Sunday, September 27, 2009

Clinton's "vast right-wing conspiracy" quote: That's not the news

I’ve been putting off starting my Real World Media blog, but I came across a news peg today that left me anything but speechless.

I watched "Meet the Press" this morning, as I do every Sunday. David Gregory led with a terrific segment from an interview he conducted Friday with former President Bill Clinton.

The piece covered a broad range of topics, and Clinton was, as usual, on point. He answered Gregory’s thought-provoking questions with characteristic eloquence, commenting on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Iran’s nuclear plant outing, Obama’s performance in his nine-month “honeymoon” period, health care, the economy, the Clinton Global Initiative and even a one-liner on whether he still has political ambitions.

Now, I’ve been a journalist for 35 years. I’m old school in the sense that I have ink flowing through my veins, Watergate and Vietnam still in mind, and Hunter Thompson in my heart. My grandfather’s uncle, Fremont Older, was a San Francisco institution as editor of the city newspaper that rivaled William Randolph Hearst’s Examiner.

I’ve been a founding editor of USA Today, managing editor of the Gannett New Media Group, founding editor of Inter@ctive Week (the tech magazine that's now called eWeek), editor-in-chief of United Press International, and chief content editor for quite a few online news operations.

I love the Internet. I love to read my news online. I don’t think online journalism is inherently bad. And I believe there are still some great journalists out there. NBC's Richard Engel, for example. I feel proud every time I watch him and listen to him, and I worry about his safety as he jumps from war zone to war zone to keep us informed. They don’t get any better.

So when I hit on CNN this afternoon and saw the lead story: "Bill Clinton: 'Vast right-wing conspiracy' as 'virulent' as ever," I thought to myself: OMG. I mean, really? If you haven’t seen the interview, go to MSNBC’s site and watch it for yourself.

Choosing that minute and relatively insignificant question and answer as the lead story is shoddy, lazy, and dirty journalism at best. And it was CNN. It wasn’t even Fox News.

(Wait, hold that thought while I check out the Fox news site.)

Okay, I’m back, and, yes, Fox has it, too. At first I didn’t see it. What I noticed first was a rather repulsive and large ad -- in the right-hand column in the "above-the-fold" position – for a tooth-bleaching product.

How could you not notice giant yellow teeth with braces on them in a place you used to read your news? I finally spotted it, though, below and to the left of the yellow teeth. The headline: “Bill Clinton: Obama Focus of Right-Wing Conspiracy.” Now NPR is running it on its site, having picked up an AP story titled, "Bill Clinton Speaks of Vast, Right-Wing Conspiracy."

This makes my blood boil. That interview was full of fascinating quotes from a highly respected former president. And although I did find it interesting to hear Clinton’s take on whether Obama has been the object of a right-wing conspiracy, I can tell you one thing: That most certainly was not the news story in the interview. In fact, I’ll bet the editors who edited those stories and wrote those headlines are too young to know the origin of the phrase “vast right-wing conspiracy.” I seriously doubt they could discuss “Whitewater” or the death of Vince Foster off the top of their heads.

This isn’t the kind of "news" I signed up to report, write and edit in the 1970s. And I know there are plenty of good journalists – either still working or laid-off – who feel the same way. Journalism isn’t in trouble because we’re reading it online instead of on paper. It’s in trouble because of poor judgment on the part of sloppy, clueless, and often angry, people who handle carelessly the precious gem we used to call the "news."

There’s still reason for hope, though. Look at how NBC played the story on the network’s MSNBC website: “Clinton talks poverty, climate on "Meet the Press." David Gregory didn't even mention the "conspiracy" comments in his breakout box of highlights from today's show.

That’s how the late Tim Russert, veteran moderator of “Meet the Press,” would have played it, too.


  1. i can't wait until the next thing that pisses you off comes along. your rants keep me laughing.

  2. My reaction? The exact opposite of Danko's.

    Good for you!

    News and journalism today have allowed themselves to become faint echoes of what they were as recently as twenty years ago.

    To illustrate, compare the press and TV treatment of the 1991 Iraq war with what we get today about Iraq and Afghanistan. In 1991, you actually could learn a great deal. The newspapers and TV were sending informed investigative reporters out there to cover what was going on, and both the mainstream TV media and the public TV programs had abundant in depth interviews, conducted by journalists who were thoroughly knowledgeable and not about to ask stupid, uninformed questions or accept studid or deceitful answers.

    But those journalists are substantially all gone now. Instead, for the most part today's mainstream newspaper and TV masters are so unwilling to spend money on investigations, and on deveoping reporters with real investigative competence, and/or so afraid of our government's response to potentially unfavorable independent and knowledgeable investigation and reporting, that what we typically end up with are press releases, nothing more.

    It really is sad to see how almost the whole fourth estate is acquiescing in this slow, collective, suicidal abandonment of its former achievements and responsibilities.

  3. Susan:

    I loved your comment, and agree with you wholeheartedly. I think the degradation of the news media creates an enormous opportunity for persons of intelligence & discernment to move into the abandoned "space" vacated by outfits like CNN, and from what I hear from my journalist friends, Pro Publica is doing a respectable job.

    I am also wondering if I could send you a personal email about a case I worked on. I would appreciate your feedback if you'd care to offer it.



  4. When I was in high school some 50 years ago, we had a fri civics lesson where we each had to bring in a news article and be able to comment on it. I really don't think that this is possible anymore. the news is so corrupted by opining rather than reporting. the blogosphere is highly polarized on current events. People nowadays appear to prefer 10 second sound bites where they are told what to think and only believe what they already were in line with. When I was in school, kids were taught to think, now kids are taught to the multiple choice test. my children were in school in the 80' & 90"s. I made it a point to have dinner table conversation (something else which appears to lost out to TV) on current events. and my now adult children understand how to think look at facts not rhetoric.

    I miss the standards of reporting which I learned,which was to get information who, what, when, where, how, and why. The editorial page was for opinion. Guest columnists provided opinion. We need to regain the distinction between the two.

  5. Welcome back Susan. Regrets but Koyaanisqatsi is alive and well in 2009. You would do everyone a great service by providing links to sites/blogs/news sources you deem worthy of spending what little free time we have to inform ourselves. No need to be a lone voice in the wilderness in the age of social networking. Craig Pullen's old boss at Reuters, Dave Mathison, just wrote the book "Be the Media" that is a perfect How-To for building readership:

    Good Luck - I'll be an active reader!