Apr 1 2009

Speaking Up

Note: This article is a sidebar to “Fear & Favor 2008.”

From time to time we get a peek behind the corporate media curtain, thanks to anecdotes shared by those in a position to know how the news business works. Some are remarkably candid, if lacking in specifics—as when former CBS anchor Dan Rather declared (New York Daily News, 2/27/08), “It is a fact that corporate overlords working in secret collusion with the powers in Washington are intruding far too often in far too many newsrooms.”

More often the pressures are described as being subtle. Writing about NBC correspondent Richard Engel’s work in Baghdad, the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz (6/10/08) reported that there was some unspecified pressure on the network: “Three years into the Iraq war, Richard Engel was holding down the fort as NBC’s Baghdad bureau chief when a top producer in New York, M.L. Flynn, told him there was ‘tremendous pressure’ in the newsroom to lighten up his coverage. ‘It was all about getting good-news stories out there,’ Engel says. ‘There was a collective impression that all the journalists were getting it wrong. It quickly spread to the blogosphere and the world of punditry. It seemed orchestrated.’”

Writing in Harper’s (12/08), lawyer Scott Horton explained that there was pressure at both PBS’s flagship news program and CNN to go easy on torture commentary:

I myself was twice warned by PBS producers, in advance of appearances on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, that I could use the word “torture” in the abstract but that I was to refrain from applying it to the administration’s policies. And after an interview with CNN in which I spoke of the administration’s torture policy, I was told by the producer, “That’s okay for CNN International, but we can’t use it on the domestic feed.”

Former Dateline NBC correspondent John Hockenberry wrote a lengthy piece for MIT’s Technology Review (1-2/08) about his years at the network. A package on suffering in the early days of the Iraq War got a wary reception from a network “standards” executive, who worried that the Baghdad-based reporter might have a “point of view.” The piece never aired, and Hockenberry took it as a lesson: “Empathy for the civilians did not fit into the narrative of shock and awe.”

Years prior, Hockenberry wrote, he learned similar lessons in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when NBC stymied Hockenberry’s efforts to report on the bin Laden family; it did not help matters that GE, NBC’s parent company, had business connections to the Bin Laden Group.

Hockenberry expressed frustration that the network’s “entertainment programs often took on issues that would never fly on Dateline.” But it’s not as if other news/entertainment considerations weren’t at work:

Sometimes entertainment actually drove selection of news stories. Since Dateline was the lead-in to the hit series Law & Order on Friday nights, it was understood that on Fridays we did crime…. In 2003, I was told that a story on the emergence from prison of a former member of the Weather Underground, whose son had graduated from Yale University and won a Rhodes Scholarship, would not fly unless it dovetailed with a storyline on a then-struggling, soon-to-be-canceled, and now-forgotten Sunday-night drama called American Dreams, which was set in the 1960s. I was told that the Weather Underground story might be viable if American Dreams did an episode on “protesters or something.”