cambodia” stories, retold again and again to burnish his Vietnam resume.
What followed next was a sad and distorted recounting of the Arnold meltdown at the Times, including the charge, still widely believed to be true, that the Times sat on the story to influence the election:
“The worst of it originated with a freelance columnist in Los Angeles, who claimed to have the inside story on unethical behavior at the Times . Specifically, she wrote, the paper had completed its Schwarzenegger story long before Election Day, but maliciously held it for two weeks in order to wreak maximum damage.”
No naming of the columnist so that the reader /listener could compare what had been written /said with Carroll’s characterization, and no details on when reporters were dispatched and the specifics of which part of the story was done when.
But Carroll does seem to concede that holding a story for election cycle impact is ethically wrong. What’s he think about Rather’s admission against interest that CBS had been working the “story” for years, sitting on it until these documents came along? Was it not a story last month that “years” of effort had revealed no evidence that Bush had ever been derelict in his duty, especially during last spring’s Terry McAuliffe-led campaign to discredit Bush’s honorable service?
Carroll then writes:
“It is instructive to trace the path of this falsehood. Newspapers have always been magnets for crackpots.”
Wouldn’t it be instructive to follow the path of the falsehood of the forgeries, beginning with the revelation of the source? Of course most journalists bridle at the thought of revealing a source, but not when the source itself becomes part of a story of fraud –then it isn’t a source, but a perp. Would that Carroll would give us his opinion on this issue.
Carroll also blasted Fox News:
“How could Fox have left its audience so deeply in the dark? I’m inspired to squeeze one last bit of mileage out of our river metaphor: If Fox News were a factory situated, say, in Minneapolis, it would be trailing a plume of rotting fish all the way to New Orleans.”
Has Fox News engineered exploding cars as “Dateline” did? Has Fox News fallen for and then defended tricked-up docs? Of course not. So if Fox News is culpable, where is Carroll’s denunciation of NBC or CBS, then or now?
“What we’re seeing is a difference between journalism and pseudo-journalism, between journalism and propaganda. The former seeks earnestly to serve the public. The latter seeks to manipulate it.
The propaganda technique that has invaded journalism is of a particular breed. It springs not from journalistic roots, but from modern politics – specifically, that woeful subset known as attack politics.”
What is CBS’ story if not “attack politics?” What is the refusal to ask Kerry the questions about his Vietnam service that Kerry himself put into play except agenda-journalism? Can Carroll honestly not see how every example from Campaign 2004 is an indictment of Old Media for practicing pseudo-journalism, not Fox News or New Media?
“It is the netherworld of attack politics that gave us Roger Ailes, the architect of Fox News. Having spent much of his career smearing politicians, he now refers to himself as a journalist, but his bag of tricks remains the same.”
First, think about the characterization of anyone as coming from the “netherworld,” followed by a condemnation of “attack politics.” But then ask yourself if any episode involving Roger Ailes mirrors the Rather meltdown presently under way?
“Over time, I believe, the public will become increasingly aware of the discrepancy between what they’re told by pseudo-journalists and what turns out to be the truth. They may even grow weary of the talk-show persona – the schoolyard bully we all know so well.”
In fact, Carroll has stumbled onto something here, though he has the wrong names in mind. He’s not thinking about Begala, Carville and Rather, but the reason ratings for CNN – and soon, CBS – have plummeted is the loss of trust in the product. Fox News sees its rating soaring, and though John Carroll fancies himself wise and Fox News viewers stupid, Fox News’ circulation is rising because of trust, and the Los Angeles Times’ circulation is falling because of distrust.
“Recently, our newspaper had the good fortune of winning five Pulitzer Prizes. Between us, I’m not sure we’re worthy of all that, but we won’t turn them down. I wonder how the news of the awards struck the talk-show fans who know the Los Angeles Times only for its ethical outrages.”
So, if CBS wins a Peabody for some program unrelated to the forgeries, does that redeem CBS? This is more guild-talk, of the most self-delusional variety. As though any reader cares about an award by club members for club members.
“Surely they must have been scratching their heads over that one.
But they probably they didn’t worry about it long. My guess is that they sat back on their sofas and consoled themselves with more soothing thoughts, such as the way President Bush saved America from catastrophe by seizing those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq while the whole world cheered.”
On our sofas. In pajamas.
This is the editor of the Los Angeles Times, quite clearly displaying his contempt for the president who will win a resounding victory, which folks like Carroll will somehow persuade himself was a product of propaganda. They can’t be wrong. Rather can’t be wrong. Everyone else must be wrong.
“Let us conclude by returning to the legacy of Robert Ruhl.
“Surely Mr. Ruhl would be vexed by what journalism has become since his departure.
“He would feel pained, I suspect, by the scandals in the traditional media. Yet I hope he would also take heart, as I do, from the spontaneous revulsion expressed in the newsrooms where they occurred.
“He would be honored that his years in journalism at the Medford Mail Tribune are still being invoked on occasions such as this.
“He would be pleased, I think, to see this crowd of young people headed forth into the world, equipped with good educations and high ideals.
“And he would have hopes for you. He would hope – I feel certain – that you’ll take up his calling, the calling of journalism, and find it deeply rewarding. And he would hope, I believe, that you will choose the path of real journalism, not pseudo-journalism, and that you will forever regard the reader – or the listener, or the viewer – as a worthy sovereign who must always be served in good faith.”
As many in Carroll’s audience would call out Rather as a dupe and the documents as forgeries – that many are real journalists. How many understood the self-serving nature of Carroll’s speech, his condescension and his isolation? How many think Old Media has been serving “the reader, the listener, the viewer” in “good faith”? That many are real journalists.
How many are reading the blogs, sifting through them for leads and facts that must be accounted for, accounting for persuasive arguments from credentialed experts? These are the real “future journalists.” And given the Los Angeles Times’ coverage of the forged docs, and using Carroll’s own standards, there are precious few “real” journalists at the Times these days and, thus far, the editors – speaking from their editorial page – are not among them.