A few days ago Ted Koppel uncorked on the “partisanship” of today’s broadcasting news in an op-ed at the once-proud, once-respectable, but now utterly reprehensible Washington Post. In doing so, he attracted a great deal of praise from all kinds of people, including at least one or two of my highly respected colleagues.
As I argued in a perhaps ill-tempered comment on a Facebook post, Koppel was flat-out full of it. In equating the bullshit that goes on at FOX, the official mouthpiece of America’s conservative political apparatus, with what Keith Olbermann does at MSNBC, Koppel was engaging in the worst sort of false equivalence. In doing so, he demonstrated the truth of just about everything critics of the mainstream media have charged about the institutions of “objective” journalism. Say what you will, but Koppel’s WaPo lament was nothing if not fair and balanced.
Oddly enough, I’d offered a similar challenge to Dr. Denny’s post a few days earlier. In it, he offered an admirable regret over the death of civility in our media, but he, like Koppel, lumped Olbermann in with the likes of Limbaugh, Beck and O’Reilly. We traded comments and I certainly respect his perspective, and I especially appreciate how tiresome the sniping can get.
My argument in both cases, though, was straightforward. KO has perhaps had his uncivil moments. In truth, so have I, and mine have been bad enough that they contributed to the erosion of some important personal relationships. These are times that try men’s souls, I suppose. But in a court of law, the truth is always a defense. So it should also be in journalism. If Olbermann has been angry and intemperate, he has tended to rely on facts, whereas those with whom he is being conflated begin lying as soon as they wake up in the morning. This is not a partisan cheap shot, it is documented and demonstrable fact.
Do we seriously only care about decorum? Is a man speaking the truth as bad as a man who lies every time his lips move because he doesn’t behave as politely as we’d like?
By now my opinion is probably evident.
It was only a matter of time before Olbermann weighed in to defend himself, and his comments ought to be a must-view for anyone who sets out to practice journalism, in this country or any other. In scope and gravity, in the critical essence of the challenge it represents to what has become of legacy, faux-objective institutional journalism, it stands alongside Hunter Thompson’s comment in the epilogue to Better Than Sex. In case you’re not familiar with that passage:
Some people will say that words like “scum” and “rotten” are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.
Let’s be clear: it is wrong to dismiss the accomplishments of our golden age of journalism, epitomized (as Olbermann rightly notes) by the likes of Cronkite and Murrow. However, what those men did bucked the influence of power and money in ways that we simply don’t see these days. As KO notes, their shining moments were not landmarks of objectivity. On the contrary – they were absolutely awash in the selection dynamics of subjectivity. Ironically, this was also true of Ted Koppel’s best works (in the video below, pay very close attention at about the 10:30 mark for an explanation on why this is true that is bound to warm the hearts of media and cultural studies students everywhere).
In his comment, Olbermann firmly but politely stomps Ted Koppel’s balls off. Not the Koppel of old, the Koppel whose defining work stands as the sort of vital journalism that all aspiring reporters and editors should aspire to, but of the contemporary Koppel, a man who has apparently invested a great deal in a skewed myth of himself drawn from a history that never quite understood the truth about itself. That truth? There was never anything terribly objective about what Koppel was doing.
What follows are 12:37 of absolute must-see TV. Pay particular attention at the 5:00, 6:00, 6:30, 10:30 and 12:00 marks, because those are the points where the truth weighs especially heavily.
If I have behaved inappropriately toward my colleagues I apologize for my behavior. But I offer no apologies for the point of view, and encourage them to consider the possibility that civility and truth don’t always go hand-in-hand.