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CNN Chief orders "balance" in war coverage.
October 31, 2001 9:07 AM   Subscribe

CNN Chief orders "balance" in war coverage. Earlier this year, CNN Chief Walter Isaacson got chummy with GOP lawmakers and begged them for tips on how to attract more conservative viewers. Next, he tried to bring Rush Limbaugh to CNN. Now he's issued a memo to his reporters, urging them "to balance images of civilian devastation in Afghan cities with reminders that the Taliban harbors murderous terrorists, saying it "seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan." Is this "balance", or is he urging CNN to gloss over the realities of what is happening in Afghanistan?
posted by mattpusateri (37 comments total)

 
It is PROOF POSITIVE, that there is no liberal media.

It demonstrates that these polls that show most reporters voted for Democrats, allegedly proof that the media is liberal, are pointless. In the end, this directive shows whose really in charge at these news organizations.
posted by brucec at 9:20 AM on October 31, 2001


It's balance. If he said "ignore the civilian destruction all together," that would be a problem. By the same token, if there is no effort to give the US an opportunity to explain its motivation, a viewer could conclude that America is doing this for no reason at all. Allowing one side of the story to give its version of events is not wrong -- it's basic journalism.

And I don't follow how the GOP or Rush Limbaugh points suggest anything. Keep in mind that -- far left-wing MeFiers to the contrary -- this military campaign is supported by the vast majority of Democrats (including myself).
posted by pardonyou? at 9:20 AM on October 31, 2001


by the way, I think Walter's order makes sense, if it were the decision of news editors. But to me the REAL story is it shows who really pull the strings in the media.
posted by brucec at 9:24 AM on October 31, 2001


I think it makes sense, and I think Isaacson should extend this balance and context to coverage of the Palestine/Israel conflict, to coverage of Globalization opposition and support, and to every other flashpoint or significant issue. We should all be given at least a modicum of background on the issues we're involved in around the world and at home, with background on both sides.
posted by cell divide at 9:27 AM on October 31, 2001


It is PROOF POSITIVE, that there is no liberal media.

It is proof positive that CNN is lamely trying to restore its credibility as a an actual news network post-Rick Kaplan, who freely admitted to a liberal bias.
posted by ljromanoff at 9:37 AM on October 31, 2001


I agree it's balance. It's just a shame it had to come about because they're looking for more viewers. It should be basic journalistic integrity to give all sites of the story, not the hunt for $$$.
posted by themikeb at 9:39 AM on October 31, 2001


"seems perverse to focus too much on the casualties or hardship in Afghanistan."

Why is that perverse, exactly? This isn't an issue of balance. If it were, they would also cover the conditions in the middle east and the world that contribute to terrorism. This is just to placate loonies that need to be constantly reassured as to the moral rectitude of our actions in Afghanistan.

"Ten afghan children were killed today by US bombing. But we must remind the viewer that afghanistan harbors terrorists. Also in the news, Michael Jackson's new album is coming out, and afghanistan harbors terrorists."
posted by Doug at 9:51 AM on October 31, 2001


if there is no effort to give the US an opportunity to explain its motivation, a viewer could conclude that America is doing this for no reason at all.
You really think most CNN viewers don't remember September 11?
posted by mattpusateri at 9:52 AM on October 31, 2001


You really think most CNN viewers don't remember September 11?

Sometimes when reading the comments here on Mefi, you have to wonder. People have short memories.
posted by owillis at 10:00 AM on October 31, 2001


You really think most CNN viewers don't remember September 11?

It's not necessarily that they don't remember, it's that you can't divorce the actions in Afghanistan from what happened on that day. Again, this ought to be part and parcel of all their coverage.
posted by cell divide at 10:05 AM on October 31, 2001


knee-jerk, thoughtless, inhumane rant ahead - replies are pretty much unneccesary

frankly, i'm tired of looking at foreign rubble. i'd rather look at good old american downtown manhattan rubble anyday. i'm tired of looking at foreign casualties. show me the bloody new york women running in terror down the streets, show me more of that. i care about those women, i care about american rubble. frankly, my dear, i don't give a damn for anything that even remotely smells like 'holy land' or that entire stinking shithole called the middle east.
posted by quonsar at 10:24 AM on October 31, 2001


pardonyou: far left-wing MeFiers to the contrary

As you note, support of the war is not a left-right issue. By the same token, neither is opposition to the war. Just as an example, a good chunk of the American Muslim population strongly opposes the war, and they tend to be quite conservative. Antiwar sentiment has also been expressed by such far-out left-wing wackos as, oh, the Pope and the Dalai Lama.

