Media Hurricane Is So Much Hot Air


Before all the media mavens break their arms patting their peers and themselves on the back, let's call them on their latest lie -- the one claiming some great journalistic "silver lining" is emerging from behind Hurricane Katrina's dark clouds.

So quick, someone stop all the analysts and pundits and commentators -- be they mainstream, alternative, corporate, independent, right or left wing -- from proclaiming that the Katrina coverage was somehow the press's finest hour, that when suddenly face-to-face (where have they been all these years?) with the overwhelming reality of "America's Third World," our previously chained, complacent and largely muted news media cast off their self-imposed shackles, inexplicably returned to comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable, and (as New York magazine's particularly puffy profile of CNN's Anderson Cooper put it) "pushed right up to the line between tough questioning and confrontational advocacy journalism."

Although the on-air breakdown of "anti-anchorperson" Cooper (as CNN/U.S president Jonathan Klein ludicrously dubbed him) may well have been "an honest expression of his complicated personality," it hardly qualifies as "a breakthrough for the future of television news." Nor does NBC's new-kid-on-the-anchor-block Brian Williams deserve the accolades he's been given for actually being a reporter instead of just playing one on TV. The Associated Press, for example, reported that while "Hundreds of reporters, in all media, did heroic work on the Gulf Coast in the deadly storm's aftermath. None arguably was as financially and symbolically important to his company as the job turned in by Williams. It could solidify his spot as network news' top anchor."

But after all, weren't Cooper and Anderson -- along with Tim Russert, Ted Koppel and Shepard Smith and other "Reporters Gone Wild" famously featured in video clips on Salon's Web site asking angry questions of Bush administration officials -- only doing their jobs?

Echoing the new common wisdom, Williams told the AP that Katrina's lasting legacy for journalists may signal the end of an unusual (sic) four-year period of deference to people in power, and that the mute button seemingly in place since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has been turned off.

"By dint of the fact that our country was hit we've offered a preponderance of the benefit of the doubt over the past couple of years," the "Nightly News" anchorman said. "Perhaps we've taken something off our fastball and perhaps this is the story that brings a healthy amount of cynicism back to a news media known for it."
This is the savior of NBC News speaking? "Perhaps we've taken something off our fastball?" Give me a break! Cooper's crying and Williams' whining aside, what you really saw on your television screens last week was simply the media's true bias peeking through -- not liberal, not conservative, but commercial and careerist. In other words, there was a helluva good story -- and blood in the water, both literally (the residents') and figuratively (the President's). As Tom Friedman phrased it in the New York Times, "Hell hath no fury like journalists with a compelling TV story where they get to be the heroes and the government the fools."

Hence, NBC "Nightly News" viewership jumped 2.5 million the week after the storm, according to Nielsen Media Research. And a Williams-anchored "Dateline NBC" special about Katrina was the most-watched program all week. Williams greatly increased his own stature within NBC News by aggressively seizing his opportunity, as Jeff Alan, author of "Anchoring America: The Changing Face of Network News," told the AP.

"Brian handled this as professionally as any of the reporters down there and maybe more so," Alan said. "Brian knew how much was at stake here. Brian took his anchor hat off and put his human being hat on in a lot of the broadcasts that I saw."

CNN's ratings also skyrocketed -- Anderson Cooper's "360" program saw its ratings increase 400% in the first week of Katrina coverage, causing his promo-crazed boss to gush further: "He is the anchorperson of the future," Klein told the New York Times. "He's all human. He's not putting it on."

Wow --- even anti-anchorpersons wearing their human being hats! What will the network bigs think of next?

Faced with radical change moving at the speed of light throughout the industry, the Jonathan Kleins of the world continue to grasp at anything in their unending quest to boost ratings. For apparatchiks like Klein, it's all the same. One week it's that cable-car-wreck Nancy Grace boosting ratings by convicting people without benefit of a trial on CNN Headline News; the next it's a real "headline news" story like Katrina. One day Brian Williams is the next coming of Tom Brokaw; the next, he's a blogger like the rest of us, albeit one who delivers his best insights and tidbits off air rather than before his nightly news audience of millions!

(On Labor Day, for example, Williams wrote about food and water being dropped to survivors: "There was water, there was food, and there were choppers to drop both. Why no one was able to combine them in an airdrop is a cruel and criminal mystery of this dark chapter in our recent history. The words `failure of imagination' come to mind." Yet such pointed criticism of the government response somehow failed to make air on NBC.)

Finally, it's important to note that where once the media was in bed with the military, now they're embedded with the poverty-stricken people of New Orleans -- with predictable results. As noted by Tim Harper of the Toronto Star during an interview on Democracy Now, "There's a possibility that this is changing some views, because when you're embedded with people -- and in fact when I say embedded, I mean it doesn't matter how much money you have in your pocket in New Orleans, everybody was the same. There was nothing to buy. The playing field was leveled. When you are embedded with people suffering like that, you tend to be sympathetic to their point of view. You tend to wonder where is the help? You tend to wonder why these people have been left behind, and you identify with them."

In sum, a combination of the Stockholm Syndrome coupled with career advancement and commercial considerations, rather than self-congratulatory kudos and encomia, best explain why our formerly muzzled media have finally begun letting their fastballs fly.

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