On Media

The following was originally published at the Urban Times on January 25th, 2013. It is republished here for archival purposes.

How an uncritical media have helped distort the American education debate.

The current American debate over education reform has centered, for the most part, on several major themes; that American schools are, in some broad sense, “failing”, that American students are vastly outperformed on international tests of assessment by ‘lesser’ nations, and that teachers and their obstinate unions are the main reason for this failure.

This June 2011 piece in the prominent American magazine The Atlantic by former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein is an excellent example of every one of those above elements distilled into one article, down to its title, “The Failure of American Schools”. While the piece was written by a former public official intimately involved with the “education reform” movement, it is only slightly more ‘biased’ on the subject than treatments of the issue by  most journalists.

Before continuing, it should be said that one of the main underpinnings of this standard “failure” narrative—lukewarm American scores on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), administered by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—is in many ways flawed. For one, the jurisdictions tested don’t lead to apples to apples comparisons. Scores for the entire Chinese school system, for example, are not available; rather the cities of Shanghai and Hong Kong, both highly unrepresentative of the “average” Chinese student, participate in the test. Even for the places where true country to country comparisons are being made, a closer look at the test scores shows that the source of America’s middling international ranking is more  ineffective education of chronically disadvantaged ethnic groups, rather than a fundamental problem with all of American pedagogy.

That American schools are “failing”, in the sense that they are not adequately preparing their students to compete in the global economy, has become an article of faith of not just education reformers, but of the media itself. A study looking at media coverage of the subject from October 2010 to October 2011 found that 10 percent of all education news coverage was framed through a crisis frame, portraying the system as irreparably broken and incapable of fully educating its students. 20 percent of these pieces did not even engage in a discussion of solutions.

Melinda Gates (of the Gates Foundation) visiting a Chicago school in 2007. The Gates Foundation has been a big proponent of the current education 'reform' movement.  (image: Gates Foundation / Flickr)

Melinda Gates visiting a Chicago school in 2007. The Gates Foundation has been a big proponent of the current education ‘reform’ movement, and has received largely positive media attention as a result. (image: Gates Foundation / Flickr)

In terms of solutions, another major flaw of American education coverage is that it has by and large bought the claim of education reformers that most blame for the supposed ‘failure’ of American schools falls with teachers, as opposed to external social problems in impoverished school districts. This teacher-centric understanding has prompted media outlets in both Los Angeles and New York to publish—with teacher names attached—reports prepared by the respective school districts on teacher effectiveness based on a “value added” score, or a measurement that purports to measure the year-over-year improvement on standardized test scores a teacher provides to a student, accounting for socioeconomic differences. However, these statistics are highly flawed,often failing to adequately control for socioeconomic status and fluctuating wildly from year to year. Still, these evaluations were made public, with the predictable backlash towards teachers who scored poorly on this dubious metric.

However, the biggest problem with the media’s coverage of education is an aggravating tendency to cast any and all signs of improvement in near-messianic terms. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the generally positive, if not effusive, coverage charter schools have received from the media, even including a blockbuster 2010 documentary,Waiting for “Superman”, which focused on the lengths families went through to get their children into charters. The film, which portrayed charter schools as the be-all and end-all of education reform, reflected many of the problems with regular media coverage of charters and reforms in general; an inability to recognize the variation in quality among charters—there are some that are as bad as the worst public schools in their states—an overreliance on anecdotal storytelling, and a lack of context on education trends in the US independent of what the ‘reformers’ are saying, likely a product of many media outlets no longer staffing education beat reporters.

It would be unfair to characterize the entire media as having failed in reporting on education reform; even the media outlets that released the “value added” data in New York and Los Angeles followed up with reports exploring the flawed nature of the data, for example. However, what is clear is that public misconceptions like the widespread publicbelief in the effectiveness of charter schools, can be largely blamed on inadequate media coverage.

Moussako, Abraham. “The Media and Education Reform: The Triumph of Neat Narratives.” The Urban Times, , sec. Critical Conversations, January 25, 2013.


American coverage of the Lebanese Civil War was muted for much of its duration, owing to the low US military involvement. (lifted from the “collectivehistory” tumblr page)

War, Death, and indifference.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?

Who cares? That tree fell in an African forest, not an American one.

This past Wednesday, I covered for the Columbia Journalism Review a talk about war photojournalism at the Brooklyn Brewery. If you haven’t already, read the piece I wrote up on the event (don’t worry, I’ll wait).

