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The Mainstream Media Has Failed Us
By Indy Media /
By Ebonmuse. From

I came across an article a few days ago written by John Hockenberry, an award-winning journalist who once worked for NBC’s Dateline and is now a fellow at MIT’s Media Lab. Titled “You Don’t Understand Our Audience”: What I learned about network television at Dateline NBC, this article is a relentless, burning indictment of everything that’s wrong with the mainstream media today. In a future era, when historians look back on our time and ask how so many people could have been deceived into supporting the disastrous, nightmarish war in Iraq and ignoring so many other pressing issues, Hockenberry’s article will be Exhibit A.

Point by devastating point, Hockenberry shows us exactly what’s wrong with the media: their mindless pursuit of “balance” on even the most non-controversial issues of fact:

Our story [on America's "shock and awe" attacks at the beginning of the war] arranged pictures of people coping with the bombing into a slide show, accompanied by the voice of Melinda Liu, a Newsweek reporter describing, over the phone, the harrowing experience of remaining in Baghdad. The outcome of the invasion was still in doubt. There was fear in the reporter’s voice and on the faces of the people in the pictures.

…At the conclusion of the screening… an NBC/GE executive responsible for “standards” shook his head and wondered about the tone in the reporter’s voice. “Doesn’t it seem like she has a point of view here?” he asked.

The way they shove legitimate, critically important stories aside to make room for feel-good fluff, pandering to their viewers rather than risk upsetting them by telling them things they might not already know:

I had been in Corvo’s office to propose a series of stories about al-Qaeda, which was just emerging as a suspect in the attacks. While well known in security circles and among journalists who tried to cover international Islamist movements, al-Qaeda as a terrorist organization and a story line was still obscure in the early days after September 11. It had occurred to me and a number of other journalists that a core mission of NBC News would now be to explain, even belatedly, the origins and significance of these organizations. But Zucker insisted that Dateline stay focused on the firefighters. The story of firefighters trapped in the crumbling towers, Zucker said, was the emotional center of this whole event. Corvo enthusiastically agreed. “Maybe,” said Zucker, “we ought to do a series of specials on firehouses where we just ride along with our cameras. Like the show Cops, only with firefighters.” He told Corvo he could make room in the prime-time lineup for firefighters, but then smiled at me and said, in effect, that he had no time for any subtitled interviews with jihadists raging about Palestine.

The way news organizations are literally forced by corporate executives to choose certain stories to air in order to better promote other programs on the same network (I hadn’t known about this, and it floored me to hear it):

Sometimes entertainment actually drove selection of news stories. Since Dateline was the lead-in to the hit series Law & Order on Friday nights, it was understood that on Fridays we did crime. Sunday was a little looser but still a hard sell for news that wasn’t obvious or close to the all-important emotional center. In 2003, I was told that a story on the emergence from prison of a former member of the Weather Underground, whose son had graduated from Yale University and won a Rhodes Scholarship, would not fly unless it dovetailed with a story line on a then-struggling, soon-to-be-cancelled, and now-forgotten Sunday-night drama called American Dreams, which was set in the 1960s. I was told that the Weather Underground story might be viable if American Dreams did an episode on “protesters or something.”

The way obvious conflicts of interest are steadfastly ignored:

At mandatory, hours-long “ethics training” meetings we would watch in-house videos that brought all the drama and depth of a driver’s-education film to stories of smiling, swaggering employees (bad) who bought cases of wine for business associates on their expense accounts, while the thoughtful, cautious employees (good) never picked up a check, but volunteered to stay at the Red Roof Inn in pursuit of “shareholder value.”

…I did, however, point out to the corporate-integrity people unhelpful details about how NBC News was covering wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that our GE parent company stood to benefit from as a major defense contractor. I wondered aloud, in the presence of an integrity “team leader,” how we were to reconcile this larger-scale conflict with the admonitions about free dinners. “You make an interesting point I had not thought of before,” he told me. “But I don’t know how GE being a defense contractor is really relevant to the way we do our jobs here at NBC news.”

And the way in which legitimate, serious issues are barred from the table because they’re not telegenic enough:

In 2003, one of our producers obtained from a trial lawyer in Connecticut video footage of guards subduing a mentally ill prisoner. Guards themselves took the footage as part of a safety program to ensure that deadly force was avoided and abuses were documented for official review. We saw guards haul the prisoner down a greenish corridor, then heard hysterical screaming as the guard shooting the video dispassionately announced, “The prisoner is resisting.” For 90 seconds several guards pressed the inmate into a bunk. All that could be seen of him was his feet. By the end of the video the inmate was motionless. Asphyxiation would be the official cause of death.

…Yet at the conclusion of the screening, the senior producer shook his head as though the story had missed the mark widely. “These inmates aren’t necessarily sympathetic to our audience,” he said. The fact that they had been diagnosed with schizophrenia was unimportant. Worse, he said that as he watched the video of the dying inmate, it didn’t seem as if anything was wrong.

“Except that the inmate died,” I offered.

“But that’s not what it looks like. All you can see is his feet.”

…”But,” I pleaded, “the man died. That’s just a fact. The prison guards shot this footage, and I don’t think their idea was to get it on Dateline.”

“Look,” the producer said sharply, “in an era when most of our audience has seen the Rodney King video, where you can clearly see someone being beaten, this just doesn’t hold up.”

“Rodney King wasn’t a prisoner,” I appealed. “He didn’t die, and this mentally ill inmate is not auditioning to be the next Rodney King. These are the actual pictures of his death.”

“You don’t understand our audience.”

There’s much, much more in the article, and I can’t recommend highly enough that you read the whole thing. I swore off network TV news long ago, as well as CNN and Fox, and I can’t be happier that I did. It’s now thoroughly clear, to any thinking person, that their sole reason for existing is to soothe us and pander to us so we’ll sit still long enough to watch the commercials. Any idea of informing the public, of telling us the facts we need to know to make informed judgments on important issues, is long, long gone.

For all that blogs are derided as uncouth and radical by the self-appointed guardians of the mainstream, many of them contain more original, relevant, insightful reporting and analysis than the major news networks can muster in days. These lumbering corporate behemoths have already begun to slide into irrelevance, but the sooner we can bring about their collapse, the better.

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The Mainstream Media Has Failed Us