Volume 14 Number 4
Gore Wins '- Then Loses
01 August 2001

How far can Americans trust their media? The American media has many failings but it still acts as a gatekeeper against the abuse of power, argues US journalist Walter Lee Dozier.
For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of American journalists, the news coverage of the 7 November 2000 presidential election marks one of the lowest points in their professional careers. They were either surprised or embarrassed as they watched colleagues—television network news broadcasters—prematurely declare Al Gore the winner of the popular vote in the state of Florida then minutes later unabashedly recant the pronouncement.

Several hours later many of the same network broadcasters declared George W Bush the winner of Florida's popular vote and of the state's 25 electoral votes —and consequently the nation's president-elect.

Again, in what Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz called 'an almost unimaginable display of ineptitude', broadcasters were soon forced to retract their second hastily aired prediction.

The following morning, in an almost arrogant and certainly unapologetic style, some broadcasters attempted to explain their network's ineptitude by sidestepping any accountability for their actions with sanitized versions of the events. 'They gave Florida to Gore, then they took it back,' commented one broadcaster leading into the evening newscast.

It was the misplaced and miscalculated use of the pronoun—they—that instantly offended the sensibilities of many American journalists as well as the American public. Only later, after much public complaining and criticism, did broadcasters finally say, 'We blew it.'

The networks' rush to be first rather than factual further eroded public confidence in the American media. In some opinion polls, the public's confidence in journalists scores only 15 per cent.

'It was the networks,' said investigative reporter Kathy Y Times of WJTV in Jackson, Mississippi, who was working in the field that night. 'We shouldn't be predicting elections in the first place. Why not let it play out and simply tell the viewers it's too close to call? I hope it teaches a lesson.'

The American public's image of print journalists had already been severely fractured by a number of episodes of blatantly dishonest reporting.

For example, on 13 April 1981, Washington Post reporter Janet Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a story titled Jimmy's World about an eight-year-old heroin addict. On 15 April she confessed that there was no 'Jimmy', that he represented a composite of child addicts and that her story was, in fact, fiction. She returned the prize and resigned in disgrace.

The New Republic dismissed Stephen Glass in May 1998, saying that an article he had written about computer hackers was 'a hoax'. After further examination, the New Republic found that Glass had fabricated six articles and parts of 21 others.

Boston Globe reporters Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle were also fired for fabricating stories.

At the Cincinnati Enquirer, star lead investigative reporter Mike Gallagher was fired for unethical and fraudulent exploitation of some 2,000 internal voice mail messages used to gather information about the Chiquita Brands International Company. The Enquirer apologized in a six-column headline and paid more than $10 million to prevent litigation against the newspaper.

And the Los Angeles Times is still emerging from an embarrassing 1999 scandal in which sports journalists, who normally write critically about new sports stadiums, particularly if they are built with public tax funds, were told to write favourable advertising copy about the new Staples Center sports arena for a special issue of its Sunday magazine. The Times and the Staples Center then split the advertising revenue.

Though vexed, most journalists complied, knowing they had performed the function of the advertising department.

Publisher Mark Willes, who orchestrated the calamity under the guise of creating greater profits, was later fired when The Tribune Co bought the Times' parent company. But the incident left many in the public, as well as in the media, wondering if journalism could possibly sink any lower.

What happened at the Los Angeles Times is symptomatic of what is happening throughout the newspaper and television news industry in America.

The drive for increased profits is becoming more important than the instincts of professional journalists. As a result the news media are losing public confidence.

The notion of independent and responsible gatekeeping by the media has come under increased public scrutiny, and the results are less than flattering.

As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel point out in their recent book The elements of journalism (Crown Publishing, 2001) top news executives around the country are being evaluated not by the quality of their journalism, but by how much profit their companies make.

'As citizens, we should be alarmed,' Kovach and Rosenstiel write. 'Journalists, in turn, should understand that they have been undermined.'

In his book News is a verb (Ballantine Books, 1998) veteran journalist Pete Hamill, who wrote for the New York Post and served as editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News, also recognizes the undermining of journalists by the push for increased profits. He points out that the conflict between the corporate agenda and the newsroom agenda is being played out in more and more news media companies.