One of the most interesting tidbits from the conversation between Steve Hindy and photojournalist Michael Kamber that I ended up leaving out of the piece–because it was a bit tangential to the main idea–came close to the end of the event. The answer was in response to a slightly lighthearted question asked of Steve–himself a former war correspondent–about whether reporters once had a bar to go at the end of the day and discuss the day’s events. (the question was asked by a reporter who had covered Iraq for the Times) Steve responded that the real difference between Iraq and the conflicts he had covered was the presence of Americans on the ground. The conflicts he had covered in the Middle East during the 70s and 80s ranked comparatively low on the American news agenda. As he put it, “who cares if the PLO and the Phalange get into a horrible battle in Beirut and 40 people die? There was no American there except us…in a way I was envious of the wars you guys covered because at least for a time, Americans were watching.”

This idea, that people only really care about wars when their own countrymen [and women] are fighting in them itself isn’t too surprising, and I’m not going to act like one of those slightly annoying types (see twitter) who feign outrage whenever this type of thing happens. If we take a more recent example, some pointed out after the Boston bombings that while only 3 people died in the attack that day, far more people died that day in Syria and other conflict zones around the world. As these critics pointed out, those other people died on the wrong day in terms of getting the world, and certainly the American media, to care about their deaths–the “hierarchy of death,” as a columnist for the Guardian put it.

If we look at the coverage of the recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, we’re seeing the same thing. Despite knowing the identities of two of the three deaths (a third death was announced earlier Friday evening, as of this writing), the media generally limited their coverage of the two who died, simply saying that they were both Chinese students who were coming to the US on vacation. Humanizing enough, but nothing like some of the heartfelt, textured portraits of the victims from the Boston bombings.

I mentioned earlier that I’m not necessarily outraged by this cold reality. Why? Simple. The media, with some exceptions, is a reasonably clear reflection of the audience they serve. People, for better or for worse, cope with the sheer amount of “bad things” in the world by limiting their reaction to those events to those they feel some sort of connection with, be it being from similar circumstances, places, or, in this case, nationality. It’s why, when a ship somewhere crashes, NPR talks about the Americans on the ship, and CBC talks about the Canadians on the ship. These outlets are reflecting the fact that their audience cares about those they feel the closest connection to.

Accidents like the Costa Concordia are excellent demonstrations of how international media first look to cover the fates of occupants from the outlet’s nation.

Now what can be said for this? In the abstract, it’s certainly fair to talk about the arbitrariness of national borders, the accident of birth, all that stuff. In an ideal world, people would care about the deaths (and lives) of people equally, regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, or profession. But they don’t, and probably never will. (David Wong over at Cracked gives even more analysis on this idea of rationed empathy in his “Monkeysphere” piece) To the extent that people are hard-wired to think this way, and also to the extent that it is physically impossible to give the same prominence to every news story, it’s logical that the news media–even public, not-for-profit outlets–would reflect their audience’s interests. The unavoidable problem, in the end, is that worthy stories–like that battle in Beriut some thirty years ago–often get shunted to the inside pages because of this instinct.

The latest in a not particularly long evolution of columns.

The latest in a not particularly long evolution of columns.

Part 1 of a multi-part series, this time looking at the highlights of my own body of work.

Over the past year and a half, I have written a total of 15 columns for the McGill Tribune. Most of them have been alright, some have been good, and some have been decidedly mediocre.  But that goes for anyone who writes. I decided here that it would be useful to look back at the general evolution of my pieces, and, of course, the hits and misses.

My first column for the Tribune was a piece on the controversy on the constitutionality of Obamacare and why the Supreme Court should vote to uphold the law. It was an unremarkable column; perhaps the most memorable aspect of it was that the folks at the Tribune misspelled my name as “AbrahamMassouko”. The writing itself was competent though not top-notch, and the opinion expressed (Obamacare is a decent though flawed attempt at reform, and the bill works under the Commerce Clause as previously interpreted) is about as original as the selection of panelists on a  Sunday show roundtable.

Over the time I’ve been writing columns, I  have struggled with the question of whether to focus the space on happenings on campus, or things happening elsewhere, be they provincial, national, or international. Campus politics are often (contrary to the claims of some) unimportant, except for the very, very few times when they are important.  Of the columns I have done, a third—five—have centered on campus politics. Two of these pieces, “Safe Space Strife” and “Moral Superiority and Student Politics” were incredibly controversial, and I’ll address the controversies around them later. In general, I have found that my columns discussing campus politics were among my better pieces, especially in comparison to some I have done taking a well analyzed but not particularly strong stance on a non-campus issue.

