“It’s all about money, a desperate attempt to hang on to the huge profits news had earned over the years. And that is far more important to the corporations than the people’s right to know, even more important than a healthy democracy.” —Bonnie Anderson
Anderson does not paint a pretty picture of American TV news. It is a world in which the obsessive focus on viewer ratings, the parent corporation’s quarterly earnings and stock prices have caused news executives to completely lose sight—even lose interest—in the American public interest. She describes how news executives have grown so obsessed with boosting ratings that serious journalism is increasingly an afterthought—and only worth doing if there’s a clear ratings payoff. She describes how management is so afraid of offending viewers or losing access that they often back off of controversial stories. She cites many specific examples.
Speaking to Nieman Fellows last fall, Anderson said that after her book came out in spring 2004, CNN attorneys demanded copies of her drafts, access to her hard drive, and even her medical records. They tried to pressure her to reveal her sources. Asked for an update for this article, she would say no more on the record other than “the matter with CNN has been resolved.”
Clearly, the book challenges CNN’s self-proclaimed image as “the most trusted name in news.” While as a CNN bureau chief and correspondent I did not have the same vice president-level access to top CNN and Time Warner management that Anderson had, the CNN described in “News Flash” does indeed sound like the CNN I knew.
The Message Hits Home
In the fall of 2003, when CEO Richard Parsons of CNN’s parent company Time Warner visited Tokyo, where I was based at the time, he held a question and answer session with a group of Time Warner’s Tokyo-based managers whose work ranges from movies to music sales, to online services, and also to news. I asked him whether he believed that Time Warner’s news properties—such as CNN and Time—ought to have a special responsibility for educating the public about current events, or whether CNN was just another commodity like any other product or service sold by Time Warner. In other words, should Time Warner’s news properties such as CNN and Time be viewed as a “public trust” and managed differently than, for example, Mad magazine or the Cartoon Network? He replied that he does not view CNN any differently from any other company owned by Time Warner.
Early last year, my CNN boss told me that my expertise on Northeast Asia (China, Japan and Korea) was “getting in the way” of doing the kind of stories that its U.S. network wants to put on air. I was told to cover my region more from the perspective of a tourist, rather than from the perspective of somebody who has spent her entire adult life living and working in that region. I was told my stories would be better if I wrote my scripts before I did my interviews.
At the time of that conversation I was on leave for a one-semester fellowship at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. There had just been a management change. I was getting “the word” from the new team about what they expected from me when I returned to my position as Tokyo bureau chief that summer. After I hung up the phone, I realized I dreaded going back. The job was no longer consistent with the reasons I went into journalism in the first place. I was lucky. I have no debt or dependents. I could afford to resign.
Journalism’s Dimensions Expand
To anybody who works for any U.S. TV network, these conversations are no big surprise. They reflect the accepted state of affairs, internally. Yet in our P.R. and promos, we continue to make public claims as if our owners’ intentions were otherwise: we’re “the most trusted name in news,” “fair and balanced,” etc. This is a lie. We all know it.
As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue in “The Elements of Journalism,” “the purpose of journalism is to provide people with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” I wanted to become a journalist because I believed a free and independent press is a crucial component of a healthy, functional democracy. I think that’s why most people I know who became journalists did so. The idea of the news media as public service is also most consistent with public expectations, if recent surveys by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press and others are any judge. But in 2004, Pew found that 51 percent of journalists working for national press surveyed “believe that journalism is going in the wrong direction.” We need to bring the news media back on track. The questions are: Who will do it? And how?
Anderson encourages frustrated journalists to stay on and fight for change in their organizations—not opt out as I did. In the concluding chapter of her book, “Rx for TV Journalism,” Anderson calls on journalists to take back their profession: “… to strengthen standards and ethics, to improve the depth, breadth and quality of the stories presented, and to restore the institutions of a free press, a free media to the respected place they deserve in a healthy democracy. And we can improve the state of television journalism in this country while also recognizing the business needs of news corporations.”
What Anderson does not address is the way in which rapid technological change and advances in new forms of online, participatory media are changing the whole ball game. We’re not going to be able to recreate journalism in the form we idealized back when we first became journalists. We’re going to have to completely reinvent it—not only the substance, but also the way in which we interact with our audience. Dan Gillmor, author of “We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People” argues that the “audience” should no longer be considered an audience at all—rather a participant in a two-way collective fact-finding and information-sharing conversation.