Huge profit margins, he writes, are being used to mollify shareholders and subsidize weaker members of media conglomerates rather than being ploughed back into newsroom operations, where they should be. This has led to cutbacks in news staff as well as cuts in news column inches.

Hamill describes the corporate influence: 'They meddle most directly by haranguing top editors about stories, the play of those stories, and even writing style. They have never been reporters, have never written stories on deadline, have never stood for hours in the rain waiting for a detective to tell them what really happened. They know nothing about the city where the newspaper is published or the ordinary people who live in that city. But they are convinced they know more than the talent in the city [news] room.'

In a recent Miami Herald column, Dave Barry wrote wryly: 'The typical newspaper staff has been reduced to one editor, 39 deputy assistant managing editors and one reporter. The editors spend their days holding meetings to think of ways to cut costs, while the reporter (who, for budgetary reasons, is not allowed to leave the building) looks out of the window, in case news occurs in the parking lot.'

The effects of corporate meddling are being felt in television newsrooms across the country, too.

In June, Roger Ogden, Senior Vice-President of Gannet Broadcasting and General Manager of KUSA-TV, Denver, said that because of the advertising-driven ratings system called 'sweeps', several journalists had staged a pit-bull terrier fight so that they could run a story about it on television. The journalists had been found out and prosecuted. Ogden was speaking at the International Communications Forum's (ICF) North American Media Conference in Denver.

'Most journalism is driven by for-profit companies in an environment in which Wall Street is king,' he said. 'This doesn't make for good journalism.'

The news media is not the only industry that puts profit before professionalism and the public interest. Despite stern warnings from physicians and social scientists about the destructive effects of eating disorders, popular fashion magazines continue to promote the messages and images of the fashion industry that, for women, 'thin is in'.

In her book Am I thin enough yet? (Oxford University Press 1996), sociologist Sharlene Hesse-Biber writes: 'Aided by advertising and mass media, the Cult of Thinness generates enormous profits for the food, diet and health industries.'

At the ICF conference, film critic Michael Medved advocated a public-action response to what he called America's 'bad news business'. He suggested that Americans cut back on their television viewing by half an hour a week as a way to redevelop and reconnect the human relationships that have been lost to the exploitative and negative human images and messages promoted by Hollywood.

He cited a 1997&endash;98 study by Dale Kunkel of the University of California at Santa Barbara, for the Henry J Kaiser Family Foundation. It found that American television had plenty of sex but precious little information on disease prevention or the possibility of pregnancy. Two out of three network prime-time shows portrayed some sort of sexual situation but only nine per cent presented any consequences of sexual activity.

Medved said that the average American spent more time watching TV than doing paid work. 'You never retire from watching TV. We need to rethink the paradigm.'

The lack of diversity in perspectives is perhaps the second most criticized element of the American media. Inaccurate portrayals of women and ethnic minorities have—justifiably—been sources of persistent complaints.

Studies show that a gender double standard is often prevalent in the American media. Men are routinely portrayed as being stronger than women in such areas as technology and economics.

For example, sociologists David Croteau and William Hoynes analyzed transcripts from 40 months (January 1985 to April 1988) of ABC News Nightline that included 865 programmes and 2,498 guests. They found that 68 of the 74 guests who appeared alone on the programme were men, and that all 19 of the guests who appeared more than five times were men. Nine out of 10 guests who were called upon to discuss issues like international affairs, domestic politics or the economy were men.

They concluded that Nightline researchers appeared to turn to men much more often than women for important or 'hard' political and economic news and perspectives. Women did appear on the programme 41 per cent of the time when there was a discussion about social issues.

Suzie Siegel, a former features editor for the Tampa Tribune newspaper and a graduate student in women's studies at the University of South Florida in Tampa, says that little has changed since that study. 'Stories on serious issues overwhelmingly quote men,' she says. 'Women are more likely to appear in stories given less importance, such as entertainment and fashion.'

Cynthia Tucker, editorial page editor for the Atlanta Constitution agrees. She is frequently a guest on high-profile national news programmes where she discusses current social and political issues: 'Look at CNN, Fox or CNBC. How many women hosts do you see? When you need an expert on a subject such as teaching, you will see a woman. If it's stocks or the military, more than likely it's a man.'