The problem with all student journalism on the McGill campus, however, is its general irrelevance to the wider student body, and I include my own columns in this. This is why controversy, while certainly uncomfortable when semi-anonymous internet commenters are casting aspersions on your fitness for society, is also refreshing in that it is proof that people outside of the 30 or so friends that can be cajoled into reading your columns are actually reading your work.  “Strife” and “Superiority”, as just mentioned, were undoubtedly the most controversial columns I have written, with both prompting letters to the editor, a phenomenon that is fairly rare at the Tribune.

For those unfamiliar, “Safe Space Strife” was a bit of a departure from  my normal columns in that it involved actual reporting, in this case on rumors of an intra-executive dispute at Queer McGill. The piece discussed the removal of one of the executives at the organization on the grounds of an arguably dubious Equity Complaint. While it went on to become one of the most-read pieces on the Tribune’s site for several weeks—likely the result of  being referenced in a “McGill Memes” posting— it also prompted complaint from the dismissed executive; in his view I had misrepresented his side of the story. I also was contacted by my then-editor about complaints about the piece from unnamed sources. In the end, a small correction adjusting one of the facts ran in the next issue, and the dismissed executive wrote a letter to the editor further outlining his side of the story. While I think I did an alright job with that piece, it definitely was a missed opportunity in many respects.

On the other hand, “Moral Superiority and Student Politics” is, in my humble opinion, one of the best pieces I have written for the Tribune. The first of my columns this year, “Superiority” was  a commentary on one of the major elements of rhetoric implicit (and sometimes explicit) in much of the campus left, which is that involvement in campus politics is some sort of “obligation” in the fight for global social justice. As I discussed, that sort of rhetoric was laid on thick during the MUNACA and student strikes last year. One of the columnists I referenced (but did not name) as an example of such “sanctimoniousness” posted the article for condemnation on their facebook profile (the posting is public), and condemned it was, as “trash”,  a “piece of shit”, and other such invective. The article itself also generated a decent sized comment thread, a rarity on the Tribune website. Two letters to the editor were also sent to the paper the next week, the first of which actually made fair points about the piece. The second one could probably be described more as comic relief than anything, or proof positive of my original point.

So what’s next? In general, I would say that my columns have improved over the time I’ve been writing, but at a far slower pace after my pieces from late last year.  Next term should feature at least one or two on-campus controversies worth writing about, and I probably will try my hand at some other forms of journalistic writing. We’ll see.

The logo for both the Arabic and English channels.

The upstart international network has crafted an identity all its own.

Al Jazeera English (AJE), in its short, 6 year existence, has quickly managed to climb that upper tier of English language news networks, with newsgathering resources and establishment credibility on par with what previously were the unchallenged leaders in this realm, CNN and the BBC. While much of this certainly has to do with AJE bulking up early on journalistic talent from  CNN, the BBC, and other establishment quarters, another, more visible but less remarked element in Al Jazeera’s success is its branding.

I had been thinking about this for some time since I first watched the channel, but it hit home a few days ago while I was watching the channel’s flagship bulletin Newshour with my mom. In the middle of a piece on rebel fighting in Chile, she remarked that the channel looked like your standard international news organization. “You don’t feel like you’re watching something from the Middle East,” was how it was put.

Origins of the suspicion

But this leads us to ask why Al Jazeera has to overcome unease in the United States. Aside from the vague suspicion that anything associated with the Middle East has been subject to in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Al Jazeera also gained a bad reputation in the eyes of US officialdom for broadcasting the messages of Osama Bin Laden.

For many Americans, this is the image the phrase “Al Jazeera” brings to mind. Not a good starting point for marketing a network in the US.

In some ways it is unusual that broadcasting these messages created the impression of Al Qaeda sympathies in the first place; both the New York Times and the Washington Post published the manifesto of the Unabomber, Theodore Kaczynski, while he was still perpetrating his string of mail bombings. NBC after the mass killing at Virginia Tech broadcast tapes from the gunman. Both of these circumstances were certainly controversial, but none of these organizations were accused of being “sympathetic” to the aims of the killers whose messages they aired. The only basic differences in these cases were scale (Bin Laden was responsible for exponentially more deaths) and the fact that Osama Bin Laden was a foreign enemy.

