On the EDge: Where’s Uncle Walter when we need him most?

OPINION – The latest round of Media Gotcha has placed Fox News guy Bill O’Reilly in the crosshairs.

Funny, but I remember when the name of the game was reporting the news, not making it.

It was bound to happen, you know, that a broadcaster from the right side of the aisle was thrust under the hot, white lights and beaten with a truncheon. It’s how it goes in the media wars these days: you claim one of ours, we claim one of yours.

It’s pathetic on a number of levels, the first and utmost being that it takes a once-noble profession and cheapens it with incredulous reporting, out-and-out lies, and a loss of credibility that smears the entire media.

It used to be there was one hard and fast rule when I was coming up. If you lie, you die. No suspensions, no second chance, you were finished. A reporter who fabricated a quote, a reporter who misrepresented a story, a reporter who did not check his facts was canned.

There is no room for commentary, opinion, persuasion in a news piece, pure and simple. Columnists are allowed the room to bloviate, to persuade, to cajole, to be hypercritical, but when it comes to news reports, the bottom line is that they have to be factual.

However, these days, as corporate America takes stronger hold of the news outlets across the country, there is another factor that comes into play and that is curbing the product to fit the needs of a niche audience.

Now, that niche can be either conservative or liberal; rural or urban; young or old; black or white. It can be rich or poor; foreign or domestic; local or national. What matters most? Ratings, whether in subscriptions to print media, which are disappearing at a rate that beleaguered corporate bigshots refused to believe would happen a scant 10 years ago; the number of hits to an online news site; or the number of viewers or listeners to a news broadcast on radio – what’s left of it, that is – or television.

According to some corporate outfits, news agencies no longer have reporters, instead calling them “content providers,” whose job is to fill space between ads and garner high numbers of readers, viewers, or listeners.

To be honest, I always cared about subscription rates and online readership, but not because of the dollars involved, which I never have seen many of, but because, at one time, it was a gauge of public credibility. The more readers, the more people viewed you as a credible source, otherwise they, obviously, wouldn’t come back to reading you.

Yes, to be sure, there are many who have reporters and columnists they love to hate, and that is fine, too because it still means you are making people think, to a certain extent.

But, they won’t come back to a liar, which is why NBC must ultimately fire Brian Williams and Fox must ultimately dispose of Bill O’Reilly.

But, they won’t.

NBC, I guarantee, is already contemplating how to rehabilitate Williams and the ratings numbers he will score if he returns to the air with a heartfelt mea culpa, which will happen unless there is more buried in his personal Pandora’s box.

O’Reilly will continue to pile up numbers as well as he goes toe-to-toe with his detractors, assuring Fox some pretty good ratings.

It’s how we are, what we’ve become, and it is not good.

As somebody who has strung words together professionally for 47 years now – I got my first pro byline at 15 – I have seen the news profession go from one of the most trusted professions in the world to one of the least.

While we have plenty Brian Williamses and Bill O’Reillys in the business, we unfortunately have no Walter Cronkites – once described as the most trusted man in America.

Look, we all knew that Cronkite was a crusty old man with a heart of gold. We knew, from his reportage of the John F. Kennedy assassination to the moon launches, that he had a soft heart. But, we also knew he was telling us the truth. That’s why, when during the height of the Vietnam War he said “this war is unwinnable,” even Washington, D.C. took notice.

He was a straight shooter.

He had guts.

He had credibility.

Corporate media has none of that these days, chewing up and spitting out young, talented news people who come into the business wanting to make a difference and leave with disappointment, their passion extinguished by bean counters who have never written a headline in their life, but are adept at making promises they cannot keep.

The advent of the Internet has made it even worse, because now, anybody with a computer and a website can post the most salacious, fallacious, drivel and find an audience.

To keep up, the people who deliver the news must seem braver than they really are, must convince their audience they were “right there in the thick of it” even if they weren’t, make themselves more “sellable” to the public.

The real newsies, however – and, I am proud to say, I work with a bunch of them – tend to seek anonymity; not make a lot of friends because tomorrow, those friends may be at the center of the latest scandal or legal wrangling; and must always be suspicious of people who suddenly wish to become their newest best friend.

Some learn the lesson, while others are too easily inebriated by the celebrity their position offers as they make the talk show rounds or, on the local level, are courted by the powers that be in government, business, the community.

From the days of the old town crier, the news hasn’t changed.

However, the character of the people who deliver the news has.

And not for the better, whether they are from the left, right, middle, or, especially, corporate boardrooms.

Ed Kociela is an opinion columnist. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.

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Twitter: @STGnews, @EdKociela

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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  • NotSoFast February 24, 2015 at 9:32 am

    Excellent piece Mr. Ed.
    You should expand it to politicians as well. When one is beholden to a special chair at ‘thee’ table, they’ll do anything, say anything to not budge from the table.
    It boils down to plain Honesty. Doesn’t it.

  • anybody home February 24, 2015 at 9:35 am

    We grew up in the same journalism tradition, Ed. But we live in a different world now. And, of course, there was “yellow journalism” back in the day and people who spun the news, like that good old boy Paul Harvey so much beloved in the hinterlands. But for the most part it was, like marriage, an honorable estate. Now, like marriage, it has become an anything goes affair. Marshall McLuhan was right in his prediction that the medium would become more important than the message. Andy Warhol added the “fifteen minutes of fame” touch and everybody, including the newsmen and women figured they should get theirs. The line between the old scandal sheets and the traditional dailies disappeared long ago – just take a look at the headlines in this paper on any given day. Sometimes it looks more like an old “police gazette” than a newspaper of worth. “Citizen journalists” on the web add to the mix. Put them all together you spell media chaos. I don’t see an end to it. Walter’s gone and so are the standards that made good journalism good.

  • DB February 24, 2015 at 3:32 pm

    Ed, I both agree and disagree. Williams (allegedly) reports the news in the Cronkite tradition. The O’Reilly show is an opinion show, just like any cable news program that appears in the evening prime time slots. That applies to anything you see on FOX, MSNBC or CNN during that time. Where I agree with you is that all of cable “news” seems to have denigrated to that same level 24 hours a day, making it all pretty worthless.

    I haven’t watched the 5:30 network news in quite some time. I predict it will be a thing of the past within five years.

  • Kerry February 25, 2015 at 10:04 am

    I am confused. Regarding Bill O’Reilly, is there tangible proof, such as videos, that he purposely lied years ago as a reporter? If so, was the offense more than once, multiple times? Also, the big difference is that Brian Williams is still a reporter, a role in which he should be objectively reporting news. The multiple offenses of purposefully lying, removes all credibility from any of Mr. Williams’ future reporting, thus the reason he had to be removed. Bill O’Reilly is not a reporter, but instead has a talk show on Fox, where it is acceptable to express opinions. He is not a reporter. So for you to put Mr. O’Reilly in the same boat as Brian Williams and that he must go, makes no sense at all—unless you don’t like Bill O’Reilly and are one of those journalists out for revenge. Also different is that Mr. O’Reilly’s talk show will continue to do extremely well, a much different story than for Brian Williams. Despite the fact that The O’Reilly Factor is a talk show, it provides much more substance than NBC Nightly News.

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