August 25th, 2005

Brad @ Burning Man

Robertson versus Chavez - Live on Pay-Per-View!

OK, not really. Excuse my whimsy (as if calling Pat Robertson an ayatollah yesterday wasn't exactly whimsical enough). What I didn't have room to complain about yesterday is the really crappy news coverage this got on Tuesday evening's various news programs.

But first, a quick update. Confronted by a firestorm of opposition from every journalist and every government on the planet, including even a tepid and half-hearted wrist slap from the Bush administration's press secretary, Robertson first said early Wednesday on his TV show that he never said "assassination," that he was talking about having the CIA overthrow him and, oh, maybe kidnap him and smuggle him out of the country or something. Then, pretty obviously, somebody in house played the tape back to him and made him realize that yes, that is exactly what he said. So later in the day he apologized via print and online announcement: ""Is it right to call for assassination?" Robertson said. "No, and I apologize for that statement. I spoke in frustration that we should accommodate the man who thinks the U.S. is out to kill him." So if I may cynically interpret that based on what I know about the two men in question, Robertson hates and fears Chavez, heard a news report that Chavez not only hates Robertson's guy Bush but fears him, and out of anger and fear that Chavez might hire terrorists to do something stupid, Robertson lost his head or his temper and lashed out verbally. That's not very different from what I said last night.

Now, if you watched any news coverage of this last night, you got one of three things so far as I can tell. If you watched any network or local half-hour TV news show, you got a few second headline of what Robertson said, with no explanation. If you watched any but one of the hour-long in depth news and news analysis shows that night, you got "professional journalism." If you watched Countdown on MSNBC, you got it (as they used to say in ads) Olbermann style. And I hated all three.

If all you saw was a half-hour newscast, what you got part of Robertson's statement, out of context.. That means you got something that was useless, or maybe even worse than useless. It didn't tell you who Chavez is, it didn't say anything about US history with Venezuela, it didn't say who Robertson is, or explain his relationship to the Bush administration. It didn't tell you anything you'd need to understand anything about it, to do anything other than go, "Dude, WTF?" Which, I'm guessing, is probably more or less what Tucker Carlson said about it before going on to some other story, am I wrong?

If you watched almost any of the television nightly news analysis shows, you saw what the Columbia School of Journalism pioneered many years ago and is called Professional Journalism. Professional journalism requires the people who bring you the news to pretend that they don't have any opinions or information of their own. So to report on any news story, a TV news show has to hit the rolodex to find one person from each "side," making up sides if there aren't any, so that they can present a so-called balanced account. One side gets their say, the other side gets their say, the journalist just introduces them and maybe controls the time allotted to each so that it's fair. Of course, the particular devils in the details of this model were amply shown by Tuesday night's disgusting coverage of the Robertson/Chavez flap. I watched it on two different shows, and sort of caught part of it out of the corner of my eye on the third so I know they didn't break format. One show had some Republican politician and Jesse Jackson. The other show had the chairman of the National Council of Evangelicals and Jesse Jackson. Unsurprisingly, the Republican official and the Evangelical official gently condemned what Robertson said, and then changed the subject as fast as possible.

Jesse Jackson, on both shows, went all medieval about it, calling down fire and brimstone and government sanctions on Pat Robertson for this act of terrorism. And among his flaws, he was Jesse. By which I mean that he had his facts wrong, insisting that the only reason that the FCC wouldn't censure or punish Robertson for making pro-terrorism remarks on the air, like they punished Janet Jackson for her wardrobe malfunction, is that the Bush administration is right-wing. He pulled this crap on Hardball, and Chris Matthews interrupted him (the second time he said it) and reminded him that the 700 Club airs on cable, on Robertson's own cable channel, and the FCC has no jurisdiction over content on cable networks. As you would expect, he backtracked and ranted on a slightly different aspect of the same issue. But then, hours later on Lew Dobb's show, he repeated the exact same line. But the real reason that it made me want to slam my head into my desk was that Jesse Jackson was a terrible person to call in to comment on this. To anybody even faintly right of center, to frankly anybody but a tiny percentage of very fringe, very marginalized groups in the Democratic Party, Jesse Jackson has no credibility to talk about anything at all, and especially no credibility on the subject of Hugo Chavez. Why? Because Jesse Jackson's so socialist, so far left, that he practically campaigned for Chavez. They're practically best buddies. So you can say all you want about "left wing media," but what I saw was that both news shows picked reasonable-sounding non-scary policy wonks to half-heartedly defend Robertson, and picked an extremely radical, unpopular, and intemperate spokesperson to make the case against him.

If you watched Countdown with Keith Olbermann, you saw that he handles news analysis differently -- and frankly, in a much more honest way, the way that journalists traditionally reported on subjects like this before the Columbia School model. He finds a single source for each story, someone respected as knowledgeable and neutral by both sides, and then asks them good questions (since he himself has usually done his homework before the interview) to elicit an actual explanation of the story's context and implications. Unfortunately, on this story the expert that Keith picked was the chairman of the National Council of Churches. If you don't know any intra-Christian politics, that probably sounds reasonable to you. If so, then what you don't know is that evangelicals like Pat Robertson, and even ones far less right-wing radical than Robertson, hate the National Council of Churches with a fiery passion, as they consider the NCC to be, and to always have been (you know where this is going, don't you?) soft on Communism. So anybody even faintly evangelical or even faintly right of center who saw that saw that Keith's idea of of a neutral, balanced expert was the lead spokesman for pro-socialist churches. This hardly tells them anything useful about the story (suspected socialist condemns condemnation of socialist!), and to them says everything about Keith Olbermann's anti-Republican and anti-Christian biases.