The other aspect that made US officials uncomfortable with Al Jazeera was its coverage of the Iraq war. Unlike the generally deferential coverage from American networks to both initial claims of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and of the first months of war, Al Jazeera’s coverage took a very different tack from the American networks, showing injured Iraqis and captured Americans in addition to those ubiquitous shots of “shock and awe”.

US officials had two main responses to Al Jazeera’s war coverage, as vividly shown in the 2004 documentary Control Room. On the one hand, the United States often publicly denounced the network’s journalism, through Donald Rumsfeld’s feisty news conferences. On the other hand, US officials realized that Al Jazeera had a large audience in the Middle East and brought on spokespeople to tap into the network’s large Arab audience. Still, the US was mostly hostile to the network, and its Baghdad office was even bombed by American warplanes in an incident officially termed as a mistake. The film, for the interested, is embedded below.

Rebranded in English

The English language version of Al Jazeera, which launched in 2006, does make some clear breaks from the Arabic channel. AJE obviously targets a substantially different audience of international elites and that is reflected in coverage choices; fewer Middle East stories, and a greater emphasis on areas under-served by other western news outlets (Africa, Latin America). The differences, however, are less subtle than that. For comparison, the Arabic channel in those early days of the Iraq war leaned on a red and blue colored set of lower thirds:

A screencap of Al Jazeera Arabic, taken from the network’s coverage shortly before the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

Another image, taken from Al Jazeera Arabic’s Iraq coverage.

The English channel launched with a completely different template, emphasizing a stark, crisp white and orange scheme. The studios also have a different look.

A screencap from the English network’s 2006 inaugural broadcast.

And an image of one of the network’s main studios in Doha, Qatar.

For comparison, here are what AJE’s two main competitors, BBC World News and CNN International, offer in terms of their on-air look:

An image taken of BBC World News covering the Libyan uprising last year.

A screen-cap of CNN International’s initial coverage of Qaddafi’s death,

As you can see, Al Jazeera’s look is rather reminiscent of the BBC’s. This generally “western” template is one that new English-language international news channels from a variety of countries are using in a bid for credibility with viewers.

Hurdles to credibility in America

Even with all of these efforts, AJE still might not be able to break through the ambivalent to hostile preconceptions of many Americans. A study done at the University of Michigan tried to gauge how people viewed Al Jazeera after actually seeing the network. One group of participants watched an Al Jazeera report on the Taliban’s view on peace talks in Afghanistan, while a second group watched the  same report altered to mimic the look of a piece pulled off of CNN’s website. A third control group saw no report. All three were then surveyed on their views on the bias of Al Jazeera English and CNN International. Results showed that even though watching the report with CNN branding raised opinions of CNN, those who saw the original AJE report had similar perceptions of Al Jazeera’s bias as those who didn’t see anything. (full study).

A close look at the full results indicates that this is by no means conclusive, as the study had only 177 online participants. Still, there seemed to be a general view among participants that Al Jazeera presented an “Arab” view of the news. Unsurprisingly, negative feelings towards Islam were correlated with negative views of the channel. What can be said is that while many Americans have come to appreciate Al Jazeera’s coverage, western graphics and commonwealth-accented reporters still might not be enough to gain a foothold.

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

NPR’s (now former) Washington, DC headquarters. Are we measuring the bias of its reporting from the wrong side?

In which I discuss the criticism of NPR from a part of the political spectrum you may not expect.

If you ask the typical American right winger why public broadcasting should be robbed of the pittance it receives from the federal government, they will typically give you a two pronged critique. One, that public broadcasting is not the role of the government and should be left to the marketplace. The second would probably be a content based critique.

The Right’s narrative on NPR

While the right wing has come to treat as an article of faith that all of the media—except for the oasis of balanced fairness that is Fox News—has a “liberal bias,” NPR has become one of the central targets for criticism. Recent controversies over comments an NPR development official (fundraiser) made in one of James O’ Keefe’s hidden camera stings and the firing of Juan Williams, the ideologically ambiguous black commentator at the station, intensified right wing ire at the organization.

