By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Rage for ratings

Like many observers, Media Nation has been heartened by signs that journalists are finally starting to push back against government officials, even if it took the worst natural disaster in American history to goad them into it. (Jay Rosen’s roundup is here.) CNN’s newly angry man, Anderson Cooper, is becoming more prominent by the day. Yesterday morning, Cooper got front-of-the-arts-section treatment in the New York Times. By last night, he was expounding on “The Charlie Rose Show.”

But is the media’s get-real moment, uh, real? Not to generalize; I’m sure most of what we’ve seen, heard and read is heartfelt. Yesterday, though, Drudge flagged a stray paragraph deep inside Michael Kinsley’s Los Angeles Times column that makes you wonder. Kinsley – who is reportedly stepping down today as editor of the Times’ editorial and opinion pages – wrote:

KINSLEY: The TV news networks, which only a few months ago were piously suppressing emotional fireworks by their pundits, are now piously encouraging their news anchors to break out of the emotional straitjackets and express outrage. A Los Angeles Times colleague of mine, appearing on CNN last week to talk about Katrina, was told by a producer to “get angry.”

Kinsley’s column is really about something else: the human instinct to ignore warnings about disaster until they actually occur. And his “get angry” line is tossed off in such a way that it doesn’t appear he attached much importance to it. But if this has become standard operating procedure at CNN rather than just an odd moment experienced by one of his Times colleagues, then it’s worth investigating further. Spontaneous anger and staged anger are two different things, obviously.

In a post on The New Republic’s website yesterday (sub. req.), Franklin Foer argued that Cooper is nothing but “a Yale-educated Geraldo Rivera.” After describing several examples of Cooper’s heart-on-his-sleeve reporting, Foer continued:

FOER: Cooper, who at times seems to posses a sophisticated ironist’s view of his business, must surely appreciate the dangers of this brand of emotionalism. The suits at TV networks swoon for tears and outrage because they draw larger audiences. (It’s the reason that Geraldo keeps getting hired.) But melodrama and sputtering outrage aren’t precisely the same as truth telling. In fact, they are often the enemies of it. (See Fox News for the obvious case in point.)

Obviously there’s nothing wrong with journalists asking tough questions of government officials, whether those officials are inclined to answer them or not. For too long, the Bush White House managed to avoid those kinds of questions. But to substitute fake anger for supine cravenness isn’t an improvement.

Please understand: I’m not saying that Cooper’s anger is fake. As best as I can tell, it seems to be genuine. But Kinsley’s tidbit suggests there may be something deeper and more disturbing going on at CNN. I’d like to know more.

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  1. Michael

    Great post, and will keep an eye on the coverage a bit closer.It reminds me of the more sensational journalism you can see in some (many?) newspapers. Whether it is in the photographs chosen for the front page, or the news articles where their seemingly isn’t news (and the ed board is on a hunt).Newspapers — all reporters no matter the medium — should report facts first. I would hope ratings and increased circulation will come with honest, but still hard-nose reporting.Mike

  2. Steve

    I’m wondering why this (let’s call it “manufactured outrage”) is an issue now, and not any time in the past decade or so. This sort of direction – “be angry” – has been used by the right for years and years and years, and very few have said a word about it. But now, when the target is the Bush administration, people are SHOCKED that such direction is going on.Pfui!

  3. Anonymous

    I share your discomfort, Dan, with the notion that CNN or the LA Times are encouraging emotional outbursts. That in itself could hardly be in the best interest of journalism. As you have noted previously, at their best (NPR’s Robert Siegel comes to mind), the media have risen to an occasion that they’ve been too afraid or cool-headed to heed during the presidential election to really take politicians to task, as well as to bring voice to the perspective and plight of poor people in our country. As Jim Lehrer pointed out on the news hour recently, but for a tiny bit of lip service paid by John Edwards, the plight of the poor was completely ignored during the presidential campaign.It was as though, at that time, the media could not report on poverty issues because it was their charge to follow exclusively the topics broached by the participating politicians themselves. Well, we all know where that gets us! I say that we need to revisit the possibility that it is a legitimate role of media to focus on issues like poverty. Dan, you once pointed out in your old blog that there are almost no reporters with labor unions as their beat. Now, obviously, that’s not the same thing as poverty reporting, but it is telling that to someone my age, such a thing as “labor reporting” is entirely foreign, or at least a boutique issue for high-concept rags published in Madison, Wisconsin.But, quicky, to visit the concept of emotionalism. I believe the debate is open as to whether or not it is in the best interest of the Left to cultivate a public discourse that is more in touch with human emotions. As Thomas Frank and others have noted, it really has not done the Left much good to adopt a cool, collected or academic posture with respect to the issues that matter to it. It is up to the Left to articulate its position in moral terms, and maybe some emotions are part and parcel of this kind of discourse. Obviously, that’s not a role for CNN, but maybe seeing Anderson Cooper tell it the way it is amidst the horrendous conditions of New Orleans can give the Left some ideas on how to better articulate its very human outrage over injustices fostered by social and racial stratification.- A Reader in Chicago

  4. Anonymous

    A Los Angeles Times colleague of mine, appearing on CNN last week to talk about Katrina, was told by a producer to “get angry.”This line from Kinsley’s column is impossible to judge. 1) the colleague is unnamed.2) it’s unclear whether Kinsley heard this first-hand, second-hand or 8th-hand. All he says is “was told.” there is no attribution.3) the producer is unnamed. for all we know it was a low-level producer flying solo – impossible to tell.4) “get angry” is a truncated quote. what was the whole quote? “Get angry and we’ll pay you more money.” “Feel free to get angry if that’s how you feel.” we simply don’t point: hard to make sweeping claims about the media or cnn from this flippant anecdote.

  5. Anonymous

    Yes, Steve. The Vast Right Wing Conspiracy, (e.g. Geraldo Rivera, Larry King, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Moyers et al) have been doing Kabuki Theater for years (“and years and years”). Why did no one complain about it? Excellent question. “Pfui” indeed…..

  6. Anonymous

    Anderson Cooper has been just one of several journalists who are finally doing the job the media is supposed to do, roles that they failed miserably at during the last election, before and after 9-11, with the Iraq war, etc. Cooper has been one of the best at this during this recent tragedy, with a few others (again, the same ones who failed miserably at other times)also coming to their senses in a responsible way (Ted Koppel, for example, challenged officials on his program in a way we haven’t seen recently.)

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