Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Ted Koppel and News as Entertainment

I appreciated Ted Koppel and Nightline, though we occupied opposite ends of the theological and political spectrum. He was committed to journalistic integrity, and I appreciated that commitment. He wrote an article in last Sunday's edition of The Washington Post that I found very insightful. It focused on the "death of real news" and the decline in television journalism from the bygone days "when the networks considered the collection and dissemination of substantive and unbiased news to be a public trust."

Koppel was referring to television news in general, but his article has direct application to news from the Middle East. This is a region where it's difficult to sift through all the bias and propaganda to find the real truth behind an issue. It takes time and effort to ferret out all the facts. Sadly, budgets, deadlines, and audience ratings are the enemies of such reporting. It's relatively easy (and more cost-efficient...and entertaining!) to present a compelling personal story as if it represents the whole truth. One of the most dramatic examples of this type of reporting--and the impact it can have--was the September 2000 story of 12-year-old Muhammad Al-Dura being "shot by Israeli soldiers." The story, with its graphic images, helped fuel the Al-Aqsa Intifada. While the accuracy of the story itself was eventually challenged, the facts that came to light were barely reported by the same news organizations that had carried the original story. Truth, it turns out, was just yesterday's news.

A second example took place in 2007 when a portion of an earth ramp leading to the Mugrabi Gate at the Temple Mount collapsed. Israel built a new access ramp, but they also used the opportunity to excavate the area that had collapsed. Anyone visiting Jerusalem could see that the excavation (done in plain site) was at least a hundred feet outside the Temple Mount area. But the Muslim religious authorities incited riots with claims that the Jews were undermining the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and many media outlets "accurately" reported the false claims, without bothering to mention the fact that the claims were unfounded! For a good summary of the event, click here.

Koppel ends his article with a bleak assessment of the current state of news reporting in the media. "The transition of news from a public service to a profitable commodity is irreversible. Legions of new media present a vista of unrelenting competition. Advertisers crave young viewers, and these young viewers are deemed to be uninterested in hard news, especially hard news from abroad. This is felicitous, since covering overseas news is very expensive. On the other hand, the appetite for strongly held, if unsubstantiated, opinion is demonstrably high. And such talk, as they say, is cheap."

So what's the lesson to be learned? I see two. First, the phrase caveat emptor--buyer beware--must now be applied to the news. Networks are peddling news as a commodity, and you need to be aware of that fact. You can't assume what you are watching, hearing, or reading has been carefully and meticulously checked for accuracy. They may accurately report what is said, but they don't necessarily check to see if what is being said is true. And so you must do so yourself.

Second, we need speak with louder voices to demand both accuracy and truthfulness from the media. Such reporting can help us see through the distortions of propaganda to understand the reality of what is happening in the world. I don't want to be entertained by the news, I want to be enlightened by it. And that requires a dedication to accuracy and honesty in reporting on the part of the media. What can you do? Call, write, or e-mail media outlets and let them know your expectations. If media executives see news from an economic perspective, reward those committed to journalistic integrity...and stop supporting those that do not!

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