Don’t Blame the Web, Punditry Has Ruined Journalism


Journalism to Public: Hi! Im ready to tell you why Im always right!

Journalism to Public: "Hi! I'm ready to tell you why I'm always right!"

The list of the guilty is long: CNN, FOX-News, NPR, CBS, ABC, NBC, BBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, TIME magazine, Newsweek, Vanity Fair and even Rolling Stone.

The crime?

Journalists interviewing other journalists (or being the journalist being interviewed).

This practice – which started with “Meet the Press” back in 1947 – has helped cracked the tenants of journalism.  It is a rarely discussed or acknowledged reason why the public no longer considers journalists to be their collective voice – or believes the press’s first obligation is to citizens.  It is a big reason why the public no longer considers journalists impartial or unbiased (despite the industry’s hollow protestations to the contrary).

It is why many in the public no longer trust journalists.

It is popular these days to blame the Great Media Collapse of 2009 on over-leveraged media companies and free content on the Internet.  But the fact is journalism was already in trouble long before the mismanagement and the rise of the web.  And one of the reasons journalism was in danger was because of punditry – the practice of elevating journalists to experts.

The practice of journalists interviewing each other has now become ubiquitous.  It is a regular feature on most cable TV news shows.  It is a staple of the content on NPR (from “All Things Considered” to “On Point”).  It is a popular feature on network TV.  It is a practice that should have been stopped a long time ago, but it is now too late.

Journalists are addicted to the practice.  They have been intoxicated by self-importance and self-promotion – and in this age of dwindling resources it is a practice that will continue unabated (because it is cheap and easy).  It is also a practice that journalists will defend.

But make no mistake about it.  When a journalist interviews his peer it undermines journalism.  Here are four reasons why:

1. It allows journalists – rather than the people they cover – to shape the point of view of news events.

Take the Iranian election violence as a recent example.  The NPR shows All Things Considered and Morning Edition conducted phone interviews with New York Times and BBC reporters during the uprising (one wonders if the BBC was interviewing NPR reporters).  This practice places the reporter at the center of the story – instead of reporting on it from the outside.  The reporters’ impressions and opinions became the focal points.  Why wasn’t NPR interviewing Iranians?  The protesters, for example?

Instead of being an Iranian story – it became the story of a New York Times journalist in Iran – with all of his western biases, opinions and impressions thrown in.  It also takes credibility away from the reporter being interviewed.  How can he turn around and report impartially when he’s already broadcasted his impressions and opinions on the story?

2. It forces the journalist to render opinions on news stories they are supposed to be reporting on impartially.

3. It broadcasts the biases – especially the political and cultural biases – of journalists to the public.

The network news shows on Sunday morning are perfect examples of these two points.  Think about Bob Schieffer on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Last Sunday (July 26), Schieffer conducted an interview with White House Senior Advisor David Axelrod on the controversial arrest of Harvard scholar and civil rights activist Henry Louis Gates.  But immediately after the interview, Schieffer stared into the camera and pontificated his opinion on the story – moving from impartial interviewer to opinionated pundit with only a commercial break in between.

How can viewers not question Schieffer’s impartiality?  Because he has none.  George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “This Week” is guilty of the same kind of behavior.

The Sunday morning shows also like to gather round table discussions of journalists covering Washington D.C. where they bicker and argue with each other about the issues.  Punditry as sport.  All of the journalists sparing and engaging in hyperbole and exaggeration to make their points – mostly partisan (this was perfected by “The McLaughlin Group”).  Is it any wonder that the public thinks that there are Democratic and Republican “versions” of the news and that 55 percent of the public believes the news media is biased?

4. It gives the journalist a heightened sense of authority and expertise that they don’t deserve.

I’m going to pick on NPR again (although they are far from alone in any of this).  Take Nina Totenberg as an example.  Totenberg is the legal affairs correspondent for NPR who covers the Supreme Court.  But she’s not a legal scholar (in fact, Totenberg doesn’t even have a college degree – never mind a JD).  She’s an observer – a paid one.  Yet NPR allows her to both report on Supreme Court judgments and then opine on them as a legal expert – sometimes on the same program.

This is a problem.  Covering a beat doesn’t make you an expert on the subject.  I have no problem with Totenberg being a reporter – but her legal opinions are irrelevant, especially given her educational background.  Why doesn’t NPR use legal scholars and experts as commentators?  Never mind the fact that Totenberg undermines her own coverage by opining on matters that she supposed to be covering as an impartial, unbiased journalist.

So what do you think?  Should journalists be interviewing each other?

4 Responses to “Don’t Blame the Web, Punditry Has Ruined Journalism”

  1. Barry Rubinstein July 29, 2009 at 8:16 am

    I couldn’t agree more. While giving away its product for free is certainly a contributing factor in the demise of print journalism, broadcast journalism has turned into nothing more than a shout-down, tuned-out medium where everyone has to be an expert — a microcosm of the reality TV generation.

    All of this was brought into stark contrast this week following the passing of Walter Cronkite — who famously, in a then-rare example of on-air analysis, called the Vietnam War a “stalemate” and as a result helped grease the skids for President Johnson to not seek reelection in 1968.

    Today, Cronkite’s comments wouldn’t even have caused a blip. And in this era of corporate-run journalism, someone of his stature, integrity and credibility would no shot of even getting a sniff of a TV news job. How sad.

  2. Hi Barry:
    Great insights. Thanks for sharing.

  3. George – I’ve been having the exact same thoughts lately as I’ve seen more and more journalists interviewing each other. One area you didn’t mention is sports reporters, who may be the most guilty. If you watch any pregame or postgame show these days (or ESPN at any time) they are all interviewing each other and analyzing various teams and sports. Instead of interviewing players, coaches, team management, scouts or even fans, they prefer to speak with their buddies about the game so we can hear one reporter argue with another. They’ve watched the exact same game as us, and the only difference is that they have access to the players after the game. While this time should be spent interviewing them and reporting the information to fans, instead they are gathering information for their own TV or radio shows where they will become the expert on the game.

  4. Great observation, Ben. It’s so ubiquitous in sports that I didn’t even think of it!

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