Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Clash of the Trifles

It seems that within the tremendous armed conflict in Libya, there is another tiny battle raging between the American news outlets covering the events. Harsh professional criticisms and personal insults have been passed back and forth between Nic Robertson of CNN and Steve Harrigan of Fox News, each on-the-ground correspondents in Libya.

It is not often that I can say I'm inclined to take the side of the guy representing Fox News, but that's the situation here. From the reports that I've read, Robertson fired first. It seems that it's become common knowledge that Fox is a shitty news organization, with an entrenched narrative that evidently considers the truth irrelevant. So it's also become commonplace for people to reflexively point to Fox News when launching criticisms of broader news reporting, or when a journalist tries to build up his own esteem by comparison. But let's keep two important points in mind here: First, the facts of Fox News' bias and disregard for journalistic evidence doesn't make that criticism equally applicable to every individual within the organization, or every instance of reporting by it. And second, Fox News is only the worst individual player in the entire, overwhelmingly shitty industry that is the modern news media.

The current story, in short, is thus: Fox News anchor Jennifer Griffin made a dubious report about the Libyan government utilizing journalists visiting the Gaddafi compound were effectively used as human shields. This prompted Nic Robertson to deride the report and accuse Fox of "lies and deceit" before moving to attacks on Steve Harrigan, Fox's only correspondent in Libya, whom he implied was a lazy, hands-off reporter. Harrigan has subsequently shot back, explaining his journalistic practices, his rationale for not visiting the aforementioned compound, and describing Robertson's own journalism as "Bullshit."

What that journalism entailed in this case, for Robertson and for numerous other reporters, was getting on a bus tripped organized by the Libyan Ministry of Information in order to tour a bombed site. Harrigan has claimed that such trips occur almost every day, and has described them as essentially propaganda, and as often being a waste of time. In light of that commentary, Robertson was evidently also irked that Harrigan sent a member of his staff to gather footage at the site, without going himself to report on it first-hand.

You know what? That seems like the appropriate delegation of responsibility for a competent journalist working in tight conditions. I see no reason why Harrigan should have been personally present to a trip led by one side of the conflict he's supposed to be covering. If the regime wants to try to lead the narrative, I praise the reporter who exploits that effort to gather resources for the story while focusing his personal attention elsewhere.

What gets to me about Robertson's position is that he's taking a self-righteous stand in favor of the ineffectual habits that have become endemic in journalism since the first Gulf War, when most reporters stuck to designated "press pools," and utilized direct access to the US government and media as their sole means of information-gathering. Since then, it seems that in foreign conflict, and indeed in every story whatsoever, the role of the media is simply to parrot official sources. The notion of pounding the pavement and gathering information from diverse people and places seems to be lost on most modern reporters. And the fact that people like Robertson take umbrage with those who object to media excursions amidst those who have only one side of the story to tell just goes to show that bad reporting has become so normal, so accepted, that its actually considered wrong to do anything else.

I'm not saying that Harrigan is an exemplar of good journalism. I'm just saying that he's probably trying to do the best he can, considering that he's the only correspondent in Libya from his news organization, and has to make live reports from his hotel roughly every half hour. So I think he's right when he says of Robertson's criticisms:

I can stand outside my balcony and report what I see," he said. "I can talk to people about what they see...but for someone to say I'm lazy who doesn't know me, who's not in our working condition, who doesn't know our schedule...this guy has a screw loose! (Source)

In short - and it's absolutely tragic that this is the choice we're left with as media consumers - I'll take no reporting over awful reporting. And even if Robertson is getting the better story out for CNN than Harrigan is for Fox, unless he's stepping into the combat zone to report on events first hand, and talking to people on the ground, he has no business criticizing anyone else for not properly doing his job as a journalist. There are precious few journalists left who are doing their jobs properly, and those few are heroes, and they don't need to lash out at their competitors to present themselves in a better light.

Again, I'm firmly in Harrigan's corner when he says:

Is that heroic what he’s doing? He puts on his blue blazer and gets on the government bus, and then pats himself on the back and calls that news? Bullshit.

Yes, it's bullshit. No better than the bullshit that Harrigan's outlet peddles every broadcast day. It's all part and parcel of the standard operational bullshit of the modern-day news media.

So the breaking point that I'm most hoping to come out of this is two-fold. I'd like reporters to realize that if your organization is better than another, it's no grounds for a self-righteous conviction that you're better than any member of that organization. And over and above that, I'd like them to realize that if one organization is better than the absolute worst in the business, that doesn't mean that it's any damn good.

Additional Sources:

No comments: