PBS Frontline: 'News War: What's Happening to the News'

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Stephen Talbot
Producer and Co-Writer
Wednesday, February 28, 2007; 11:00 AM

Producer and co-writer Stephen Talbot was online Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the third part of the PBS Frontline series " News War: What's Happening to the News." The film looks at how blogging, citizen journalism and other Internet developments are both enhancing and undercutting traditional journalism, and at the economic underpinning of and pressures on the media.

Frontline's " News War: What's Happening to the News" airs Tuesday, Feb. 27, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Talbot has been producing and writing documentaries for Frontline since 1992, when he made "The Best Campaign Money can Buy" about that year's presidential race. Since 2002, he also has been the series editor for Frontline/World, Frontline's award-winning international news magazine and Web site. Some of Talbot's other recent Frontline documentaries include "The Battle Over School Choice" (2000), "Justice for Sale" (1999) with Bill Moyers and "Spying on Saddam" (1999).

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Boston: Do you believe that deregulation and corporatization is killing the news industry?

Stephen Talbot: Killing the idea of news as a public service, yes.

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Washington: Thank you, thank you for finally using airtime to show the steady demise of original reporting. I hope your story has some effect particularly for the reporters at the Los Angeles Times. Wall Street says we all want "info snacking" and local news -- we don't.

Stephen Talbot: Thank you very much. That's encouraging to hear.

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Pepperell, Mass.: Hello -- last night's Frontline was excellent. Your program suggested to me that when newspapers participate in the stock market, they are making a deal with the devil: in return for possible upside of increased share value, you must compromise your journalistic principles. We are led to wonder why this deal is made, especially if your newspaper (such as the Los Angeles Times) is a cash cow? Do you think the solution is for newspapers to go private? Is a problem that "going private" is a very difficult thing to do?

Stephen Talbot: There is no perfect ownership model, as former L.A. Times editor Dean Baquet told us. A paper can have a "bad" private owner. But it does seem true these days that ownership by a publicly-owned company brings enormous pressure on a paper from Wall Street investors demanding higher profits -- that's why a lot of papers are looking to a "white knight" owner, someone like Eli Broad in Los Angeles. There's also the "benevolent family" ownership model like the Grahams at The Washington Post. And there's the non-profit St. Petersburg Times model in Florida, a very unusual arrangement set up by a former owner, Nelson Poynter.

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Watching the program right now!: So ... the audience for "serious, investigative reporting" is aging. "60 Minutes," for example, tries to combat this by "chunking," to adjust to the younger generation's "info snacking." This makes me nervous -- very. While I'm a part of that generation, I love my Frontline. No chunking, please. No softening. No "church bulletin-ing." Aaaaggghhh!

The Daily Kos writer said people are becoming too educated to be passively fed traditional journalism. I doubt that people are becoming too educated. Narcissistic, sure. What the blogosphere has accomplished I'm not discounting -- no one can. It's this "red state-blue state" epic war label being fitted to "traditional media vs. citizen journalism" that makes it utterly ridiculous. Coexist, collaborate, and collectively the public can only benefit.

P.S. -- Kevin Sites's "pretty face" -- this is what Yahoo! News thinks would appeal to my demographic, young women? Yuck!

Stephen Talbot: Frontline got into Web journalism early, more than ten years ago, and has a fine Web site, which I urge people to visit if they want more information on this or any other Frontline documentary. You can watch the program online in its entirety. Frontline also has experimented with an international news magazine, Frontline/World, which airs about 4-5 times a year and has its own vibrant web site.

I agree that much of the blogosphere is motivated by partisan politics.

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Boston: I find it very interesting that young people basically are turning exclusively to the Internet (blogs, etc. for their news. I'm 21 years old and have never sought my daily news online -- I buy a print copy of the New York Times most days of the week and watch 60 Minutes almost every Sunday night. An observation I've made is that my peers don't seem that interested in really reading the news. Rather, they skim they headlines for the general idea. I guess that is the impression that online news gives me, a kind of "skimming" as one is engaged in other activities, instead of actually reading the stories. I knew that news was changing but I had no idea just how rapidly.

