Wednesday, September 29, 2004
It's Not Dan Rather, Rather Its US Journalism
Geneva, Switzerland, September 29 -- The fuss about RatherGate -- US news icon Dan Rather getting a slam at President Bush wrong -- is not so much about a veteran newsman making a mistake as much as it is about the public’s trust in US journalism. Bluntly, if you can't trust Dan Rather, then whom can you trust?
To understand how serious this is in the US you have to understand the way US journalism works: If you make a mistake you own up to it, make a correction and move on. In Rathergate, Rather said for some two weeks there was no mistake, his story, he said, was based on an unimpeachable source. Two weeks later his network said it could not prove the allegations and the story fell apart. The network and Rather apologized. That's not what millions of Americans expect from a man they let into their homes every weeknight and with whom they have built, over some 30 years, a bond of trust.
The unwritten rule between the US public and the US media is that the public expects stories to be truthful and without bias. That means, in addition that the facts are true, that the reader, listener, TV watcher, is not supposed to be able to tell from a news story the political belief of the writer/correspondent. The story should be played straight down the middle, backed up with specific quotes whenever possible, with all sides given the opportunity to comment. On a political story about the President during a US election this is doubly so. Presented with such facts, and assuming the media keeps to its trust that it is following the rules, then the public filters the facts and makes its own opinions.
Lose the trust and the public will look elsewhere, and that’s not good for business. CBS doesn’t want its news viewers going to NBC. The New York Times doesn’t want to lose readers to the New York Daily News. And that is why the media, as a business, is so worried about RatherGate.
A recent Gallup Poll taken after Rather had made his report but before the apology, indicated the US public's trust in the press had reached its lowest point in some 30 years. The newspaper trade publication, Editor & Publisher, rather unkindly headlined its story, "Thanks, Dan: Gallup Finds Trust in Media at New Low". It could have just as easily headlined it, "Thanks New York Times, Thanks Washington Post, Thanks USA Today ..." for recent major editorial scandals within those publications. The point is the trust between the US media and the US public has received some severe jolts, and the blame lays squarely at the media's door.
The anchors at the three major US networks have been around a long time. Rather, at 73, is the oldest; Tom Brokaw at NBC is 64 (retiring in December,) and Peter Jennings at ABC (just turned 66) are still reading the news every weeknight. They are there because the public has gotten older with them and they trust them. The news division is an important revenue producer, and the popularity of the news anchor weighs heavily in that equation. Never forget that no matter how much journalists think they are providing a service, their masters know they are running a very successful business operation. And it is business rules that apply.
Those outside the US may not understand (or believe) the US system relies on such impartiality. They listen to an American news story on an all news station and they believe they detect bias; they read an American newspaper on the web and they say they know what the writer "really" thinks. Maybe, maybe not, but in truth US news organizations do work very hard to keep such bias out of their product, although when they get into stories about supporting the troops in Iraq or athletes at major sporting events those editorial lines do get blurred.
IT'S DIFFERENT IN EUROPE
Europeans, on the other hand, live in a different media world where opinions are rampant within the news pages. But you also know beforehand what you are getting. In the UK, for instance, you buy the Guardian and you know you are getting a "Labour" point of view; buy the Daily Telegraph and you know it is "Conservative" You understand the way things are written; indeed you buy the publication because you know of the way it is slanted. You know you will seldom find a correction unless someone has threatened libel and has a strong case!
With Europe's broadcasters it depends on the country. In the UK, most governments – Labour or Conservative -- have had their battles with the BBC but usually kept their hands off the organization over the years allowing the BBC to build an international news brand second to none. But the BBC was hung, drawn and quartered this summer by the Hutton Report, based on a public inquiry set up by the government which looked into the BBC's reporting that key allegations in the UK government's Iraq dossier were wrong even though the government insisted the BBC was wrong.
The BBC stood by its story, but because of the suicide of the BBC informant a public inquiry was held, and the government was cleared. The BBC was wrong. The BBC chairman, director-general and the journalist who broke the story all fell on their swords although the news management survived. The unanswered question is whether BBC investigative reporting of the government survived? BBC editors say it has, with new rules in place. Proof will be in the pudding yet to come.
At the other end of the scale, the Italian government sticks its fingers continually into the operations of RAI. A recent satire show made fun of Prime Minister Berlusconi. That show is now off the air.
