But oftentimes, so is media criticism. It's not always a professional exercise as much as it is a political one.
That came to mind today when I saw an op-ed published in the Christian Science Monitor by an Emerson College professor. The professor, Jerry Lanson, asked a rhetorical question in his piece: Why did the media largely ignore some anti-war rallies over the past weekend? A participant in the Boston rally, Lanson wanted to know why it didn't warrant some attention.
I'm not suggesting here that the [New York] Times or any news organization should be in collusion with a movement – pro-war or antiwar, pro-choice or pro-life, pro-government or pro-privatization.The piece seemed to open some doors without necessarily walking through them, so I decided to talk with Professor Lanson about his points. While I can't say that I'm on-board with some of his views or perspectives, in the interest of transparency, here is our conversation.
I am suggesting that news organizations cover the news – that they inform the public about any widespread effort to give voice to those who share a widely held view about any major national issue.
Matthew Felling: It's a point of conjecture, to be sure. But why do you think the media failed to cover these rallies, beforehand or afterwards?
Jerry Lanson: I wish I knew the answer to that. It perplexes me to a large extent. We can all come up with theories or guesses having to do with the economics of newspapers today, that their staffs are smaller; they're doing the safe thing; they're piling on the big celebrity story; they're piling on the big sports story. But by doing so, they're running away from their responsibility as I see it – which is to inform the public.
I'm not a conspiracy theorist, if that's where you're pushing me. I don't believe that there's a mainstream press that's owned by large corporate giants and therefore they won't go anywhere near an anti-war rally. I think that it's subtler than that and I think it's subversive.
Matthew Felling: I'm not pushing you towards any conspiracy theory, by the way. But do you chalk up their reluctance to the hyperpoliticized media climate, where charges of bias are everywhere?
Jerry Lanson:: Sure. I do think the news media today are pulling their punches. And if you compare that to the Vietnam period, and the Pentagon Papers, there's really no comparison.
If you look at the coverage of Iraq today, and compare it to the old CBS footage of Vietnam, the old footage showed the battle. I wrote something for the Christian Science Monitor at the beginning of the war, saying that if you go to war, you have to make the commitment to show the images of war. The images of war are bloody and ugly and I don't think we show that today.
And it's not just that the media doesn't show them because George W. Bush says you can't take pictures of the coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base. We don't show that because we choose not to show them.
I know what the reaction to those are, because I was on the desk at the San Jose Mercury News when we decided to run a photo of an American soldier getting dragged through the street in Somalia. That day, we lost several hundred subscriptions to the newspaper.
Matthew Felling: Let's get back to the protests. Media criticism is politics by other means sometimes. Where would you draw the line to notify the public about these protests before or after? What's the difference between 'informing' and 'promoting?'
Jerry Lanson: I think you're right. I got an e-mail today from a photo editor at a small Midwestern paper who was responding to my article. He said they had a memo at his paper saying "we don't want any pictures of anti-war demonstrators if there's a couple dozen people on a street corner." I didn't tell him, but I think that's acceptable. That's when it feels like you're playing a promotional role.
But I think if you have a national day of protest -- which I read had a fairly modest turnout but still approached 100,000 when you combine the numbers for all the places nationwide – planned for weeks in advance. And when it's been written about in alternative media sites like commondreams.org. It's a bit eerie when there's absolute silence in the traditional media about it. How can people make a decision without information? How can people, if you will, even counter-demonstrate if no information is out there?
How can the traditional newsmedia complain and whine that they're losing their readership and viewership if they're not covering news that (A) affects a lot of people and (B) a lot of people are participating in.
Matthew Felling: Well, here's my "Blues Brothers" argument, then. What's to stop 100 Illinois Nazis from complaining about lack of attention to their event, provided they can gather a cluster of people?
Jerry Lanson: The Nazis marching in Skokie, Illinois was certainly covered and the ACLU went to court to support their right to march.
Comparably, I'm a reasonably informed person. I look at 4-5 newspapers daily and some other sites. I was on sabbatical in Europe for 5 months, but I did not know about the Jena Six story until two days before it happened.
I was marching this weekend with my cousin who reads the New Yorker -- which covered this weekend's rally -- and he'd never heard of Jena Six until I told him about it. That's a pretty interesting story about race relations in this country, and it came and left in a day…
But when I got back from France, I had a week of Paris Hilton and how much time she was going to have to spend in jail. I don't give a damn. That's the easy story. It's something that TV can cover cheaply that gets ratings. But it's not something that informs the public dialogue. And it ends up with a public that's not very well-informed.
I teach graduate students at Emerson College. And I spent an hour in class the other day, talking about the structure of the United States Government and how the United States Congress was not the same as their state legislature. Now, I'm not making fun of my students – they're very bright young men and women. They're just not getting the information they need from their schools or the media, the information you need to have a democracy that actually functions.
Matthew Felling: Wait. Aren't you basically telling the news media to commit financial suicide, by running information that you admit doesn't draw ratings, and even costs newspaper subscribers?
Jerry Lanson: Four paragraphs. That's all it takes. Run a calendar item. It seems to me that's not going to kill your newspaper. To include a mention of demonstrations on a day when it rained and the Red Sox were the only topic in town -- which they should have been, mind you – the Globe put the estimate at 10,000 people, I would say that's generous.
But it's a lot of people in the center of the community despite there not having been anything out there – I checked lexis-nexis, the Globe's online archive, Google News – the only thing I saw anywhere in Boston about this particular event was a little blurb in a free alternative paper.
There's a lot of news outlets here, and newspapers have a public role that doesn't take away from their writing compelling reads, covering entertaining stories, investigative pieces. Just give us some basic information telling the public 'here's something that's happening. It's been planned nationwide for a long time.'..
Let me go back to your question. I don't know what the threshold is. I don't know if it's 500 people or 1,000. But if you've got a significant number of people – not 25 people marching for nudity in Boston parks -- it deserves some attention. It's trying to address a serious situation.
Matthew Felling: Professor Lanson, with all due respect. In this conversation, you've tossed out asides about "when I was in France" and "my cousin who reads the New Yorker" ... What's to stop someone playing Liberal Bias Bingo, filling their game board and tossing you into the lefty academic pile, ignoring what you have to say?
Jerry Lanson:I guess I'd tell them that when I was in college in the '60s I had friends who sneered at me for not being left enough. I went to a Quaker college, Haverford, and though my politics have always been liberal, they've never been left. I believe in public discourse. I believe that we cannot govern without coverage of different points of view and discussion about them. And I believe this country is in trouble because it's becoming more and more fractured. People don't discuss their differences, listen to others' points of view, read articles that make them think, etc.
The news industry, in my view, shouldn't be a place where people only read and watch things that reinforce their viewpoints. It should be a marketplace of ideas. But that marketplace is becoming so fractured it's becoming a boutique.