Tag Archives: MSNBC

Conflicts of interest and the new media moguls

5790408612_8952178d3f_mWashington Post executive editor Martin Baron has rejected a demand by a group of left-leaning activists that the Post more fully disclose Amazon.com’s business dealings with the CIA.

Nearly 33,000 people have signed an online petition put together by RootsAction, headed by longtime media critic Norman Solomon, to call attention to Amazon’s $600 million contract to provide cloud services to the CIA. The Post’s owner is Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. Here is the text of the petition:

A basic principle of journalism is to acknowledge when the owner of a media outlet has a major financial relationship with the subject of coverage. We strongly urge the Washington Post to be fully candid with its readers about the fact that the newspaper’s new owner, Jeff Bezos, is the founder and CEO of Amazon which recently landed a $600 million contract with the CIA. The Washington Post’s coverage of the CIA should include full disclosure that the sole owner of the Post is also the main owner of Amazon — and Amazon is now gaining huge profits directly from the CIA.

Baron, in his response, argues that the Post “has among the strictest ethics policies in the field of journalism, and we vigorously enforce it. We have routinely disclosed corporate conflicts when they were directly relevant to our coverage. We reported on Amazon’s pursuit of CIA contracts in our coverage of plans by Jeff Bezos to purchase The Washington Post.” Baron goes on to point out that the Post has been a leader in reporting on the National Security Agency and on the CIA’s involvement in the Colombian government’s fight against an insurgency, writing:

You can be sure neither the NSA nor the CIA has been pleased with publication of their secrets.

Neither Amazon nor Jeff Bezos was involved, nor ever will be involved, in our coverage of the intelligence community.

(Note: I first learned about the petition from Greg Mitchell’s blog, Pressing Issues.)

The exchange between RootsAction and Baron highlights the conflicts of interest that can arise when wealthy individuals such as Bezos buy in to the newspaper business. It’s a situation that affects The Boston Globe as well, as its editors juggle the lower-stakes conflict between John Henry’s ownership of the Globe and his majority interest in the Red Sox.

Baron himself is not unfamiliar with the Red Sox conflict, as the New York Times Co., from whom Henry bought the Globe, owned a minority stake in the team and in New England Sports Network, which carries Red Sox games, during most of Baron’s years as Globe editor.

The way the Globe handled it during those years was just about right: don’t disclose in sports stories, but disclose whenever the paper covers the Red Sox as a business. Current Globe editor Brian McGrory has insisted that Henry will not interfere. Henry, in a speech before the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce last week, said he would not breech the wall of separation between the Globe’s news operations and its business interests.

Of course, it’s not as though the era in which news organizations were typically owned by publicly traded corporations was free of such conflicts. (The Times Co., after all, is a publicly traded corporation, though the Sulzberger family calls the shots.) Media critic Danny Schechter noted in his book “Embedded: Weapons of Mass Deception” that MSNBC — then in its pre-liberal phase — was a cheerleader for the war in Iraq even as its then-corporate parent, General Electric Co., was a leading military contractor.

But the rise of a new breed of media moguls such as Bezos, Henry and Aaron Kushner of the Orange County Register, who buy their way into the news business with their own personal wealth, seems likely to bring the issue of conflicts to the fore. The same is true of a media entrepreneur of a different sort — eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, who is launching an online venture called First Look Media with (among others) the journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras.

It is the very fact that these individuals have been successful that makes them such intriguing players in the quest to reinvent the news business. But disclosure and non-interference need to be at the forefront of their ethical codes.

Media Nation’s top 10 posts of 2012

be02f758328311e2b55612313804a1b1_7Work-force reductions at The Boston Globe. The end of WFNX as an over-the-air radio station. “Local” news from the Philippines. Possible bankruptcy at GateHouse Media.

These were a few of the top 10 Media Nation posts of 2012 as determined by Google Analytics and WordPress’ own internal statistics.

Most people who read Media Nation come in via the home page, which means that any notion of a “top 10” is dubious. Usually it means that a particular post got retweeted a lot on Twitter or was linked to by a popular media website such as JimRomenesko.com.