So, back to the US, when you have Dan Rather getting it wrong, or scandals at the New York Times and Washington Post -- two of the most respected newspapers in the US -- admitting that journalists made up stories -- then the media has only itself to blame if it is losing its public.
Before RatherGate it was thought Rather would continue as CBS anchor until he decides he had had enough (and there were no signs of that). Today, the unspeakable is being spoken and the media questions whether Rather can survive or will it be other heads to roll. Ultimately it will be a decision based on advertising numbers. CBS has appointed its own "Hutton Inquiry" in the form of Lou Boccardi, retired head of the Associated Press, and Richard Thornbergh, former US Attorney General. CBS promises their report will be made public although, unlike Hutton, their inquiry will be private.
CAN RATHER SURVIVE THE RATINGS FALL?
One can expect the report will highlight various failings and management will agree to whatever procedural recommendations are made for the future. But the important CBS decision -- does Rather stay or go -- will rest on how the public continues to perceive Rather. If polls, ratings, and private soundings say he still has the public's trust then he remains. If they show he is a liability to the business then he's gone. If there is a need for a sacrificial lamb -- well that's why news divisions have a president.
The early soundings indicate Rather could be in trouble. According to the Nielsen ratings service, Rather's nightly news program ratings have dropped 10% in the past year. Since the Bush story, in the top 10 TV markets Republican viewers have apparently deserted the program in droves with ratings plunging. And in New York City, the country’s number 1 market, Rather’s program scored dead last on one day against all competition, including cartoon shows.
Lower ratings mean lower advertising dollars. Those are the CBS Reports the network will most likely review with the greatest care.
Friday, July 30, 2004
How America Plays in Europe: Wendy's Loses the Vote
GENEVA, Switzerland, July 29, 2004 -- Maybe the Democrats meeting in Boston ate it all up (at Wendys?), but watching their convention on television proved yet again that American political campaigns are a whole different ball game to the way such things are done in Europe.
I, of course, viewed the convention with "knowing" American eyes. But Mrs Stone, who has lived in America many years, is not an American, and while she understands that Americans are "different" what she saw going on in Boston was just a tea bag in the harbor too much.
To be fair I got her started on the wrong foot. There was Mrs. John Edwards up on the podium declaring that day was John and her's 17th wedding anniversary. Brought a tear to the eye. And then she said they would celebrate it as they do every year -- at Wendy's. In all likelihood, that comment, just like Bill Clinton's definition of what having sex means, won the men's vote but lost the women's.
I sweetly turned to Mrs. Stone and told her that for our 18th anniversary next April since it was good enough for Mr. and Mrs. Edwards then it was certainly good enough for us and I was taking her to Burger King ( since we don't have a Wendys in Geneva.) No more of these expensive lakeside restaurants with white tablecloths, waiters and the like.
Now I should add at this point that my wife is a natural red-head. I should have remembered that before I spoke. I certainly remembered it after she spoke. Take it from me, we are going to an expensive lakeside restaurant for our 18th anniversary.
But her reaction to Mrs. Edwards was really something in itself. "What a stupid comment," she exclaimed. And she carried on in the same vein for some minutes more. I tried to explain that Mrs. Edwards was showing she was one of us -- the common folks. It was then explained to me we are not common.
I continued that the Edwards' were successful and rich lawyers but they were trying to show the country that just because they are rich, and that John and Mrs. Kerry are rich, that doesn't mean they don't understand mainstream America, how it lives and what it wishes for.
"It is not my wish to have my anniversary at Wendy's" she fumed, and that was the end of that. Or so I thought.
"What is she doing up there on the podium in the first place," she continued? Now that was a fair question. Why are Mrs. Kerry, Mrs Edwards, the kids etc., up there giving speeches? This is supposed to win my vote?
Putting my minor in US political science to good use for the first time since I left university some 35 years ago, I started to explain what Americans want to see in a candidate, and that includes the family -- family values and all that -- but she'd have nothing of it. Do the Democrats really believe they will get votes because the wives and kids tell us how great their patriarchs are? One would like to think the vote is earned on what Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards say they will specifically do for the country. But in America is that how the vote is won, or is it something else?
It's that "something else" that non-Americans don't trust about Americans. In the US the vote is not based just on the issues, but on personality, how voters can identify with the candidate etc. Sure, some of that might have some play elsewhere, but in America it is a fine science.
