GEORGE KENNEDY: Fox News and MSNBC present news with an ideological twist

Thursday, November 18, 2010 | 1:16 p.m. CST; updated 10:00 a.m. CST, Friday, November 19, 2010

The chattering class is all atwitter over the recent incidents involving Juan Williams and Keith Olbermann. Normal people may not have paid much attention, but maybe you should. I suspect that, as is often the case, the chatter has obscured the real, and important, lessons to be learned from both.

NPR listeners know that Williams was fired after saying on a Fox network talk show that the sight of a Muslim in traditional regalia boarding an airplane makes him nervous. If you’re an MSNBC viewer, you probably saw that Olbermann was off the air for a couple of days, as punishment for having given money to several Democratic candidates during the campaign.

The Williams case ignited one of those instant verbal firestorms, with conservative voices – many of them on Fox – decrying NPR’s “liberal bias.” Even many of NPR’s friends doubted that the firing was deserved and criticized the way it was handled. (Williams came out fine, of course, with a fat Fox contract.)

Olbermann’s suspension has also generated a lot of hot air, much of it emitted by the man himself in a lengthy self-justifying rant when he returned to his program. Ted Koppel, a voice from the Golden Era of television news (as he recalls it), weighed in to criticize not only Olbermann but the whole current shout-fest that takes up much of the 24 hours a day that now must be filled by the cable channels.

The important and largely unmentioned issue underlying both cases, it seems to me, is that we’re living through a revolution in the medium that supplies most Americans with most of our news. We’re seeing a culture clash. Juan Williams and Keith Olbermann personify the conflicting values and standards.

On one side, we have television news as we’ve known it in this country, with the broadcast networks and CNN, as well as radio’s NPR, all committed to the traditional standard of objectivity. Objectivity, at least as I teach it, is the application of the scientific method to journalism. It requires the relentless pursuit of what Bob Woodward famously termed “the best obtainable version of the truth.” As mainstream journalists define it, objectivity demands the separation of fact from opinion.

On the other side, we now have the ideological model of journalism exemplified by Fox. This is a model imported, like Rupert Murdoch himself, from across the Atlantic. Sure, Fox advertises itself as “fair and balanced,” but that’s not at all what it really intends to be. Just spend an evening with Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck.

Now the NBC “family of networks” has made room for an ideological offspring of its own. MSNBC clearly wants to be for liberals what Fox has so successfully become for conservatives. Keith Olbermann might sue if he reads this, but he sounds to me like the liberal version of Bill O’Reilly. (MSNBC has no equivalent to Glenn Beck, who is truly one of a kind, for which we can all be grateful.)

I’m not arguing that our traditional approach to journalism is inherently superior to the ideological model. After all, that model has served Great Britain and much of Europe pretty well for a long time. But it’s sure not what we’re used to, and confusing to many, even within the industry.

Juan Williams, I suspect, is both happier and richer at Fox than he was at NPR. His mistake, and NPR’s, was to think he could work simultaneously in such different worlds. I doubt anybody can do that.

Keith Olbermann isn’t NBC anchor Brian Williams. He doesn’t intend to be and shouldn’t be judged by the same standards. Olbermann, who supports his causes openly on his show, should be free to put his money where his mouth is. Brian Williams doesn’t and shouldn’t.

For us consumers, the important thing to remember is this: Fox and MSNBC are playing by different rules than the broadcast networks or NPR. If you like your news straight up, you’ll prefer the latter. If you like it with a twist, you know where to look.

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism.

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Chris Delbert November 18, 2010 | 2:33 p.m.
This comment has been removed.
John Schultz November 18, 2010 | 2:49 p.m.

MSNBC has no equivalent to Glenn Beck? Maybe, only because Rachel Maddow and Olberman are worse. A pox on all four though (including O'Reilly). There's a reason I get my political commentary from non-talking heads for the most part, substance over style (or shouting).

(Report Comment)
Jake Sherlock November 18, 2010 | 3:51 p.m.

Hey Chris,

Sorry, but I had to remove your George Kennedy comment from earlier because the link was taking me to a potential virus. That's OK for us Mac users, but didn't want to crash anybody else.

That said, maybe this photo of that other George Kennedy?

Jake Sherlock
Opinion editor

(Report Comment)
Chris Delbert November 18, 2010 | 4:07 p.m.

Sorry, Jake, but thanks for being nice about it, offering an explanation, and finding another pic! You guys are awesome! Now how 'bout a beer?

(Report Comment)
Michael Amer November 18, 2010 | 5:13 p.m.

Being earnest, or sincere, in your efforts to provide content to your readers and customers is perhaps your most important task. We learn from both, censorship is not needed we need just an active public to speak their mind and often!We need both sides. As George Kennedy knows the truth is hard to come by from journalism today!
Being earnest, or sincere, in your efforts to provide content to you customers is perhaps your most important task. Which news do you think we should follow around the world? Huff post ? I think not but I do just to see how the rot has set in the US from the left!
“model of journalism “You say-- After all, that model has served Great Britain and much of Europe pretty well for a long time. As you know in GB and Europe they are too frightened , too terrified to openly discuss the issues of the day unless from left wing point of view! Collective memory has effectively erased the European-sponsored horrors of the last century; yesteryear’s “unthinkable” events have become, well, unthinkable. As someone born only eight years after the ovens of Auschwitz stopped smoking, I am stunned by the common notion, which prevails despite ample evidence to the contrary, that such horrors are impossible today
History is no longer taught as a serious subject in America’s schools. As a result, politicians lack perspective; journalists lack meaningful touchstones; and the average person’s sense of warfare and an American issue; has been redefined by media entertainments in which misery, if introduced, is brief.
We have so oversold ourselves on the notion of respect for all religions (except, of course, Christianity and Judaism) that we insist that faith cannot be a cause of atrocious violence. The notion of killing to please a deity and further his perceived agenda is so unpleasant to us that we simply pretend it away. U.S. intelligence agencies and government departments go to absurd lengths, even in classified analyses, to avoid such basic terms as “XXXmist terrorist.” Well, if your enemy is a terrorist and he professes to be an XXXmist, it may be wise to take him at his word.
The paralyzing problem is that our ruling class has been educated out of religious earnestness. Even officials and bureaucrats who attend a church or synagogue each week no longer comprehend the life-shaking power of revelation, the transformative ecstasy of glimpsing the divine, or the exonerating communalism of living faith. Emotional displays of belief make the functional agnostic or social atheist nervous; he or she reacts with elitist disdain. Thus we insist, for our own comfort, that our enemies do not really mean what they profess, that they are as devoid of a necessary truth-transcendental sense of the universe as we are.

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Robert craig November 19, 2010 | 10:25 a.m.

Interesting column. While I'm well aware of Fox News' motto of "Fair and Balanced", I've never included the likes of O’Reilly, Hannity or Beck in my quest for news anymore than I tune into Olbermann or Maddow for news. I suppose I've understood that they're all part of the commentary crowd.
What I tend to notice in "hard news" is the undertone of ideology and how a network goes about presenting it which is why I gave up on the "Big 3" after the Dan Rather debacle.

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