By David Swanson
Project Rewire: News Media from the Inside Out ...
Sun Apr 15, 2007 13:45

INTERVIEW: Judy Daubenmier
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Project Rewire: News Media from the Inside Out ...

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How the Blogosphere Is Saving the Boob Tube
Submitted by dswanson on Tue, 2007-03-13 17:14. Media

By David Swanson

Judy Daubenmier spent 25 years as a reporter for the Associated Press and saw the field of news reporting sliding downhill. Now she works to reform our system of communications through the internet. Daubenmier is the author and editor of "Project Rewire: News Media from the Inside Out." I talked to her about her work and her hopes for news reporting in the future.

Here's the audio.

Swanson: This is David Swanson with Judy Daubenmier, the author and editor of Project Rewire. Judy, thanks for being here.

Daubenmier: No problem. Glad to be here.

Swanson: So, before we talk about the book, can we talk for a second about your background? For years you were a reporter for the Associated Press, is that right?

Daubenmier: That's right, I started out in journalism, well that's about the only thing I ever wanted to be, I guess, from about the time I was in fourth grade. And I majored in journalism, and I worked for newspapers in Iowa and then also the Associated Press in Iowa and Michigan both, and then had a career of about 25 years in journalism.

Swanson: Did you find it fulfilling work? Was it what you imagined growing into from your earliest ideas of journalism or was it disappointing in some ways?

Daubenmier: You know, the first twenty years or so were pretty good. You know, it was everything that I wanted to do. I loved it. I loved the writing, and being close to the news and what was happening, but, you know, in the early '90s there started to be a change in journalism, I think, nationally, and I felt it in my career. There began to be more of an emphasis on trivial news, on light stories, non-serious type things. I remember when I was working for the Associated Press in Michigan in the early '90s. Michigan was revamping its school finance system, the system of financing local schools, moving away from property taxes to sales tax and it was a change under discussion that was going to affect everybody in the state. If you had kids in public schools, if you bought something, if you owned property, whatever.

Swanson: Sure.

Daubenmier: And, you now, we, I worked out of the State House bureau and we were doing out best to cover that story, but about that time some local newspaper did a story on legislatures in a squabble over parking spaces, and we were told by our editors that that was the type of story they wanted to see more of, and the directive literally came down: "Find out where they park." And it just sort of was demoralizing to me, that that was the priority. It wasn't serious news, it wasn't important changes in legislation, it was petty squabbles among legislators because that would be something everybody could understand. And, you know, it would be cute, and everybody would read it and talk about it, and that's what we should be looking for. And that sort of shift was taking place, I think, nationally throughout journalism, and it sort of was the handwriting on the wall for me, an indication that I need to find something better to do with my time.

Swanson: Well, that certainly was my experience getting into journalism in the late '90s. I apparently missed the good times and I got out very quickly.

Daubenmier: Yeah.

Swanson: What, and then from there you retired and maybe you can fill in the gaps, but at some point you ended up helping out with a movie that a lot of people have seen that's a wonderful critique of FOX news called

Daubenmier: That's right. I left journalism and I went back to graduate school and went to the University of Michigan and got a degree in history and I got my PhD in history and now I work part time at the University of Michigan, not tenured faculty, I'm only adjunct or what they call lecturer faculty. And while I was doing that I really didn't do anything in the way of political activity until the start of the Iraq war and I got involved with Moveon. And then Moveon decided to form a media corps, what they called a media corps, which would concentrate on watching the news media and reporting incidents of, you know, bias or whatever. And I volunteered for that and at the same time Robert Greenwald who was the producer of Outfoxed started recruiting people to watch FOX and tally incidents that they would grab video of. And he approached Moveon and asked for volunteers and I was among, you know, I don't know, ten or twelve people or so who volunteered and stuck with it and the rest of us who stuck with it, there were eight of us, formed a blog called Newshounds. And we're still in existence at, and we decided to just keep going after the movie came out and to continue to scrutinize FOX news and to try to pressure it to do legitimate news.

Swanson: And you are still doing it now at, right?

Daubenmier: Right.

Swanson: What did you make of the apparent decision of the Democratic party not to go ahead with the debate run by and broadcast by FOX.

Daubenmier: Well, I think it was the very correct reversal of a decision that should never have been made in the first place. And of course, we did cooperate with Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films again in gathering video that was used to make the "FOX Attacks Obama" video which helped pressure the Democratic Party to drop FOX as the site for that debate. That's going to be one of a series of videos – "FOX Attacks Obama," "FOX Attacks Who Knows," you know, whatever, but I could not understand, I was floored when I saw that they were going to have FOX News sponsor that debate. It just, after all the time they'd spent attacking Nancy Pelosi, by name, trashing her as a San Francisco liberal and everybody else in the party, that they would turn around and have them be a sponsor for that debate and participate in broadcasting it was just unfathomable to me! I couldn't . . .

