THE WARNINGS FROM JOURNALIST COUNTY: “Make it pablum and it will sell!”


Part 1—Warned from inside CBS:
Does it matter if the biggest stars of the national “press corps” live in The Houses of Journalist County, the magical kingdom we started describing last week?

Does it matter if they’re paid the kinds of salaries people routinely degrade themselves for, in the manner glorious Cummings described?

(Cummings: “Humanity i love you because you would rather black the boots of success than enquire whose soul dangles from his watch-chain which would be embarrassing for both parties and because you unflinchingly applaud all songs containing the words country home and mother when sung at the old howard.”)

Does it matter if they invent silly stories designed to make us the consumers think they’re just like us?

Does it matter if a major news org has such absurdly foppish values that it’s willing to stage a three-day event which bears this wonderfully clownish name: “The New York Times International Luxury Conference?”

Actually yes—these manifestations do matter! In theory, they don’t have to matter. But in practice, they plainly do.

In theory, a person could be paid millions of dollars a year while still performing superlative journalism. Almost surely, this has actually happened somewhere.

But starting about thirty years ago, we the people began to get warnings about the emerging values of Journalist County—in some cases, about TV news orgs which were now being run as profit centers.

In April 1988, one such warning emerged from inside CBS News. For now, we’ll withhold the name of the man who issued the warning.

The 1988 White House campaign was already well under way—and CBS News had just fired the somewhat outspoken senior producer who had been in charge of its campaign coverage. At the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz did a 2200-word report on the firing.

(Aside from Nexis, we can find no link to this report.)

The network said the producer had been fired for cause. Kurtz noted some problems with that account, then quoted the senior producer as he issued a warning.

Just for now, we’re going to skip the senior producer’s name. Here’s part of what he said about the values which were emerging inside Journalist County. Deletions by Kurtz:
KURTZ (4/8/88): Sipping a beer in his Upper West Side brownstone, [Name Withheld] looks back on a career in which he was arrested in Lebanon, shot at in El Salvador and barred from Poland. But all that paled next to the internal strife at CBS, which he says took the fun out of the job.

The raspy-voiced producer worries that his comments will sound bitter or self-righteous, but he feels too strongly about the direction of television news to edit his remarks very carefully. He says he has turned down other job feelers because he is disillusioned with network journalism.

"Almost everyone I knew [at CBS] really lost their passion for the place," he says. "Now they're left with a huge game of pretend...There's a bunker mentality, a certain grimness that set in.”

[Name Withheld] says that such executives as Stringer, Joyce and former CBS News president Van Gordon Sauter "believe you lower the common denominator, frame everything in entertainment terms, make it pablum, make it glitzy, and it will sell...The currency of the realm ceases to be journalism...It's sort of a marketing mentality that takes over what gets on the air."
That was just one person’s opinion, of course. One year before, an editorial writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer said one part of this producer’s larger complaint contained a lot of bunk.

That said, this warning was being heard more and more often at that time from within TV news divisions. And how odd! We’d say that senior’s producer’s description almost perfectly captures the values which lurk today inside many of The Houses of Journalist County!

That was just one person’s opinion. But according to that senior producer, these values had begun to emerge in one major section of Journalist County:

Executives wanted to “lower the common denominator” of network news reporting. They wanted to “frame everything in entertainment terms.”

They believed that if you “make it pablum,” it will be more likely to sell. In the process, this senior producer said, CBS News was left “with a huge game of pretend.”

The currency of Journalist County had “ceased to be journalism,” this senior producer told Kurtz. Instead, there was “sort of a marketing mentality that takes over what gets on the air.”

This senior producer was describing the values emerging at CBS News. As we read his warning today, we’re struck by how closely it describes the work we see each night on our cable news channels.

(For the record, we see that kind of work in all three cantons of cable news. Even though we vote the same way she does, and share her views on most major issues, we would include the embarrassing “journalism” we see, night after night, on Rachel Maddow’s progressive sponge bath program.)

“It ceases to be journalism?” Have you watched Maddow’s entertainment-laced extravaganzas lately? On the print side, do you read the embarrassing pablum routinely served at Salon?

The pablum is designed for us liberals. But it’s pablum nonetheless.

