Friday, May 7, 2010

Friday Media Rant: Mediocrity In News Coverage

One of the most frequently-heard words when my cronies and I discuss the state of news today is “mediocrity”. The recent coverage of the failed Times Square bomber illustrated the point to me.

After 9-11, law enforcement and public safety agencies said one of the biggest problems was timely sharing of information – everything from NYPD not being able to monitor NYFD radio transmissions, to the FBI, CIA, and NSA not talking to each other.

Nearly ten years later, here in Dane County, we’re STILL fighting about a radio system that would allow all the cops, firefighters, and EMT’s in the county to “hear” each other when there’s an emergency. Here, it’s a fight about who’s going to pay for, not about whether it’s needed.

It was apparent from my “monitoring” (there’s an old saying: broadcasters monitor; listeners listen and viewers view) of CNN and NBC’s coverage of the bomber that their reporters in the field didn’t know what information their colleagues had developed. It pains me to say it, but Fox News didn’t seem to have that problem. All their anchors and reporters in the field seemed to be on the same page.

Monday night, watching the NBC Nightly News, they had four reporters in the field doing live “stand-up” reports, mixing in video they’d gathered earlier in the day. Reporter number one said the bomber was caught after the plane had pushed back from the gate and was taxiing to the runway. The reporter even had the audio of ground control, telling the pilot to immediately bring the plane back to the gate. Agents then boarded the plane and arrested the would-be bomber and two other people.

Reporter number two said “the bomber was caught before boarding the plane”….an obviously erroneous assertion, as evidenced by the tape of the ground controller calling the plane BACK to the gate. CNN made a similar error in its reporting earlier in the day…obviously conflicting reporter stand-ups about how the terrorist was caught.


And how come Emirates Air isn’t checking its passengers against the notorious “no-fly” list? Another “communications” problem…or, just incompetence and mediocrity?

Many of the people I know who’ve survived all the purges in local newsrooms say they’re pressed more than ever before to do more things in the same amount of time, and with fewer people to help. Some even say the situation is a huge contributing factor to the mediocrity.

Whatever the cause, it’s apparent there are a lot of news managers and reporters who are NOT paying attention to detail – in a profession that demands attention to detail.

News organizations can make mistakes like this, and nobody really gets hurt. That’s not the case for a lot of other folks, like our law enforcement and public safety and intelligence operatives.


  1. Right on, Tim.

    What's left of the skeleton crew of "journalists" are made up of:

    -- People who can't find work elsewhere or are too young to retire and still need the paycheck and/or health insurance.

    -- Youngsters who need to get their tickets stamped in a newsroom before launching their careers in PR.

    -- A handful of grizzled vets who hang on because they think what they do still matters.

    But the management is made up of idiots who are looking at the bottom line and how they're going to survive another quarter and what kinds of cuts they're going to have to made in quality in order to keep pounding out the same or more quantity of "content."

    It's not news or information any more. It's just "content."

  2. Our blogger has two interesting stories simultaneously in play here.

    FAISAL THE FAILURE: The way the latest version of the bomber story goes ... the miscreant was sitting in his seat and the plane was still at the gate when the cops burst in. He remarked ... "I've been expecting you." Once in custody he began singing ike a canary.

    The lawmen hauled him off and the plane pushed back from the gate. Then the cops decided on a second helping and called the plane back to the gate. They removed two more people, quizzed them to no apparent productive end, and then let them go - but not before the passengers had to disembark and be re-screened. (Did anyone check the plane in the meantime, to see if anyone had stashed anything they had managed to smuggle aboard? What's your guess?)

    The airline didn't check the updated no-fly list, and that was apparently a violation of the rules. But the list is updated in a haphazard way that invites an extra hour's delay. The big news here - although you'd never know it - is that every airline apparently keeps its own list. The Committee for State Security sends them updates, but they then have to replace their existing list with the new one.

    Why everyone isn't automatically working off the same centralized list is a question I'd like to hear the stammered answer for.

    Anyway, updates are usually not issued with the concurrent urgency of the cops actually in hot pursuit of someone. The gumshoes tailing the guy admit they lost track of him and he very nearly got away.

    A sidebar to this tale: The bomber fairly suddenly goes from a solid citizen with a nice home and a good job to a reclusive unemployed loner living in a shabby apartment and taking trips "to visit his family" in Pakistan for five months, with a long side excursion to sunny Waziristan.

    Then he comes back, apparently flush with $100 bills, and proceeds to buy a car for cash. He then builds a "bomb" any school kid would know could not explode, and ineptly abandons it in an obvious and awkward spot - a place, BTW, that is not nearly as thick with pedestrians as the news reports would have you believe. (We'll be getting to the news mediocrity story shortly.)

    From my perspective, it appears the bomber's heart wasn't in this attack - an attack he may have deliberately contrived to fail. General David Petraeus, our Middle East war commander, avers that this was the act of a loner. Still it would not surprise me if he turns out to be less a lone wolf or a "sleeper agent" than a victim of coercion.