Owillis: Sometimes when reading the comments here on Mefi, you have to wonder. People have short memories.

See, now that's just rude. There are lots of people who lost friends and family on the Sept. 11th attacks who oppose the war effort nevertheless. Remember that all people come to their beliefs for their own reasons.
posted by shylock at 10:37 AM on October 31, 2001


Actually it is refreshing to see this. The Taliban are going to seek to use our fourth estate for their propaganda.

ABC's Dan Harris conceded on Tuesday's World News Tonight
that the Taliban invited him into their territory because of the
"rising civilian casualties" which they see as "an enormous public
relations boon to them."


Some media on the ground in Pakistan seem too eager to assist. It is as if they were bitter at the Pentagon for not giving them exact operational plans so they can feed the beast, so instead they will hammer to put the U.S. in a negative light in guise of reporting "the truth". And who exactly is their source for all this good information? The Taliban.
posted by scottfree at 11:01 AM on October 31, 2001


Ever since the news networks added the waving flag graphic, their already fragile credibility went out the window for me. Sure, they are American corporations, but they are first and foremost news sources, and should at least comport themselves with some semblance of impartiality.

I personally only look to CNN, et al., for breaking news, and then go elsewhere for the details.
posted by mapalm at 11:04 AM on October 31, 2001


American "media" in general is so homogenized and lopsided that it's almost worthless -- from NPR to Fox News, everything has a slant. Even the venerable BBC has been less than fulfilling of late.

This isn't surprising; in fact I expected it. Television is the worst, although CNN is marginally less-bad than the other networks, but print publications aren't far behind. It's all about money and eyeballs these days, actual news be damned. It's still possible to get a balanced picture, but it takes work and lots of web-surfing and library-going: I hit all major English-language newspapers both domestic and foreign, the major news magazines, and most smaller commentary and op-ed magazines.

The problem is essentially that all news is slanted, if by nothing else that the choice of subject material. If I choose to report on one thing and not another, that's a slant, no matter how objective the piece is.

Modern journos have been forged in the fire of Vietnam and Watergate, and they value confrontation and conflict more than simple reportage. Read some old pieces by Ernie Pyle or Ed Murrow if you doubt me, or some of George Orwell's World War II stuff.
posted by mrmanley at 11:08 AM on October 31, 2001


Many of these problems go back to the hearst/pulitzer wars. I think journalism should drop the pretence and wear their bias on their sleeves so no one is fooled.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:53 AM on October 31, 2001


The fact is, major news sources in the US (especially television) couldn't give a rat's proverbial ass whether the coverage is balanced or if they are seen as right wing or left wing or Martian. It's right there in the post: tips on how to attract more conservative viewers - it's not about politics, it's about money and ratings. If more conservative viewers mean higher ratings and therefore more $$$, they go for it. It's a business and it's about increasing profits. "Journalism" is nothing more than product. We will soon see female FOX anchorwomen reading the news while wearing red, white, and blue bikinis. They'd be doing it now if they could get away with it. Only thing stopping them is PR issues - bad PR could mean a drop in ratings and decrease in revenue. Revenue is all that drives TV "news."
posted by sixdifferentways at 12:07 PM on October 31, 2001


I can't recall a single post here that I would characterise as 'far left wing'. Can anyone point to some examples?
posted by kerplunk at 12:08 PM on October 31, 2001


So sixdifferentways, how can there ever be a free journalism? Also, aren't there enough kinds of people in the US that multiple viewpoints could be profitible? It seems to me that what you're saying is true, but at the same time it seems unlikely that American's views are so in-line with what is coming from their televisions. Viewers are important, but you can also get a big drop in revenue if you do a negative story about a big advertiser, even if you double your audience. It all goes back to how can their be a truly free media, as enshrined in the constitution of the USA?
posted by cell divide at 12:10 PM on October 31, 2001


