Opinion

Jack Shafer

In praise of tabloid TV

Jack Shafer
Jul 5, 2013 22:16 UTC

Allow me to defend cable TV’s extended live coverage of the George Zimmerman murder trial, even though I’ve not watched a second of it, nor have I tuned in to any of the nightly rehashes aired on CNN, HLN, MSNBC and Fox News Channel. Championing the Zimmerman telemania puts me at variance with the critics of tabloid TV, who want the cable news networks to focus their cameras instead on the Cairo uprising, President Barack Obama’s climate speech, the slaughter in Syria, voters’ rights, the NSA outrages, Wall Street, congressional hearings, and other examples of “meaningful” and “important” news. Directly disparaging CNN’s Zimmerman surplus at the expense of the Egyptian uprising is New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who asserts that the network’s new president, Jeff Zucker, “wants everyone in his company to know what the priorities are: Mini-series in the center, world events off to the side.”

Rosen is right about what Zucker wants. But the call for more broadcast hours devoted to news “that matters” and fewer hours of TV trials — that, as many have accurately put it, are barely distinguishable from CSI episodes — might have been more persuasive in the days when the television audience had only the three broadcast network newscasts to choose from, when the only national newspaper was the business-oriented Wall Street Journal, when there was no real-time access to foreign newspapers and broadcasts, and when researchers were only fantasizing about something as ubiquitous as the Web. But today’s media menu gives the news audience more opportunities than ever before to find the news that others might describe as meaningful and important. It might have made sense three decades ago, when CNN was getting started, that its over-coverage of one story was blotting out other, more worthy stories. But that critique doesn’t apply to 2013. CNN, which used to be the only TV news meal at times of breaking international news like this, is only one of the entrees. Any number of sites have live-streamed the Egyptian protests on to the Web and sharply reported, photographed, and filmed accounts from Cairo are only a hashtag search away the reader’s eye. Go ahead and complain about CNN if you want to, but footnote your critique with easily accessible alternative sources.

In today’s media environment, the media critic who insists that the cable networks follow Egypt and drop Zimmerman is like the nudging dining companion who wants to order both his meal and yours, lest you embarrass him by mistakenly ordering the burger and fries. He finds the burger and fries déclassé and bad for you and would rather you add something more tofu-and-wheatgrassy to your media diet.

To be fair, the best tabloid TV contains more nourishment than any burger and fries platter, even if it will always be déclassé. If you read HLN’s transcripts from Nancy Grace’s shows about the Zimmerman case, you’ll absorb enough information about how the criminal justice system works to write a MOOC on how to defend or prosecute a murder case. Most of what a layman needs to know about police investigations, police interrogations, witness rights, evidentiary standards, jury selection, and courtroom strategy can be found in Grace’s shriekings and those of her commentators. A week’s worth of her Zimmerman coverage probably contains as much civic education as any half-dozen Frontline documentaries on PBS.

The transformation of some of TVland’s laziest couch potatoes into armchair lawyers began in the early-1990s, as Court TV (now TruTV) lent its relentless attention to the murder trials of the Menendez brothers and of O.J. Simpson. CNN has preserved Court TV’s greatest hits on a page that links to highlights from the trials of the Menendez brothers, Simpson, Timothy McVeigh, Andrea Yates, Michael Skakel, William Kennedy Smith, Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, Phil Spector, and more. Like every audience that’s ever gathered around a fire, TV viewers hunger for stories about the fall of the great, of infanticide and rape, of jealous murder and madness, of child abuse and racial or clan conflict. The TV trials of George Zimmerman, Jodi Arias, Casey Anthony, and all the others engage viewers because the human fascination with sordid and depraved stories seems to have no limits.

What an NSA charm offensive looks like

Jack Shafer
Jun 27, 2013 22:04 UTC

Banged and bruised in the press over the NSA secrets liberated by Edward Snowden and serialized in the Guardian and the Washington Post, the national security establishment resorted to a little media offense earlier this week with a series of conversations with major news outlets.

As media blitzes go, it was sedate and vague. The natsec establishment made its first landing in the Washington Posts June 25 print edition, where two unnamed senior intelligence officials speculated about the damage done to U.S. national security by the leaks (“U.S. is worried about security of documents Snowden has”). The Post reported:

“Already, several terrorist groups in various regions of the world have begun to change their method of communication based on disclosures of surveillance programs in the media, the official said. He would not elaborate on the communication modes.”

NSA and the Pandora’s box of surveillance

Jack Shafer
Jun 24, 2013 22:18 UTC

Let’s assume for a moment that National Security Agency Director Gen. Keith Alexander was telling the truth yesterday on ABC News’s This Week when he said that the NSA material leaked by Edward Snowden “has caused irreversible and significant damage to our country and to our allies.”