Stephen Talbot: Thanks for your question. I am glad to hear that you read the New York Times and watch "60 Minutes." My son is 26 and is a devoted NPR listener. Not all young people are completely attached to the Internet. But like you, I hope that people of all ages do more than skim headlines -- it's worth diving into a story you care about.

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New York: Good show. Do you think it should have been disclosed that Lowell used to work for "60 Minutes" and was the producer of the tobacco piece that caused all that consternation at CBS News ... and also that Lowell wrote investigative pieces for the New York Times? I don't mean to imply that there's any ethics conflict, but it would offer some added context and perspective on his work on this fine series.

Stephen Talbot: Good point. We did say this in a press release and other materials, and at one point we considered telling this more as Lowell Bergman's own story. But we opted for a broader approach.

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Alexandria, Va.: I am a writer/photographer at a newspaper in Va. With many newspapers downsizing, do you think there is a growing role for writer/photographers? Will these sort of positions start to dominate the newsroom?

Stephen Talbot: I think the more solid skills a journalist has these days, the better off he or she will be. I started out as an English major concentrating on my writing, but also learned how to become a documentary filmmaker. That's how I ended up producing for a series like Frontline.

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Localization: What is wrong with me? I cannot stand local news, in any form.

Stephen Talbot: Personally, I think "hyper-localization" is being over-hyped. I do like local news, but I would never want my city newspaper to be focused entirely on backyard stories.

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Hermitage, Pa.: Do you think that new technologies make it more difficult to win support for wars?

Stephen Talbot: Interesting question. New technologies certainly make it possible for more voices to be heard, so in that sense perhaps there is more opportunity for dissent. But in the run-up to the war in Iraq in 2002 and 2003, I'd say most of the media supported the war and in some cases failed to ask critical questions.

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Austin, Texas: Mr. Talbot, do you think newspapers are doing enough to combat the perception that their news coverage is slanted in either a "liberal" or "conservative" way? It seems that many readers are discounting a lot of good journalism because of these perceptions.

Stephen Talbot: I think that's an important point. In some ways, in the hyper-partisan politics we've had in this country in recent years, the whole idea of even attempting to be objective has suffered. Yes, I think newspapers could do a better job reminding the public of their role.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Fascinating series! One of the things that wasn't mentioned when discussing the relative health of NPR is that it received a huge endowment a few years ago from Joan Kroc ($140 million if memory serves). Perhaps similar acts of generosity could save U.S. journalism. Serious news gathering operations like the Times and The Post should be insulated from the whims of Wall Street. Maybe that's where community-minded philanthropists like Eli Broad could put their money. I know ... easy for me to say.

Stephen Talbot: You absolutely are right about the huge Joan Kroc donation to NPR. Good journalism on PBS also long has depended on grants from public-minded foundations. I do think philanthropists can play a role -- our very series was made possible by a grant from the Goldmans in San Francisco, people concerned about the state of journalism in this country.

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Muncie, Ind.: What's it like producing a Frontline? Does one person produce the show, or is it done in a more a ad hoc sort of way?

Stephen Talbot: It is a very collaborative process, as you might imagine. That's the nature of filmmaking and doing news documentaries on TV. In this case, our correspondent, Lowell Bergman, was also a co-producer and very involved in all the decisions that go into creating a TV report. Generally a producer for Frontline is a kind of ringmaster -- reporter, writer, director and often (in my case) the designated van driver on location. There also are many fact-checkers, talented camera people and creative video editors. I can't say enough about the editors on this program -- Andrew Gersh, Steve Audette and Peter Rhodes, some of the best in the business.

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Washington: Great program! Do you think the reporters on shows like "Dateline" and "Primetime Live" aspire to do more serious journalism and are co-opted into doing the tabloid pieces they produce, or do you think that these journalists have decided to just abandon serious journalism in the public interest?

Stephen Talbot: That's a question I often have asked myself. I think the answer varies with the individual, but there are many talented and dedicated people who work for the network news shows.

I will say this. I interviewed Connie Chung for this program -- it was one of many interviews we could not squeeze into the final show -- and she got very excited describing the good enterprise reporting she did as a young, pioneering Asian-American woman reporter in the Watergate era. After reminiscing about her work back then, she stopped and said "why did I ever give that up?" I responded, "maybe because of the money?" (which she was offered to become an anchor and host). And she smiled and said "oh yeah, the money."