I noticed this change early yesterday. After every piece where CNN notes what's happening in Afghanistan, they cut to live photos of the excavation of Ground Zero and have their anchors "remind" everyone of the 4,000 to 5,000 dead. I agree it's prudent and balanced to remind everyone of why we're doing what we're doing in Afghanistan.
posted by darren at 12:13 PM on October 31, 2001


Mark Morford: "...know this about journalists and editors-in-chief and news directors and etc.: Most take their responsibility to the public very seriously, genuinely want to tell the 'real' story, get at the honest truth, not overhype and not instill wanton fear and cause you to build a bunker and wear a hazmat suit to have sex and never open another greeting card."
posted by Carol Anne at 12:31 PM on October 31, 2001


kerplunk, you're kidding, right? (and I consider myself firmly left-wing, so I'm not speaking out of my ass)

Really, as Chomsky has demonstrated most amply, there is no such thing as a left wing media. They aren't even necessarily right wing, though. Instead, they're overwhelmingly populist. Right now the war is popular and they want to reflect that back to their viewers.

Is this balance? I don't know that it's balance in the physics sense. There really isn't any moral equivalence of weight between Americans dying in skyscrapers and Afghans dying in mud-brick hovels. I think it's a particularly lame choice of story in which to suddenly start giving "context", especially since "context" in this story would require at least an hour per story to cover Islamic fundamentalism in the 20th century, Saudi internal politics, the role of the West in drawing Middle East boundaries, and events as diverse as the Iranian Revolution (where we were justly kicked out for supporting a cruel régime), the Israeli invastion of Lebanon, and the Suez Crisis (where we played a cryptic role in both sparking and easing, ultimately securing self-determination as an attainable goal for Mideast nations). That's context.

This is more of a fig-leaf by comparison. I'd rather they have better debates less on whether we should be in this war, but on how we should be prosecuting it.

What troubles me is when TV journalism reduces a debate to Manichean right-left divisions, and portrays them as having equal weight. Right now the people who support the war far outnumber those who don't. But you're not going to get a moderate liberal on these shows asking questions like Bill Kristol could about whether we're really being smart about how we're going about it. You're going to get a pro-war viewpoint; and an anti-war viewpoint; and they will be portrayed as equal sides of the coin. That's contempt for the viewers, ultimately. Most stories are more complex than that, and very often the bulk of the opinion is in the middle rather than at the fringes.

(Of course, FOX, by having 80% Republican guests, can't lay claim to any word resembling "balance", either.)
posted by dhartung at 1:17 PM on October 31, 2001


Dhartung that's an excellent point, that most of the public supports action (popularly called 'war'), but there are divisions on how the 'war' should proceed.

I have had interesting debates with friends over the scope of military action, over how much American foreign policy should change (and how it should change), whether an air-assault is effective, just, or moral in its current form, etc. Keep in mind that all of these folks support military action, and yet I don't hear that debate echoed anywhere.

I'm just not getting the kind of satisfactory media experience from any source-- the nets are too cautious and party-line, the internet is full of places where either everyone agrees, or everyone is divided into 'right' or 'left'
posted by cell divide at 1:26 PM on October 31, 2001


Really, as Chomsky has demonstrated most amply

When was the last time Chomsky demostrated anything most amply other than his complete misunderstanding of almost everything not related to Linguistic Theory?

Of course, FOX, by having 80% Republican guests, can't lay claim to any word resembling "balance", either.

Could you cite your source for this "statistic"?
posted by ljromanoff at 1:29 PM on October 31, 2001


True cell divide - it's a complex issue. I'm sure not all journalists are pawns. The Constitution guarantees a free media only as far as being free from government control (how free it is is a whole other debate...) I mainly meant among the big, major media outlets, profit seems to be the main motive.
posted by sixdifferentways at 1:46 PM on October 31, 2001


ljromanoff: dharthung seems to have actually underestimated Fox's slant.

