TalkBack

To: Stephen Talbot
I watched your program on PBS last night with some interest: I have the following comments: The title of the program does not reflect reality. America doesn't hate the press. Maybe some people do, but mo st people read, watch and/or listen ,enjoy their news sources and learn from them.

Your program seems to imply that there is something wrong with reporters having a bias. If they did not have a bias they would not have a point of view and would be incapable of interpreting what they are reporting on.

Good news people have, in my opinion, only one obligation and that is to be fair. That does not mean that they must be balanced or they they must not present a point-of-view. It should only be required that they present accurately the news as they see it and understand it.

It is our obligation as viewers/listeners/readers to receive the report and decide what the bias is and use that filter to decide what weight we should ascribe to the reportage.

Let me give some examples: I have been reading TIME for 60 years. I know their editorial bias ,so, depending on the subject I read with bemusement, interest, amusement, and sometimes I even think what they write is credible. The same is true (not for 60 y ears tho) of USN&WR and I could go on.

As far as personalities that you tried to put in unfavorable light: Sure Cokie is biased toward the Democrats, but she is always fair and she is always knowledgeable and informed. Sure Sam has a point of view, but he publicly admits it and allows us to ta ke his biases into account in good humour. I have never heard more equitable reporting than I hear from Steve Roberts.He never has an axe to grind. Again, I could go on and on.

I think, by your selective use of the facts you presented a false image of solid, hardworking, ethical, professionals. You could have done better. Bill Massey, Memphis, Tenn.

Stephen Talbot Replies:
Thanks for your message. The title, "Why America Hates the Press," was deliberately provocative, and yes, I agree that not all Americans feel that way. But from the polls I read, and from my own exp erience of talking to people around the country, I know that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction with the press, even anger. Network news viewership has declined sharply. So has readership of most newspapers. On your second point, yes, I do have a problem with reporters who have an obvious bias -- unless that bias is disclosed. Objectivity is supposed to be the standard for our profession. I do, however, agree with you that fairness is the main obligation reporters have. And I, too, enjoy reading newspapers and magazines knowing what their editorial bias is. I favor truth in advertising and disclosure. In Europe, many newspapers are connected to political parties. I remember being in Portugal in the '80s and reading dozens of papers with obvio us (and well-advertised) biases. That was fine. Even refreshing. But I still missed reading at least one excellent newspaper that at least tried to be fair and objective. As to your final point about Cokie, Sam, and Steve Roberts -- my problem with the m is not so much political bias as it is their "buckraking" (taking thousands of dollars in speaking fees from lobbying and other groups with business in Washington), their potential conflicts of interest, their tendency to pontificate instead of report, and their pursuit of a kind of celebritydom which, I think, gets in the way of good reporting.


For Stephen Talbot
I caught most of tonights frontline and I am pleased that your show has the courage to do it.My family has been in politics for much of the last twenty years and I have always been impressed with the alm ost arrogant double standard that exists in both the Canadian and American press corps.I wonder if you can now take the next step and find out how much the corps' own bias is influencing their slant on election stories.I am thouroughly disgusted at the op en love affair that seems to exist between journalists and any Liberal cause or candidate that they deem worthy.I despise the fact that these biases are being shoved down our throats like the way farmers force feed chickens. The great social experiment of the once vaunted sixties is an abject failure and the only place people believe it is not, is where they can make enough easy money to afford it. Thank you for the best Frontline, indeed news show I have seen in twenty years now the question is can you s ee the next one. C. Stevens, Toronto

Stephen Talbot Replies:
I think it does take some courage to criticize the media establishment, but that's part of our job. I agree -- and so does James Fallows -- that the Washington press corps, in general, has a libera l political bias. Polls show, for instance, that most reporters covering the 1992 presidential campaign voted for Clinton over Bush. On the other hand, reporter Fred Barnes, a conservative, pointed out to me that on the debate over free trade in the U.S. -- on NAFTA and GATT -- an overwhelming number of Washington reporters took a conservative, anti-labor, pro-treaty position. And on a purely personal level, the reporters I interviewed in Washington say they like Bob Dole more than Bill Clinton. Jack Ger mond, for instance, is basically a liberal, but he definitely prefers Dole's style. That probably has something to do with the fact that Dole has been a Washington insider for much longer than Clinton. The Washington press tends to like the politicians who have been in power for awhile - part of the same club, I guess. If anything, I think the Washington press corps tends to display a pro-status quo, pro-Establishment bias. They tend to be dismissive of new ideas and third parties, for example.