Needless to say, there has never been a time when American journalism was perfect. But this week, we’re going to look at some warnings which began to emerge in the 1980s—warnings which concerned the way the news business, and its major stars, were chasing the corporate bottom line and their own individual wealth.

According to those warnings, many of that day’s biggest journalists preferred to “black the boots of success,” rather than “enquire whose soul dangles from his watch-chain.” When you turn on your TV machine tonight, you may observe a similar process, even on the “news channel” most friendly to your point of view.

When you turn on your TV machine, you’re likely to be watching someone who wants to live in The Houses of Journalist County—someone who wants The Salaries of Journalist County. In order to gain that wealth and the corresponding fame, these people may be willing to serve you that county’s finest brand of pablum.

It may be a flavor of pablum you like. But it’s pablum all the same—pablum all the way down.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at a warning which emerged from the campus of Yale in 1986—a warning from a college senior who was destined to become a major political journalist.

We think he offered a very strong warning. Today, he lives in The Houses of Journalist County, and we’d say it might possibly show.

As we close today’s post, let’s note a bit of an irony. The CBS producer quoted by Kurtz was Richard M. Cohen, then 40 years of age. Today, he lives in The Houses of Journalist County with his wife of 28 years, Meredith Vieira.

Here’s the irony:

If you read Cohen’s description of the values emerging at CBS News, you’re reading a perfect description of the journalism and post-journalism which have him and his family living in those mighty mansions today.

As of 1988, Vieira was an actual journalist, at least in appearance and theory. She was a correspondent on the CBS magazine show, West 57th Street, where she received several Emmys for doing reports on serious news topics.

A few years later, she made the move to 60 Minutes, which was still, in many respects, a source of actual news.

By now, Vieira has clowned her way through the undercard of American pseudo-journalism. That include five years co-hosting the Today show, whose producers long ago came to believe that “you lower the common denominator, frame everything in entertainment terms, make it pablum.”

For her service on Today, Vieira was paid $10-12 million per year. As we described last week, she had already made the move to The Houses of Journalist County.

In Vieira’s latest game of pretend, she’s telling people that the furniture on the set of her new TV show will help us see the way she and her family live, which is the way a lot of people live.

For better or worse, Vieira doesn’t live that way a lot of people live; she lives in The Houses of Journalist County. To all appearances, she has absorbed the values of that realm, the values her husband warned about 25 years ago.

Next week, we’re going to show you what occurred when a whole gang of TV news stars huddled together in The Houses of Nantucket County. We’ll review the scam which was visited on the world, a scam which still can’t be discussed by those in Journalist County.

The week after that, as we end our series, we’re going to have a bit of fun! We’ll examine The Lifestyles of Journalist County, including visits to some of the houses which have been featured in national photo spreads.

This week, though, we’re going to look at The Warnings from Journalist County—warnings about the values which were emerging in that realm about three decades ago.

Starting in the 1980s, some journalists warned us about the press corps’ emerging chase after mammon. Cohen warned about the entertainment values which were turning news into pablum.

Our opinion?

If you watch Maddow’s clowning tonight, you’ll see some of the tribal pablum which has now emerged. It’s pablum geared to please your palate. But it’s pablum all the same, pablum all the way down.

Tomorrow: Weisberg’s prescient warning


  1. Here's your problem in a nutshell, Bob.

    I heard some pretty solid reporting out of Maddow when it came to the Gov. Ultrasound case.

    All I got from you about that case was pablum to feed your own babies about what a horrible person she is. Which continues to this day.

    1. You're saying she's not horrible?

    2. I'm saying it is possible for two people to watch Rachel Maddow and hold two opinions. And neither opinion necessarily has to be that of Somerby.

      Why does it bother you so much that some people don't necessarily agree with your tribal leader?

    3. And you of course are free to consider Somerby's take on the case he uses as a club against her as "not horrible" as he attempts to reduce the crimes for which Gov. Ultrasound was convicted as mere "rides in a Ferrari."

      I disagree.

    4. Anyone can hold any opinion they want. There is not necessity for any of you dissenters to post your opinions here, nor to even read this blog. Somerby is fully entitled to his opinion too.