"The numbers show an overwhelming slant on Fox towards both Republicans and conservatives. Of the 56 partisan guests on Special Report between January and May, 50 were Republicans and six were Democrats -- a greater than 8 to 1 imbalance. In other words, 89 percent of guests with a party affiliation were Republicans." (via Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting)

Love it or hate it, but just don't call Fox News "unbiased."
posted by edlark at 1:52 PM on October 31, 2001


Those numbers deal with the Special Report with Brit Hume show, but it seems fairly consistent with the general trend of the channel.

Of course the "liberals" you usually get are sorry excuses for the epithet. It's not really a fair fight if you bring in someone you know you can run rhetorical circles around.

Another trick is to put a moderate in as the "liberal" voice. The conservative commentator/guest sounds sure of him/herself and unequivocal (as they shout down everyone else). The moderate ends up looking wishy washy, because he/she is willing to grant the legitimacy of certain aspects of other side's argument.
posted by edlark at 2:01 PM on October 31, 2001


dhartung, I'm not kidding. I've seen posts on Metafilter that I would describe as left wing, but never anything I'd class as far left - and even the left wing ones seem compartively moderate to be honest.

Maybe it's the experience of having gone to university in London in the eighties and seeing the various groups that existed at the time and the opposition to the Conservative government, which probably results in a scale that's somewhat different to someone who grew up in the States and is used to comparatively mainstream media. (Just an example - I'm not attempting to portray you here BTW.)
posted by kerplunk at 2:52 PM on October 31, 2001


Those numbers deal with the Special Report with Brit Hume show, but it seems fairly consistent with the general trend of the channel.

Their study is based on ONE show. Hardly representative of the entire network. Should CNN be judged only by the show Jesse Jackson hosts? Strike one.

"The numbers show an overwhelming slant on Fox towards both Republicans and conservatives. Of the 56 partisan guests on Special Report between January and May, 50 were Republicans

On a political opinion show, what is a 'non-partisan' guest? Sounds like a convienent way to jiggle the numbers. Strike two.

To test Fox's guest list, FAIR studied 19 weeks of Special Report with Brit Hume (1/1/01-5/11/01)

They conducted their test during the first several months of the new presidental administration, exactly when there would be dozens of newly appointed Republican officals to interview? Strike three.

Nice try "FAIR." You've once again made a mockery of your acronym.

Another trick is to put a moderate in as the "liberal" voice. The conservative commentator/guest sounds sure of him/herself and unequivocal (as they shout down everyone else). The moderate ends up looking wishy washy, because he/she is willing to grant the legitimacy of certain aspects of other side's argument.

A trick that Fox News made up? That happens everywhere.
posted by ljromanoff at 4:25 PM on October 31, 2001


kerplunk: with a user number of 5219, surely you were around for the Nader Nader Nader days? Granted, the US Greens are not far left by London standards, but then around here even centrist pro-business Democrats get tagged with the "socialist" label (by people who don't know the meaning of the word, know they don't know, and what's more, don't care, because it's just a convenient marginalization tool).

ljromanoff, give in to the Dark Side. You know you love their slant. If you're so sure, why don't you run your own study? What proof do you have that your assumptions used in your counter-arguments (e.g. "exactly when there would be dozens of newly appointed Republican officals to interview" -- why not? if Fox is so unbiased, wouldn't they also be choosing rebuttal guests?) are indeed valid? You're simply assuming that they are, whereas FAIR have actual data. Saying things like "once again, you've made a mockery of your acronym" -- when you haven't demonstrated that they have done so in the past -- are mere rhetorical tricks.

The sad part is that the same study also showed a Republican tilt on CNN -- proving my earlier point about the overall rightward lean of US politics.

A similar example is making the rounds of the wingnut media: ABC bigwig apologizes for remarks, apparently having implied that the Pentagon might indeed be a valid target in a military campaign. Well, wouldn't it? More tidbits from that article, which is apparently trying to paint ABC as the new CNN (CNN, you see, having moved right), criticize a report from behind enemy lines for noting that the Taliban are helping choose the images shown, and two stories where they quote the words of other sources (the Taliban, and relief agencies), as if ABC had taken those positions. You really can't engage in honest journalism under this sort of pot-shottery.
posted by dhartung at 10:00 PM on October 31, 2001


ljromanoff, give in to the Dark Side. You know you love their slant.