But the list isn’t entirely without meaning — and one takeaway for me is that Media Nation’s role as an aggregator and a curator may be its most important. I’ll keep that in mind in the year ahead.

Here is my top 10 for 2012.

1. The Boston Globe keeps on shrinking (July 23). Despite some encouraging signs in the form of rising digital-subscription numbers and a continued commitment to first-rate journalism, The Boston Globe, like nearly all daily newspapers, continues to struggle financially. Last summer Media Nation obtained a memo from Globe publisher Christopher Mayer announcing another wave of downsizing at the Globe and its sister paper, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester.

2. Donna Halper on the future of radio (May 17). Friend of Media Nation Donna Halper was kind enough to write a guest commentary, and her post turned out to be the second most popular of 2012. Halper wrote following an announcement by the Phoenix Media/Communications Group that it would sell WFNX’s broadcast frequency, 101.7 FM, to Clear Channel. Fortunately for local music fans, by the end of 2012 WFNX and the Globe’s RadioBDC were engaged in a spirited competition of online-only local music stations — the real future of radio.

3. Long-distance “local” journalism (July 5). The public radio program “This American Life” and the journalist Anna Tarkov reported extensively on Journatic, which helps community newspapers cuts costs by outsourcing some of their local coverage. At its worst, news was being compiled by underpaid Filipino workers writing under fake bylines. Dubbed “pink slime” journalism by one former practitioner, Journatic underscored what debt-ridden corporate chains will do to survive — and thus demonstrated the importance of independent local journalism.

4. And Joe Scarborough thinks “Morning Joe” is awesome (Jan. 1). A full-page ad in The New York Times for the wretched MSNBC program “Morning Joe” started the gears whirring when I noticed one of its celebrity endorsers was Tom Brokaw. Who, uh, appears on “Morning Joe.” I got to work, and soon found that Politico, which was quoted as praising the program, had an undisclosed partnership. The ad even stooped to using seemingly positive quotes from two reviewers who actually didn’t like it much at all. Disingenuous, to say the least.

5. More bad news for GateHouse Media (March 19). By now it’s not exactly news when executives at GateHouse Media, struggling with $1.2 billion in debt, pay themselves handsome bonuses. (Nor is that unusual at newspaper companies.) In 2012, though, there was a wrinkle at the chain, which owns some 100 community newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts. Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine paged through the company’s financial disclosures and discovered that officials were openly raising the possibility of a bankruptcy filing.

6. David Gregory debates himself (Oct. 1). The host of “Meet the Press” was brought in to moderate the second televised debate between Republican Sen. Scott Brown and his Democratic opponent, Elizabeth Warren. Unfortunately, it was all about David Gregory. Good thing the candidates were forced to weigh in on whether Bobby Valentine deserved a second year as Red Sox manager. Warren blew the question but won the election.

7. From Newtown, a plea for media restraint (Dec. 17). I republished an open letter from John Voket, associate editor of The Newtown Bee, to his colleagues at the New England Newspaper & Press Association following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Voket wrote about “reporters and media crews invading the yards and space of grieving survivors, school staff and responders,” and asked editors “to remind your correspondents that most are still requesting to be left alone.” A heartfelt message from ground zero.

8. Calling foul on politicians who lie (Aug. 30). It would be hard to come up with a more falsehood-laden performance than U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech at the Republican National Convention. Ryan’s lies prompted me to wonder how far the balance-obsessed media would be willing to go in labeling them for what they were.

9. At CNN, getting it first and getting it wrong (June 28). My instant reaction to CNN’s false report that the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the individual mandate in the Affordable Care Act. At least CNN executives flogged themselves in the public square. As we later learned, Fox News made the same mistake — and refused to apologize.

10. An unconscionable vote against the disabled (Dec. 5). My reaction to Senate Republicans’ rejection of a United Nations treaty on the rights of the disabled — a treaty modeled after the Americans with Disabilities Act, championed by President George H.W. Bush, a Republican.

Ghosts of 2011. Oddly enough, the single most popular post of 2012 was one I wrote in 2011 — a fairly terse item on Jay Severin’s return to the Boston airwaves, a comeback that proved to be brief. As I wrote last year, I’ve put up several Severin posts that have generated huge traffic, and I have no idea why.

