Monday, January 14, 2013

Is Rachel Maddow a Journalist?

 Voice of the Mountain

by Shawn K. Inlow

The Mountain is concerned with the quality of information in our public discourse.  So much so that I think I'm going to go on a week-long news fast and then reintroduce news content slowly into my system and I'll report back to you, dear reader, about the results.

The methodology will be a week long total blackout of broadcast news.  Any information I get will come from the local papers.

Then, I'll begin with broadcast news by recording and studying the content of a given program for a week.  For instance, CBS Evening News will probably be where I start and I'll endeavor to identify the kinds of stories presented and whether or not they're representative of what's going on in the world.  Then I'll examine the content of the stories to identify whether or not they reflect quality journalism.

Quality journalism.  You can find it all over the place.  There is lots to choose from.  The only problem I see is that the line of authoritative, factual and contextual news has been so successfully blurred in our media today.  For a person who wants truly to be informed you have to have a pretty keen bullshit detector.  If you are not good at identifying solid reporting, you are susceptible to being misinformed or, worse, propagandized.

The issues that rule the day are many and how these issues fit into your world depend on how well you read the news.

I am a professional journalist, but what I do in this space is not necessarily journalism.  What I write for the local radio station is pure journalism.  What I used to write for The Progress in Clearfield or for The Courier-Express in DuBois, Pa. was pure journalism.  I would go and see an event and dig to expose various angles on the story and tell you about it.  I was trained in journalism, a profession which demands the highest standards of ethical, truthful behavior.

Those who want to damage the reputation of the profession, I think, use terms like "the liberal media" or the "lame-stream media."  People on the Fox network need you to distrust what you read so their very biased message can sink in.  The Mountain says, if you are among the millions of viewers of Fox News, you are the victim of one of the most successful propagandist ventures in human history.

To inoculate!  Thus, the nominees for best tools in your media tool-kit are:

1) Authoritiativeness - How many sources are included in the story you are considering?  Of those sources, how many have a vested interest in the issue?  Are those sources being represented accurately?

2) Factuality - This is truthfulness.  Facts are facts.  This thing happened.  That thing happened.  As a reporter, I cannot make up facts.

3) Context - This is giving the wide view of a story.  Giving the story meaning within the wider world.  Without context, something can be quoted in such a way as to make it false.  Just check any political advertisement.  Well informed people need adequate context.

A Journalist writes in the space of these three tools, laying out as accurately as possible what he has found.  A Journalist, having seen the story first hand, may have his own opinion of it, but is not allowed to say, "I think..."

Looking down the barrel of wrong-headed Authoritativeness, you might like to tune into, say, Meet the Press on a Sunday morning.  What do you normally get there?  Guys from foundations who have a vested interest in the political discussion being well perceived from their viewpoint.  That is: someone is making money if this viewpoint prevails.  Making money doesn't, in and of itself, make a view-point a bad view-point, it's just that the educated news consumer needs to recognize profit as a motive.

When looking at Factuality, you have to consider whether or not the premise of the story is true.  Premise: IS the government going to force you to buy health insurance?  Context: IF SO, how does that affect you?  A reporter provides authoritativeness by fleshing out as many reasonable viewpoints on the issue as possible.  Not just one.  And not just from one think-tank.  Many.  And by reading the deep reporting you can get the big picture and use the news instead of the news using you.

Pick any premise:  IS global warming real?  IS the deficit going up?  IS there really a war on Christmas?  IS social security going bankrupt?  IS the government coming to take my gun?  By reading more, you can get more accurate information to use in a meaningful way.

Beware when a news source (and I hear O'Reilly do this all the time) says, "Some people say..."  What Bill, who stresses context over authoritativeness and factuality, is saying is "I Opine" or "I think" or - more likely - "Rupert Murdoch thinks;" something a real journalist does not do.  The Factor isn't telling you who "some people" are before stating the fact.  The fact, in news terms, is unattributed and just left standing as if it is so.  This alone takes you from the sphere of journalism into the sphere of opinion.  The best opinions, though, and this is a vanishing aspect of our media, ARE authoritative, factual and contextual.

The other thing that's a dead giveaway when you're looking for bias are color words.  These are words that provoke passion.  "Pinhead," if you are listening to the EIB network on the AM dial.  If you hear someone described as "Hitler" or a "fascist" or a "slut" or a "socialist" outside the legitimate uses of the words themselves, you are listening to a biased source.

One of the most niggling color words I've heard in recent years is the conservative use of the word "democrat" where the term used to be "democratic."  Someone somewhere decided to call the other party the "democrat party."  This turned the actual name of something good into a slur, in my view.  "Democratic" sounds good.  But when you say "The democrat party" it takes on a color that "the democratic party" does not.  The sound is more cuctive and, you could argue, less pleasant.  I would consider the use of that word in that way to be a color word that only a partisan would use.  The AP Stylebook, in fact,  does not sanction the usage of the phrase "democrat party."  So, the media source that is using the term is violating the accepted AP style that real journalists use.

So.  Is Rachel Maddow a Journalist?  In one of my prior posts (scroll down, Dec. 19) a discussion of "Electioneering" was hijacked by discussion of Ms. Maddow instead of the issue I was focusing on, which was election fraud.  But I asked my wife, the former executive editor of the daily local newspaper, that question.  Is Rachel Maddow a Journalist?

"Well.  She couldn't do the evening news," was her reply.

Is she factual?  Yes.
Does she provide sources?  Yes.
Does she provide context?  Yes.

