How the mainstream media has failed us

January 8, 2008 | By | 9 Replies More

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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Category: American Culture, Communication, Media, Politics

About the Author ()

I'm an author, skeptic and computer programmer living in New York City. I'm also an unapologetic atheist, and believe passionately that freethinkers deserve a much stronger voice in our culture than they've been given in the past. Since politicians and the mainstream media aren't willing to give us that, it falls to us to take our case directly to the public. Both on my own weblog, Daylight Atheism, and here on Dangerous Intersection, I hope to be able to spread the good news of freethought!

Comments (9)

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  1. the chaplain says:

    Good post. The American media is embarrassing and nauseating.

  2. Chris Swanson says:

    I agree entirely. None of this is, sadly, a surprise to me. I still watch CNN, cause there are occasional good stories amongst all the dross they put on (do I REALLY need Larry King talking endlessly about Britney Spears' pregnant sister?).

    That said, I have found one news program that is quite good. Check out "BBC News America" on BBC America. It's on at 7pm Eastern/4pm Pacific and it is REALLY good.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    It is no secret that Adolf Hitler valued control of the media as both a means of endroctrination and as a pacifier for the people. But the idea of bread and circues didn't start with him either. That is why the Romans had the gladiators.

  4. bassmanpete says:

    These lumbering corporate behemoths have already begun to slide into irrelevance, but the sooner we can bring about their collapse, the better.

    But how do we bring this about when the vast majority of people (if ratings are to be believed) watch these news programmes and think that they're being informed?

    At least here in Australia we still have the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) which is commercial free. The ABC regularly airs in-depth programmes criticizing perceived wrong-doing by both government & big business. But even there the now departed prime minister John Howard was accused of trying to influence it by appointing government friendly members to the board. Who knows what will happen with the new Rudd Government. Let's face it, the last thing a government wants is informed voters!

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    The corporate media IS failing us. Profit-driven corporate interests are constantly selling us out.

    What can we do about this immense threat to our country? I highly recommend that anyone interested should visit the website of Free Press for numerous of ways to get educated and to get involved.  For example, become knowledgable about the commitment of the telecoms to destroy net neutrality.  Why focus on net neutrality?  Because huge private corporate interests are now committed to doing the same thing to the Internet that they have already done to most television and radio stations and most newspapers.  They want to own and control the flow of every drop of mass communication in this country. If you think that this sounds paranoid, go to the above link and consider the cold hard facts.

    Do you want to REALLY jump in and get involved?  Attend the next National Conference for Media Reform, which will be held in Minneapolis, June 6-8, 2008.  I'll be there, reporting from Minneapolis as I did extensively from Memphis.

    The more I learn about media issues the more important they reveal themselves to be.  Consider this: what better way is there to remove citizens from the political process than by taking real news off their air?  And when the citizens have been removed from the political process, who will be in charge? 

    Here's another (small but fun) thing you can consider doing.  Print out some of these decals and attach them to every television you can find. 


             <img id="image2017" style="width: 313px; height: 310px" height="310" alt="Free Press television warning decal – lo rez.jpg" src="; width="313" />

    Most important, talk about these issues with the many people who don't yet understand how important they are. 

    Like you, Ebonmuse, I can't stand to watch most corporate "news."    I know, however, that turning off our televisions and refusing to read the garbage found in most newspapers is not a good long-term strategy.  Totally giving up on the media would leave too many people in the dark. 

    I agree that we shouldn't feel compelled to watch the watch the trash that dominates the corporate media.  But don't completely give up on the potential power of the media to be a wholesome force–someday.  Instead, join together (again, visit Free Press) to help take back the media for the benefit of the people who allegedly own this country–U.S. citizens. 

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Here's another good example of problems with the press, this one from Glenn Greenwald's recent column. He starts with a recent exchange between Chris Matthews and Tom Brokaw:

    MATTHEWS: Tom, we're going to have to go back and figure out the methodology, I think, on some of these [polls].

    BROKAW: You know what I think we're going to have to do?

    MATTHEWS: Yes sir?

    BROKAW: Wait for the voters to make their judgment.

    MATTHEWS: Well what do we do then in the days before the ballot? We must stay home, I guess.

    BROKAW: No, no we don't stay home. There are reasons to analyze what they're saying. We know from how the people voted today, what moved them to vote. You can take a look at that. There are a lot of issues that have not been fully explored during all this.

    But we don't have to get in the business of making judgments before the polls have closed. And trying to stampede in effect the process.

    Greenwald obviously despises much of what passes for modern journalism. Speaking of the "media stars," Greenwald comments: "Petty personality-based gossip and speculative, worthless chatter is all they know." For his full commentary, go here.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    What's scares me most about this subject is that it coincides with Bush's (i.e., puppetmaster Cheney's) relentless pursuit of unchecked, dictatorial power. Niklaus' reference to Hitler is becoming disturbingly true.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Credit to Tucker Carlson for being so (unintentionally) candid about the lowly, subservient role of the American press with regard to "the relationship between the press and the powerful." A journalist should never do anything that "hurts" the powerful, otherwise the powerful won't give access to the press any longer. Presumably, the press should only do things that please the powerful so that the powerful keep talking to the press, so that the press in turn can keep pleasing the powerful, in an endless, symbiotic, mutually beneficial cycle. Rarely does someone who plays the role of a "journalist" on TV so candidly describe their real function.

  9. Cody says:

    Interesting that we cant actually read the article without paying for it… Kind of ironic.

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