The School of Athens

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The School of Athens by Raphael (click on picture to view short documentary from Columbia University)

Friday, 31 August 2012

Politics and the media: Insights, principles and actions of some of the best

Colleagues and scholars from coast to coast, across Bass Strait and all the ships at sea.

Dateline: Australia, Federal Politics 2012.

With the term of the current parliament reaching the two-year mark, I felt that it was an appropriate time, once again, to pause and reflect on politics and the media.  

Time, once again, to reflect on the insights, principles and actions of some of the best.

On April 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy said in an address to the American Society of Newspaper Editors:

"The President of a great democracy such as ours, and the editors of great newspapers such as yours, owe a common obligation to the people: an obligation to present the facts, to present them with candour, and to present them in perspective."

Placing this quote into the current Australian context, it would read:

The Prime Minister, Opposition Leader and all politicians of a great democracy such as ours, and the editors, news directors, news producers, and other members of the print, radio, television and on-line media of great media outlets such as yours, owe a common obligation to the people: an obligation to present the facts, to present them with candour, and to present them in perspective. 

On December 17, 1962, President John F. Kennedy said in response to this question from Sandor Vanocur, White House Correspondent, NBC News, as part of the TV and radio interview "After Two Years - A Conversation with the President":

Mr. Vanocur: "You once said that you were reading more and enjoying it less. Are you still as avid a newspaper reader, magazine--I remember those of us who travelled with you on the campaign, a magazine wasn't safe around you."

President Kennedy: "Oh, yes. No, no, I think it is invaluable, even though it may cause you--it is never pleasant to be reading things that are not agreeable news, but I would say that it is an invaluable arm of the Presidency, as a check really on what is going on in the administration, and more things come to my attention that cause me concern or give me information. So I would think that Mr. Khrushchev [The Soviet Premier] operating a totalitarian system which has many advantages as far as being able to move in secret, and all the rest--there is a terrific disadvantage not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily, to an administration, even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn't write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn't any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press."
"Now, on the other hand, the press has the responsibility not to distort things for political purposes, not to just take some news in order to prove a political point. It seems to me their obligation is to be as tough as they can on the administration but do it in a way which is directed towards getting as close to the truth as they can get and not merely because of some political motivation."

On May 23, 2000, Barbara Walters, during a two hour interview with Don Carleton gave her views on objectivity for journalists.

"It used to be, and I still feel it is, that we do not...if you are in the news business, you do not give your personal opinions about major issues.  I don't, even when I'm on 'The View'.  Nobody knows how I feel about the right to life or how I feel about a presidential candidate etc, because I'm in the news business. The line between that seems to be blurred."

"I don't mind that a news person does a movie star and a cooking piece and interviews the Secretary of State, because that's what the morning shows have been doing for years, although I was criticised for doing superstars at the same time that I was doing the news - the audience knows the difference."

"But I do think that we have to show some kind of objectivity and I'm not sure that it's happening."

YouTube link here

On January 8, 2006, legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite, aged 90, shared his observations and opinions with NCAA President Myles Brand in "A Conversation with Walter Cronkite -- American Icon."  

On the bedrock principles of good journalism:

Myles Brand: "Well you're obviously an advocate for good news and good reporting, what do you think the bedrock principle of good reporting is that maybe some of the cable stations are missing right now and the networks, CBS, have done so well in the past?  What is the bedrock principle?"

Walter Cronkite: "Well, it's the old principles of print journalism - it's good journalism."  

"It's honesty, fairness, truth and totality of the story; telling both sides of a controversial story.  All of those things should be practised in every story that is carried on the air, as they once were in the better newspapers - even they have slipped a little bit in recent times, they have lost readership with these same various pressures to the degree that they're kind of jazzing up the news, if you please, and that's unfortunate."

"I think that the good journalists, the old journalists, the old timers in there are fighting the good fight in trying to hold on to what we know to be the principles of good journalism, and I think we're succeeding most of the time but I see a little few cracks appearing in the walls."

YouTube link here

On news and entertainment:

Myles Brand: "So news has blended together with entertainment and maybe even editorial, have they all mixed together as opposed to just good news reporting?"