Attn: Stephen Talbot
If the topic of your show was why America hates the press, why didn't you interview any Americans outside of the press? Ironically, your show illustrated what is wrong with the press- it refuses to go outside of itself for any criticisms. The most significant force in the media today, Rush Limbaugh, was completely ignored. Rush has been doing the reporting that the elite journalists now ignore. As a testimony to the disdain that Americans feel towar ds the biased press, you needn't look much farther than Rush's show. Much of his callers' ire focuses on the distortion and lies that issue from the liberally biased press. Why you chose to ignore a show listened to by 50 million people is beyond all co mprehension. It also proves you are not part of the solution but part of the problem. Daniel Quinn, Bloomington, Indiana.

Stephen Talbot Replies:
Thanks for your message. Funny you should mention Rush Limbaugh. I produced and co-wrote a FRONTLINE biography of Limbaugh -- "Rush Limbaugh's America" -- last year. Did you happen to see it? In that program I interviewed countless "dittoheads" and other Rush listeners across the country. In fact, that's where I certainly began to get the feeling that Americans, at least many conservative Americas, really do distrust and even hate the mainstrea m media. I reported that conservative talk radio was an alternative communication system -- a kind of end run around the regular press and TV networks. Since I had already done a documentary about Rush, I wanted to do something different this time. I wanted to focus on the elite Washington press corps, and to hear from the reporters themselves. Perhaps our title was misleading. I probably should have called it something like "The Palace Press" or "The Insiders". I still think we made valid critici sms of the press.


To Stephen Talbot
I must say that while I did enjoy your piece, I was left with a few questions: one, where were the Americans who "hate" the press?; two, the biggest complaint I hear about the media is its liberal bias - not its bedfellows; and three, your program failed to mention that, while many reporters have indeed become entrenched inside the beltway, there isn't another patch of road which leads to the policy makers in this country. If you can't find your way down 16th Street, you aren't going to get anywhere. As the Editor of a small college newspaper, I am fairly certain my next (and first) call to Speaker Gingrich's office will go unanswered. While it may be true that some journalists have become too cozy, it is hard to get anything from anyone as an outsider.

But, as always, your piece was thought provoking. Perhaps, someday, someone will find it in their heart to pay me $30,000 a speech. Thanks, J. Knapp, Wausau, WI

Talbot Replies:
Thanks for your message. Perhaps our title was a bit of a misnomer. My intention all along was to report on the elite Washington press corps and to focus on the debate that flared this year among those rep orters after James Fallows and Howard Kurtz published their books. It has been an interesting season of (all too rare) media self-criticism. Perhaps we should have called our documentary something like "The Insiders" or "The Capital Gang" or "The Palace P ress". On your other point, I think it's terrible when the press becomes too cozy with the politicians they cover, and it's certainly possible to be a first-rate reporter and still be an outsider. My favorite example is the late I.F. Stone, whose muckrak ing, self-published news weekly was very influential in the '50s and '60s. (Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein was one of Stone's interns.) "Izzy" Stone prided himself on never attending a press conference and never going to Georgetown dinner parties. He had terrible eyesight, but he would carefully scrutinize the Congressional Record and other official documents and turn up one scoop after another. It's great to have some lone wolves in the press corps -- and some independent thinking. Good luck editing you r college newspaper!


To Stephen Talbot
It's ironic that your show "Why America Hates the Press" was more an example of the problem than an answer to the question. My problem with the press is that it's typically biased, inaccurate, poorly inf ormed, and irrelevant. Your show provides a perfect example by ignoring those problems and concentrating instead on things like speaking fees and governmental job experience.

For example, consider two of the biggest economic problems facing the country today: The Social(ist) Security + Medicare pyramid scheme, and a stock market that's skyrocketing while the average American's wages are predominately stagnant. These problems a re in fact two sides of the same coin. If most of the 15% payroll tax diverted to pyramid schemes were channeled instead to IRA/401(k) plans, the average American would not only be much richer, but the long term SS+Medicare problem would be solved as wel l.

