Judy Daubenmier
Excerpt from "Project Rewired"
Sun Apr 15, 2007 16:24

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.

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 http://www.newshounds.us, 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.

Still doing it now at http://www.newshounds.com


Excerpt from "Project Rewired"

In 1985, media critic Neil Postman warned that because of television, Americans were in danger of “amusing ourselves to death.” In his book by that name, Postman warned that television was transforming everything into entertainment or show business. One measure of that is the proportion of fluff topics that make up the nightly newscasts on broadcast television. Between 1977 and June of 2001, the percent of stories related to celebrities, entertainment, and lifestyle topics rose from 6 percent of the total to 18 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of stories related to government plunged from 37 percent in 1977 to 5 percent in June 2001. The disaster of 2001 began a slow reversal of those trends, so that by 2004, celebrity, entertainment, and lifestyle stories amounted to 7 percent of the total, while government coverage was back up to 27 percent.

This “dumbing down” of the news has brought with it an emphasis on certain types of stories—the disappearance of young, white females such as Natalee Holloway, the trial of celebrities such as Michael Jackson, and so on. Arianna Huffington counted how many news segments mentioned either Holloway or Jackson during an eight-week period in 2005 and compared that to the number that mentioned the “Downing Street Memo,” a memo from the British government that discussed Bush administration policy and U.S. intelligence prior to the war in Iraq. The totals—for six broadcast and cable channels—were 56 segments on the Downing Street Memo, 646 segments for Natalee Holloway, and 1,490 for Jackson’s trial. While news executives claim news on Holloway and Jackson are what people who watch these stations want, Huffington maintains that tens of millions of people are not watching any of these channels and must want something else, adding, “there are huge slices of audience a real news operation could go after.”

With television increasingly cowed by the right wing and content with its new “happy talk” formats, newspapers remained the logical source of watchdog journalism, but their ability to finance such projects depended on circulation, which was under pressure from television news. Newspapers held their own against television until 1970, when they were on the verge of a downward slide in circulation that would make it harder for them to pay for such investigative projects. The percentage of Americans reading newspapers began to drop much earlier—in the late 1940s—but the problem was masked by growth in the U.S. population, which kept circulation rising until 1970. At that point, newspaper circulation flattened out until 1990, when it began to actually decline. Between 1990 and 2002, circulation dropped at the rate of 1 percent every year. By 2002, 55 million newspapers were sold daily, compared to the 1970 peak of 62 million. Newspaper readership, as opposed to newspaper sales, also was declining rapidly. In 2004, 60 percent of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they read a newspaper regularly, down 15 percentage points since the peak of 75 percent in 1992 and the lowest since Pew began the survey in 1990.

The 1990s were a watershed for television news as well. The three networks had had competition from CNN beginning in 1980, but even with (Richard Mellon Scaife’s organization) Accuracy in Media’s carping, millions of Americans still felt comfortable with hearing the news of the world every evening from one of the anchors of the Big Three networks: ABC’s Peter Jennings, CBS’s Dan Rather, or NBC’s Tom Brokaw. Although none of them ever earned the unofficial title of “most trusted man in America” that many viewers conferred on CBS’s Walter Cronkite, the trio of big anchors challenged each other but went unchallenged as a group from the mid-1980s through the mid-1990s. In times of crisis, most Americans turned to them for breaking news, explanations, behind-the-scene interviews, and in-depth analysis. The big anchors held Americans’ hands during disasters, such as the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster, or the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. During such times, the anchors knit together the scraps of information from official sources, reporters in the field, and their own observations to try to make sense of unfolding events.

At times, each was subject to criticism, often from the right, for being too tough on the nation’s leaders. Jennings defended himself, for example, from charges that he was soft on the war on Iraq, saying, “This role is designed to question the behavior of government officials on behalf of the public.” Tom Brokaw viewed his job in part as an obligation to direct “the bright light of journalistic sunshine” on the wrongs in society, prompting some people to charge bias. “Look, I’ve been dealing with this myself since the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, when reporters were accused of having a liberal bias. The fact of the matter is, if I don’t establish a bond with the NBC News audience that is based on my credibility and my integrity, then I go out of business. We’ve been doing this for a long time. NBC Nightly News still has the largest single audience of any media outlet, print and electronic, in the news business. The simple test is that if people thought I had a bias, they wouldn’t watch me,” he said. Rather described his job—the job of any reporter—as that of trying to be “an honest broker of information” who is willing to ask tough questions, remains skeptical of those in power and tries to be accurate and fair, while admitting no one can do that 100 percent of the time. “The core of the practice of journalism has to be integrity,” he said.

Mid-way through the reign of the Big Three, the American media landscape changed in fundamental ways. AIM’s single-pronged attack on American media would have been of little effect had the Federal Communications Commission not dropped its rules requiring broadcasters to provide balanced programming. The fairness doctrine, as it was called, required equal time for opposing points of view in the programming of broadcast stations. The FCC based the doctrine on the philosophy that a broadcasting license was a public trust and its holder owed a duty to the public to provide balanced discussion of important issues. Broadcast journalists complained that the balancing requirement unduly constrained their First Amendment freedoms and kept them from reporting on controversial topics. Furthermore, during Ronald Reagan’s administration, the philosophy of deregulating all government-regulated industries and allowing the rules of the marketplace to function ruled in Washington. In 1987, the FCC stopped enforcing the fairness doctrine. Federal courts upheld the commission’s decision.

The disappearance of the fairness doctrine opened the airwaves to a flood of new programming—political commentary, especially right-wing political commentary. In 1988, Rush Limbaugh took his flamboyant AM radio talk show into national syndication through media giant Clear Channel Communications. Freed from the responsibility of presenting a range of viewpoints, broadcast stations aired Limbaugh’s attacks on liberals and the “liberal media” without opportunity for rebuttal. The formula for conservative talk radio consisted of vigorous attacks that demonized liberal politicians and liberal ideas and undermined the credibility of mainstream media by labeling them liberal as well. Limbaugh indoctrinated his listeners with the belief that only he told the unvarnished truth and the media (of which he, in somewhat of a contradiction, denied being a part) was biased. Limbaugh’s attacks were designed to induce outrage in his listeners, to advance a conservative agenda, and to drive liberal ideas underground.




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