Brown’s reasons for rejecting debate make no sense

Tom Brokaw

This commentary is also online at the Huffington Post.

What we were talking about, in case U.S. Sen. Scott Brown’s diversionary tactics led you astray, was a televised debate, held before a neutral audience, to be moderated by Tom Brokaw. Everything else is baloney.

As you no doubt already know, Brown made two demands that had to be met before he would agree to a debate with his Democratic rival, Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.

The first was that Vicki Kennedy, president of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute, which would sponsor the debate, refrain from endorsing a candidate for “the duration of the Senate race.”

The second was that the debate be carried only by local media outlets and not by “out-of-state cable networks with a reputation for political advocacy” — clear reference to the liberal outlet MSNBC, which had been mentioned as a possibility.

Both demands were ridiculous because they were irrelevant. But when Vicki Kennedy rejected the first of those demands, that was enough for Brown to say no.

(At this point I suppose I should include a non-disclosure: I’m not related to those Kennedys.)

Brown might have been able to make a reasonable case for asking Vicki Kennedy not to endorse until after the debate. But demanding that she refrain for “the duration” was just silly. If the media consortium that includes the Boston Globe schedules a debate, will Brown insist that the Globe not endorse? And what will Brown say if the Boston Herald, as is its wont, puts together its own debate? Surely he won’t ask the paper to withhold its all-but-certain Brown endorsement.

As for MSNBC, the debate organizers could prevent the channel from carrying it live. Afterwards, though, Rachel Maddow, Ed Schultz and company would be free to show clips and comment on them whether they had carried the full debate or not. The fair-use provision of the copyright law guarantees that — not to mention the First Amendment.

And why did I say the debate would be held before a neutral audience? Because you can be sure the Brown and Warren campaigns would insist on equal numbers of partisans in the audience. So the Kennedy Institute’s sponsorship isn’t an issue, either.

I know some observers have questioned Brokaw’s alleged liberal bias. But since that hasn’t been raised by the Brown campaign, we have to assume he had no problem with Brokaw as moderator. When Brokaw moderated a debate between Barack Obama and John McCain in 2008, he seemed mainly interested in making sure neither candidate exceeded his allotted time. Liberal or not, Brokaw has earned his status as a fair-minded journalist who can be trusted not to throw the debate to either candidate.

It’s also hard to figure why Brown suddenly has a problem with Vicki Kennedy or the Kennedy Institute, given that he took part in a debate with Martha Coakley two years ago that was co-sponsored by the institute without setting any preconditions. As Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis points out, it was only a year ago that Brown couldn’t say enough good things about the late Ted Kennedy’s widow.

Globe columnist Scot Lehigh thinks Brown’s demands were “reasonable,” and he gives the senator credit for sticking to them. Yet Lehigh doesn’t tell us what Brown could possibly gain by failing to take part.

As my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on political debates, puts it, “They’re making such an ­effort to portray Brown as someone with bipartisan credentials who can work with Democrats, and yet here’s this relatively mild example of cooperating with a Democrat, and they’re balking at it.”

Boston Phoenix political columnist David Bernstein wonders if Brown is trying to curry favor with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, which has had its own issues with Vicki Kennedy.

Who knows what Brown and his advisers are thinking? Their political astuteness is generally beyond question. Maybe this will prove to be a smart move. Right now, though, it looks like a rare misstep, especially curious given that Brown initially made the Warren campaign look flat-footed with his rapid acceptance of several debate invitations.

My own bias is in favor of as many debates as possible, regardless of the venue. For instance, I don’t understand why Warren won’t say yes to WBZ Radio (AM 1030) talk-show host Dan Rea, who is conservative but is as fair as they come.

The candidates really don’t have anything better to do. How would we prefer they spend their time? Making television ads? Attending fundraisers? Of course not. They should spend as much time as possible side by side, talking about the issues. It’s not always the most edifying experience, but it’s better than any conceivable alternatives.

Photo (cc) by Michael Kwan and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

MSNBC slings it in full-page ad for “Morning Joe”

"Weird"! "Completely unnecessary"!

