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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill Photo: Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill
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THE MEDIA TODAY: TRUTH OR LIES? - 9.16.03
In Focus  :  Media Frenzy  :  Transcript
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Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill is an innovative public affairs series from PBS that brings together both compelling examinations of critical issues and a dynamic pairing of two of the most respected names in journalism.


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Media Frenzy Mega-Media The State of News


Bryant Gumbel leads a discussion on objectivity and political agendas in the media world with Jonathan Alter of Newsweek and Tony Blankley from the Washington Times.

Bryant Gumbel:
Let's start off talking about FOX — has it changed the face of news or are we making too much of an operation who's audiences are still relatively small in the world of television?

Blankley:
I think it's a leading indicator. It hasn't changed the face yet, but I think all the new media that have been coming along since the 80s — talk radio, cable television, Internet to the extent that it's a news media at all — are reflecting the current political position which is to the right of where it was between 30... 1930 and the 60s and 70s. So they're tending to be more conservative. I think you're going to see the major news outlets, the mainline media, start inching towards that position.

Gumbel:
So you don't... Before I get to Jonathan... you don't deny that FOX has a political agenda?

Blankley:
I think that every news organization when it selects a news story, the decision what to cover, has to be, whether intentionally or not, a subjective decision. The actual reporting can be objective but the decision whether to cover corporate scandal or excessive regulation is, as an editor, it is a decision you make, whether you make it because you, your world view says that's the important issue or that's the important issue, you're still subjective in picking your topic.

Alter:
Yeah, everything is subjective. Pure objectivity is impossible, Bryant, but clearly FOX is trying something new, which is political television, ax-grinding television. They want certain things to happen in society.

Gumbel:
Is that why...

Alter:
They're conservative.

Gumbel:
Tony says the ax-grinding is only in the selection of the stories not necessarily in the reportage.

Alter:
That's not true. They have a consistent conservative agenda. They can say they don't but they do. Now you can say, and their supporters say, well you know NBC, ABC and CBS do as well and I think there is a strong distinction between old fashioned network news and FOX. Now...

Gumbel:
And the distinction is...

Alter:
Are there some examples of liberal bias that people have found over the years on issues like abortion? Of course. And anyone that tries to deny that hasn't looked closely enough. There has been some liberal bias. But the point of those news organizations is not to advance a particular political agenda — that is to say we're for George Bush beating Al Gore — that's what FOX consistently was clearly intending and hoping for in the 2000 election. ABC, CBS, NBC — that's not what they were in the business to do.

Blankley:
As a conservative politician before I became a conservative journalist... one of the most frustrating things I experienced was trying to get the mainline media to cover the stories we thought were important. Let me say this... I'm not going to defend any particular FOX or any other show regarding the quality of their actual reporting.
Group journalism should be objective; the facts should be right; it should be in context. And I think you can have good conservative journalism and good liberal journalism. You can also have bad of either one and we can get into an argument over whether FOX is more accurate than CNN. I don't care.

Alter:
I'm not disputing what you say about a worldview. I think there's a lot to that. I think it's an important intellectual argument. But FOX is not a straight news channel. Look at their news programming when they're just giving you the headlines it's not particularly biased. But most of FOX is a series of chat shows and these shows are overwhelmingly on the right.

Gumbel:
I don't want this to be a FOX segment. What about what Tony just said which is there can be good conservative reporting and there can be good liberal reporting. Raises a question... can a news outlet pursue a political agenda without their news, by definition, being less credible as a result?

Alter:
No. If the political agenda is your first objective you're already in trouble.

Gumbel:
Your thought?

Blankley:
Is it a conscious liberal agenda, a conscious agenda or are you unconsciously reporting? I've always believed the media isn't so much liberal — the mainline media — as it is conventional. It follows the general establishment position. From 1932 with Roosevelt until Lyndon Johnson this was a liberal country. It's started easing back a little bit so that most of the media thinks, "well, we're being objective. We're reporting right down the middle." But the fact is, whether they know it or not, they had an agenda that supported that liberal worldview. Now these days with conservatives and Republicans more in dominance and in government the new media have... are sharing their worldview. I don't think it's fair to say that just because a news outlet doesn't consciously report in a particular way that they're not in fact serving that world perspective.