      The point, because you apparently have missed it, is not that Maddow is a horrible person -- Somerby has never said she is. It is that when a journalist holds a personal grudge against someone for an undisclosed reason, it can color her reporting and even bias it. Most journalists are taught to disclose whatever might bias them, so that members of their audience can take that into account. Maddow doesn't do that. She could have said, I am extra concerned about McDonnell because of his actions on issues of civil rights for gay people. She has not done that.

      The issue is not Maddow -- although various people persist in asserting that Somerby has a thing about her. The issue is what constitutes good journalism, what are the ethics of journalism, and what best serves the public interest.

      It does trouble me that so many people here become fixated on the details of the examples Somerby focuses upon as he explores these broader issues in journalism and politics. I think that is an aspect of critical thinking. I wish more people were able to exhibit stronger critical thinking skills and I encourage those of you who are not trolls (or trolls too), to consider what is actually being said in these posts instead of reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to the superficialities that you disagree with. This isn't really about McDonnell.

    5. 12:14 please tell us where you studied journalism and where you practiced it.

    6. Does 20 years in PR count? How about Northwestern University and UCLA?

    7. "It is that when a journalist holds a personal grudge against someone for an undisclosed reason, it can color her reporting and even bias it. "

      Couldn't agree more. Undisclosed personal grudges should be rememberd whenever Somerby writes about Maddow.

    8. Going on for days about the home of Meredith Vieira and Richard Cohen is "explor(ing) these broader issues in journalism and politics"?

      Sure reads like more of Somerby's petty jealousy to me.

    9. Twenty years in PR is not practicing journalism. If you survived twenty years in PR you probably deceived many a practicing journalist.

      But if I read your answer in sequence to my question in sequence, I would say 20 years is very long journalism program they have there at PR. And after that long in school, why would you want to be a journalist at Northwestern and UCLA? All they have are student papers and you surely got enough of that at good ole PR.

    10. Bob knows maddow is not a horrible person, just that unbeknownst to her, she acts like one most of the time on her show. Jon Stewart tried to tell her the same thing when she interviewed him.

    11. "Sure reads like more of Somerby's petty jealousy to me."

      Oh gimme a break. Those people are horrible.

      Bob's right about Maddow too-- she does clown around. That's the perfect way to put it. And worse, she thinks she's just so cute all the time, mincing around with her jokester moves and all.

      How old is she? I mean, I don't expect Pauline Frederick or anything (there's an NBC name from the past) but come on.

      Can't we get any adults around there? The gatekeepers are goofballs now.


    12. The way she acts is not good. It's straight from Nixonland. She acts like a franklin and she disses orthagonians massively. What she doesn't realize is and bob does is that the orthogonians outnumber the franklins and will win every time. Not just elections but on issues. She needs to reach out and show empathy to the orthogonians and gently, with compassion, lead them away from the powerful people who misinform them. It would be great if she understood that. e doesn't yet.

    13. Maddow and her staff have enormous egos and are immature.

    14. And besides, she's a poopy pants and eats boogers!

    15. What do you expect? Maddow to speak about poverty, corporate power and Putin? Those subjects don't attract viewers. It's a "show" dummy. All news is a "show" - designed to attract advertisers of soap and beer etc. She couldn't do a show about real progressive issues. It wouldn't last a week. She has to play the Punch and Judy game. Of course it's a lie. Don't ever expect the truth from a multimillionaire or anyone in power.

    16. This is Somerby's point. News is not an entertainment show and shouldn't be turned into one to attract viewers and ad revenue.

    17. Then his problem is not with Maddow.

  2. Bob has proven, in the sad case of young Alex Becker, that his Google and Nexis skills are lacking. So why take his distillation of Howie Kurtz when the real thing is available online.

    We present Richard M. Cohen himself, on the same topic, in real time, available here on Al's initiated creation. Go to page 12.

    1. OK, you've proven that you can use google. Does Cohen say anything different than Somerby stated? If there were a discrepancy, you would have said so. So this is specious and intended to make it appear Somerby has made a mistake. If there is a mistake, post your evidence. If not, shut up.

    2. All I have proven in your case is that you never follow links, which is par for the average white student of Bob Somerby.

    3. Ya got somethin' against white people?

      I'll call that bluff:

      <quote src="the horse's mouth">
      I believe network news can survive only if it maintains and sells its relevance. Soft and silly news works against that objective.

      So, TDH via the "distillation" of Kurtz gives you the same thing as "Cohen himself."

