On Media: Reviewing Media Criticism on Air

Media analysis: what to watch, and what to skip.

After actually covering the news, the most important thing for the news media to do is to examine itself and think about what it can do better. The genre of media criticism is now full of various programs, approaching the media from a myriad of different perspectives, and here now is a look at some of the programs solely devoted to this craft.

Reliable Sources (CNN)-Sunday mornings 

CNN’s Reliable Sources is probably the most straightforward of these programs. Hosted by longtime media critic Howard Kurtz, the show is very much focused on the week to week movements of the media corps. The discussion topics range from media coverage of campaign gaffes to the business side of media—the program did several segments on the Today show anchor shakeup. Though it easily surpasses its Fox News counterpart in quality, the problem with the show is that  discussions tend to nibble at the edges of broader issues. For example, a segment covering the controversy over New York Times  reporter David Sanger’s recent book on the Obama Administration’s national security strategy, focused on the political back and forth over the sources of the book’s information without even mentioning the Obama administration’s unprecedented crackdown on national security whistle-blowers.

Logo of FAIR’s “Counterspin”

Counterspin (FAIR)-weekly on various community radio stations across North America

A production of the left wing media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting, Counterspin is a weekly radio program and podcast that in three segments; first a review of the week’s news coverage, followed by two interviews. The guests are typically insightful—last week’s show featured a particularly illuminating interview with a newspaper correspondent who had been stationed in Syria for several weeks, discussing not only the media’s coverage of the civil war but the facts on the ground, especially the rebels’ less than absolute attitude towards the human rights of their Syrian army prisoners. The guests are not always as good, but for a left wing critique of the week’s coverage (and perhaps learning about a bigger story you didn’t catch) it’s a good listen.

Fox News Watch (Fox News)-weekly

Coming from roughly the opposite end of the political spectrum, Fox News Watch is the media analysis program of the “fair and balanced” news network. Some may perceive a fair bit of irony in Fox News having a media criticism program, but I decided to watch some clips of the program to get a feel for it. One was a segment from last weekend’s show discussing the media’s treatment of Mitt Romney’s NAACP appearance. The perspective of the program becomes clear when the host, Jon Scott (who also co-hosts one of Fox’s “straight news” midday programs) steers the discussion towards the number of times Romney was applauded during the speech, and the fact that these moments of applause did not lead the coverage.

Another segment from the previous week covering reports of John Roberts’s reputed switch on the healthcare ruling was introduced as asking if the “liberal media” persuaded the justice to switch his vote. Still, I found the discussion in both segments fairer than I expected, perhaps because I was expecting a half hour version of Bernard Goldberg’s appearances on The O’Reilly Factor.

WNYC/NPR’s “On The Media” program logo

On The Media (produced at WNYC, distributed by NPR)-weekends on public radio stations

On The Media is definitely up there as one of the best feature shows on public radio. Unlike the previous two programs, OTM does not approach the media from any partisan perspective, and casts a substantially wider net in terms of topics. For example, in addition to more general trends and flashpoints in media, such as covering the tug of war on Romney’s Bain tenure, the program often discusses campaign finance, civil liberties issues, and more obscure corners of pop culture. While I like the broader focus, the cultural segments are hit or miss; some of these pieces seem to be driven mostly by a producer’s personal interest in the topic, making them less interesting to those not already aware of the subject. The program is at its best when it goes beyond the week to week to discuss longstanding media habits, like this piece on how journalists rely on a small, elite group of sources to comment on any news event even tangentially related to the source’s expertise.

Title card for Al Jazeera’s comprehensive media program, the “Listening Post”.

Listening Post (Al Jazeera English)-weekly

Al Jazeera’s Listening Post would get my vote for the best English language media analysis show in any medium. Hosted by former ABC News reporter Richard Gizbert, (who successfully sued ABC News after his departure, alleging forced war assignments) the program truly has a global focus.  The show has done excellent reporting on the post-Arab Spring media landscape, looking at how the Libyan media covered the country’s first free election, to discussing media coverage of the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan.

When the program does shine its lens on the United States, the reporting is equally incisive. A recent broadcast was wholly devoted to the Obama administration’s “war” on whistleblowers, while a June piece explored how the American national security apparatus has successfully controlled the tone and scope of the US media’s coverage of drone strikes. Video of that report is below.

The piece slightly exaggerates the degree to which critical perspectives on the drone program have been shut out of mainstream national security coverage in the US, but not by much.

Media criticism and analysis has, like many things in the age of new media, been democratized to the point that any old guy, your writer included, can do it. The reporting highlighted here, however, shows that the professionals still manage to turn in a good product. If there are any programs missing here that are worthy of mention, throw it in the comments

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