With Geneva six hours ahead of Boston there was a limit to how late we would stay up to watch all of this unfurl. But my wife declared the damage was already done. Had she been eligible to vote, the Wendy's comment would have cost the Democrats her vote.
So then, because I just don't know when it is smart to be quiet, I said she was acting like a typical American -- making a political decision based on something outside what the candidates said they would do for her. I told her that her very American reaction proves the politicians are right -- that voters don't just make their decisions based just on the issues.
And, again, she reminded me she was a natural red-head.
Copyright: Philip M. Stone
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Wednesday, July 28, 2004
Talk, Talk, Talk at the UN: How Many More Must Die in Darfur?
GENEVA, Switzerland, July 28, 2004 -- Darfur, in Sudan, is the world's largest self-inflicted humanitarian crisis. Thousands are dead, many thousands more are expected to die before the end of the year, more than one million people are displaced. What is the UN doing about it? It talks and it talks, and it talks. Meanwhile, in Darfur they die, and they die, and they die.
Many of the world's non-governmental agencies are trying to help on the ground in Darfur, and so are UN groups such as its World Food Program feeding the refugees and UNICEF vaccinating children against disease in the refugee camps, but that is just treating the problem, it doesn't resolve it. To resolve it the UN wags its finger, cajoles the government in Sudan, and talks. And meanwhile they continue to die in Darfur at ever increasing rates.
This invites a comparison between how the UN, and the US, handled Iraq and how they treat Darfur. No need to repeat in depth what happened in Iraq -- the US said the government there had committed genocide, Iraq allegedly had weapons of mass destruction, the US said it already had a resolution permitting an armed conflict, and if nothing was resolved by a certain time they were going in. And, right or wrong, go in they did. If nothing else a large number of countries understood from that that if a time ultimatum is issued you had better do something about it before the day, or else.
In Darfur the killing began some 18 months ago. Already at least 30,000 Africans are dead and some estimates say that by the end of the year some 350,000 will be dead. US Secretary of State Colin Powell and UN General Secretary Kofi Annan made separate visits to Sudan in early July to persuade the Sudan government to call off what appears to be ethnic cleansing by Arab militia. And still they die in Darfur at increasing rates.
But where are the daily speeches from government leaders on the terror in Sudan; where are the urgent security council resolutions sponsored by the US and others warning "or else". The Sudanese played it smart. No weapons of mass destruction there!
To get international attention the world had to be persuaded that Darfur was not just a humanitarian issue but really genocide. Now the word "genocide" has some connotations in the UN and to Annan personally (remember his UN role in the Rwanda crisis), and the word "genocide" holds some weight in international law. But just think of the number of people who have died while even that much was achieved.
It makes one ask, "Where is the fast-track at the UN?" When diplomats negotiate international borders or which way a river should meander between countries and other such mundane things, they are used to taking years to work everything out in coming to agreement. But when you have humanitarian disasters or genocide on your hands, however, you just don't have that time. People continue to die while the diplomatic niceties continue. So where is the UN procedure for the "niceties"to be speeded up? Where is the Security Council resolution telling Sudan to clean up its act "or else" and "or else" doesn't mean useless trade sanctions which won't affect government leaders but only the man and woman in the street. As it is, the current draft resolution had trade sanctions removed at the request of Arab countries who didn't want to see another Arab country in armed conflict with a coalition of UN forces. No wonder the Sudanese government said they found the resolution quite acceptable.
Whether you agree or not with the US and its coalition going into Iraq, there was a point made by President Bush which the UN is not forgetting. If the UN makes a resolution to do something, then it should do what it says. To ensure it doesn't get into a similar Iraq situation again, the obvious solution for the security council is to provide resolutions without any threat of action. High among the reasons for having a UN is that it can take quick action to prevent the Darfurs of our world. By not doing so it fails us all.
The August holidays are practically with us so we can expect many diplomats will be taking their rest. An agreement was reached in Sudan with the government that conditions are to improve in Darfur within the next 30 days. Just long enough for the August holidays so many diplomats will be taking. No doubt they will tackle Darfur with renewed enthusiasm after the holidays. Of course, many people in those Darfur refugee camps may not make it through August, but, then, you can't have everything.
copyright: Philip M. Stone.
