I had the wonderful opportunity of attending the College Media Association (CMA) Spring National College Media Convention in Times Square, where I got to ask CBS’s Scott Pelley a few questions about freedom and bias.
The CMA describes itself on its website (http://www.collegemedia.org/site/about.html) as “the preeminent source for education and support for professionals and students engaged in creating all forms of student produced media on college and university campuses.”
Also according to the website, it was founded in 1954 and has more than 900 members.
The CMA published a program for the convention and inside that program it says they hold two annual conventions. Every Spring they hold a convention in New York City, and every fall the convention “convenes at varying sites across the country.”
One of the convention’s keynote speakers was CBS’ Evening New’s managing editor, Mr. Scott Pelley.
When I got to question Mr. Pelley I mentioned some specific things that I found to be troubling that prompted me to ask my question: things such as the Washington Post article about former CBS employee Sharyl Attkisson, who resigned due to the network’s alleged liberal bias, and their alleged refusal to air certain stories on the Benghazi scandal (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2014/03/10/sharyl-attkisson-leaves-cbs-news/) , and a commentary in the USA TODAY that day on America’s drastic loss of freedom of the press. (Preserve Freedom Of The Press; Jonathan Turley; 3/13/14).
(It is worth noting that I was later told by an advisor at the convention who once interviewed President Barack Obama, that one should never ask someone in a political position to “comment” on something, because it only gives them the opportunity to dance around the issue. A point well made.)
While Mr. Pelley responded by saying “I will put The CBS Evening News- of which I am managing editor- up against any news organization, broadcast or print, when it comes to coverage of Benghazi”, and that he has been accused of having both a liberal and conservative bias, which in his opinion means he has “nailed” his interviews, he said nothing about whether or not he believed we are losing the freedom of the press.
For Mr. Pelley to fail to point out that the U.S. Justice Department seized phone records of reporters and editors of the Associated Press,and seized records of Fox News phone lines, and that the FCC had planned to monitor news rooms, and grill journalists on how their organizations select news stories, and that these events are problematic, is, on his part, most discouraging, especially because he is a veteran journalist, and was in a room full of people who will become future members of the media industry.
It was also rather inconsistent with the message he began his speech with, as he spoke of how without a free press there is no democracy.
He identified the lack of free press in Syria but failed to mention a single attack on free press here in America. Considering how important the issue theoretically is to him, he should have at least raised questions: Should the government monitor news organizations?
If it does, what is the difference between news that is officially run by the state, and news which is unofficially run by the state?
Why do we call the unofficial state ownership of the press “free press”?
There is something else Mr. Pelley said, in response to another person’s question. Mr. Pelley was asked if he worries about being a tool of the government. He said he did not worry about that and then added “I don’t care whether there’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. I don’t care which party is in the leadership, on either side of the house or senate. Maybe it’s a genetic defect that I have of some kind, but I truly, deeply, do not care. My job is to report on what those people do or say and illustrate the contrast between what they do and say.” He said he is neither a conservative or a liberal, and that he just tries to “inflict as much pain on both of them” as he “possibly can, because…that’s what journalists do.”
It is one thing for a reporter to be unbiased in his official report, and another thing for him to have an opinion. Having an opinion does not make a reporter’s report inherently biased. Injecting an opinion into a report and refusing to tell all sides of the story is biased and is essentially what we would refer to as propaganda. I wonder what Mr. Pelley would say in response that.
I also wonder: was Mr. Pelley being honest?
Does he just tell us what he thinks we want to hear so we’ll like him and trust him, or does he mean it when he says he “truly, deeply [does] not care” whether America is led by Republicans or Democrats?
While I wish I could speculate that by not caring, he means that he believes both the Republicans and Democrats are corrupt and he himself is an independent, unfortunately his comment that “maybe it is a genetic defect” suggests that he doesn’t think that deeply about it, and instead, considers his apparent political apathy to be just some bizarre and very paradoxical aspect of his personality.
When he said that his job is to “report what those people do and say and illustrate the difference” and that “we [at the CBS Evening News] just try to inflict as much pain on both of them as we possibly can” it comes across as impersonal, detached, and somewhat nihilistic.
What does he mean when he says he tries to “inflict pain”?
Even supposing he is speaking figuratively, it still comes across as arbitrary since he “truly, deeply [does] not care” about who is leading America, causing his projected ideal image of a journalist to look, not like a person with a moral consciousness, but rather a sadomasochist who views an interview as a means of “inflicting pain” on people merely because it is his job to do so.
A journalist should care about the state of the universe. All people should care about everything that is produced, from ideas to food.
As for journalists in particular, it should be their rational consciences that prompt them to ask the questions they ask and report events honestly. No, not all journalists have to broadcast or publish commentaries.
Perhaps some would rather let reporters report, and commentators publish and broadcast their opinions. That is fine. But all people- no matter what job they work- should most certainly analyze the news and have opinions and share them if asked and act on those opinions.
I would have loved to ask Mr. Pelley if he even votes, and why or why not, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough time for me to ask a follow up question.
As I mentioned earlier, the CMA describes itself as “the preeminent source for education and support for professionals and students engaged in creating all forms of student produced media on college and university campuses”. If the association is what it claims to be, then it should be clear to students, that above all things, they should never be politically apathetic like Mr. Pelley, because in doing so, further attempts by the U.S. government to manipulate the media would grow more and more successful, would trickle down to the college media, and reach a point where American media begins to resemble the Syrian media that Mr. Pelley rightfully condemned.