But here's the rub.  She acknowledges a liberal worldview.  And she does advocate for some things, gay rights being chief among them.  But she does so fairly.  I have seen Maddow have on her show numerous sources she disagrees with on substance and yet treat the guest fairly and allow the guest to delineate their viewpoints. 

But is she getting the facts right?  I think she is.  I think she is being truthful.  Is she providing objective sources?  I think far more so than O'Reilly, for instance.  And is she providing a larger contextual frame for the story?  I think in her opening 15 minute segment especially, she is.

Being an honest journalist does not mean bringing on a liar to balance something that is true.  Part of the journalist's job is to be a bullshit detector or at least to expose bullshit.

So does Rachel Maddow = Bill O'Reilly?  No.  Rachel Maddow is > Bill O'Reilly on the journalistic scale.  Does Rachel Maddow = Journalist?  I think so.  But, like Ms. Mountain says, she can't do the evening news.

And that's where I'm going to start this coming Monday.  The CBS Evening News.  I've not watched CBS seemingly in the entire internet age.  Ever since the network's signature show, 60 Minutes, gave up doing the hard reporting that they built their credibility on in favor of puff pieces about football players, I haven't been able to stomach CBS' idea of news.  Ever since they fired a fine journalist, Dan Rather, and replaced him with News-Model Katie Couric over a story that was provably true, the one about George W. Bush's record of service in the U.S. military, I've not been able to stomach CBS news.

Maybe, by this coming Monday, with a week away from broadcast news, I'll feel better about things.  Maybe my health will improve.  What if I never come back and zoom off into a starry sky of bliss?  I mean, what do you really get from the news anyway?  Violence.  That's about the size of it.

If you would like to try a site that allows you to rate the news for fairness, I have been a member since the launch of a website called NewsTrust.  The site attempts to give users like you and me the ability to critically analyze stories in the media by using an online tool that identifies fairness and bias.  It's an awesome site.  You can even post stories you'd like to have considered by the body of News Trust.  Try it out this week and when we come back to talk about media next week, maybe you'll feel better too.

Here's the link: .  And until tomorrow, enjoy!

Shawn K. Inlow
Osceola Mills, Pa.


  1. Agreed.

    Bob Shoemaker
    Murrysville, PA

  2. When I was a kid my Grandpap might either be waiting for almost a mile from school on a bench at famous Corny Mann's or next door inside his pal John the shoemakers repair shop.


  3. Thank you, Shawn, for another very informative, thought-provoking post. I agree with your view, yet would not have been able to put it so concisely and eloquently. (I also hope to learn some new English words on the way:)
    I have stopped considering FOX news, PERIOD.

    Great education on color words like 'democratic party' versus 'democrat party'. Phonetically, the latter sounds pejorative to me. It's often the subtle things that seep into our subconscious and germinate there. One that comes to mind and that often bothers me is 'those'.
    The misuse of words like 'social-ism, socialist' and almost equating it with 'fascist' also seems to be on the rise, esp. when people are nebulous about their meaning. I do see a lot of socialists in my area, volunteering, selflessly helping less able people....but that subject is for another day.

    I stopped watching TV 3 years ago (except for elections). But I view such choice as highly personal.
    As for media fasting = great, and healthy approach. You will emerge more sensitized, with your mind rested and cleansed. Interestingly, the benefits are quite similar to water fasting which is part of my health care. Unfortunately that's a very neglected healing practice in the US...........geez, I'm just noticing how far (again!) I've come from the original subject. I should change my name from doralla to derailer.

    Thanks for staying alert and for writing.

    1. DR

      I think the idea of examining the words "communist," "socialist," "fascist," et al is going to be another full post.

      You, being of German heritage, probably understand these words fully, yet so many Americans use the words almost like swear-words.


  4. If I want news, I watch the BBC World News in the morning. They actually cover stories from around the world. If I watch CNN, all I get is stories about American politics, and that's an ugly business anymore. If I want to get angry, I watch FOX. I don't watch MSNBC. There's a snarky-ness about MSNBC that puts me off, especially with Ms. Maddow. She seems to me more interested in proving others wrong than proving herself right.

    It's too bad that I have to rely on foreign press to gather information...

  5. I do hope you're not going to compare actual programming that is truly intended as news with opinion programming. Most of Fox's and MSNBC's evening programming is opinion interspersed with news-related discussion. I've watched most of it. I can't stomach, for example, the Ed Show or Rachel Maddow. Ed is just an angry person and unless Maddow has mellowed, she is just mean. I can't take much of the opinion pieces including the interviews with invited guests. And I don't believe I've ever seen Maddow with someone who disagrees with her. Okay, maybe I didn't watch her program enough. But when I get a hankerin' for something different I will switch over to her, and she seems to constantly have that same "I just smelled something really awful" look on her face. That is not news.

    1. Well said, Anonymous. The prior comment by Matt called this "snark," and I think that's why she cant, as the missus says, "do the evening news." I"m not saying Maddow is up for the Pulitzer, far from it. She's doing, as J.R. from Washington D.C. points out in a personal note passed along, "advocacy."

      I have seen Maddow have guests on she strongly disagrees with and I thought those instances showed the kind of deference that a "host" has for a "guest" and a productive conversation ensued.

      And if Maddow looks like she "smells something awful," I posit it's because she actually does smell something awful. But as Hertlein points out above, it is a show about a narrow field of news - politics - and doesn't often cover things outside that sphere.

      Thanks for the response. The dialogue is the thing and I'm happy to hear people who take issue with me.



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