Gumbel:
Tony, conservatives have claimed that liberal media for so long that some of them have actually come to believe it. Now, as you know, the pendulum seems to be swinging the other way. Why do you think the radio airwaves in particular are dominated these days by conservatives? Is it the message or is it the messengers?

Blankley:
Well I think part of it is that the conventional media, the mainline media, gives what, at least conservatives think, is a liberal point of view. Whether it is on not is another matter. And they're voting with their eyeballs. They're deciding that they don't want to hear them. They want to hear their news reported by somebody that genuinely shares their view of things. That's why broadcast news — ABC, CBS, NBC — had 40 million viewers 20 years ago — it's got 26 million now. Rush Limbaugh has got 20 million listeners.

Gumbel:
What if Rush Limbaugh were liberal? Would he be just as successful?

Blankley:
He's very entertaining. So it's hardů

Gumbel:
That's why I ask.

Blankley:
So it's hard to judge him. I think that right now there is still a certain feistiness of the new boy on the block regarding conservative talk radio. If we had 30 years of conservative dominance in the media my guess is the talk radio media of that day would be liberal and they would be feistily complaining about the stogy conservative bias...

Alter:
I completely agree with that last point. But the affect of it now is that we have a dominant conservative media in radio right now. You can ride across broad swaths of the country and just get the right side of the story in part because Rush is such a great communicator and the liberals haven't figured out how to match it.

Blankley:
But keep in mind that the people who follow news generally are a little bit older, a little whiter, a little bit more male, a little better educated than the average population. This country is a little bit right of center from I think where the main media is and the people who actually listen to talk radio and watch the news, any national news, are a little bit more conservative than the country as a whole. So, the audience is naturally there and I think talk radio is naturally providing that audience with what it wants.

Gumbel:
And perhaps reflecting that conservatives — and I want to show you something from one of our polls — some TV anchors, as you know, took to wearing flags during and after the invasion of Iraq. 48% of those we polled said they liked that, 10% said they didn't like that, 41% said that it didn't matter. As journalists, did it matter to you?

Blankley:
I tell you. The first time I was on TV after September 11th I wore one. I felt, as we all did, I felt very passionate. I put a flag on my car and everything else. I didn't do it after that. I don't have anything against people who have kept them on. I just sorta thought, okay that was an emotional moment but I felt I didn't want to continue wearing it on television as sort of a conspicuous statement.

Gumbel:
What about you Jonathan? Do you think it's a problem for a journalist to do it?

Alter:
I fly an American flag outside my house in my personal life to this day. But when I go on NBC I don't do it. I don't think it's our job to cheerlead for the American government. Does that mean we should do things that hurt our troops in the field? Absolutely not. But, if it's our job to take an adversarial position to power and what happens is the flag takes on all sorts of different meanings to different people and if you wear it on the air you're injecting something into the debate that really doesn't have any place in it at that particular time.

Blankley:
Let me give an example. Edward R. Murrow reporting from London during the Blitz of World War Two, he was reporting objectively the news — the Nazis dropping the bombs on London, but you didn't have any doubt, if you've listened to any of those, which side he was on. He was on the side of the British who were being bombarded by the Nazis. I would like to think that every person in American journalism is on the side of the Americans in a war... when we're at war. It doesn't mean you don't report accurately. If there are scandals in the military you report it, but the idea that you're a journalist before you're an American? No. I think you're an American first.

Alter:
I don't have any problem with that actually. And some of my liberal friends would. I think it's okay, especially when the troops are in the field. You are by definition going to be more associated with one side and I don't have a huge problem with that. The problem is when it shades over into tub thumping, cheerleading, then pretty soon when something goes wrong in the American military you're no longer in a position to really report on it in an aggressive way.

Blankley:
I agree. I found something a little... a little tacky about more and more flags. It looks like they're trying a little too hard to prove their patriotism.

Alter:
And it becomes bully boy patriotism and you use... what's happened with patriotism since September 11th is it's gone from being a warm blanket that pulls people together to being used as a cudgel that people use as a weapon and that's really a problem that the press has to watch for.

Gumbel:
We could go on forever but we're not going to. Jonathan Alter, Tony Blankley, you guys, thank you.

Alter and Blankely:
Thanks.





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