Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cooper School and Maddow School

One of the more enduring debates about a journalist's job concerns how to play their personal beliefs against the events of the day. Some think it's okay to allow your beliefs to provide perspective, others say to just shut up and report the facts.

I think there's room for both.

Most people might call the two groups 'journalists' and 'pundits', and leave it at that. That really doesn't tell the whole story to me; it implies that pundits aren't really practicing journalism on some level. They are. They're just doing it differently. And sometimes very, very, maliciously badly, but we'll get to that in due time.

I consider them more as two different 'schools' of journalism more than anything else, schools that I will here name after examples of each that I placed in my Journalistic Sweet 17- the Cooper School and the Maddow School. Both can be done well, and both can be done badly.

First, the Cooper School, named for Anderson Cooper. This is the 'journalist' half of journalism. This is the straight-laced, no-personal-opinion reporting, the school that believes your beliefs have no place in the report, and that you shouldn't express an opinion of any sort if the issue being addressed is at all in doubt or up for debate. Cooper School journalists will go to great lengths to preserve their neutrality; some will go so far as to deliberately not vote in elections, on the belief that the vote will give them a stake in the outcome, and unduly skew their reporting in order to favor that result.

When done right- when done perfectly- a Cooper School journalist will rarely make a big splash, but they'll make up for it in sheer respect. The people called on to moderate Presidential debates come exclusively out of the Cooper School. They're the ones everybody misses when they die. There's Cooper, Jim Lehrer, Tim Russert, Walter Cronkite.

Lesser Cooper School journalists, though, tend to make a few common mistakes. Poor story selection is always a killer. I'm sure that very few people got into the journalism industry so they could be the one to finally break the news on what Octomom is up to now.

Keep living the dream there, Radar Guy Clearly Too Humiliated By What His Career Has Come To To Bring Himself To Put His Name On The Byline.

The other major mistake Cooper School journalists make is trying too hard to force equivalency. At some point, viewpoints stop being equal. At some point, there stops being an ability to even have an honest debate. It's fine to have a debate on, say, illegal immigration. Having a debate about whether we landed on the moon makes you less of a journalist than, say, Adam Savage. And even when debates are warranted, it's not worth letting viewpoints go unchallenged, or undebunked, just so both sides can feel equal. Sometimes they're simply not. If one side's just filling the debate with lie after lie, call them out on lie after lie. That's your job.

Which leads to the Maddow School, named for Rachel Maddow.

These are who you would call the 'pundits'. The Maddow School gets to be in the Maddow School for a variety of reasons. Maybe they believe that true neutrality is impossible. Maybe they believe that they can't just stand idly by and let things happen if they believe they can improve matters by contributing their views. Maybe they just can't stop themselves. Maybe they don't give a damn. Whatever the reason, these are the people that mix news with opinion.

The important thing in being part of the Maddow School is this: while you by nature no longer feel bound by any false-equivalency concerns, you have to know how not to go too far in the other direction. You've made your biases known. Fair enough. Now that you've done that, you still have to be fair. You have to be willing to praise the other side, however begrudgingly. You have to be willing to call fouls on your own side. The pitfalls of not doing so are obvious. Fail to do this properly and you're not really thought of as much of a journalist anymore.

The kind of respect that lets you moderate debates is gone. You're not neutral. How could you possibly do a good job? On the other hand, Maddow School journalists have the tendency to be able to do things that will end up in front of a very wide audience, things that are going to stick much more easily in people's minds. They feel more free to express themselves, say things that need to be said but cannot be said by a true neutral. Nobody expects straight-laced equivalency at all costs from a Maddow School journalist, so one might as well do what one has to do to get a point across, things a Cooper School journalist couldn't risk doing for fear of losing respect.

Basically, being in the Maddow School means you get to do things like this.

Being in the Maddow School comes with two major caveats:

1. If you think of yourself as an entertainer, and you do things that would, as a journalist, put you in the Maddow School, nobody is going to buy it if and when you decide to retreat back to 'but I'm just an entertainer'. Yes. You are an entertainer. You are an entertainer that is practicing journalism, and will be critiqued on the merits of what you report same as everybody else. (Stewart and Glenn Beck both think of themselves along this line, though they use it for different ends. Beck goes 'I'm just an entertainer, I'm not to be taken seriously.' Stewart goes 'I'm just an entertainer, and yet here I am doing the media's job for it. What does that say about the rest of you guys when I'M kicking your ass?'Beck uses it as a crutch; Stewart uses it as a pressure point on the rest of the media.)

2. It's easy to get into the Maddow School. It's much harder to get out. And while you can dip your toe in the pool, once you've dived in entirely, you're not coming back out. Once you've expressed your views, you can't unexpress them. They're out there, and now you just have to deal with it. Be very, very careful about anything that might signal a transition from the Cooper School to the Maddow School. If the transition's intentional, tread lightly. Too jarring a transition, and it can be a swift fall from grace.

Keith Olbermann is a shining example of how you can screw up the transition, which he made around the time of Hurricane Katrina. It started with the occasional 'Special Comment', the concept of which he attributed to idol Edward R. Murrow. This was dipping the toe in the pool, which Murrow would occasionally do. Then the 'Special Comments' turned out to be happening rather often, and began to infect the rest of the program. Murrow had merely dipped his toe in the pool, but Olbermann had submerged himself completely, a fact that became obvious on December 18, 2006, the day when he devoted an entire program to rerunning previous Special Comments. Later, he would put out a book combining past 'Worst Person In The World' segments, and upon the close of the 2008 Presidential campaign, released a daily 'Campaign Comment'. By this time he had figured out that he was doing so many comments that they weren't very Special anymore.

Actually, no, he hadn't. He had to be told.

It has been 1,481 days- four years and half a month- since Olbermann's original Special Comment on August 30, 2006. Olbermann has issued 60 Special Comments- seriously, there is a Wikipedia page for this- and 9 Campaign Comments, which would have also been 'Special' had he not been warned away from that label. Not counting the Campaign Comments, it works out to one Comment every 24.68 days.

Now, Murrow would tackle some weighty issues himself. But he kept an even keel. He spoke calmly. He didn't yell. He didn't keep a daily list of the Worst Persons In The World. The feud Murrow is best known for is with Senator Joe McCarthy. Olbermann's best-known feud is with fellow Maddow School journalist Bill O'Reilly. And in the process of each, the two saw very different outcomes. Murrow defeated his prey. Olbermann became the equal of his.

Even if Olbermann wished to reverse himself, it's too late. From where he is, there's no going back to the Cooper School.

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