The Fear Is In The Room: Inside Our Unbrave Media World

NEW YORK-There is a scene in the movie Good Night and Good Luck about an outbreak of insecurity that nearly ended the late CBS News legend’s broadcast challenge to red-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy before it aired.

A few hours before the historic moment that demonstrated that newscasters can take on demagogic politicians and deceptive policies, Edward R. Murrow’s colleagues were having second thoughts.

One pointed out that McCarthy would likely lash back. Another worried that the program would be seen as a mere gesture and accomplish nothing. A third wondered if it was worth jeopardizing the show and CBS News by going after such a high-profile figure so forcefully.

Murrow listened with growing despair at timidity packaged as pragmatism.

Each of his colleagues were loyal to him and key members of his team. He needed them, just as they wanted to assure his survival in a corporate environment easily pressured by government and sponsors.

When it was his turn to speak, he spoke of the fear that McCarthyism had instilled in society. “That fear,” he said, “is now in this room.”

At that time, and in that environment, the Murrow team was brave enough to go forward, just as George Clooney and his team was brave enough to make a movie to remind us that a free press must be both independent and unafraid.

Look around, and you will see how unbrave our media has become in an era of mega-media and paranoid politics when the dominant emotion in most newsrooms is anxiety driven by bottom line pressure.

Media executives and journalists are terrified of stepping out of line, or being attacked for being misunderstood or strident (ie. opinionated).

As I discovered during eight years toiling inside ABC News, 20/20, most media professionals have an internal radar to guide them against stepping over real but unwritten rules of what you can or can not get away with.

It is this radar that produces so much of the self-censorship that makes for bland news and middle-of-the road conformist reporting. Safe, not sorry, is the guideline many follow. The news culture’s rule of thumb: stay in line or walk the unemployment line.

It is this climate that makes it nearly impossible to have a frank discussion with news managers, as my partner Rory O’Connor experienced when he submitted Mediachannel readers’ questions to CNN President John Klein who sidestepped most of them, retreating into old saws and banalities about getting the facts and being objective.

And there is also a fear that if you stick your head up to voice your opinions, it can get chopped off. That’s what happened to MSNBC’s Ashleigh Banfield when she dared suggest in a university talk that Iraq war coverage was sanitized. Her contract with NBC was not renewed. Many well-known journalists have been punished for their mistakes, indiscretions and minor screw-ups.

It can happen to broadcasters on the right as well as journos who appear to be anti-war. The Guardian reports that, “An American radio station has sacked a talk show host who used a racial slur in connect with the U. S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice. In a slip of the tongue, Dave Lenihan, a presenter for KTRS radio, in St. Louis, Missouri, used the word ‘coon’ while arguing live on air that Rice should become the next commissioner of the National Football League.

Lenihan’s exact words were: “She’s got the patent resumé of somebody that has serious skill. She loves football, she’s African-American, which would be kind of a big coon.” He added: “Oh my God – I totally, totally, totally, totally am sorry for that. I didn’t mean that.’ He later told a local television news channel he had meant to say “coup.” The general manager of KTRS, Tim Dorsey apologized to Rice and listeners, adding: “It was a most unfortunate racial slur. There can be no excuse for what was said.”

As a former radio newscaster who at times suffered from bobbling words, I am prepared to believe Lenihan’s apology-but in an era of political and patriotic correctness, there is little tolerance for slips that may be viewed as slurs (unless Bill O’Reilly makes them!)

When CNN’s Eason Jordan spoke at an off-the-record session at the World Economic Forum and suggested that journalists were targeted by the U.S. Military in Iraq, the confidentiality of the session was violated by a blogger who created a storm of criticisms against him that led to charges that CNN was “sliming” the troops. Jordan was forced out of his job after 25 years.

More recently, The Drudge Report got hold of an ABC producer’s private email. A personal opinion was soon being turned into an indictment of a whole network:

A top producer at ABC NEWS declared “Bush makes me sick” in an email obtained by the DRUDGE REPORT… John Green, currently executive producer of the weekend edition of GOOD MORNING AMERICA, unloaded on the president in an ABC company email obtained by the DRUDGE REPORT. “If he uses the ‘mixed messages’ line one more time, I’m going to puke,” Green complained.”

Drudge added: “The blunt comments by Green, along with other emails obtained by the DRUDGE REPORT, further reveal the inner workings of the nation’s news outlets.”

Does it really? Will ABC News now feature guests who will confess that Bush makes them sick? I doubt it. Most inside the media criticisms of the President will continue to be confined to personal communications and occasional on-campus presentations. Otherwise, wise news lips are likely to stay sealed.

A new book, by “Lap Dogs,” out soon, will detail how most of the nation’s news outlets cozied up to the Bush Administration with barely a negative word on its policies. The press, like the CIA practices “group think.”

Bravery is not a strong point or professional quality that leads to the upward mobility fast track.

You can be sure that this latest Drudge exploitation of a private email will further chill free speech within the “free press.” Edward R. Murrow noted years ago, “the fear is in the room;” it is still there.

News Dissector Danny Schechter is the editor of Mediachannel.org, His latest books are When News Lies and The Death of Media. His most recent film is Weapons of Mass Deception. (www.wmdthefilm.com)

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