Griffin Strategies Blog

Punditry, Political Correctness and Public Radio

Allison Griffin - Friday, October 22, 2010
This week, National Public Radio fired one of its longtime pundits, News Analyst Juan Williams, proportedly because he uttered a personal opinion while appearing on another network.  Was it justified?  Or was it just that polarizing political undercurrents in the media finally bubbled to the surface?

When I was in journalism school, my professors certainly hammered us on the need for journalists to play the role of neutral observers and mere reporters of the facts.  Journalists, we were taught, are held to a higher standard. 

The public, by and large, shared that idealistic sentiment of the profession.  Of course, it was back when David Brinkley still graced ABC, Paul Harvey's distinctive quips were eagerly awaited by millions of radio listeners each day, and Walter Cronkite's legacy as "the most trusted man in America" still loomed large over the field of journalism.

There is no question that the landscape has changed since that time.  Dramatically.  With the rise of 24-hour cable news programming, news magazine shows, talk radio, and of course, the internet and blogosphere, the definition of "journalist" has become blurry.

Today, even as many journalists strive to uphold the traditional standards of their profession, their reliable reporting is drowned out by the plethora of "news" shows hosted by stand-up-comedians-turned-sardonic-commentators, former politicians/philanderers-turned-pundits, and paparazzi gossip reporters. Add to that the thousands of bloggers whose opinionated diatribes are being cross-polinated with straight journalism, and the media world is increasingly confusing.

Which brings me back to the firing of Juan Williams.  As a news analyst, Williams -- like other analysts and commentators -- for years has offered his opinions about politics, policy and public discourse.  That is in the job description of pundits. 

So what was the real motivation?  Was it because of what Williams opined -- the very politically-incorrect admission that he sometimes feels nervous on an airplane when he sees a Muslim in full traditional garb?  Or was it because of where he opined -- on the Fox News Channel?

Regardless of the motivation, the decision by the taxpayer-supported NPR to suddenly hold one journalist to some "higher standard" may achieve the opposite effect, instead serving to further polarize the public and add to their growing distrust of the media. 

Michael Jackson's Specter Only Part of the Spectacle

Allison Griffin - Thursday, July 09, 2009
I’m sure you’ve seen it by now. The You Tube footage of Larry King Live from Neverland Ranch. Somehow, my 9-year-old son heard that Michael Jackson’s ghost was in the background of a shot of Michael’s old bedroom at The Ranch. Like more than 8 million other people, my son and I drained the battery on my iPhone as we watched the shadowy specter of Michael Jackson again and again on You Tube.

You Tube, in fact, was dominated by all things Michael Jackson, with at least 11 of today’s top 15 favorite videos related to the King of Pop’s life … or death. And that was just for people who weren’t already getting enough through the wall-to-wall coverage by the cable news channels, live network broadcasts and Yahoo! News.

Forgive my insensitivity, but what happened to the real news? You know, news about sweeping new food safety regulations announced this week by the FDA? Stories about the unfortunate plunge in new home sales? Updates about Iran’s leader crushing his detractors?

Though those real news items received coverage, it was scant compared to the media’s attention to the Michael Jackson spectacle. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, Michael Jackson dominated 17% of the overall news hole, with the economy ranking second at 10%. Interestingly, Michael Jackson was mentioned in the news about three times more often than President Barack Obama between June 29 and July 5.

As a PR professional who’s made a career out of working with the media, it raises some troubling questions. Do you have to create a spectacle to garner the media’s attention? Does real news warrant attention anymore? In spite of the jump in 24-hour television and online coverage, I’ve discovered in the past few years that it is becoming increasingly difficult to pitch news stories. Newspapers have let go of longtime beat reporters who had spent years developing their expertise and sources to get good stories. Fewer and fewer radio stations have locally-based news teams and talk show hosts. Television stations seem to spend far more time on crime blotter reports and stories about the quasi-celebrities on their network’s reality show, than they do on issues people care about. Or that people ought to care about.

That’s really what it boils down to.

Media have changed, but are they to blame? Or are we, as the consumers of information, at fault? Given the nearly 4 million You Tube views of ABC News’ Michael Jackson Memorial Service coverage, I think the answer is clear.

Celebrities, whether living or dead, are far more interesting than real news.

I suppose that next time one of my clients wants to make a major policy or business announcement, I can hire Britney Spears or Chastity Bono to be our spokesmodel. Can’t be sure either would stay on message, but at least the spectacle would bring out the media, as I quietly mourn the specter of real news.