Swanson: Although, four years ago they did it, right? I mean, didn't FOX sponsor Democratic primary debates last time around?

Daubenmier: Yes, they did.

Swanson: And this kind of uproar over it did not develop, to my memory.

Daubenmier: But you know, that was about that time that Outfoxed came out.

Swanson: Uh, huh.

Daubenmier: Outfoxed came out, when was it, July of '04? June of '04? Something like that?

Swanson: Somewhere around there, you can tell me, but do you think that Outfoxed and other educational campaigns and efforts have created enough awareness of what FOX news is that that is a large factor in why this occurred. I mean, I completely agree with you that it is absolutely insane for the Democratic Party to have anything to do with FOX News. It's the right decision. What made the difference politically and in terms of the activist organizations that wasn't there four years ago?

Daubenmier: Well, I think we have a lot that wasn't there. You know, I think Outfoxed did educate a lot of people, and since then we've also had a couple of national conferences for media reform that have helped spotlight. We have not only NewsHounds, we also have MediaMatters and a number of media blogs that are watching, dogging not just FOX necessarily but all the media. And none of that was there four years ago. And so, in fact, when I started monitoring FOX news, I really didn't understand the difference between FOX News and CNN and MSNBC.

Swanson: Uh-huh.

Daubenmier: You know, I'd see stuff on a program, I'd see O'Reilly and think, "Oh, that's horrible!" you know, but I didn't understand the way it penetrated even their so-called "straight news" programs the way that it does. You know, most of the video in the FOX attacks video in which they are attacking Obama is not from people like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. It's from their morning news program called "FOX and Friends." And, you know, it's supposed to be a straight news program. They say, you know, "We have your news fair and balanced. It's not opinion."

Swanson: Right.

Daubenmier: And, uh . . .

Swanson: Do more damage that way because people believe what they hear that way.

Daubenmier: Yeah, right. Exactly, people will. And so I think there is a great deal more awareness now than there was three or four years ago.

Swanson: Yeah. I agree. A friend of mine, Jeff Cohen, who appears frequently in Outfoxed, you know, had Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting up and running for many years, but there has been this proliferation of groups and activities of this sort in recent years that has just exploded. And I think the book that you've put together is a good example. I mean, you have some chapters that you've authored in "Project Rewire: Media from the Inside Out" analyzing what is going on with the media, and then you have this collection of short articles and blog posts. Is everything here taken from a blog or website?

Daubenmier: Yes, yes, all of them are blog pieces. And they are just really delightful to read. You know, the whole idea is when you read the internet, you know, you start researching a certain topic and pretty soon you click on a link here and there and you get way a-field, you know, from where you originally started. But what if you could sort of freeze the internet and look at everything on one topic, you know, and what would it look like? And that's kind of what we tried to do here is gather together a lot of articles all on one topic, the topic being, you know, what I perceive to be the declining quality of news reporting in the last recent years and put them all together. And some of them deal with FOX, others of them deal with sort of the broader media climate and systemic changes that are influencing them. But, you know, I do talk about the FOX effect which, you know, is mentioned in Outfoxed, and I think that has been diminished, I really do, because of Outfoxed and all the other pressure. I think that copying FOX is no longer seen as a sure-fire path to ratings by the other news organizations.

Swanson: Well, there are definitely some at least partial changes that you can point to, you know. Keith Olberman has not been fired yet, as Phil Donohue was. There are some changes you can look at and yet, I'm sure you're far from satisfied with the state of the media today.

Daubenmier: Yeah, that's right. You know, FOX News is starting to have ratings problems. In '06 they were down 26 percent in the key demographic of under 54 age group compared to 2005, and we're happy to see that. But as far as the broader media, you know, I think that there has been a bit of a rebound from the low point between 1997 and about 2005, I'd say, 2004 or 2005. I think Katrina was a turning point when news organizations began to see that everything the Bush administration said couldn't be taken at face value. I mean, they had the Bush administration telling them what a great job they were doing in New Orleans taking care of the hurricane aftermath, and yet they could see with their own eyes what was happening. And so they sort of made them a little more willing to challenge authority. And more recently I certainly think things like the McClatchy News Service coverage of the firing of the eight US attorneys is reason to hope that people are now more willing to challenge the Bush administration on pronouncements than they were before.

Swanson: And clearly in this lead up to a possible attack on Iran we are seeing a degree of skepticism that wasn't there in the lead up to Iraq and it is possible that those lies and experiences like Katrina have been, and exposures of what FOX News is have been influences in that, but in the book you also suggest a major role, I think, for the internet. I want to just quote a couple of short passages. Just on page 3 of the book you suggest, "Perhaps progressive bloggers that aggressively critique and occasionally compete with the mainstream media will save us from a captive press by being for the press what the press is supposed to be for government, a watchdog that is vigilant, vigorous, and vociferous."

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