Not only has neither Presidential candidate explored this idea, they've both decided to completely ignore the issue. And rather than repeatedly slamming them for it, the press happily goes along and spends all its time reporting on the newest irrelevant campaign strategy of the week.

For an example of bias, consider how the press always refers to Republican Medicare proposals as "cuts" even when real (after inflation) spending per recipient is scheduled to increase.

And whatever happened to the Press' staunch defense of the first amendment? Now we have Democrats running around legislating v-chips into our TVs, graphics out of our video games, and "objectional" language off the internet. The FBI keeps introducing bi lls for the right to implement wire taps without warrants, the right to monitor phone conversations at random for "terrorists", or a requirement that no new communications technology be implemented until an eavesdropping method is incorporated. Why is th is all reported in obscure computer journals months before (if it ever is) reported by the mass-media?

What about the Clipper chip fiasco? Encryption technology is used for much more that making email private. It will also be used as a digital "signature" or power of attorney. It will be used to authorize financial transactions, access medical records, or do anything that requires a signature or photo ID today. The current administration actually feels they have a right to this "super signature". Hello McFly! Does anyone remember Filegate, Nixon, or Hoover? Why hasn't the press been forceful about b ringing this information into the mainstream and the Presidential campaign?

I'll tell you why. It's because the press doesn't understand anything but "Journalism", whatever that is. They know nothing about science, economics, computers, or anything else. That's why we get a new scare manufactured every week, be it Alar on appl es, silicone breast implants, or marijuana use by teenagers.

Journalists don't know enough to ask politicians the important questions, like why we still spend $300 billion a year on defense when the cold war is over and the Soviet Union has collapsed. Or why we spend most of our money on interest, the military, an d old people, rather than what most of us want, like children, schools, parks, libraries, and roads.

Stephen Talbot Replies:
Thanks for writing. You have a lot on your mind, and it's interesting to see that your complaints and concerns can't be confined to what might normally be classified as "liberal" or "conservative," "Democrat" or "Republican". You suggest a number of topics that FRONTLINE might consider for future programs: Social Security, Medicare, Wall Street (I, too, wonder at Wall Street's extraordinary performance at a time when there is also a great deal of corporate "downsizing" and downward pressure on the wages of average Americans.) Some of your issues have already been covered by FRONTLINE. Did you see the FRONTLINE program on silicone breast implants? It sounds to me like you would have liked it. I could not agree more with your final point: I also do not understand why our defense budget is so extraordinarily high now that the Cold War is over and the Soviet Union has collapsed. Why on earth are some politicians reviving "Star Wars"?


Dear Mr. Talbot:
Perhaps PBS would have been more accurate to entitle Tuesday's Frontline special "Why James Fallows Hates the Washington Press Corps." The title presented to viewers was nothing short of a sham. If, as a reporter, I want to know how America feels about ANY subject, I would ask America---not some political/TV pundent-whore who criticizes his colleagues, only to engage in the same activity for which he bemoans. As a politic al reporter for a daily newspaper, I was hoping to gain some insight from your show. Not only did "Why America Hates the Press" exclude newspapers, it excluded any outlet outside of Washington. Is PBS so shallow-minded to believe that most Americans get their news strictly from Washington-based reporters or commentators? Indeed, the root of the problem, in regards to public trust of the press, seems to be entrenched somewhere else besides the black-tie dinners and $30,000 speaking engagments of Cokie Rob erts. In fact, I consider Mrs. Roberts one of the more well-versed Washington-based reporters. What we in the press needed from PBS was a clearer answer to the question posed by the title of "Why America Hates the Press." PBS did not deliver. In the most grossly miscontrued generalization, one so-called expert claims that "just 10 years ago, journalists were the sons of plumbers" and lived a pedestrian lifestyle, preferring to wear a fedora and drink a beer at the neighborhood pub instead of rubbing shoul ders with Kevin Costner and Oliver Stone at a Washington Correspondents Dinner. What hogwash! Despite my experience, education and knowledge of the political arena in this area of the country, I am paid no more than a reporter of equal experience. Do you want to know how much that is? Here's a hint--if I had started teaching school last year (as planned) instead of returning to the newspaper business, I would be making more as a first-year high school teacher than what I am, which is an award-winning, 15- year veteran of newspapers. Elite? My political ideals may be similar to those of in Hollywood, but my stature and my pocketbook are not.