      But unlike Anonymous @2:01P, I don't want you to shut up. I like to watch people make fools of themselves. Even if I'm white and even if I have to follow links.

    4. I am @2:01. Thank you Deadrat for confirming that following the link was a wild goose chase. Why would someone waste other people's time that way if they were not just trolling?

    5. deadrat, you are, of course an above average white Somerby student, which is why you can follow a link.

      I never suggested Bob Somerby or Kurtz was misrepresenting Cohen, only that Cohen's own work from 1988 (a quarter of a century ago) was available.

      Either Somerby is too lazy to look or he thought that would ruin his "mystery." Even Bob can be cute like Rachel, eh, deadrat?

      And guess what, along comes 2:01 back at 8:25 to prove my point about the lack of curiosity among the Somerby faithful. The link was a "wild goose chase"? What a maroon. It was a three page essay in Mother Jones written by Cohen shortly after he was fired by CBS.

    6. Anonymous @1:27P and again @9:29P,

      TDH can get carried away with his own tropes, but no one can be as cute as Darlin' Rachel unless there's a camera around to mug for.

      But what's your point? That we should look to a daily blog for original sources? That we should fact-check everything TDH writes? That we need to read Cohen's three-page essay before we can take TDH's point?

      Help me out here.

    7. Check my comments at 9:47 and 10:02 for our point. If you can't figure it out just holler. I'll check back.

    8. You could try stating your intentions instead of posting something that looks just like the usual troll garbage and then pretending to be misunderstood when people treated you like a troll.

  3. This is a pretty good post coming from Bob ... right up until he brought Maddow into it. Anyone reading Bob's blog who didn't already know better would get the impression that all the pandering journalism is done from people like Maddow and MSNBC. In reality, by far and away the worst and most willing "victims" of this stuff, receiving the worst, most dishonest and misleading information, are consumers of right wing news, of Fox, of Rush and the boys on radio, of the WSJ editorial page, and so on. They far outnumber the consumers of MSNBC, and the viewers of the Dread Hack Maddow, and they have a far more malign effect on the direction our country has moved in. But Bob, caught in his insanity, largely ignores them, except when it comes to using them to show how bad Maddow or someone else "on the left" is by comparison. Think about how many times you've seen Bob use the formulation, "In our view, 'Mr. O' (Bill O'Reilly, one of the biggest "I'm one of you" pretenders around) got it mostly right". His focus is all wrong, but he just doesn't care. And it's because he doesn't have to. He's largely insulated from any policy decisions that are made, so he's free to rail away against what would be irrational targets if he actually cared, like Maddow, and rant and rave forever about the 1999-2000 election, now *15 years old and counting.* Bob has the capacity to do good work, and every once in awhile it shows through, but he always manages to f u c k it up in the end, because, ultimately, he doesn't care about policy outcomes any more than Maddow does -- actually, since Maddow has a real stake in certain policies (reproductive and gay rights), he has LESS of a stake. The funniest thing of all is that Bob would dramatically up his readership by making himself relevant and attacking the targets that matter -- but perversely, he refuses to do this. He'd rather keep railing away, getting bigoted and trollish readership over subjects like the Trayvon Martin and -- a dud by Bob's standards -- Michael Brown cases, than actually doing relevant work. So the next time Bob points out how fatuous and useless journalists are, remember that Bob has chosen to be just as fatuous and useless, but at about 1/10000 the pay.

    1. Media Matters already does a fine job of addressing the garbage that comes from the right.

    2. Let's see. TDH (whom you evidently know so well that you're on a first-name basis with him) is writing about the wrong topics, doesn't care anyway because he has no stake in national policy, and is more useless than Darlin' Rachel because he makes one ten-thousandth what she does.

      Have I got that about right?

    3. No. His initals are BS not TDH.

    4. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

      I see what you did there. BS=Bob Somerby, BS=bull shit. Cle-ver.

      I don't know Bob Somerby except as the owner of The Daily Howler. Others in the commentariat apparently do because they know the workings of him mind (and can't stop telling us about them). I'll stick with the nom de blog.

