On February 7, Jonathan Yardley published a rant in The Washington Post about how the once noble art of press criticism has deteriorated into ‘just another variation on the culture of narcissism, celebrity and gossip.’ Exhibit A was, of course, the popular Web site MediaGossip.com, and Yardley dutifully spanked the Poynter Institute for retailing such trivial fare.
Yardley fretted over “the way we live now,” in that media reporters produce countless stories about media personalities, and contrasted it with “the long distant days of my apprenticeship,” when journalists were taught to check their egos at the door. And he waxed nostalgic about the socially conscious press critics who contributed to [MORE] magazine in the Watergate era.
Yo, Jonathan. If you’re looking for substance, check out the Web site at www.mediachannel.org, which I’m sure you’ll find edifying. In fact, Walter Cronkite thinks so highly of it that he wants you “to make Media Channel your portal to the Internet.”
Media Channel is the brainchild of Danny Schechter, an independent TV producer who says he got into alternative journalism “in the ’60s, because of what was known at the time as a credibility gap in the media. We became very skilled at reading between the lines about how the media works.”
Schechter later worked at CNN and ABC, won a Nieman Fellowship and two Emmy Awards. In 1987, he and Rory O’Connor started Globalvision, an independent company that produces documentaries on social issues. Globalvision has typically produced quality work, but sometimes had trouble distributing it to a mass market.
With the rise of the Internet, Schechter saw a chance for more impact. He admired the business model of OneWorld.net, a nonprofit British site with links to about 700 nongovernmental organizations, so he convinced One World Online to partner with Globalvision New Media and to share its search engine. George Soros’s Open Society Institute (OSI) and the law firm Fish & Neave donated computers, and former ad exec Ken Ferris designed the Web site. Several foundations kicked in seed money, including the Rockefeller Foundation and OSI.
The result, www.mediachannel.org, is a one-of-a-kind “super-site” that provides issues-oriented, “reliable and critical” information about the media. Features include a daily news roundup, reports from hot spots such as South Africa, China, and Sarajevo, forums on the pros and cons of online journalism, and op-eds by the likes of Nadine Gordimer. “We’re different from the media critics who focus on personalities or mistakes,” says Schechter, now executive editor of the site. “We’re looking at institutions and at media on an international stage.”
The chat room should be up soon, and the site already invites whistle-blowers to submit anonymous tips—a function that caught Cronkite’s attention. In a written endorsement, Cronkite encouraged “people inside the media” to drop a dime on employers who pressure them “to go along, to get along, to place the needs of advertisers or companies above the public’s need for reliable information.” Schechter says they’ve already gotten a few tips.
Despite its limited budget (projected operating costs of $1 million a year), Media Channel may turn into a critical success. Its launch has Cronkite talking like Otis Chandler, Bill Kovach writing fan mail, and media celebs Ken Auletta and Michael Wolff lending their names to a recent roundtable on merger mania. So you’d think the mainstream media would have jumped on the story by now. (Guess again.) But the lack of interest doesn’t surprise Schechter, who explains, “I don’t think a lot of media institutions want to strengthen independent media perspectives.”
PS to Yardley: Your thesis falls apart on closer inspection. [MORE] magazine did publish critiques of, for example, press coverage of the bombing of Cambodia, but it also ran personality profiles (Hunter S. Thompson, Marshall McLuhan as the first celebrity media critic) and chronicles of institutional infighting (The New Yorker’s fact-checking feuds, the 1971 resignation of Harper’s editor Willie Morris).
That is, press critics are as self-obsessed as ever. What’s changed in 30 years is the medium, which now distributes a lot more messages a lot faster.
The Disappearing ‘Wound S’
For a case study in editorial spin, consider the February 9 coverage of the testimony of Dr. Joseph Cohen, the pathologist who did the autopsy on Amadou Diallo. Cohen was the final prosecution witness at the Albany trial, and all four daily newspapers in New York captured his point in either headlines or captions (e.g., “Diallo Shot While Down,” the Daily News; “At least one bullet hit Diallo while he was on the floor, a pathologist says,” The New York Times).
You might gauge how important various editors deemed the story by the space they gave it: about 22 inches in the Times; 20 in the News; 13 in Newsday, where columns run wide; and 13 in the New York Post, where columns run tight. But in this case, the illustrations told the real story. While the prosecutors enlightened jurors with photographic and X-ray evidence, editors had to stick to diagrams showing the precise entry and exit points of the 19 bullets that hit Diallo when he was gunned down.
As diagrams go, Newsday’s was the largest and most detailed, showing entry and exit points for all 19 bullets, with explanations corresponding to the coroner’s testimony. The Times’s diagram was smaller, and highlighted all the significant bullet wounds. The News focused narrowly on “Bullets Key to Prosecution Case” and “Bullet Key to Defense”—the latter being the bullet that entered Diallo’s right leg just above the ankle and traveled up his leg, lodging behind the knee.
That ankle bullet, and its corresponding “Wound S,” is a hotly disputed piece of evidence, and three of the papers gave some indication of the complicated debate it inspired between prosecutors, who say it proves Diallo was shot while down, and defense lawyers, who introduced crime scene photos to dispute that allegation. But the Post’s Laura Italiano skipped the complexity, mentioned Wound S only in passing, and failed to flag it as key to Cohen’s thesis.
The Post’s illustrations didn’t shed any more light on the issue. Rather than placing a diagram based on the coroner’s testimony next to the text of the article, as the other three papers did, the Post ran a crime scene drawing on page one, accompanied by the headline, “Deadly Barrage.” The drawing showed 17 bullet wounds, with no indication of entry and exit points, and no clear representation of the controversial Wound S. Two foot wounds were missing altogether. Thus, the Post buried Dr. Cohen’s entire thesis.
The bias returned in a February 13 story, which the Post illustrated with two diagrams showing the opposite directions Diallo’s body might have turned as he was shot. (Clever lead: “It all comes down to spin.”) At the end of the story, Italiano finally introduced readers to “Wound S,” wrapped in a swaddle of defense rhetoric.