Koppel-Olbermann dispute misses local-news picture

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Former ABC “Nightline” host Ted Koppel and MSNBC host and pundit Keith Olbermann recently exchanged sharply opposing views about the state of the news business — as they know it.

Kicking off the high-level spat, Koppel used a guest column in The Washington Post to slam the current trend toward journalism-as-opinion, naming Olbermann and others. In response, Olbermann opined that Koppel’s era never was as free of bias as he claimed — and that so-called “objectivity” in the news media never served the public all that well, anyway.

Both have lofty pulpits and lengthy careers from which to offer their thoughts. But as these media stars go gazing at the past and future of journalism, they seem to see only a news landscape dominated by a handful of major dailies and network television operations. Their debate fails to mention the range, focus and accomplishments of more than 50,000 working journalists nationwide that collectively define much more of this nation’s free press.

Yes, I know the automatic (and in my view, snobby) retort: Those major news operations report on the really big stories, like national security, national politics, national defense. The rest is so much local blah-blah-blah.

But that misstates the news that touches your life and mine on a much more direct, daily basis — local school policies and neighborhood home prices, city and county budgets and projects, misspent and well-spent local tax dollars and programs.

Granted, most of those stories don’t rate very high on the “Pulitzer meter” or have the buzz and sizzle of an exclusive interview with the latest starlet entering drug rehab, or insider news from a British royal marriage planner.

But holding government officials and agencies accountable should — and does — count in assessing where American journalism is and is headed. Just a sampling of recent examples from the Associated Press Managing Editors association’s Nov. 15 newsletter:

  • The Tampa Tribune reported Florida grocery chains were selling reusable bags with two sturdy handles and enough toxic lead to alarm health experts.
  • The Fresno Bee spent seven months and interviewed more than 100 leaders and others in exploring contradictory California policies and practices on illegal immigrants.
  • The Cincinnati Enquirer reported local administrators in Ohio failed over nearly two decades to collect $2.1 million from bond agents when clients failed to show for court appearances. The report exposed a little-understood bond process and aired claims of corruption and misadministration.
  • The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that repeated failure by county officials to conform to federal mental-health standards in a variety of areas was costing Wisconsin taxpayers millions of dollars a year.
  • The Indianapolis Star reported that state law allows prosecutors to farm out forfeiture cases involving millions of dollars to private attorneys, who then take a cut of as much as a third — funds that would otherwise help pay for police or build schools.
  • A Houston Chronicle investigation found that more than half of the major natural-gas transmission lines in Texas were laid more than 40 years ago and vulnerable to failure.

Hardly the stuff of news-fluff. And then there still are, even with diminished payrolls and budgets, the legions of print and broadcast reporters following local and county budgets, reporting on local and state court decisions, and much more.

Koppel’s criticism recalls an era when broadcast news was spelled only with the letters NBC, CBS and ABC. And for Olbermann, a verbal slugfest with Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly can take up a substantial part of his telecast.

Given that TV is where most Americans learn of major news first, their debate is valuable. And, to move beyond their discussion, we all should be concerned that at some point, newsroom cutbacks by newspapers and local TV stations could damage beyond repair their investigative and watchdog capabilities.

But let’s not dismiss the work — or impact in each community — of the 1,387 daily newspapers and their Internet operations, the more than 760 TV stations reporting local news, the new “hyper-local” news outlets on the Web and other local, weekly, regional and national news sources available via the Web.

Those figures don’t guarantee quality or objective reporting, though it’s my view that the vast majority of them just want to get it right and get it out to us – and do just that.

At the least, those figures should remind us that the free press in this nation is much more than either Koppel or Olbermann is focused on — in scope, content and daily impact on us all.

Gene Policinski is vice president and executive director of the First Amendment Center, 1207 18th Ave. S., Nashville, Tenn., 37212. Web: www.firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: gpolicinski@fac.org.