Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Tea Party? Neil Covuto a Journalist?

Can we talk about responsible reporting? The role of a reporter is to report news, not create it. I was not going to say anything about these "Tea Party" events, but I've been watching Fox News and what I see offends me as one who attended the William Allen White School of Journalism (what some of its cynical students call the William Allen White School of Yellow Journalism and Muckraking).
For those who are not students of journalism history, yellow journalism refers to a trend in the early 1900s when the competition for readers (and their money) led to some pretty scurrilous techniques to win circulation numbers (some things never change). Characteristics included huge scare headlines about minor stories, faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudo-science, and false or misleading information from so-called experts, dramatic sympathy for underdog of the "system," among other things.
A hundred years later, we seem to be in a similar situation with cable news networks. I have heard reports that the moving force behind today's "Tea Party" activities was Fox News. I'm reluctant to assign blame because, honestly, I do not know this to be the truth. There has been plenty of talk about the events on mainstream news shows as well as Fox and its competitors. What I did observe as I watched Fox News was Neil Cavuto making news, not reporting it. Certainly the ads I saw promoting "Tea Party" coverage seemed to be more along the lines of creating a news event than simply promoting coverage of a spontaneous event. When Fox News can switch monitors and ask leading questions of the gathered crowd, it goes beyond reporting and becomes instigation. When Cavuto interviews a 9 year old child, asking "How does it make you feel to know that you will have to pay for all this government spending?" it is not a journalist asking a reasonable question of a source. It is the kind of leading question that would get a true journalist fired from any reputable news organization. It certainly would be deserving of a low grade at WAW School of Journalism. Cavuto frequently asked his interviewees if they came because of him or because they wanted to protest taxes. Fox News coverage of these "Tea Party" activities feels to me like the yellow journalism of a hundred years ago.
Fox promos of their "Tea Party" coverage become the scary headlines about minor stories. Interviews with 9-year old "sources" comes close to a faked interview, particularly when the questions are unnecessarily leading. Interviews with people who claim taxes are killing them when the fact is that taxes today are at the lowest rates (in most cases) in more than 12 years certainly resembles misleading information from so-called experts. Sounds like the classic definition of yellow journalism to me!
Much of what I see on cable news networks falls in a similar category, but Cavuto's blatant appeal for numbers thinly disguised as news reporting reaches a low not seen in nearly 100 years. I hope it does not take a century to reach the muckraker stage where journalists undertake true investigative reporting, to dig through the "muck" to get at the origins of the news stories that shape our views of the world!

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