The events of Sept. 11 may have changed the way Americans view their country, but it also, according to NBC News President Steve Capus, changed the way Americans view their media. Capus believes the day led to an explosion of online journalism and a more critical national culture, and both phenomena have caused Americans to scrutinize their media in a way like never before.
“9/11 changed everything: it changed the country, it changed our lives, it changed our business … it brought a new scrutiny of what we [the media] were doing,” said Capus.
Capus spoke Wednesday night at Ithaca College in a lecture entitled, “The Bridging the Gap: Old Media to New Technology.”
The public currently places an unprecedented amount of scrutiny on the media, said Capus. This scrutiny puts attention on the media itself while taking it away from where it belongs – the stories it covers. According to Capus, the new focus “gets in the way of what we are trying to do,” because people spend more time questioning the media than they do considering important current events.
Capus believes that one of the causes for this change is the birth of online journalism, which became extremely popular after Sept. 11. “Anyone who has a laptop” said Capus, can now consider himself or herself an online journalist.
Online journalists, such as Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report and Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post, spend almost as much time reporting the news as they do covering news reporters. Generally, said Capus, this coverage does not go beyond efforts to cast labels on the media, either calling them a “Bush mouthpiece” or a leftist organization. These labels, said Capus, are not only ineffective, but they also often carry their own biases.
“[Online journalists] go after things to meet their pre-defined ideas of news or people they’re writing about,” said Capus.
The effect of these bloggers, said Capus, is more than just a surplus of online journalism. The online bloggers have also frustrated the media’s efforts in some of this year’s more prominent stories, he said, citing the events surrounding Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent hunting trip as an example.
When Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot a man in a hunting accident, the media had number of concerns about the way he handled the situation. First, the Vice President’s staff waited 20 hours without giving any indication of what had happened. When they did notify the press, they chose to speak to a local newspaper as opposed to the standard White House Press Corps. The Vice President also neglected to inform local police authorities of the accident. The press, said Capus, was at the very least, unimpressed with the Vice President’s conduct
“[It was] one of the most incredible moments of governmental silence that we had ever seen … the Vice President shot somebody; wouldn’t you think that it would be of importance to tell somebody that it happened?” asked Capus.
When the press started to question Cheney’s handling of the events, however, Americans began to question the press. Stories of the press’s aggressive questioning of the White House Press Room flooded online blogs. The news quickly became a debate of whether the press was acting too harshly, while the story of the shooting itself loss its eminence.
“The story stopped being about the incident, and instead, it’s about the White House press corps,” he said.
While Capus seemed annoyed at criticism of the media’s handling of the Cheney incident, he seemed downright outraged at criticism of its handling of Iraq. Capus noted a post Sept. 11 phenomenon in which many believe that “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” This phenomenon, said Capus, has led many to believe that if the media covers any negative stories about Iraq, then it is uniformly against the war. The notion that the media is against war efforts, said Capus, is unjust.
“We have been from Northern Iraq to Southern Iraq; it is in everybody’s best interest for this to succeed. We understand that. … Don’t blame the news media for what’s going on in Iraq.”
Capus played a media clip in which political commentator Laura Ingram criticized The Today Show for not bringing its broadcast to Iraq. According to the pundit, NBC had played it safe, keeping only a few reporters in Iraq and then restraining its reporters’ hotel balconies. Ingram argued that had the newsmen spent more time on the main streets of Iraq, the media would be portraying a much happier view of the country.
Capus vociferously rejected Ingram’s claims.
“I don’t come at this from a political point of view,” said Capus, “but I’m deeply offended.”
Capus took greatest offense at Ingram’s claim that news reporters are safely and cowardly covering the war. He emphasized the great danger that his reporters face daily in Iraq, noting the numerous midnight calls he has received about colleagues who are either killed or kidnapped. He also noted that NBC has, in fact, taken both The Today Show and Matt Lauer to a war zone.
Capus also took objection to another claim, made by both Ingram and others, that the media only covers negative events in Iraq, while ignoring some of the accomplishments. The violent state of Iraq, said Capus, is an aspect of the story that journalists cannot overlook. The media’s coverage of it does not indicate a bias against war efforts.
“We have done stories about schools being reopened and efforts to start a stock market,” said Capus, “but you can’t ask us to ignore the fact that every day there’s an awful lot of violence too.”
The notion that any negative media coverage of Iraq denotes a general prejudice is one that some of Capus’ audience members disagree with as well.
“There is too much focus by the people that have that mentality of you’re either
with us or against us.” said Kevin Krisak, an Ithaca College student.
Michael Kulikowsky, another IC student, also does not agree with the black and white attitude. He does, however, take his own objections to the press.
“What I do think is a problem is that a lot of what [the news] show[s] is more entertainment geared. Especially in a time of war, maybe we shouldn’t be so interested in Ben and Jennifer as [we are] in the war,” he said.
Archived article by Lauren Hirsch
Sun Senior Editor