The Conventional Wisdom

Indeed, the idea that NPR has, if not an actual left-wing bent in its journalism, than the overpowering ethos and sensibility of left leaning upper middle class white elitists, is basically conventional wisdom, even among less ideological media observers—noted New York Times media reporter David Carr said of the network, “In terms of assignments and sensibility, NPR has always been more blue than red, but it’s not as if it has an overt political agenda…”

The Left’s Criticisms

Leaving aside the fact that even this conventional wisdom is less true than one would believe, what all of this talk obscures is the rather strident and growing criticism of NPR from the left. Some of this criticism is to the effect that NPR has simply become more of an establishment outlet, as it progressed from its genesis as a loose association of campus and community stations to the sort of nonprofit that gets philanthropic gifts from foundations of the wealthy and powerful. Others criticize NPR’s reporting as giving too much airtime and credence to “pro-corporate” right wing economics and not including true progressives in the debate. The third, and in a sense, most ironic argument, is that similar to the coverage of the New York Times (another target of right wing ire that is actually deeply disliked by the movement left), the sensibility of NPR is really skewed towards the interests of the supposed “1%”—one percent radio was how one critic described it.

Too Establishment?

First to the criticism that NPR is too establishment. A piece by the left wing media pressure group Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) a decade ago discussed NPR’s then groundbreaking success in public broadcasting, and while the writers did consider the broadcaster much better than commercial radio, which was “slid[ing] deeper into an abyss of mediocrity and corrosive gunk,” they also expressed concern about many aspects of the organization. They noted, for example, that several the executives in charge of NPR at the time of the piece (2002) were previously involved with overseeing the US’s international broadcast operations, which are explicitly considered to be tools of foreign policy influence.

Two other aspects the FAIR piece criticized were the lack of “diversity of perspectives” on the network in both the realms of domestic and foreign reporting (this aspect was elaborated on in a different study by the group), and the reliance of the present day public broadcasting model on corporate underwriting packages.

Too Establishment: Stenography in the realm of national security?

The subject of national security reporting is perhaps where the movement left has focused their sharpest critiques of NPR. Critics allege that the network’s reporting, much like that of other mainstream media outlets, hews too close to Pentagon-approved takes on war and presents a narrow, military-strategy focused range of debate (I wrote about this previously). Another piece by FAIR went as fair to deride NPR as National Pentagon Radio for airing a cordial interview with one of those ubiquitous retired generals on war strategy.

NPR Counter-terrorism reporter Dina Temple-Raston has been the subject of criticism from the left over a recent report on Iran.

Earlier this year, Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald (now with The Guardian) wrote a scathing commentary on a story by NPR’s national security correspondent on the supposed growing threat from Iran. Greenwald contended in his critique that the piece exemplified all that was wrong with establishment Washington reporting—reliance on government sources, uncritical relaying of State Department views, and a lack of real questioning of American government motives in the realm of external policy.

Incidentally, the same NPR reporter, Dina Temple-Raston, attacked Greenwald back in 2010 over his criticism of the US government’s assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki. In an exchange that was picked up by bloggers from both the liberal American Prospect and the libertarian Reason Magazine, she told Greenwald that his criticism was invalid because she learned classified information from government sources of Awlaki’s guilt in orchestrating terrorism. The rather unusual exchange, which occurred at an NYU symposium on the First Amendment and the Constitution, is in the video below beginning at 53:00.

NPR’s ombudsman (to their credit, NPR is one of the few major news organizations that still has one) has fielded some of these complaints about the broadcaster’s national security coverage. Back in January, Robert Naiman, the head of another left leaning watchdog group, flagged a report on Iran’s alleged nuclear program because the reporter, Tom Gjelten, used phraseology implicating Iran as having a fully fledged nuclear program, something which is far from a known fact. The ombudsman responded by acknowledging the validity of concerns about NPR’s national security coverage, but contending that the very premise of the report treated the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program as a hypothetical future event, rather than a present day certainty as Naiman’s criticism implied. After listening to the report, it is clear the NPR ombudsman’s narrow point of rebuttal is valid, but a quick look at the comments shows that most commenters saw the almost-semantical defense as missing the point.

Before I move on, I should note that NPR, to its credit, did prepare their own analysis of the network’s Mideast reporting for the early portion of this year, which addressed their Iran coverage. However the report did fail to address Temple-Raston’s March report on Iran that triggered Greenwald’s criticism.

NPR: Too sympathetic to the right wing in domestic coverage?

Domestic reporting  is where the other portion of left wing criticism of NPR is directed, and while some of this has come from the expected quarters on the left—FAIR’s commentary on NPR’s reliance on typical beltway sources implicitly argued this, some of this criticism has also come from media journalists from non-ideological outlets—last year, the Columbia Journalism Review’s healthcare and campaign journalism critic Trudy Lieberman criticized an NPR report on the future of Social Security.