We can assume any advertisement that quotes selectively from what people have said about the product being touted is going to be at least somewhat deceptive. But I was so taken aback by one quote in a full-page ad for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in today’s New York Times that I thought I ought to do some digging. The ad, titled “The Most Influential Political Show in America,” appears on the back page of the Sunday Review.

I can’t say I’ve seen a lot of “Morning Joe,” as I’ve never been someone who turns on the TV set in the morning, even when I’m home. I caught a bit of it when I was recuperating from elbow surgery last year, and was put off by the smug, insidery tone. The participation of tired, predictable pundits like Mike Barnicle and Mark Halperin, Salon’s Hack of the Year (and the co-author of a book that used anonymous sources to slime the terminally ill Elizabeth Edwards), doesn’t exactly lure me in any deeper.

The quote in the Times ad that caught my eye, “the best morning talk going,” is from Tom Brokaw, which is innocuous enough — except that Brokaw is, well, a regular on “Morning Joe,” as well as a longtime member of the NBC family. Perhaps that’s not quite as bad as quoting Scarborough as saying that “Joe Scarborough is the sharpest political analyst on television,” but it’s close. So let’s keep going, shall we?

Politico, the ad tells us, wants us to know that “Morning Joe’s team has become the insider’s insider.” I cannot find that particular quote anywhere. What I can find, though, is a 2010 story from the Associated Press informing me that Politico and “Morning Joe” are business partners.

That same AP story is the source of yet another blurb from the ad: “An important wake-up call for political and media leaders.” The full quote doesn’t quite contradict that, but nevertheless places it in a rather different context: “An affiliation with Politico that began about six months ago helped cement the program’s status as an important wake-up call for political and media leaders.”

Speaking of different contexts, the ad also blurbs the phrase “appallingly entertaining,” taken from the New Yorker. I looked that one up, and here’s what Nancy Franklin wrote in 2008: “It’s a weird, completely unnecessary show, and it’s appallingly entertaining.” OK, not a 180-degree contradiction of “appallingly entertaining,” but you will note that MSNBC did not grab “completely unnecessary” for the ad.

Moving right along, the ad cites Forbes as referring to “Morning Joe” as “the hottest morning show.” I tracked that one down to a column written for Forbes.com by veteran journalist James Brady in 2008 — who sounded none too pleased with that development. Bear with me, because this one needs a little air to breathe:

Is the media now really the story? Are journalists now the stars? Is all this incestuous, or is it clever reporting? Just consider these recent examples, a few weighty, some trivial, others clearly absurd:

“Morning Joe,” a couple of hours of political dish on MSNBC hosted by a glib onetime congressman, is the hottest morning show around. Tina Fey of Saturday Night Live for a time was getting more ink than the candidates with her wickedly spot-on devastation of Gov. Palin. Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post backs McCain and blasts Obama while Rupert himself calls Obama “a rock star.” Larry King gets interviewed and reveals to columnist Cindy Adams that his own first great interview was with Eleanor Roosevelt when her husband was still president. Since FDR died in April of 1945, we learn the precocious Mr. King interviewed the First Lady when he was 12.

It doesn’t seem to me that Brady is describing “Morning Joe” as must-see TV.

In 2009, Newsweek described “Morning Joe” as “a serious-minded evening show still wearing its bathrobe and its slippers.” The ad, naturally, does not tell us — as Media Bistro does — that the writer, Colter Walls, had previously worked for MSNBC; that Newsweek and MSNBC were content partners; and that the then-editor of Newsweek, Jon Meacham, was a regular on “Morning Joe.” The conflict-of-interest trifecta!

Some of the blurbs are legit. The New York Times and the American Journalism Review really did give “Morning Joe” a thumb’s up. And some of them are too wonderfully strange for me to want to check. For instance, when you see a quote from Parade imitator USA Weekend calling something “the thinking viewer’s choice,” you just want it to be true.

My bottom line: “‘Morning Joe’ is a … show about politics.”

