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Monday, November 16, 2009

Lou Dobbs and the struggle for journalism

Lou Dobbs suddenly announced on his CNN show Wednesday that it would be his last appearance on the network.  The moment could hardly be regarded as the product of clear objectives and careful planning.  Only a few follow-up stories delved into the reasons why Dobbs left so abruptly, after being one of CNN's originating anchors and having a news show during the prime hour for news. 

The Sunday morning talk shows have rehashed the points to which Dobbs drew the most attention.  They are his crusade against illegal aliens, about whom he made provably false statements, and his joining of the nonsense about President Obama's birth certificate, even after CNN executives told him it was not a story.  

There were disagreements between Dobbs and CNN management, but  Dobbs' sudden departure is indicative of the general problems facing news organizations.

CNN changed the news business.  Initially, for the better. By 1980, television news had become the major source for most Americans, but was delivered by the three major networks in 20 highly-edited minutes per day during their half-hour evening newscasts.  For people who wanted more detailed and expanded information,  print journalism filled the void.  Then Ted Turner, amid a storm of skepticism, stepprd in with his 24-hour cable news network, CNN.  

Initially CNN intensified the reporting aspect of news.  It emphasized reporting and the generation of facts and information based upon on-the-spot coverage and carefully sourced and verified facts.  CNN was a success, and it inspired rival cable networks devoted to news.  But the task of filling 24 hours a day with news proved a strain.  At first the format was hourly segments which, while emphasizing breaking news, were repetitive.  To provide a change of focus and pace, CNN,and its competitors, programmed "news magazine" segments, modeled roughly (and I mean "roughly") after public television's News Hour, with in-depth interviews and panel discussions.  They found that the interview-and-discussion format was a cheaper and easier way to fill the time than having a bunch of reporters out digging for facts and another bunch of editors checking those facts. 

Ted Turner started CNN as an alternative to news programming that was merely an adjunct to entertainment programming, which draws the larger audience.  A staple of entertainment programming was the talk show.  While the late night talk shows emphasized show business and variety, the day time talk shows centered ostensibly on issues.  But their real attraction was that issues spark controversy and conflict.  While conflict is one of the dozen or so criteria by which news value is evaluated, it has taken over cable news and internet reporting almost to the exclusion of other criteria and to the oblivion of the journalistic processes by which they are applied.  Some people find conflict entertaining, as they did when Jerry Springer prodded people on his show into such degrading rage that they physically attacked each other.  Conflict and its devious and nefarious expressions are a staple of the "reality" shows which feature people being vicious and hateful to each other.  For a very significant portion of Americans, watching other people being abused and humiliated is a favorite entertainment.  Social psychologists point out that the popularity of such debasing spectacles is partly because it gives the audience the chance to feel superior to the subjects of humiliation, a chance for those who feel inconsequential in their work-a-day lives to feel  part of an "elite."  Television has serviced the less-than-admirable motives of its audience, and this servicing has shaped the way news is presented in the media in general.

For cable news, the appeal to the baser instincts of its audience is in the constant bickering and prattle by "experts" over every topic that comes up in the news.  Cable news also finds that appealing to people's prejudices, notions, ignorance, and distorted world views  builds audiences.  People like to feel that their perceptions, notions, and attitudes are legitimized as part of something larger.  That is what Fox News and MSNBC are using in their attempts to win audiences and ratings.

In the ratings wars, CNN has dropped behind its two competing cable networks, Fox News and MSNBC, who have openly decided to base their editorial decisions on different sides of the partisan divide.  Fox, a part of the Murdoch empire, which includes the Wall Street Journal, is devoted to propagandizing far right wing propaganda.  MSNBC takes the left wing perspective.  Although both of those networks have news gathering operations, their partisan manipulations of information take away the credibility of anything they offer as hard news reports.  As MSNBC uses reports from NBC News, its partisan stance compromises the work it uses from the professional journalists.

This kind of compromising of the integrity of professionally developed reports is where Lou Dobbs got into trouble.  His news hour showed that he had a partisan agenda in both his selection of news and the slant with which he delivered the stories.  He used work and had interchanges with reporters on which he imposed his slant.  This caused complaints from CNN's hard news workers and they felt uncomfortable appearing on his program and being associated with the distortions he imposed.  His distortions became particularly noticeable in the antagonisms he consistently expressed against Barack Obama.  Journalists both within CNN and outside the network remarked that Dobbs had abandoned reporting altogether for propagandizing and he violated the basic premises of factual accuracy and credible sources in the process.

While Latino groups and other civil rights organizations launched a campaign to have Dobbs removed from the network more than a year ago,  professional journalists began writing to CNN that, aside from the major network newscasts and the PBS News Hour, there was no cable show devoted to hard reporting during the prime news time across the nation.  The emphasis on what people with conflicting viewpoints said about a few issues displaced the news itself.

Ted Turner whose interests in CNN were bought out and who was eventually displaced on the CNN board of directors has commented on what CNN has become.  He lost a good portion of his money in market  collapses and says he does not have enough to buy his way back into the cable television business, but he is disappointed in the abandonment of hard news reporting as the primary function of CNN.  He would to see the network give up the fluff and return to news reporting as its central commodity.

The departure of Lou Dobbs reflects that CNN management is sensitive to the criticism of the network news role.  It has previously let Glenn Beck go and appears concerned about its reputation as a news source rather than a partisan chatter source. 

CNN has competition coming on strong.  Bloomberg has openly announced that it intends to become the most influential news organization in the nation.  CNN has reason to scramble to regain and maintain its credibility as a reliable reporter of the news.  

News organizations in general are looking at downsizing but finding a niche in the real news market in which they can survive.  CNN may have to forget the ratings races and serve the audience attracted to it.  At a time when it is becoming apparent that "citizen journalism" on the internet is just more chatter and a total failure by journalistic standards, responding to the challenges on the Internet is not the way real journalism can survive.  More organizations may have to take the measures CNN seems to be taking. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States