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Tuesday, July 27, 2004
How America Plays in Europe: Bush Vs. Kerry
GENEVA, Switzerland, July 26, 2004 -- It has been a long-held view in Europe that the US elections are far too important for just Americans to vote. Americans seem so often to vote in the wrong people, the Europeans say, and to leave the election of the leader of the world"s only superpower to just Americans, well, that's just asking for trouble.
All the connotations that Europe has about America are there -- the supposed intellectual superiority of the Europeans weighed up against alleged basically intellectually inferior Americans (but don't ask the Europeans how the US became the number one economic powerhouse, too!) . Not that the Europeans don't like and encourage the Americans to come visit (and leave their dollars here) , and they love to visit America, they throng to American movies, listen to American Top 40, and, even in France, fast food has caught on. But when it comes to Presidential voting they believe there are just too many American loose screws running around.
So it is with perhaps more interest than usual that the events unfolding in Boston this week take on great attention. To the Europeans, George W. Bush is a disaster. Anyone, anyone has to be better. Is it conceivable Kerry could be worse?
Gavel to gavel coverage of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) will be available in Europe on the all-news networks, but since things don't really get underway until bedtime for most European workers, it will be the snippets as seen on the newscasts, and the newspaper coverage that will sway the day.
Why do Europeans consider Bush such a disaster. They believe Bush has recognized that the US is indeed the world's only superpower and he therefore believes that he can do pretty much what he wants without retribution. Steel tariffs he imposed early in his presidency did not go down well here. Everyone knew he was fulfilling an election promise and also that the US government knew what it was doing was wrong but, hey, let it get caught up in international negotiations for a couple of years and then when things look really dicey give it up. And that's what happened, but for two years the Europeans (and the Asians etc.) were really steaming. That doesn't help relationships.
And then take the Kyoto accord on industrial emissions which the President said he wouldn't accept. Can't tell you how well that went down here. A big vote getter in the US? Probably not, but perhaps another election promise to those who contributed heavily to the 2000 Bush campaign? Not a winner here!
And yet the terror of 9/11 had brought everyone together. An attack on the US was an attack on Europe. Public support for America had never been higher. There was genuine sorrow, genuine oneness with Americans as they suffered.
But by the time the Iraq crisis came along only a handful of European countries stood with the US. It was one thing to oppose American policy, but when you saw the French foreign minister visiting various Security Council countries, usually a day before or after Secretary of State Powell's visit, with the French urging a vote against the American/British second UN resolution, you knew it was not business as usual. Something very dramatic had changed.
When a Frenchman recently told a rather crowded venue what he really thought about Americans (suffice it to say it wasn't polite) he was reminded by an American that if it wasn't for America the Frenchman would probably be speaking German today as his mother tounge. "Go and look at the allied cemeteries strewn across Normandy and then say again what you think about America," he was told.That brought the rather silly response of, "Yes, but that was 60 years ago".
But to the new generations that 60 years is indeed history and America cannot keep depending on that good-will. To his credit, at the D-Day 60th anniversary celebrations in June, French President Chirac went out of his way in a very moving speech to celebrate the American and allied lives that were lost those 60 years ago. But it was 60 years ago. That American sacrifice doesn't mean that Europe will not today speak its mind. And that it expects to be treated if not as an equal then at least as an ally.
The feeling in Europe today is that President Bush overstepped that mark in pushing his agenda. Yes, he had the power and the might to do what he wanted, but at what cost of friendship? Even worse, for all the words he utters about friendship, deep down doesn't he really believe instead that "might makes right"? Looked at from other side of the Atlantic and the answer probably is that the President puts American priorities first, but whether he did that in the right way may be what November is all about. One permanent major foreign policy shift the Bush presidency has brought is that the European "wife" is no longer so submissive to her American "husband".
Today most European governments are marking time in their US relationships until November. Diplomatically they will say the elections are an internal US event to which they take no side. Undiplomatically they will tell you they want to see the back of President Bush which is why getting to know John Kerry in Boston this week and throughout the campaign is so important.
US polls show the Presidential election is about as tight as it can get. But if the Europeans were given the chance to elect the free world's leader, then there would be no question Mr. Bush would be spending a lot of time back on his Crawford, Texas ranch come 2005.
If Kerry loses then it is back to dealing with the "Devil you know" And the battles will continue as Mr. Bush attempts to implement policies he believes are right for America while Europe fights that those policies should be right for them, too.
Copyright: Philip M. Stone
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