    5. Then refer to Ms. Maddow as TRMS instead of Darlin' Rachel you big hunk of hammering rodent.

    6. @deadrat. I don't think you "see" very well. He's not writing about the wrong topics, but writing about them with the wrong emphasis, and from the wrong direction. The hackazization of our media? Good topic! The hackazization of our media by Rachel Maddow? Ridiculous. It's been going on since long before Ms. Maddow reached the age where she realized she got a bigger thrill out of looking at pictures of girls than out of looking at pictures of guys. And it's been going on with far greater intensity and effect. It still is, in the event that you, unlike Bob -- whoops! Mr. Somerby -- pay any attention to it.

      As for "mindreading," you might want to consider how often Bob -- please tell me, does "Mr. Somerby" harm your delicate sensibilities less? -- himself does it every day. It is his stock in trade, in fact. Everyone is chasing that house in the Hamptons, those vast salaries they can get, if they just play the game -- "playing the game," in the world of Bob -- Mr. Somerby, I mean -- being refusing to discuss the 199-2000 election to his satisfaction, and actually staking out and passionately persuing positions and topics he doesn't like, that, I suspect, coincidentally, of course, he has no stake in himself. But for a white male of a certain age and educational level, as is Bob -- I mean, Mr. Somerby -- very few topics have any interest besides their entertainment value. The ability to bitch about them, the ability to look down on other people for their venality and foolishness, the ability to thunder and rage about a 15 year old election -- these things,, to a certain mindset, have a value that can't be measured with money -- or with writing posts that might actually influence the debate, rather than making oneself a target for well-deserved ridicule.

    7. Why do the trolls here only care when Maddow is the focus of criticism?

    8. Well, 11:45, I commented on Bob's pre-Maddow post. Never mentioned the MSNBC host. That generated two comments, I suspect from the same buffoon (who I also suspect is you) that called me a troll.

      So why do Bob defenders call anyone who disagrees with Bob regardless of the topic a troll? Or is it just you demonstrating that "troll" is, to you, the height and extent of your insult repetoire. And beyond you, Bob has few defenders?

    9. "Why do the trolls here only care when Maddow is the focus of criticism?"

      Because if "trolls" (sane people) didn't push back about Rachel Maddow, there'd be almost nothing else to type about here at all. The correct question to ask is, "Why does Bob -- Mr. Somerby -- turn everything back to one of two things: Rachel Maddow, and the 1999-2000 election? Maddow is a ridiculous figure, true -- but she's also a ridiculous figure to obsess over. Yet, Bob -- Mr. Somerby to you and me -- does it anyway.

    10. For the life of me, I don't understand why libs, progressives, whatever they call themselves these days, would be bothered to the point of being anguished apologists for "mainstream" corporate news media.

      I don't know of anyone online or off writing a ongoing critique of corporate lib media from a more traditional liberal standpoint. I think Rachel's fans are far too sensitive when it comes to criticism.

    11. Should read "anyone other than Somerby" ...

    12. I don't know how "conservatives," or "libertarians," or "patriots," or "freedom lovers," or "people who have known little but soft lives and can't or won't imagine things from anyone else's perspective" or whatever they call themselves could read anything here as an "anguished" apology for the "mainstream news media." Of course, finding a "conservative" who reads is a rare enough event, so who knows what interpretations of the written word such a mythical creature would come up with. Or care.

    13. Anonymous @10:07P,

      I refer to Bob Somerby as TDH because I restrict my comments to the content of his blog entries. This allows me to distinguish myself from commenters who wish to discuss Bob Someby's hopes, fears, envies, and the other workings of his mind. Darlin' Rachel is a broadcast personality whose performance for the camera is more important than TRMS. In my opinion. YMMV.

      By the way, BHHR is the nicest thing anyone has said about me in a while.

      Anonymous @11:30P,

      You seem to think that I'm offended by the way you refer to Bob Somerby. I'm not. You may address him in any way you wish without it affecting me one way or the other. I simply explained why I use TDH instead of BS. I've read your last paragraph several times, and I find it incoherent. Perhaps it's just me. TDH accuses Vieira of abandoning journalism for "pablum" and telling porkies about her "just-folks" life. He may be wrong about this or right but with the wrong "emphasis" or the wrong "direction," but I don't see how it's mindreading.

    14. 1:10. I respectfully disagree. Maddow went in meet the press representing us as liberals and made a fool out if herself by being really clueless about a major issue!