Walter Cronkite: "Well, one of the, I think, efforts today of management is to get more entertainment out of news than the factual material we journalists would prefer to be doing."

"The problem there is, that they are losing viewers to the cable people with their entertainment type news, if you please.  Some of it's quite good understand, but a lot of it is not, and when it's not good the news is distorted in order to get more entertainment into it and therefore more viewers."

"The thing is they've taken a lot of the viewers from the networks and the three old major networks still attempt to do the job they've done but we see our audience dwindling quite a bit.  And therefore the management, that has to depend on large audiences to get the commercials in there, are passing on a request - it seems to me - sometimes more obvious than others, of getting a little entertainment feature in there."

"One of the reasons for that is because they want the younger people to listen to the news, and they don't, they've gone - believe it or not - to the computers and they are actually taking audience from television."

"So there is this battle to hold onto the number of viewers by the commercial networks and I don't think they're in all cases winning that battle."

YouTube link here

On December 4, 2009, highly respected US journalist and broadcaster, Jim Lehrer, detailed his guidelines for what he called MacNeil/Lehrer journalism.

"People often ask me if there are guidelines in our practice of what I like to call MacNeil/Lehrer journalism.  Well, yes there are, and here they are:"

* Do nothing I cannot defend.

* Cover, write and present every story with the care I would want if the story were about me.

* Assume there is at least one other side or version to every story.

* Assume the viewer is as smart and as caring and as good a person as I am.

* Assume the same about all people on whom I report.

* Assume personal lives are a private matter until a legitimate turn in the story absolutely mandates otherwise.

* Carefully separate opinion and analysis from straight news stories, and clearly label everything.

* Do not use anonymous sources or blind quotes except on rare and monumental occasions.

* No one should ever be allowed to attack another anonymously.

* And finally, I am not in the entertainment business.

YouTube link here

Finally, one of the best of all time, taking to task one of the worst of all time.

On March 9, 1954, Edward R. Murrow on his television program 'See It Now', exposed Senator Joe McCarthy and his communist witch hunt. 

McCarthy was a nasty piece of work, as clearly described here many years later by Walter Cronkite "McCarthy was a fascist of the worst type.  There was nothing American about the man, except having been born in Wisconsin.  He was a demagogue of absolutely the worst type.  I was terribly concerned and alarmed.  I saw the first stages of a fascist revolution in this country."

An organisation known as Red Channels published a pamphlet called "Red Channels: A Report of Communist Influence in Radio and Television" in which it listed the names of 151 actors, writers, musicians, journalists and others suspected of being communists. 

As Walter Cronkite described "there was a real danger at that time, the Red Channels people were busily at work, they could condemn you and get you off the air in a minute from one phone call.  The network management was so chicken in those days, it was frightening."

This is the environment in which Murrow was working.

He opened that March 1954 broadcast with these words:

"Good evening."

"Tonight's 'See it Now' devotes its entire half hour to a report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, told mainly in his own words and pictures."

The remainder of the program was the culmination of over one year's work by Murrow and his team.

The CBS documentary 'Dawn of the Eye' explains how Murrow had crews film and record McCarthy, wherever he appeared, for over a year.  Then for the entire program, using that footage and McCarthy's own words, Murrow exposed McCarthy for the charlatan that he was, shredding McCarthy's credibility, as he methodically and systematically "demonstrated how McCarthy would take quotations out of context and distort their meaning" to persecute whomever he chose to target.

Murrow then concluded the broadcast with these words:

"No one familiar with the history of this country can deny that Congressional committees are useful, it is necessary to investigate before legislating.  But the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one and the junior Senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly."

"His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind as between the internal and the external threats of communism."

"We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.  We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law."

"We will not walk in fear, one of another.  We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine - and remember that we are not descended from fearful men.  Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular."

"This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve."

"We can deny our heritage and our history but we cannot escape responsibility for the result.  There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities."

"As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age.  We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it continues to exist in the world.  But we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."

"The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad and given considerable comfort to our enemies."

"And whose fault is that?  Not really his.  He didn't create this situation of fear he merely exploited it, and rather successfully."

"Cassius was right, 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.'"

"Good night and good luck."

YouTube link here

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