My news viewing is split pretty evenly between MSNBC, CNN Headline News, Fox, and Bloomberg. I'm not a real aficionado of any specific news channel.

"exactly when there would be dozens of newly appointed Republican officials to interview" -- why not? if Fox is so unbiased, wouldn't they also be choosing rebuttal guests?

If a new official in office is on a news program to explain his objectives in office, one doesn't automatically require someone from the opposition describing what they would have done had their side been elected. Not everything fits into a point-counterpoint paradigm. With dozens of new officeholders from the Republican Party it is perfectly logical that there would be more Republicans on television during that early period in the administration.

are indeed valid? You're simply assuming that they are, whereas FAIR have actual data. Saying things like "once again, you've made a mockery of your acronym" -- when you haven't demonstrated that they have done so in the past -- are mere rhetorical tricks.

Well, if you want to debate the so-called "objectivity" of FAIR that's fine with me. They are a special interest group with an ideological viewpoint, they are not an unbiased media watchdog by any means. FAIR's "data" is useless, as they have singled out one program and used it to paint the entire network as biased, and did so in a specific time period when they knew they would get the results they were after.

The sad part is that the same study also showed a Republican tilt on CNN -- proving my earlier point about the overall rightward lean of US politics.

No, it does not prove that. If anything it proves how blinded by ideology FAIR is.
posted by ljromanoff at 7:27 AM on November 1, 2001


The study I sighted is only one part of a larger look at Fox done by FAIR. Feel free to criticize it, just read it first. Some selections from the larger study:

The abundance of conservatives and Republicans at Fox News Channel does not seem to be a coincidence. In 1996, Andrew Kirtzman, a respected New York City cable news reporter, was interviewed for a job with Fox and says that management wanted to know what his political affiliation was. "They were afraid I was a Democrat," he told the Village Voice (10/15/96). When Kirtzman refused to tell Fox his party ID, "all employment discussion ended," according to the Voice.

Some mainstream journalists have suggested that Fox's "straight news" is more or less balanced, however slanted its commentary might be. "A close monitoring of the channel over several weeks indicates that the news segments tend to be straightforward, with little hint of political subtext except for stories the news editors feel the 'mainstream' press has either downplayed or ignored," wrote Columbia Journalism Review's Neil Hickey (3-4/98). The fact that Fox's "chat consistently tilts to the conservative side," wrote the Washington Post's Howard Kurtz (2/5/01), "may cast an unwarranted cloud on the news reporting, which tends to be straightforward."

But an attentive viewer will notice that there are entire blocks of the network's programming schedule that are set aside for conservative stories. Fox's website offers a regular feature on "political correctness" entitled "Tongue-Tied: A Report From the Front Lines of the Culture Wars," whose logo is a scowling "PC Patrol" officer peering testily through a magnifying glass. It invites readers to write in and "keep us up on examples of PC excess you come across."

Defenders of Fox might argue that its brand of conservative-tilted programming fills a void, since it represents a form of ideologically hard-edged news seldom seen in the centrist media. But the same point could be made on the other side of the spectrum: Just as conservative stories don't always make it onto CNN, neither do stories that matter to the left. A left-wing version of Fox might run frequent updates on the Mumia Abu-Jamal case, the dangers of depleted uranium weapons or the benefits of single-payer health care. That would contrast sharply with CNN--but it wouldn't justify calling CNN "right-wing" or "conservative." Fox's "leftist" accusations are equally unfounded.
[emphasis mine]

Does FAIR have an ideological opinion on the issues? You bet. Does this mean that their "data is useless"? No, no more than it means that a right-tilted study's data is useless - it simply means that all such data needs to be analyzed critically.

If FAIR were the only people accusing Fox News of a right-wing tilt, that would be one thing. However, they are far from it. Criticism has come even from those on the right.

ljromanoff (pot, meet kettle) seems to have no problem identifying the bias inherent in FAIR, but refuses to see the equally obvious bias held by Fox News. This seems to be another case of, "those who disagree with me are biased, those who agree with me are not." Such thinking is a perfect example of being "blinded by ideology."