Photo (cc) by Dave Winer and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

One from the heart

I’m not an Ed Schultz fan. And of course MSNBC did the right thing by suspending Schultz for a week for calling Laura Ingraham a “right-wing slut” and a “talk slut” on his radio show. But give him this: I can’t remember the last time I saw an apology as abject and sincere as Schultz’s. I hope we see a better Ed when he returns.

Ingraham accepts Schultz’s apology.

What’s next in the cable news wars

Rachel Maddow

Three quick hits on the continued fallout over Keith Olbermann’s departure from MSNBC:

1. It looks like MSNBC’s response has been to give promotions to everyone rather than consider what might work best. The network is feeding Lawrence O’Donnell to the wolf (i.e., Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly) at 8 p.m. And Ed Schultz at 10? Really? Aren’t all his viewers in bed by then?

If I were MSNBC honcho Phil Griffin, I’d move Chris Matthews to 8. Matthews is much maligned (I’ve maligned him myself), but he’s still weirdly compelling after all these years. His energy and passion are likely to hold Olbermann’s losses to a minimum. Let Schultz have the 7 o’clock hour and see what he can do with it.

I agree with Griffin’s decision to keep Rachel Maddow at 9. I realize she would do better against O’Reilly than anyone else, but she’s now the franchise, and protecting the franchise is important. If her ratings were to drop below Olbermann’s, it would demoralize the whole operation. And I’d keep O’Donnell at 10, too.

2. CNN, which has slipped behind MSNBC in the prime-time ratings, has an opportunity to take advantage of the Olbermann mess. I’ll confess I haven’t seen Piers Morgan’s new talk show yet, but the clips look very promising — a huge step up from Larry King.

I’ve always liked Anderson Cooper better than “Anderson Cooper 360.” Whatever’s wrong with the show can be fixed. And here’s what’s wrong: inconsistency (you never know whether you’re going to get a solid newscast or tabloid trash) and the two-hour length, which has led CNN to use much of the 10 o’clock hour to flog what’s coming at 11.

The solutions are fairly simple. Cut the newscast to an hour, rebroadcasting Piers Morgan at 11; and up the intelligence quotient.

CNN executives will still need to deal with the toxic-waste pit that is “Parker Spitzer” at 8. I’d move John King’s politically oriented newscast to that slot and cross my fingers.

3. Barring any unexpected bombshells, Bill Carter and Brian Stelter’s take on why Olbermann left seems pretty definitive. But though Comcast, the incoming owner of NBC Universal, appears to have its corporate hands clean, my expectation is that at some point the company will blow up MSNBC.

Maybe it will happen soon. Maybe it won’t happen until Comcast wants to curry favor with a new Republican administration in the White House. But it will happen.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

One final word (I hope) on Olbermann

Olbermann addressing his suspension last night. Click on image to see video.

One thing I could have made clearer in what has proved to be a fascinating discussion about Keith Olbermann’s political donations is that my support for the principle of journalistic independence should not be confused with support for the specific NBC News policy that tripped him up.

The policy, as reported by Politico, is absurd, as it cites the need to remain an “impartial journalist” as its justification, and states that employees may make contributions if they seek permission:

Anyone working for NBC News who takes part in civic or other outside activities may find that these activities jeopardize his or her standing as an impartial journalist because they may create the appearance of a conflict of interest. Such activities may include participation in or contributions to political campaigns or groups that espouse controversial positions. You should report any such potential conflicts in advance to, and obtain prior approval of, the president of NBC News or his designee.

No one would consider Olbermann to be an impartial journalist, and I can easily believe he had no idea he was violating policy when he donated to three Democratic politicians. Not to be belabor the point, but the principle that I think matters is independence, not impartiality. Check out the nine principles in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s “Elements of Journalism.” You will note that two of them deal with independence, but objectivity isn’t even mentioned.

In his commentary last night, Olbermann implicitly described himself as a journalist by saying that the policy needs to be reconsidered in light of “21st-century journalism.” He is doing journalism of a sort. If you can find a meaningful difference between one of Olbermann’s “special comments” and Frank Rich’s Sunday column in the New York Times (one of my favorite reads), then you’re able to draw distinctions that elude me. And I don’t think anyone would argue that Rich isn’t a journalist.