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Greensboro, N.C.: Everyone criticizes the media. For decades, however, it's been a Republican strategy to undermine the media's credibility by dismissing critical reporting as the work of a biased, liberal media. Should the media do more to defend its own credibility? I'd say yes, including critically reporting more critically on each other. I wish other outlets would fact-check rather than simply repeat misinformation.

Stephen Talbot: I do think that the serious news media can do a better job reminding the public of its vital role in a democratic society -- the role of the press even is enshrined in the Constitution. But remember, there's a long history of people wanting to kill the messenger.

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Gulf Shores, Ala.: I am amazed that 20 percent isn't enough profit for the owners of the LA Tribune. I think the most important task a newspaper can to is investigative reporting. I fear the shareholders, i.e. the American people, one day will wake up and will wonder why the only news they get is Anna Nicole Smith, Britney Spears and the like. I fear that indirectly has been alluded to in your documentary.

Stephen Talbot: You are correct, that is definitely a fear I have. Personally, if I never hear about Ms. Spears ever again in my life, I will be a happy man.

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Silver Spring, Md.: The LA Times/Chicago Tribune story was crazy. The big issue is the fact that if you run a news operation (of any type) with the purpose of maximizing profits, you end up with a newspaper that doesn't have the staff to really do the cutting-edge stories that can make a real difference -- not just locally, but nationally. Kudos to the editors who drew a line in the sand at the expense of their jobs. P.S. -- they are so right about washingtonpost.com. Your Web site is so superior to others in terms of content and breadth ... I take it for granted until I use another newspapers Web site.

Stephen Talbot: Thank you for your kind words about our Frontline Web site. A great team of people puts that together.

In the process of our reporting, I have come to admire both John Carroll and Dean Baquet for the fine work they did at the Los Angeles Times. Late in the game, we also did an interview with the new editor, Jim O'Shea, and I must say he sounds like a really dedicated newspaperman himself. I wish him the best at the Times and hope that he can help keep it a great newspaper. It's going to be a tough battle, I suspect.

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Washington: Why is there no major newspaper in America offering a progressive, liberal point of view showcasing what we read online on the "left-wing" blogs? When I want to understand what The Post article yesterday about oil in Iraq really means, in terms of the connection between our invasion of Iraq and our efforts to take over Iraqi oil, I have to go online to find out (Alternet, etc.) because The Post hides the information in plain sight through omission and by distracting the reader with competing stories in the same story: yesterday's article for example also was about an attempted assassination and how oil would be divided among Iraqis -- with only one paragraph only vaguely hinting at how foreign powers like us will get our hands on the oil. The role of oil in motivating Bush to go in to Iraq may be huge but The Post is highly unlikely to give its readers a clue about it. Doesn't this amount to censorship by The Post?

washingtonpost.com: Iraq's Cabinet Backs Contentious Oil Measure (Post, Feb. 27)

Stephen Talbot: I think if a business person or foundation decided there was enough of a readership for an American newspaper with a decidedly progressive, liberal slant to its reporting and editorial positions, such a newspaper would be created. In Europe, such papers are supported by political parties or movements. Online, as you say, there is more opportunity for a variety of publications with different politics because it is cheaper to produce and distribute.

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Washington: Hasn't the advent of the "24 hour news cycle" forced credible news organizations to fill the time available, thereby leading to the notion that if we don't have any news to report, we'll just create a story?

Stephen Talbot: Yes. The constant demand for news -- all the time, anytime -- puts enormous pressure on editors and reporters to publish or broadcast first and fact-check later. Also, on cable, the impulse always is to go for a soap opera kind of story that plays out over time, where you can hook an audience and keep them coming back for more. I think of it as the equivalent of serving junk food in fast-food style.

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Kettering, Ohio: I have enjoyed your programs thus far, and greatly appreciate its viewpoint, particularly the hyper-sensitivity to Wall Street scrutiny by management. I worked in the trust banking industry and it has been ruined by this same symptom, which is ironic with a business that used to be focused on the long term. I think a part of the problem that has received short shrift is erosion of the perception of pure reporting and the inclusion of opinion in how news is reported. It's a shame, and I suspect you are tired of hearing all about bias, but whether is it from the left or the right I spend too much time considering what is between the lines. Would this news be reported differently if it was about a Dem or if it was about a Repub?

Stephen Talbot: It's always good to hear from people with a financial background question the Wall Street (and sometimes management) obsession with short-term goals and profits. Great enterprises and businesses need long-term goals and investments.

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Washington: Stephen, Do you see network news going the way of radio? Also, what do you think of the trend where media companies -- in an effort to reduce costs -- are using staffing companies to employ people to do critical editorial functions without paying them benefits, and in order to avoid possible lawsuits these staffing company hires only are permitted to work a maximum of 52 weeks. In effect -- guest workers; after this the company must find new staff to train.

Stephen Talbot: Great institutions usually are not based on "guest workers" with no job security.

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Anonymous: Hi Stephen. Your series has been fantastic -- thanks for Frontline. Do you think that the decline in "hard news" is at all related to a larger zeitgeist -- a sort of widespread loss of faith in the certainty of objective knowledge and values? It seems commonly accepted that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and everyone's outlook on life turns on the particularities of their background. Are people more suspicious today of spin and interest? Is this what is affecting journalism?

Stephen Talbot: That's an excellent question, very provocative -- something I've pondered myself. I think you may be on to something. But I will say that at Frontline my executive producer, David Fanning, and my colleague and senior producer on this documentary, Ken Dornstein, always tend to put a premium on reporting and facts. It's part of their "zeitgeist," which is one reason I like working for Frontline.

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Chicago: Through the years, have you observed any changes in the motivation of young people choosing journalism as a career? My niece reports for the Yale Daily News and is headed for an internship at the right-wing Manhattan Institute this summer. Her interest in journalism stems more from her desire that public policies conform to her ideology than from a view of news as essential to public discourse in a democracy. She definitely does not see journalism as public service. How typical is this?

Stephen Talbot: Sorry to hear that about your niece. I do think of journalism as a public service, regardless of one's politics.

Frontline has an office at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley and I co-teach a course there one semester a year with my colleague Sharon Tiller. I must say I am impressed with most of the students there. They come from diverse backgrounds but they seem to share a sense of mission about their work as journalists. I'd call most of them idealists.

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Arlington, Va.: I grew up in L.A. on the Los Angeles Times. When I go back and pick up a copy, I'm disheartened at what a thin paper it has become -- there are fewer pages, but they seem covered in ads with tiny slivers of stories. This is a real shame because the paper covers some issues really well, especially Latin America and business/trade. To think that this devolution, a planned corporate strategy, is sad. But I must say that whenever I travel, I'm always thrilled to come back to The Washington Post, which seems to have managed to create corporate success without sacrificing journalistic excellence.

Stephen Talbot: For me there's nothing quite like settling down with a great newspaper to read. I was born and raised in Los Angeles and I still vividly recall how the Los Angeles Times transformed itself, under the guidance of publisher Otis Chandler, from a parochial, partisan paper to a great national paper with award-winning coverage -- of the war in Vietnam, for example. I am a strong believer in newspapers as a civic institution. At their best, as others have said, they can be the soul of a city.

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Seattle: How concerned should people be over private equity groups, wealthy individuals and large corporations taking over newspapers and others media outlets? How worried should we be that these people are simply trying to buy media at the source, to report on their own priorities?

Stephen Talbot: It is a legitimate concern. Just because an owner says he or she wants to run a paper in the public interest and do great journalism doesn't mean they will in practice. But these days, with Wall Street being so negative about the future of newspapers, and with shareholders demanding profits at all costs, it's easy to understand why many reporters are hoping some enlightened individual or family will come along and bail them out. In the old days of American journalism, the general rule was that papers were the private fiefdom of owners who used them to enhance their own interests.

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Philadelphia: My question on war coverage is not necessarily about bias or slant, but that there does appear to be a basic difference in how different news agencies present war. Would I be correct to assert that American news agencies report more on the aspects of military actions whereas Middle Eastern news agencies report more on the damages within Iraq resulting from the conflicts? Might there be more an issue of perspective: we are concerned more about our troops and other news reporters are more concerned about how the country is affected?

Stephen Talbot: On March 27, Frontline/World will devote a full hour to the issue of Mideast news coverage. Our lead story will be a look at the battle for hearts and minds in the region between the competing satellite news networks.

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Washington: Re: The question about technology effecting public support for war -- of course it does. We were winning the Vietnam War until the media started using pictures to demoralize our country. In WWII, we went door to door and told people we would carpet bomb cities. They left, and we arrested who we wanted. This couldn't happen today because the media thinks it is their job to fight wars and alter policy ... not report on news. Two perfect examples of this -- all the false reporting on Katrina, the fake horror stories and murders, rapes in the dome, and the way the media was given tours by Hezbollah during the conflict this summer.

Stephen Talbot: As I recall from my history books, William Randolph Hearst helped start the Spanish-American War. And, having lived through the era of the Vietnam war, I know that the media -- in general -- first promoted U.S. intervention in a big way. The tide began to turn in 1968.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Thanks for an excellent program, Mr. Talbot. As we watched it, we were wondering whether there is some way to force the Los Angeles Times sale. If it were a radio station, listeners could comment during relicensing hearings. Certainly, it is clear that the shareholder-driven model doesn't serve the public good, as can be seen playing out in the "Net Neutrality" debate as well. When does this become a First Amendment issue?

Stephen Talbot: Hard to know how people could force a sale, but community leaders in Los Angeles have made the battle over the L.A. Times a public issue. As we mentioned in our documentary, last summer a group of leaders, organized by a prominent attorney, George Kieffer, wrote a public letter to the Tribune Company urging them to stop cutting the newsroom at the Times. The letter was signed by former secretary of state Warren Christopher, among others.

Kieffer and others argue that a city as large and diverse and geographically sprawling as Los Angeles needs all the help in can get in uniting the citizenry, and that the Los Angeles Times can and should play a major role in doing so.

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Washington: Thanks for a interesting series. I really believe that there still is an audience for real news consumers -- young and old alike. The packaging has to change, yes, the and the business model has to change, but people really value content. However, everyone who is considered an "authority" on the subject seems to be talking about the end of news as we know it. I don't believe this is the case -- and I believe that in the 1950s journalism was in a worse place than it is today. Entrepreneurs and techies are striking out all around us with new ways of delivering quality content. Why is it that old-school journalists are not open to their ideas, business models, and the idea that a "long tail" audience is a viable one?

Stephen Talbot: I appreciate your optimism, and even someone like John Carroll, the former LA Times editor who is so concerned about threats to serious news, acknowledges that he sees some hope in the Web. The Internet does open vast possibilities. The bottom line is that a democratic society needs a well-informed citizenry, and news and investigative reporting are essential to that.

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Ann Arbor, Mich.: How long did it take you to put this together?

Stephen Talbot: I have been working on this third episode of the series since May 2006. The producers of the first two episodes began in 2005. Frontline, Dean Orville Schell of the journalism school at Berkeley and reporter Lowell Bergman were contemplating this series long before that.

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Attitudes:: I'm a 33-year-old freelance journalist. I personally am extremely excited by all the changes going on the media right now -- even though it puts huge stresses on me to "keep up." I am discouraged by the gray-haired moralizing about how people no longer care about important things like "serious news." That sounds like a lot of "things were better in the old days." What the media industry needs is an attitude change: stop it with the Evil Wall Street vs. Our Saviors the Serious Journalists. It's not either/or.

Stephen Talbot: OK, enough "gray-haired moralizing" -- go get 'em!

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Nashville, Tenn.: Ted Koppel pointed out that the FCC had no teeth because the paragraph requiring television to carry out their business in "the public good" had been gutted, during a "Kalb Report" interview shortly after 9/11 when ABC was contemplating replacing Nightline with Letterman. Have you considered a business model where the FCC would force the TV stations to do real news? They then could subcontract this obligation to newspapers in much the same fashion as DOD subcontracts much of its work.

Stephen Talbot: The issue and role of the FCC is a long, fascinating and important story -- I don't have time to go into it now. But clearly the FCC once had enforcement authority that, for a variety of reasons, it has not chosen to exercise. That's an issue for public discussion and something the media itself might report more about.

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Stephen Talbot: Thanks for all your questions -- sorry I could not get to all of them. I am pleased that many of you seem to have found the series and last night's episode enlightening. We try. For more information, I urge you to visit the Frontline web site.

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