Please give a show like "Why America Hates the Press" another go and interview some real, working reporters and some of the American people your show believed it was speaking for and to. Thank you, Kevin McPherson Texarkana (Texas) Gazette

Stephen Talbot Replies:
Kevin McPherson: I take to heart two of your points. First, our title was a bit misleading. It promised more than we delivered. But I must say my intention all along was to focus on the elite Wa shington press corps. Maybe we should have called it "The Imperial Press" or "The Insiders" or "Why Stephen Talbot Hates the Palace Press" (that last one's kind of pompous, huh?). Second, you are right, not every reporter in America is over-paid, even w ell-paid. I should have made more of a distinction between the Washington press corps I was reporting on -- and the rest of the working press in the country. Having said that, I must defend my narration about the changing class status of the national pre ss corps. A generation ago, most reporters were working class, and today in Washington that is the exception not the rule. Not only are most of the national press corps college-educated (and well-paid), but at a paper like the Washington Post they tend to be Ivy League-educated (Bob Woodward is a Yalie) and well-compensated (starting salary for a Post reporter with 5 years experience is nearly $1,000/week).


For Stephen Talbot:
"Have you accomplish anything with the show?". Are you going to change any of the people invole in the shows. People want to be entertained and this is a form of entertainment for the masses. The pe ople willlose touch with the media and we will lose the check and balance that the press give us. So the view is one of trying to get them back to there old ways. The sponsors like it this and they will follow the sponsor desires. You are singing in the dark. Thank you for allowing me to present my views and concerns. M. George, Sierra Vista, Az.

Talbot Replies:
Will my report change anything? I hope so. We shall see, though (like you) I am a skeptic. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't disclose abuses and misdeeds in our profession. Disclosure and public debate are good. And sometimes, they even lead to reform. Look at ABC -- they have limited the moonlighting their stars were engaging in, because as ABC Vice-president Richard Wald told us, "It was wrong." Of course, there are loopholes, and yes, in our media culture, the "news" has become a form of mass entertainment. But now even some within the profession are raising useful criticisms and making suggestions for change.


TO: Stephen Talbot:
I'm a broadcast journalism student at American University in Washington, D.C. I'm also a Bosnian, native Sarajevan, who worked for the media in Bosnia for about two years. For these two years I've spent in the US, and studying journalism, comparing the media back home, in Europe and in here, has taken up a lot of my time. You can very seldom find journalists who question their own profession like you did in you "Why America Hates the Press." I read Mr. Follows' book and wrote a paper about it. It was very inspiring for me, that in another paper I questioned ethical issues surrounding the CNN coverage of, in particular, the Breadline massacre that occured in Sarajevo on May 27, 1992, and their coverage in general. Your piece, broadcast tonight, reminded me of my "Journalism Ethics" class in which my professor pointed out the issues you delt with. However, I eagerly waited for "a hit" on cable networks. They play a role in people's getting news and information, too. And what about radio? Why just only TV and "print" people? I would highly appreciate your answering to these questions, for I'm very curious and would like to know more about the business I am about to enter after I graduate next May. Thank you for your attention.Sincerely,
Sejla (Shayla) Bezdrob

Talbot Replies

Thank you for writing. I almost attended American University myself (many, many years ago) so I'm glad to hear that you like their "Journalism Ethics" class. I'm also pleased to know that you were inspired by James Fallows' book. So was I (though I don't agree entirely with his prescription for reform, i.e., "public" or "civic" journalism). I focused on TV and the Washington Post this time, but in the past I have covered radio -- last year I did a FRONTLINE on Rush Limbaugh and the phenomenon of conservative talk radio. There's never enough time in one documentary to cover everything. You have to narrow your focus. I completely agree with your main point that in most of the world (and even in the U.S.) you don't find much media self-criticism. There needs to be more. It's healthy for journalism and for democracy. Good luck with your studies. P.S. FRONTLINE has done some excellent films about the war in Bosnia. Have you seen them?

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