As Dan Rather recently discovered, a reporter cannot do a high-profile, controversial investigative TV story these days and not expect the Internet Weblogs to fact-check every detail. Weblog software and cheap or free blog-hosting services make it possible for anybody on the planet to create his or her own media with nothing more than a laptop computer and Internet connection. Some popular blogs have hundreds of thousands of daily readers, giving newspapers and local TV real competition. Blogs also challenge the ideal that has been upheld by many in the mainstream media that objectivity is possible. Webloggers are demanding that journalists reveal their personal biases (which standards of objectivity demand we leave out of our reports) and hold more of a direct conversation about these biases with the public. The bloggers are questioning the credibility of all that journalists do, and this challenge has resonated widely with the news-consuming public. They are also demanding to be included in the journalistic process. And as the CBS “Rathergate” proved, whether or not you welcome them in, they’ll let themselves in anyway.
Meanwhile, an age is quickly dawning in which most news consumers will have TiVo, broadband and access to streaming video on the Internet. What’s the point of a linear-format, 30- or 60-minute newscast? Why wait for a TV news show to tell you what its producers think is newsworthy when you can get whatever you want, whenever you want it, online? We are going to have to completely reinvent the format of audio-visual journalism to survive this new world in which people will expect to be able to pick and choose the time and length and subject matter of our reports. The viewers and listeners become their own editors. As with text-based blogs, they’ll also expect to interact with those who provide the content and be included in our newsgathering process.
As with text, blogs will soon be offering their own rough-and-ready multimedia alternatives to network and cable television, helped by the rapid advance of ever-cheaper technology. In many cases, bloggers in Southeast Asia uploaded amateur video of the tsunami disaster faster than the professional broadcasters could obtain it and turn it around. In January the first video-bloggers’ conference was held in New York, inspiring the blog-guru Jeff Jarvis (who runs the blog www.buzzmachine.com) to proclaim the “death of networks” and the “explosion of the TV fraternity.” In a January 12th blog post he wrote:
Bonnie M. Anderson was fired from her job as vice president of recruiting for CNN in 2001. She claims it was due to her resistance to what she describes as discriminatory hiring practices. In her book, “News Flash: Journalism, Infotainment, and the Bottom-Line Business of Broadcast News,” she describes conversations with CNN and Turner Broadcasting news executives who passed over top-notch minority journalists due to fears that their image somehow was not what CNN needed to boost its flagging ratings.
“In the old days of TV, a few months ago, if you wanted to make a show you had to have expensive equipment and expertise, and if you wanted the show to be found, you had to know a guy named Rupert and have a fortune for marketing. In the future of exploding TV, a few months away, anybody can create video programming and do it inexpensively with new equipment and tools; they can distribute it online and they can ‘market’ it (that is, it can be found) thanks to metadata and search and links. All this levels the playing field.”
Anderson argues that responsible news organizations should stop chasing short-term ratings gains and start reporting responsibly: This means reporting stories the public might not be happy to hear but need to know. Citizens of a democracy need to know what their government is up to and the implications of its actions. Informing the public courageously and responsibly is our patriotic duty as journalists. I agree. But in the new disintermediated world of personal online publishing and broadcasting, will there even be a market for what we now know as network or cable TV journalism—or any kind of journalism—that attempts to be objective, when people can pick and choose to watch the reports they want to watch? Will the concepts of “journalism” and “news” become so redefined as to become unrecognizable from the way in which journalists define them today? Then there are also questions of who should be the arbiter of credibility, reliability and trustworthiness in this new decentralized age. Nobody has a solution. And the business model for the democratized news of the future is completely unclear.
Unfortunately, Anderson’s prescription for TV journalism applies to a media world that is fast becoming extinct. But then, her book came out in late May 2004. In the Internet age, that is already ancient history. By the time this article gets edited, published and distributed, it will probably be horribly out of date, too. Maybe by then somebody will have already made some more headway towards restoring honor to audio-visual journalism—to call it TV would be way too 20th century.
Rebecca MacKinnon is a fellow at the Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. She was a spring 2004 fellow at the Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, and her research paper on online participatory media and international news can be found at www.ksg.harvard.edu/presspol/Research_ Publications/Papers.shtml. Before coming to Harvard, MacKinnon was CNN’s Tokyo bureau chief and correspondent and, before her posting there in 2001, she was CNN’s Beijing bureau chief. She is the founder of a Weblog about North Korea at www.NKzone.org.