Olbermann last night not only admitted he should have changed a “Worst Person” segment because of one of his donations, but he also quite properly pointed out the problems that would have ensued if he had contributed to Arizona congressman Raul Grijalva before having him on the show rather than after. That strikes me as a pretty good summation of why even opinionated hosts shouldn’t write checks to politicians.

A final observation: A number of people have criticized me and others for obsessing over Olbermann’s small contributions when Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity routinely donate to politicians, and when Fox News major domo Rupert Murdoch has no scruples about giving $1 million to the Republican Governors Association.

They’re right, of course. Fox News is strictly a talk-show operation — the video equivalent of Rush Limbaugh’s radio show. MSNBC aspires to something higher than that. To say that MSNBC is a mirror image of Fox News is akin to arguing that the Nation is just like the Drudge Report. Rachel Maddow explained the difference quite well on Friday. But I don’t think it’s necessary to say “of course, Fox is worse” every time I write about MSNBC.

NBC handled the Olbermann matter badly right from the start, though the final result — a two-day suspension — strikes me as fitting the offense rather well. I’m glad Olbermann is back. And I agree with him that NBC ought to take another look at its policy. I’d make it tougher and clearer.

Welcome back, Keith

And thank you for making my point. Toward the end of “Countdown” tonight, Keith Olbermann said he should have changed a “Worst Person” segment because he had donated to that person’s opponent. I can’t think of a better argument for insisting that even opinion-mongers like Olbermann maintain some independence from the people they comment on — and for banning MSNBC hosts from making campaign contributions.

Update: You can now watch the clip.

Another take on Olbermann’s donations

By Marjorie Arons-Barron

Keith Olbermann’s “indefinite suspension” for violating NBC’s policy barring donations to political candidates turned out to be just two days off the air. Which probably makes sense because his misstep was not in making the donations to three Democratic candidates but in not informing the NBC powers that be, as the network’s policy demands. Put in that context, the “punishment” was just a company’s way of showing who’s boss, of not letting an employee act “too big for his britches.”

The real question remains unanswered: should real journalists make donations to political candidates? The short answer to that is No. Not. Never. If you’re gathering and reporting the news, you need to project an open-mindedness and the ability to tell a story without bias. The Globe’s Brian Mooney and the Herald’s Jessica Van Sack would be sacked if they ever contributed to candidates, I am sure, and their writing would lose credibility.

Keith Olbermann is a journalist only in the broadest sense of the word, “a writer or editor for a news medium.” But the definition of journalism I grew up with was closer to Webster’s definition of one engaged in “the direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation.” That is not what Keith Olbermann is about. Given how clearly he states his political opinions and preferences, he is really more of a news entertainer, just like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity on Fox. If NBC really cares about separating news from opinion, it should bar Olbermann from anchoring coverage of election night returns.

Even when I earned my living as an editorialist, always writing and airing opinion, I would never contribute to a candidate because it would appear to compromise my ability to gather information (on which the opinion would eventually be based) in the most neutral way. I would hope that today’s editorial writers abide by that rule. For they are, in the best sense of the word, opinion journalists.

But in the cable news business, the pitchmen (and women) on Fox and MSNBC are shilling for their viewpoints and favorite candidates on a daily basis. As David Carr points out in Monday’s NY Times, that amounts to an in-kind contribution. Fox News has even had three presidential hopefuls (Newt Gingrich, Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin) on the payroll as commentators. Its website headlines Christine O’Donnell, Carl Paladino, Meg Whitman and Joe Miller.

Fox is fine with all this (hey, Rupert Murdoch donated $1 million to the Republican Governors Association). MSNBC doesn’t ban donations. It only wants those who donate to inform the higher-ups. This is a distinction without a difference.

In today’s cable environment, a defined point of view is part of the station’s brand. It’s why those inclined to the right tune into Fox and those on the left tune into MSNBC. What difference can it make at this time that their stars are donating to candidates? I may not like it, but, if I’m in the market for balanced and credible news, theirs are not the places to which I turn.

Marjorie Arons-Barron is president of Barron Associates Worldwide and the former editorial director for WCVB-TV (Channel 5). You can read her blog here.