The recent announcement that Keith Olbermann was leaving MSNBC was interesting but not very important to anyone wanting to know the news.
Despite appearances to the contrary, the left-leaning Olbermann and his right-tilting competitors have nearly nothing to do with the news. They are entertainers masquerading as journalists. Unfortunately, the masquerade has worked. Too many people watch these shows – left and right – and think they are seeing the news.
That point was made by respected TV newsman Ted Koppel, former managing editor of ABC News, in an essay in The New York Times in November.
"We live now in a cable news universe that celebrates the opinions of Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly – individuals who hold up the twin pillars of political partisanship and who are encouraged to do so by their parent organizations because their brand of analysis and commentary are highly profitable."
Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, and Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, call the kind of opinion-based programming "the journalism of affirmation" and note that "its appeal is in affirming the preconceptions of the audience, assuring them, gaining their loyalty, and then converting that loyalty into advertising revenue."
I use their excellent book, "Blur," in a course I teach at Colby College. My goal is to give students the tools they need to think critically as they consider news reporting in print, broadcast or on the Internet.
Kovach and Rosenstiel call the kind of reporting that people can best trust "the journalism of verification" which is based on evidence, authoritative sources, independence and transparency. The journalism of affirmation fails to meet those standards, they write.
In his New York Times essay, Koppel used a more colorful description. Fox News and MSNBC do not even attempt objective journalism, he wrote. "They show us the world not as it is, but as partisans (and loyal viewers) would like it to be. This is to journalism what Bernie Madoff was to investment: He told his customers what they wanted to hear, and by the time they learned the truth, their money was gone."
Koppel argued for a return to objective journalism. Olbermann responded on his show that true objectivity is impossible and argued that even the most-respected reporters like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow showed bias. Cronkite let viewers know his feelings that the Vietnam War could not be won, Olbermann said. Murrow made it clear that he thought Sen. Joseph McCarthy was a danger to democracy. Even Koppel showed his opinions in reports about the hostages in Iran.
Olbermann has the facts right, but he misses the point. Complete objectivity in journalism has never been possible but good journalists adopt an approach that is fact-based, where opinions are left out their reports or acknowledged openly so readers, listeners and viewers can evaluate them. Kovach and Rosenstiel call that approach "transparency."
Koppel – and Cronkite and Murrow – did that. So does CNN. Olbermann, Beck, O'Reilly and their colleagues don't even try.
Neither MSNBC nor Olbermann offered explanations for their divorce but it has been no secret that the relationship between the network and its star has been strained for months.
Olbermann was suspended for two days – and was nearly fired – in November for violating an NBC News policy by donating to three political campaigns, including the congressional campaign of Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. He returned to the air and apologized to his fans, but he never publicly apologized to NBC for violating the policy.
The problem, in my view, stems from the difficult relationship between NBC and MSNBC. NBC News seeks to provide traditional journalism – the journalism of verification – where stories are supported with evidence and transparency so viewers can evaluate what they see. MSNBC does not, but (like Fox) it pretends to do so. The tension between the two approaches within the same company has been obvious.
NBC wanted to hold Olbermann to standards that are part of the value system of traditional journalism but that have no home in the opinionated world where Olbermann worked. "We don't make up facts here and when we make mistakes we correct them," Olbermann said.
Maybe not, but there is a vast difference between the way NBC and MSNBC deal with the facts. NBC and other responsible (and traditional media) report the facts, provide evidence and explain how they learned what is being reported. MSNBC, Fox and others in the opinion business cherry-pick facts to argue what their audience wants to hear. They accuse, they bluster, they argue.
Kovach and Rosenstiel call this kind of fake reporting "bloviating."
I think my Colby students recognize it when they see it. I hope readers of this column do, too.
David B. Offer is the retired executive editor of the Kennebec Journal and the Morning Sentinel in central Maine.