Lieberman focused on the fact that the report by congressional correspondent Dave Welna was premised on the Republican argument that Social Security is insolvent and in imminent need of radical restructuring. The report, in Lieberman’s view, treated this trope not as a political argument of questionable validity, but as a confirmed fact, and heavily relied on sourcing from Republican politicians on the program. The same CJR writer flagged two other NPR pieces on Social Security for similarly doubtful premises (one and two).

Logo of the American Public Media program “Marketplace”, which contrary to popular belief, is not an NPR program.

Other economic reporting on public radio has come for scorn from the left. The popular business program Marketplace, which, while heard on most stations during broadcasts of NPR’s All Things Considered, is actually produced by the wholly separate organization American Public Media, sparked some controversy last summer when one of its reporters lashed out at a viewer annoyed with the program’s coverage of the debt ceiling. The original segment concerned the markets’ reaction to the debt ceiling deal. The reporter, Heidi Moore, told the host of Marketplace:

“One of the things that people on Wall Street are really concerned about is entitlements: Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. Those are obviously huge flashpoints for people, but investors want to see the costs for those come down before they really have confidence in us.”

The viewer, a New Hampshire 63 year old, was rather offended by this framing, and wrote back:

Elizabeth Fisher: I was really angry because she [the reporter] made it sound like investors are just waiting to see whether we’ll actually make the cuts to entitlements. And I’m 63, and I’m sitting here hoping there’s going to be enough left of the entitlements so that I can survive the rest of my life.”

The reporter, Heidi Moore, responded to this letter in a post on her Tumblr blog, arguing that austerity was necessary to restore the US’s credit ratings, and that criticizing the media for reporting what Wall Street is thinking was not productive. The Columbia Journalism Review’s business press critic, Ryan Chittum, criticized the reporter’s point about Wall Street reporting, but also argued that her very premise on austerity was untrue and based upon short term numbers.  A quick look at the Tumblr responses again shows that CJR writer was not the only one to find her sentiment disagreeable. Here is a particularly biting response.

The debate on the left about NPR continues

While agreeing with many of its critics on the left, public broadcasting fixture and noted progressive Bill Moyers argues it is still a viable alternative to commercial media.

Every time one of those “defund public broadcasting” debates is instigated by Congressional Republicans, there is a smaller debate inside the left about whether public broadcasting is worth saving at all. FAIR says not in its current form, while some have given up on the organization altogether—one former listener has been writing a blog, NPR Check, critiquing what he perceives as a right wing slant at NPR for several years now—but others see it differently. Public broadcasting luminary and strident progressive Bill Moyers co-authored a piece for Salon last year which advocated for a defense of NPR. Though Moyers agreed with the premise that other alternative media programs, like Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! do a better job of Speaking Truth To Power than NPR and PBS, he writes:

“better a diamond with a flaw — a big flaw — than a pebble without. For all that it [public broadcasting] provides — but mainly because it is a true journalistic, rather than ideological, alternative to commercial and partisan broadcasting — we continue to support government funding of public media until such time as a sizable trust or some other solid, independent source of funding, unfettered by political interference, can be established that will free us to tell the stories America most needs to hear.”


My own thoughts on this left wing critique of NPR are somewhat muddled. I will say here that I personally am an avid listener of NPR and have done some outreach work for my own public radio station (where I have heard some listeners voice similar concerns about a rightward drift at the national organization). In terms of national security reporting, it is clear that the pieces mentioned earlier were very problematic for their uncritical transcription of Pentagon and intelligence community claims, and indeed are symptomatic of larger problems with the US media’s treatment of American foreign policy.

On economic and political reporting, while the organization has produced some dubious reports (as even the best of the media do), the bulk of NPR’s economic coverage has a depth and evenhandedness that truly separates it from the fare of other media outlets. The movement left is correct in arguing that NPR isn’t Democracy Now!, but I would argue that this is neither an indictment or a compliment because NPR is not intended to be “alternative” media in the same way the Amy Goodman program is. DN approaches the world from an avowedly progressive perspective, which is not the role of a public broadcaster.

MSNBC correspondent reporting from Egypt this morning.

In which I deliver exactly what is in the title.

