Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Defense of Old-School Journalism

A Defense of Old-School Journalism

(The Curious Case of Ashley Todd)

About a week ago, I was watching my local ten o’clock news (WCCO, KARE, KSTP, KMSP) looking for coverage of doomed congresswoman Michelle Bachmann. I was shocked to see the leading story of graffiti tagged on six prominent Minnesota politicians. This was a bi-partisan tagging which included Bachman, Republican Senator Norm Coleman, Democratic Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Democratic Congressman Keith Ellison. There was an additional account of a Barack Obama campaign sign vandalized in Annandale, Minnesota. There was a reference to Psalm 2 on the congressional tags. The Annandale defacement featured KKK on the sign and a dead raccoon beneath it. Appalled and shocked with awe, I grabbed by wife, thrust her by the TV and recanted my outrage for about an hour. I then contacted several news organizations as I believed this garbage needed to get out. This was horrible! It needed to be a national story. CNN did give some coverage to the congressional vandalism, but none on the Obama sign from Annandale. I was initially perplexed by this decision but came to understand its logic a few days ago.

Enter Ashley Todd. Todd, a 20 year-old activist working for the McCain campaign in Pittsburgh, was arrested last Friday for faking an attack by a large, black Obama supporter. Todd had previously been involved with Ron Paul’s presidential campaign in Texas and was asked to leave after using similar sensationalist tactics. Todd’s yet undiscovered Obama hoax was the chatter of the internet and several TV stations for the short period of October 23 and 24; most prominently on Matt Drudge’s website “The Drudge Report.” Drudge has been known to break several factual stories, most notably the “Hillary in Bosnia” fiasco. The difference with the Bosnia scoop and the Todd story is obvious: One was vetted by reporters and video, the other was a complete moronic hoax.

Have we really come this far? Has the concept of an “October surprise” evolved into a kitchen-sink journalistic method? Or is this approach indicative of declining newspaper circulation in favor of the instant information obtained on the internet? This devolution cannot be attributed to just interest in the presidential election, but is a sad general trend. It is easy to attempt the “October surprise” via connecting Senator Obama to a bazillion different left-wing activists or insinuating that the U.S. Navy covered up a 45 year-old car accident involving presidential candidate John McCain. This methodology is much deeper than the simplistic term “Gotcha journalism.”

Two types seem to be evident in this sad erosion. First, the Dan Rather type. Rather put his entire journalistic career on the line delivering a report discrediting George W. Bush’s service in the National Guard. Rather, a respected journalist and CBS Evening News anchor, put faith in fake memos and questionable sources. Rather’s political leanings were exposed and he was forced to resign from CBS. However, Rather did at least possess sources as opposed to a completely unvetted claim. Rather did believe he was getting the truth out as opposed to promoting himself.

Second, the just plain-old “Gotcha” type most recently used by Matt Drudge regarding Ashley Todd but also Orlando TV anchor Barbara West. Drudge chose to run a completely false story, unvetted by any journalist in the Pittsburgh area or nationally. Drudge did this solely to combat his online war with Arianna Huffington’s “The Huffington Post”, which had surpassed his website in viewership. This was the first leading header on Drudge’s site that was completely false. Accustomed to looking at Drudge for breaking news, several news stations piggybacked on this falsehood. It took less than one newsday for the story to be discredited and Todd labeled a basket case. News stations quickly backed off while Drudge posted the lame line “She Made It Up!” which is much different than the bold “SHOCK” he used to break the story. Facing condemnation from his right-wing contacts, Drudge’s site appears complacent – even chastened. His credibility makes the National Enquirer look like the Economist.

Barbara West, the Orlando anchor who questioned Vice Presidential candidate Joe Biden on Barack Obama’s supposed Marxism, is a more simplistic version of the “gotcha.” By trapping an interviewee into answering questions that are completely absurd, West hoped to make a name for herself (which she has) but also become the “October surprise” herself. If she conned Biden into one of his famous gaffes, West would have made history (albeit in a Katherine Harris sort of way). Had she achieved her goal, West undoubtedly would have been able to push herself into a national station or at least a GOP advocate. This isn’t the type of “gotcha journalism” that serves the public’s interest. It’s not Gotcha – you. It’s gotcha-you for me.

These trends in journalism should not be surprising. Print newspaper revenue is declining rapidly. Classified ads have been eradicated by free websites such as “Craig’s List.” Over the same period, websites like “Drudge Report” and “Huffington Post” have generated massive followings, accompanied by the advertising dollars that come with it. There is an increasing impetus to make a name for yourself – sources be damned. If you land the right number on the slander roulette wheel, you’ve got it made. However, if your bets are wrong, those 15 minutes of fame will take about 2 seconds to forget.

In the case of the vandalisms in Minnesota, I understand the abstention of national coverage about the Obama sign. It was an isolated incident with no solid leads of perpetrator or motive. Reputable sources are needed to run a headline and there’s no point in pushing a story that invites more questions than answers. Sure the defacement makes me mad. But who are the perpetrators? Racists making a statement? Lefties stirring up controversy? Aliens? Without valid information, a story needs to be shelved. The congressional tagging story has also been quieted. A news organization’s priority should be to fairness; pushing this story the wrong direction could lead to a distortion by either affected party even though both were targeted. Sometimes it’s better to let the police do their job than channel your inner Nancy Grace. However, my inside source, the Great Gazoo, has told me one of three organizations are responsible: Anarchists (the ones that organize but still believe in anarchy), the People’s Front of Judea, or the Judean People’s Front. Either way, I’m positive John Cleese is involved.

No comments: