August 11th, 2008 | Published in Reporting commentary
A friend sent me this YouTube clip of Father Pfleger a colleague of Obama pastor Reverend Wright being interviewed by a Fox News reporter in late March after the initial controversy over Reverend Wright had received a lot of negative publicity particularly from Fox. If you are in a hurry, you can get the flavor very quickly, but I’ll take all of it into consideration in my analysis. (Please use the above link to the video, the embed code is playing havoc with my WordPress theme today.)
What is interesting to me about this example is that the Internet makes material of this nature much more available for scrutiny. We normally only get to see the result – not the outtakes and the mistakes. I’m quite certain that the footage shown here would not be broadcast by Fox News. I don’t know if Fox broadcast any footage from this interview, but I have found no mention in the comments of anyone claiming to have seen it on air. I believe what we are seeing is material taken from a satellite feed of raw footage being sent to a facility where Fox edits and prepares it for broadcast. I don’t know how accessible this kind of material is today – I had easy access to it in the seventies through the satellite receiver where I worked – but a TV cameraman who comments on the YouTube video thinks the same and has some penetrating observations. (Sorry no direct link – it currently appears on the 2nd page of comments to the video):
From a former broadcast news cameraman:
First of all, kudos to this Father for continuing to represent himself and his beliefs in the face of a farce, masquerading as a reporter. No one should have the right to slander people the way this “reporter” is, and then tell people he is fair and balanced. I know, then the news will seem boring, but I’m not afraid of that; what are YOU afraid of?
For those of you who think this video is fake, you’re mostly wrong. In my opinion, the video is what we call a feed, uploaded via satellite and recorded (presumably) by the producers of some Fox program in a different locale, probably the O’Reilly show. It has a Fox logo poorly keyed in the corner, but at that stage of the production, I’m not sure why. It’s obviously and unabashedly edited, but there seems to be no attempt to hide that. I think we all need to watch out for reporters who incite us and encourage us to draw false conclusions. This guy is a classic, and he really does give his best effort to twist the words of his subject. Too bad for him, he met his match. I wish the entire interview feed had simply been posted, so we could maintain more objectivity. I’m not afraid of the simple truth, just those who package it falsely on either side of the fence.
I wish so much we, as a nation, could stop throwing stones (through the media), and have an intelligent, fair discourse about public policy. Our future is truly at risk, due to the inability of our mainstream media to maintain objectivity.
The next step is to check the web site presenting the YouTube video to work out what kind of organization it is. The answers are not far away. Right next to the clip are the words: “Psst… stop the Fox News virus from infecting the media” Click their ‘About’ link and you get this:
Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films are at the forefront of the battle to create a just America and we want you to join us. Using cutting-edge new Internet video campaigns, Brave New Films has created a quick-strike capability that challenges corporate media with the truth and empowers political action nationwide.
From delegitimizing Fox News as a news source and Impeach Gonzales to Real exposés about conservative candidates and a War on Greed, our groundbreaking online political campaigns are exploding the old model of grassroots politics. Using YouTube, bloggers, mobile phones, and strategic partnerships with national networks and local activists, we are reaching millions and getting results.
So we are dealing with an organization which we can see supports views opposite to those of Fox News and actively wants to discredit the network. The cameraman commenter’s professional eye picks up that the footage has been edited and that even the Fox logo may have been clumsily added. O’Reilly is mentioned a couple of times in the audio so I agree it probably is Fox. Whatever has or has not been done, the implication is clear – Brave New Films is unlikely to show us anything that puts Fox in a good light. The biggest difference I see is that Brave New Film’s agenda is more open than Fox’s. One thing I think is that the Internet has done is expand the ideological bandwidth of political debate. Traditional media have to stay within a narrower ideological range and at least pretend to be reasonably objective. Put another way, using the Wikipedia definition of advocacy journalism I used in my previous post we are seeing the difference between frankly open advocacy as “distinct from instances of media bias and failures of objectivity in media outlets which are attempting to be or which present themselves as objective or neutral.”
Still, whatever may have been left out, it is obvious that the Fox reporter is well practiced at using bullying tactics to try to provoke his interviewee into providing material he can use. Father Pfleger clearly is acutely aware of the game being played and is trenchantly uncooperative. Still, before the Internet, the best he could hope for was to avoid giving the media anything they could use. One slip, and you’re toast. Otherwise, as in this case, they just don’t show the footage. While it’s an unequal contest dealing with a reporter asking loaded questions, Father Pfleger’s Wikipedia article does show that he is an experienced activist who has been burned by the media before. Nonetheless, whether one agrees or disagrees with Father Pfleger, I think his refusal to be used is admirable.
While confrontational tactics can be a legitimate technique to bring out issues, journalists cross a line when they actively try to provoke a reaction for a partisan purpose while pretending to simply report news. ‘Fair and balanced – we report, your decide.’ Ironically, both Pfleger and Wright went on to say things that forced Obama to distance himself from them without any help from Fox News. Another aspect of TV that makes this kind of tactic so effective is that once the media have the footage their agenda needs, neither the facts, nor the real person involved, matter. As it turned out, Bill Moyers later interviewed Wright on PBS and edited out some of the Reverend’s more controversial remarks. Moyers’ agenda was the opposite of Fox’s, but he was quickly exposed. Reverend Wright himself in a speech to the National Press Club on Aril 28 complained of the edits and supplied what had been omitted. Here the Reverend Wright is defending his use of the phrase “God damn America.” which, I believe both the Fox reporter and Father Pfleger are indirectly referring to in the clip.
And if you saw the Bill Moyers show, I was talking about — although it got edited out — you know, that’s biblical. God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns something — and d-e-m-n, “demn,” is where we get the word “damn.” God damns some practices.
And there is no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn’t make me not like America or unpatriotic.
So in Jesus — when Jesus says, “Not only you brood of vipers” — now, he’s playing the dozens, because he’s talking about their mamas. To say “brood” means your mother is an asp, a-s-p. Should we put Jesus out of the congregation?
When Jesus says, “You’ll be brought down to Hell,” that’s not — that’s bombastic, divisive speech. Maybe we ought to take Jesus out of this Christian faith.
Wright brings up two other Moyers’ edits in the course of his remarks. The complete transcript is here on Fox and if you don’t trust them it is also here at the New York Times. I found it interesting to read because Wright comes across to me as a man with a different world view than either the liberal or conservative media would like to portray him. Basically, neither were that interested in what he really had to say because as Obama’s pastor he was more useful as a political cudgel. What I think is going on here is that the agenda precedes the news gathering and only material that supports the agenda makes it past the ideological filter. I believe this kind of behavior has become the norm and partly explains why it is easy to get media to accept fake photographs or footage. Richard Landes’ analysis of the al Durah footage is not a conspiracy theory for exactly this reason. That Palestinians deliberately set out to create footage damaging to Israel is no more far fetched than Fox News setting out to create material damaging to liberal politicians. Or PBS setting out to support their side of politics.