The White House Project promotes programmes that enhance public perceptions of women's capacity to lead, change biases against women's leadership ability, and foster the entry of women into positions of leadership, including the US presidency. In 1999 it carried out a study which analyzed 3,900 paragraphs from nearly 500 news stories in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, USA Today and the Des Moines Register. It concluded that male reporters covering Elizabeth Dole's presidential campaign were more likely to focus on the personal than the political. Only 14 per cent of the Dole-related paragraphs written by male reporters covered her position on issues, while 39 per cent were devoted to personality traits.

In contrast, the report found, female reporters covered Dole, George W Bush and Steve Forbes equitably.

For the most part, the media pays a great deal of attention to what a woman looks like. When Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris was criticized for her role in that state's chaotic presidential vote recount, some of the most stinging critique centred on her hair, make-up and style of dress. Little mention was made of her Master's degree in public policy from Harvard University.

'Katherine Harris was tried and executed in the media by her appearance,' said Maryland Delegate Joan Stern. 'Men don't have to go through that.'

Siegel agrees. She says journalists should be challenged to write about political leaders without picking apart their appearance. 'I would be surprised if a woman ever made a name for herself in politics without some scrutiny of her appearance,' she says. 'Even journalists who say this is wrong will still do stories saying that the public cares about this. It becomes a vicious circle.

'Think of the attention paid to Janet Reno's looks. Have we ever cared about the appearance of a male attorney general? Think of the attention paid to Hillary Clinton's hairdos.'

Tucker says men are not solely responsible for the objectification of women in the media. 'I wish I understood it better. Women do critique women for what they wear and how they look. It doesn't justify it, but we have learned how to cover women from men.'

The portrayal of ethnic minority people by the American media has been equally appalling; their images have been either inaccurately portrayed or simply omitted.

According to the National Hispanic Media Coalition, a pro-diversity activists' group, all four major television networks do a lousy job of reflecting a multicultural image of America in their programming. The coalition rated ABC as the worst, but CBS, Fox and NBC did not fare much better.

The lack of diverse and accurate images has been especially frustrating for many middle-class African-Americans who say their communities and concerns are virtually invisible to the nation because the whites who control the media are uninterested in issues affecting people of colour.

In his documentary Colour Adjustment, film maker Marlon Riggs asserts that America's media has never fairly or accurately represented African Americans, but instead reflects a kind of frightening accuracy of the state of mind of the nation.

He states that most whites in post Civil War America had no personal contact with the enslaved African population. They learned about blacks through the travelling Minstrel Shows—the mass media of the day—where white men with blackened faces portrayed blacks as unintelligent, lazy and animal-like. Today, the narrow and marginalized media-created images of African-Americans, whose history in America spans more years in enslavement than in freedom, continue to permeate the social and economic structures of society.

Many American politicians think of the media as an unnecessary annoyance and cite their contentious relationships with journalists as evidence. Others recognize that were it not for the media, the political process could, and more than likely would, be open to unscrupulous practices.

There are countless examples of good deeds. The media has uncovered police brutality cases, bank fraud, medical fraud and code violations in a number of industries.

For example, prior to the Watergate political scandal in the early 1970s, many legislators and journalists in the State of Maryland shared close trusting relationships and were even roommates during the state's 90-day General Assembly Sessions in Annapolis. After Watergate, however, journalists adopted what some have described as a healthy dose of cynicism toward politics and politicians.

Journalists in America routinely uncover and report on countless incidents of social service system abuse, neglect, fraud and mismanagement. This often results in caseworker dismissal and criminal prosecution.

Officials of the judicial system have praised journalists for these efforts without which many of the missteps might have gone undetected while human suffering went unabated.

The media has also been a vigilant watchdog on corporate self-indulgence, which left unchecked would result in the habitual fleecing of American citizens.

When the news media in America functions at its highest level, it becomes what many have called the 'fourth estate,' or the fourth 'power', which checks and counterbalances the three state 'powers' of executive, legislature and judiciary.

For information on media ethics, see also the web site of the International Communications Forum - www.icforum.org/

Walter Lee Dozier, PhD, writes for 'The Gazette', Maryland.

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