As I have said in previous threads: There is no such thing as unbiased reporting. The simple act of selecting what is "newsworthy" is a subjective act that will be colored by one's ideology. The pretense should be dropped and people should lay their ideological cards on the table. That way we at least know where a person is coming from out of the gate and can judge their argument and data accordingly.
posted by edlark at 9:54 AM on November 1, 2001


Does FAIR have an ideological opinion on the issues? You bet. Does this mean that their "data is useless"?

No, their data is useless because their methodology is bad.

ljromanoff seems to have no problem identifying the bias inherent in FAIR, but refuses to see the equally obvious bias held by Fox News.

Please point out one place where I stated that I believe that Fox News is unbiased. FAIR is an advocacy group that pretends to be a non-partisan media watchdog to express its viewpoint. Fox News has its biases, as does every other network (the latter being a fact that many MeFi regulars seem to be unwilling to admit.)

As I have said in previous threads: There is no such thing as unbiased reporting. The simple act of selecting what is "newsworthy" is a subjective act that will be colored by one's ideology. The pretense should be dropped and people should lay their ideological cards on the table.

I agree, I just wouldn't use a group like FAIR to attempt to bolster my argument.
posted by ljromanoff at 10:22 AM on November 1, 2001


So, ljromanoff, who would you use? And if you are not trying to argue that Fox is unbiased, what are you trying to say/imply/insinuate (pick one).

So far I've cited two distinct sources (from and ideologically broad range, btw) supporting the hypothesis that [gasp] Fox News has a right of center tilt in it's news reporting. You asked for stats and they were provided. Instead of providing counter study's, you simply rejected the legitimacy of the sources provided.

Okay, how about some other sources:

Columbia University (A generally favorable article, but still ends up acknowledging bias.)
Is the output of Fox News Channel, in its totality, truly "fair" and "balanced"? The answer is a qualified no. It's no more fair and balanced than the National Review or The Nation, which flaunt no such claims. In its patchwork quilt of talk shows, FNC is, inevitably, the product of its creators, interlocutors, and guests. That makes it unmistakably a bully pulpit for conservative sentiment in America -- and, consequently, robustly controversial

Village Voice
Let's get this straight. My problem isn't that Fox newscasters are biased (so are most journalists) or that they're conservative (so are some of the smartest people I know)... My point was that Murdoch's a hypocrite for claiming that his network is neutral.

If you want to argue that Fox News is unbiased, I would like to see your sources. (Really, I would. I'm not trying to be snarky.) If that isn't what you want to argue, then what, exactly, is your point?
posted by edlark at 2:48 PM on November 1, 2001


So, ljromanoff, who would you use? And if you are not trying to argue that Fox is unbiased, what are you trying to say/imply/insinuate (pick one).

All I was asking for was some sort of factual basis for the claim that "80% of Fox's guests are Republican." Count up all the guests Fox News has had. If they are 80% Republican, I'll be satisfied with that. FAIR's dubious "study" does not back up that claim, for reasons that I have already stated.

If you want to argue that Fox News is unbiased

I'm not making that argument. I simply don't believe the "80%" number.
posted by ljromanoff at 4:23 PM on November 1, 2001


More on Fox's bias to the right; a previous column led to its author's appearance on The O'Reilly Factor, where the host more or less lost it. Then, his eloquent and thoughtful fans regurgitated what seem like form hate letters to TP. Really says all one needs to know. Bill's a populist some days more than a conservative, but at a lot of levels he's just a demagogue -- and he focuses the anger of his fanbase on Democrats far more often than on Republicans. How much more often? Eighty percent sounds good to me.

(An example of jargon meaningful in context is the word "republic", which Freepers and others have taken on as a word to throw back in the face of anyone who points out that "the United States is a democracy". A republic, you see, is not ruled by the masses, like a democracy. Clear enough? Not that a nation could ever be both things at once, using common dictionary definitions.)
posted by dhartung at 6:26 PM on November 1, 2001


Really says all one needs to know.

I, for one, am still waiting to know where you came up with your data.
posted by ljromanoff at 6:36 PM on November 1, 2001


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