That would mean that the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and other friendly nations that depend on the NSA’s ability to suck electrons out of the ether, store them, sort them, and computer-analyze them for intelligence purposes, have suffered mightily. Unlike tornados, tsunamis, earthquakes or hurricanes — disasters that tend to inflict only temporary damage that can be repaired — Snowden’s leaks have visited upon the national security of the allies a blight that can’t be rolled back or ameliorated. It’s permanent. It’s everlasting. You know, it’s irreversible, as the general said.

According to Alexander, the Snowden breach ravages a program that has contributed to the “understanding and, in many cases, disruptions” of 50 terrorist plots, obviously implying that the unauthorized disclosures will hinder the future understandings and disruptions. While Snowden is the confessed thief of the data, he’s not the one who made the theft possible. Surely his superior, or his superior’s superior, or his superior’s superior’s superior, or somebody on the NSA organization chart designed a flawed system that was easily defeated by a junior contractor. Surely a large bag filled with heads will roll at the NSA for this grievous lapse, and Alexander will accept responsibility for his own shortcomings and step down from the NSA so the president can assign a more competent director.

Snowden versus the dragons

Jack Shafer
Jun 18, 2013 22:19 UTC

One measure of our culture’s disdain for whistle-blowers like Edward Snowden can be culled from the pages of a thesaurus. Beyond “source” and “leaker,” few neutral antonyms exist to describe people who divulge alleged wrongdoing by the government or other organizations to the press, while negative synonyms abound—spy, double-agent, rat, snitch, informer, fink, double-crosser, canary, stoolie, squealer, turncoat, betrayer, traitor and so on.

We bristle at the scent of whistle-blowers for atavistic reasons: They’ve violated the norms that bind the group together and must be scorned and punished, and their only allies are like-minded individuals who’ve deserted the pack—or joined opposing packs—and portions of the press, which occupies a floating niche somewhere between the individual and the group that allows it to thrive on such principled perfidy.

But even the press in aggregate is not a friend to whistle-blowers, as its recent treatment of Snowden attests, what with the deep dives into his teen years (including photos), his education and employment history, his reputation as a loner and a “brainiac,” his pants-down hijinks, his online scribblings, his dancer girlfriend, his predilection for (in his own words) “post-coital Krispy Kremes.” Squeezing every possible query at every known commercial database, journalists worldwide have aped the National Security Agency’s snooping skills to track down Snowden’s friends, associates, neighbors, schoolmates, relatives and colleagues to instapaint his portrait.

Edward Snowden and the selective targeting of leaks

Jack Shafer
Jun 11, 2013 22:47 UTC

Edward Snowden’s expansive disclosures to the Guardian and the Washington Post about various National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance programs have only two corollaries in contemporary history—the classified cache Bradley Manning allegedly released to WikiLeaks a few years ago and Daniel Ellsberg’s dissemination of the voluminous Pentagon Papers to the New York Times and other newspapers in 1971.

Leakers like Snowden, Manning and Ellsberg don’t merely risk being called narcissists, traitors or mental cases for having liberated state secrets for public scrutiny. They absolutely guarantee it. In the last two days, the New York Times’David Brooks, Politico’s Roger Simon, the Washington Post‘s Richard Cohen and others have vilified Snowden for revealing the government’s aggressive spying on its own citizens, calling him self-indulgent, a loser and a narcissist.

Yet even as the insults pile up and the amateur psychoanalysis intensifies, keep in mind that Snowden’s leak has more in common with the standard Washington leak than should make the likes of Brooks, Simon and Cohen comfortable. Without defending Snowden for breaking his vow to safeguard secrets, he’s only done in the macro what the national security establishment does in the micro every day of the week to manage, manipulate and influence ongoing policy debates. Keeping the policy leak separate from the heretic leak is crucial to understanding how these stories play out in the press.

The spy who came in for your soul

Jack Shafer
Jun 8, 2013 03:13 UTC

Using EFTPOS (electronic funds transfer system at point of sale) in a store in Sidney, Dec. 11, 2012.  REUTERS/Tim Wimborne

Leaks to the press, like hillside rain tugged seaward by gravity, gather momentum only if the flow is steadily replenished.

After a major leak to the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald resulted in a scoop Wednesday about the National Security Agency’s harvesting of phone records, reporters instantly mined their back pages for leads and rang up their sources to amplify and extend his story, and went looking for leakers of their own. In other words, the press pack prayed for rain.

Eric Holder’s power waltz with the press

Jack Shafer
May 31, 2013 22:56 UTC

The Washington journalism establishment —which allows federal officials to go off the record every minute on the minute — got a little picky this week after Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. invited reporters and editors over for an off-the-record meeting about the Department of Justice’s handling of the investigations of national security leaks to Fox News Channel and the Associated Press.