This morning I woke up and as usual turned on the TV, awaiting my typical ritual of cruising through the Sunday chat shows, soaking up the conventional wisdom and political dogfighting.  Then, as I was watching, I remembered that an election was to come to a conclusion. The Egyptian election commission, after several days of tension, was finally to announce their results.

The coverage of these results is interesting to look at because it shows how long an attention span various media outlets have to the beginning of the next phase of the “Arab Spring”, the story that captured the world for the first half of last year.

I was first watching MSNBC’s Up With Chris Hayes, the network’s recent attempt to emulate a Morning Joe style chat show with a left wing bent. Anyhows, the program, just before 9 in the morning ET, went to the NBC News correspondent in Tahrir Square, Ayman Mohyeldin. The correspondent, a transplant from Al Jazeera’s English operation, delivered a competent and insightful report. The one part that stuck out at me was when the guests on the program’s panel also questioned the correspondent. One of the guests, an Occupy Wall Street activist, asked whether the more established groups in Egypt were able to take advantage of new political environment at the expense of smaller grassroots groups, similar to the disadvantage OWS faced. Considering the strange analogy the question drew, the correspondent answered it well.

I switched at 9 to CNN to see what they were doing. State of the Union with Candy Crowley had just started, and the program, thankfully led with the Egyptian election news, though it did not devote the whole hour to it. Egypt correspondent Ben Wedeman and Christiane Amanpour reported from Tahrir Square, while a former Egypt ambassador and CNN’s “Foreign Affairs” reporter (likely someone working out of the State Department) gave analysis out of the studio. The on-scene correspondents provided good analysis, while the in-studio talking heads reminded me of a complaint I heard about CNN’s coverage of the original protests in Egypt—“like watching the revolution from inside the White House,” as one commenter on Reddit put it.

A representative screencap of CNN International’s coverage, The shot of the square on the left was attributed to Reuters. Notice the feed from Egypt state TV for the announcement itself on the right.

CNN’s hour, of course, shifted back to typical Sunday show fare of politics and partisanship. After taking a break from the television to attend to other things, I shifted to Al Jazeera English, which I manage to get on my TV system thanks to a local channel in New York that simulcasts it on a digital subchannel. Anyways I came back partway through the press conference where election commission head Farouq Sultan was announcing the result. AJE stuck with the conference audio longer than CNN and the BBC, even once it was clear he was going to go through some bureaucratic house clearing before actually giving the result. Back on CNN, the 10 AM hour, normally filled by Fareed Zakaria’s program, was rightly preempted by a simulcast of CNN International’s coverage of the election returns. In addition to Wedeman and Amanpour, they now had Dan Rivers reporting from the headquarters of Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate with closer ties to the Mubarak regime and, in the minds of voters, the current military junta.

Al Jazeera, unsurprisingly, had the best coverage of the proceedings. Their translator of the results conference was excellent, and clear. I make this note because CNN’s translator was awful and not really intelligible. In fariness, it is hard to know whether or not this is because CNN’s translator is bad, or Al Jazeera simply has access to much better translators by virtue of its fully fledged Arabic operation (the Arabic channel probably has people translating speeches from English, after all). While I am at it, AJE clearly had more resources in the region—they had their own camera angles on the square and more camera shots in general. BBC World News also had more cameras in the square. Meanwhile, CNN, even though they had several correspondents on the ground, also was relying on video from Reuters and Egypt’s state television feed for the wide shots of the square.

Al Jazeera correspondent from Tahrir Square in the aftermath of the result’s announcement.

Some other notes here on American channels: what (negatively) surprised me was that, especially since the actual announcement of the results came in the middle of the Sunday show slots on the east coast, none of the network news divisions broke into their programs to deliver the result—ABC was talking the upcoming Supreme Court rulings, Fox (main network, not cable) had their panel, NBC had Marco Rubio, and CBS had Rick Perry, which made me flip the channel the other way as fast as possible. Even if the programs were revised for west coast airings, this is a major oversight, considering the likely far-reaching effects of Egypt’s leadership on American middle eastern policy.

Meanwhile in the cableverse, MSNBC had intermittent coverage of the results, and  Fox News—which I turned to briefly to get a sample, did have a correspondent at Tahir Square who floated as a plausible possibility that Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood winner, would turn Egypt into an Iran style theocracy. I shudder to think who they had giving analysis in studio.

So that is that. I will be back later this week with a piece on criticism of NPR from a surprising part of the political spectrum, and whatever stuff I think of.

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