Monday, November 15, 2010

Olbermann vs. Koppel: I Mostly Agree with Olbermann

So, we were just treated to one of Olbermann's "Special Comments".  It was advertised as about Ted Koppel, which indeed it was.  I consider Koppel one of the greats of TV news people - successor with his Nightline (which I watched raptly for more than 25 years) to Murrow and Cronkite.   I was prepared to say in this blog post, well, I came to Olbermann's defense over MSNBC's inane suspension of him last week, but now I'm back to disliking his tone and even the content of many of his "Special Comments".  Except - I think Olbermann is mostly right in what he just said about Koppel.

Ted Koppel's op-ed in the Washington Post - Olbermann, O'Reilly, and the death of real news - is what, understandably, attracted Olbermann's attention and ire.   You all know the points that Koppel makes - that Fox and MSNBC are conservative and progressive equivalents,  presenting opinions not news, and their success has destroyed "objective" i. e., "real" news.

I agree completely with Koppel on the first point - the style and partisan equivalence of Fox and MSNBC - and that's in fact the one big point Olbermann made with which I flatly disagree.  I don't know why Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and others on MSNBC insist that they are more factual and less partisan than Fox.  Maddow made this same point to John Stewart, in her superb interview with him last week. 

But otherwise - neither Fox nor MSNBC are newsless.  Indeed, the news reporting of Bret Baier and Shep Smith on Fox is every bit  the factual equivalent of actual news that is reported on MSNBC throughout the day and night.   On that point, then, Koppel is point blank wrong, and Olbermann is wrong in saying that MSNBC has more respect for facts than does Fox.

Were this where Olbermann vs. Koppel ended, I might give the match to Koppel - right where Olbermann was wrong on the first point (Fox and MSNBC are indeed equivalent), then both wrong on second (Koppel that neither Fox and MSNBC present facts, Olbermann that Fox does not but MSNNC does).

But Olbermann showed his mettle and rose to the occasion with as lucid an analysis as ever I've seen about the myth of objectivity in news.  It was never true and therefore, of course, is not today.

I often make the point to my classes that when The New York Times says "all the news that fit to print" - who are they kidding?  What we're really getting is all the news that the Times deems fit to print - i.e., selects for us to read.  And the same for Walter Cronkite, "and that's the way it was".  Not really.   A more truthful tag line might have been "and that's what the editors here at CBS thought you should think it was".  This is called gate keeping, and it's one of the things the Internet, and what I call new new media, have reduced and in some cases eliminated.

Olbermann correctly cited the finest moments of Murrow and Cronkite as not being objective, but partisan - as when Murrow called out Joe McCarthy and Cronkite spoke out against the Vietnam War.   The fact is that the public is best served not just by blind reporting of the facts, but by strong opinions and keen analyses right along with the facts.  That's what op-eds in newspapers - such as Koppel's about the death of news - are all about.  That, as Olbermann correctly noted, is what Koppel and the news media did not do during the build-up to the Iraq War, when all that was reported was the "fact" that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.

Olbermann's  point - that the pursuit of the illusion of objectivity in journalism may hurt the democracy that journalism serves - may just be the important point Olbermann ever made.  It's certainly not made clearly or often enough.
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