New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson sent her pithy regrets: “We will not be attending the session at DOJ. It isn’t appropriate for us to attend an off-the-record meeting with the attorney general. Our Washington bureau is aggressively covering the department’s handling of leak investigations at this time.” The AP sent a similar snub, as did CNN, McClatchy Newspapers, the Huffington Post, CBS News, NBC News, Reuters and Fox News.

“If the government wants to justify its pursuit of journalists, they ought to do it in public,” McClatchy’s James Asher said.

Facebook and the outer limits of free speech

Jack Shafer
May 30, 2013 01:11 UTC

The great thing about the Web is that it has given the opportunity to billions of people, who would otherwise never have had a chance to publish, to express their most urgent thoughts with an Internet connection and a few finger-flicks. It’s also the Web’s downside, as you know if you’ve had the misfortune to encounter a triple-Lutz revolting page during a Google search.

But thanks to the First Amendment, there are few U.S. laws banning expression on the Web outside of posting child pornography, specific physical threats, libel or copyright infringement. So there are few ways to eliminate hostile, ugly, vile, racist, sexist or bigoted speech from its many, many pages.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no recourse should you find content on the Web you disapprove of, as we learned this month when Facebook surrendered to a protest and boycott led by two groups, Women, Action, and the Media and the Everyday Sexism Project, and activist Soraya Chemaly. They opposed depictions of rape and violence posted by Facebook users and demanded, among other things, the removal of such “gender-based hate speech” from its pages. They also sought better policing by Facebook moderators to block future user-posted content that “trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women.”

What war on the press?

Jack Shafer
May 24, 2013 20:26 UTC

President Barack Obama has declared war on the press, say writers at Slate, the Daily Beast, Reason, the Washington Post (Jennifer Rubin, Dana Milbank and Leonard Downie Jr.), Commentary, National Journal (Ron Fournier), the New York Times editorial page, CBS News, Fox News (Roger Ailes) and even Techdirt. Scores of other scribes and commentators have filed similar dispatches about this or that federal prosecution “chilling” the press and pulping the First Amendment. Downie, who could open an aquatics center with the leaks his reporters collected during his 17 years as executive editor of the Washington Post, calls the “war on leaks … the most militant I have seen since the Nixon administration.”

The most recent casualties in the alleged press war are Fox News Channel and the Associated Press. The phone records of reporters at these outlets were subpoenaed by federal investigators after the organizations published national security secrets. Then you have New York Times reporter James Risen. Federal prosecutors have been trying to force Risen onto the stand in the trial of alleged leaker-to-the-media Jeffrey Sterling (CIA) since the latter days of the Bush administration. When media strumming on the free-press topic reaches full volume, reporters and their defenders include the leak prosecutions of Thomas Drake (National Security Agency) and John Kiriakou (CIA), even though no journalist (or journalist record) appears to have suffered a subpoena in these cases. (However, the indictments in both the Drake and Kiriakou cases cite email communications with journalists.)

Championing the besieged press has become so popular that some Republicans have switched sides. Even the commander-in-chief of the alleged war, Barack Obama, has proved himself capable of making sad faces about the “war” on journalism! In his national security speech Thursday, he said, “I am troubled by the possibility that leak investigations may chill the investigative journalism that holds government accountable.” Obama went on to promise a review of the Department of Justice guidelines on press subpoenas. These are the guidelines that ordinarily exempt reporters from federal subpoenas and which his Department of Justice ignored in the AP and Rosen investigations. To make nice with the press, Obama promised to convene a powwow of DoJ bigwigs and media organizations to address the press corps’ “concerns.” (Word to my press colleagues: Invitations to discuss “concerns” with bureaucrats are usually a prelude to a kiss-off.)

What was James Rosen thinking?

Jack Shafer
May 20, 2013 22:33 UTC

Just open your Twitter feed and listen to the Washington press corps howl about the Obama administration’s latest intrusion into their business.

From the mainstream we hear the grousing of Washington Post National Political Editor Steven Ginsberg, Washington reporter John Solomon and the Associated Press’s Matt Apuzzo. From the partisan corners come the protests of the Daily Caller’s Tucker Carlson, the New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza, Fox News Channel’s Brit Hume, the Guardian‘s Glenn Greenwald and the chronically underemployed Keith Olbermann. All deplore, in vociferous terms, the excesses of a Department of Justice leak investigation that has criminalized the reporting of Fox News Channel’s James Rosen.

While I join this chorus of rage, I also wonder how much of Rosen’s trouble is of his own making. Did Rosen get caught and get his source in trouble because he practiced poor journalistic tradecraft?

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