    NEWS, THE NADIR: Our trenchant blooger is correct on all counts. It is bad enough that the pervasive 'do much more with much less" business model savages the execution of the public trust the Founding Fathers embodied in the Constitution. But if the public wants to meet the villain behind this change ... well, the famous "we have met the enemy and he is us" Pogo quote would describe the encounter well.

    The news media has never been a monolith, which explains to some extent why many stories have puzzling variations. Careless sloppiness deserve some of the credit. The term "liberal media" is a red herring, but an effective one.

    A herd of jackasses may bray the same opinion, but that noise should not be mistaken for news, as our blogger has pointed out before. But it is music to the ears of many who don't like such reality-based news fare about change and uncertainty and today's persistent lack of clear, decisive answers. They want black-and-white (preferably white, to judge by their protestations) answers; they want winnable wars and bomb-em-back-to-the-Stone-Age action. They pine for Father Coughlin and Joe McCarthy.

    That's the stuff of propaganda, not news. You'll herd cats before you get precisely the same story from every real newsroom. So beware the "news organization" in which everyone is on the same page and singing in the same key.

  3. Hieronymous,

    An entertaining rant...but I reached the end and I wondered just what it was you were saying.

    For instance: "It is bad enough that the pervasive 'do much more with much less" business model savages the execution of the public trust the Founding Fathers embodied in the Constitution." I think that you're talking about the "trust" that those old white guys placed in the press...but I read the First Amendment quite a bit differently. That is, government should keep its grubby paws off the press, that's all.

    Not that that stopped the execution of the Sedition Acts when it suited a couple of those old white guys' purposes. Ben Franklin's newspaper editor grandson died in prison while awaiting trial for sedition back in the day.

    We no longer have the Sedition Act, but we have the spectacle of a sitting President and his staff railing against one news organization in public...the one, apparently, that had its act together when reporting out the Times Square bomber story.

    Now I'M starting to ramble! Sheesh! It's infectious!

    Anyway, your phrasing suggests that the Constitution charged the press with a duty, as if it were a part of the government. The fact that the news organizations are letting us down seems to be more than just dropping the ball: it's a violation of the will of the Founding Fathers!

    It's also clear that you want to call SOMEBODY racist, but we can only guess who you're talking about.

    However, I DO like your variation on Emerson's "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," that reference to herding well as the image of an "effective" red herring. I like it!

    The Town Crank

  4. TO MSSR. CRANK: It is probably not cricket for us to embark on borderline off-topic tangents together in a a space meant for reasonably sober discussions of a serious and timely issue. But this may help us get to know each other a little better, so here we go ...

    If the Constitution was not open to interpretation, we would not need the Supreme Court. But I wasn't attempting to re-read the First Amendment, which clearly and unambiguously says "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press."

    I subscribe to the old-fashioned notion that rights come packaged with responsibilities. I see the First Amendment not just as a Consitutional guarantee but as an expression of public trust. If the press has the fundamental right to be free - unfettered in its undertakings by federal restrictions - then the press, in all its various forms, has a duty to make every attempt to discharge that (awesome, when you think about it) responsibility for the maximum public good.

    That said, it is clear the federal government has not always covered itself with glory when it came to upholding the Constitution and its various amendments, as the case of Benjamin Franklin Bache attests. Dred Scott could have made common cause with him. The Alien and Sedition Act may have been the Patriot Act of its day. To be sure, Bache was a rabble-rouser who persistently confused propaganda with news. Aficionados of the Fox brand would do well to remember that.

    Your reference to the "spectacle of a sitting President and his staff railing against one news organization in public..." suggests you may be one of those. The term "sitting president" is a dead giveaway; only the Fox folks use it and, tellingly, they all do.

    If it's spectacle youi seek, take a look at the press relations of Harry S Truman or Richard Nixon or Gerald Ford or the estimable George W. Bush who once muttered into an open microphone that a reporter from the New York Times was a "world-class *-hole." It is not the media's job to make friends, but that charge does not excuse calculated unfairness.

    But I digress. The real reason I returned to this blog was to visit your assertion that I "want to call SOMEBODY racist.." even though you admit you have no idea who that might be. You do not know the answer because you conjured the notion out of thin air. The fact is, the issue of racism never crossed my mind.

    I'll save you some future processing time. I'm of the Midwest, Wisconsin, same as you and our blogger. We all share an ethic. Nobody I grew up with ever had a problem saying what he meant. I do not indulge in name-calling because doing that is cheap and lazy and unfair.

    That is not to say I won't call behavior as I see it; I will not pussyfoot around. If, for example, I ever call you a pig-ignorant ring-tailed polecat bigot, I will be sure to then cite inculpating evidence that you have already provided. I doubt we'll see that day.

    At the risk of unintentionally calling you a name, I'll say you seem to be a smart, if politically misguided, fellow. I do enjoy your piquant comments and respect your points of view, even if I do not always agree with them.