TV News Personalities: Journalists or Talking Heads? Or Worse?

Maybe I’m just jealous because I didn’t become a famous TV journalist. But I think some of the TV personalities who have been chosen to enlighten us on important issues are rather strange.

I’m not just talking about Fox News, which you may already recognize as a propaganda machine. Fox has gone so far as to hire such widely known political figures as Karl Rove and Mike Huckabee. I don’t think even the most uninformed viewer would expect unbiased commentary from those two.

Then there’s Sean Hannity, the former construction worker and bartender described in Wikipedia as “an indifferent student.” He dropped out of college but got an honorary degree from Liberty University. That’s Jerry Falwell’s Bible college (‘nuff said).

Hannity reportedly runs a dating service (called Hannidate) and may be an expert on matchmaking, but his commentary on world and national affairs is definitely suspect.

What about his “liberal” foil, Alan Colmes? Did you know that Colmes began his career as a stand-up comedian?

And what about Laura Ingraham, that tireless crusader against the media’s “liberal elite”? How did she earn her journalistic credentials? Apparently by posing in a leopard print mini-skirt for a 1995 New York Times Magazine cover story on young right-wingers. Is she a journalist? No, she is a lawyer who used to defend white-collar criminals.

But I’m sure you must know about Fox by now. It’s the rest of the profession that worries me.

Whatever happened to the tradition of Edward R. Murrow? Walter Cronkite? Huntley and Brinkley? Who is to take the place of journalists like the late Tim Russert and ABC’s Diane Sawyer (a member of Broadcast Magazine’s Hall of Fame and the Television Academy of Fame)?

How did MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough become a political reporter? Don’t you think the former Republican congressman from Northwest Florida might be somewhat biased? And doesn’t anyone care that he resigned abruptly from Congress after a female aide, Lori Klausutis, was found dead in his office back in 2001?

Scarborough is a lawyer and sometime schoolteacher. Was he ever a journalist? Not in my book. He published the Independent Florida Sun, a weekly newspaper in Pensacola, but that was not a real newspaper. It was – to put it kindly – unorthodox, and was written almost entirely by Scarborough under various pseudonyms.

He has more solid credentials as a rock-and-roll musician. He played guitar under the name Regular Joe, and performed at the 2000 Republican National Convention. He also joined Huckabee on stage at one of the presidential wannabe’s musical rallies.

And how did his sidekick, Mika, qualify as a newscaster? Her main claim to fame is the fact that she is the daughter of Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to President Carter. There’s no record of her studying journalism. Her degree is in English. But at least Mika is easy on the eyes. And that puts her right up there with such eminent newscasters as CBS star Katie Couric. (I have to concede, though, that Couric reportedly had a distinguished career at her college newspaper.)

Did I mention Pat Buchanan? You must know about him. He’s the one who got all those votes because people thought they were voting for Al Gore. That’s right… the butterfly-ballot affair… In Florida … in the 2000 election. Before he ran for President, Buchanan was a senior adviser to Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. How does that qualify him as an impartial political commentator?

Is Buchanan a journalist? Yes, in a manner of speaking. Buchanan earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia in 1962, and has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers. But that’s not the same as hard news reporting – at least not in my book.

Then there’s Dan Abrams, who professes to analyze news events from a lawyer’s perspective but neglects to mention that he’s never actually practiced law. Abrams, who used to be the general manager of MSNBC, began his career at NBC Sports making coffee runs, icing sodas, and keeping anchor positions dust-free.

How can these folks rank side by side with CNN’s Wolfe Blitzer, a real journalist who worked for Reuters and the Jerusalem Post, and has a master’s degree in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t always agree with Wolfe’s interrogation. I wonder who puts him up to some of the things he asks. But I am comforted by the knowledge that he must have acquired some commonly accepted journalistic precepts in his career.

What puzzles me most is that CNN would hire an apparently brain damaged former disk jockey named Glenn Beck to comment on current events. Beck, who brags about being involved with drugs and alcohol during a misspent youth, has no formal education that I could discover. He reminds me of a remark a friend named David Cobb once made when I was indulging in a rant (which I thought hilarious) at The Canadian Magazine. David, who was the magazine’s managing editor at the time, looked at me mildly and cautioned, “Just because something you say is outrageous that doesn’t mean it’s funny, George.”

I pass David’s comment on to CNN’s Beck without elaboration. Shame on CNN for hiring that clown.

On the plus side, Dana Bash is a CNN commentator with impressive bona fides. She graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in political communications from George Washington University. And she was the Capitol Hill producer for CNN, where she had primary editorial and newsgathering responsibility for the network’s coverage of the U.S. Senate. She covered every major story on Capitol Hill, including the war on terrorism, campaign finance reform, the Florida recount and the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton.

Anderson Cooper’s resume also looks bulletproof. A celebrity from birth because of his famous mother, Gloria Vanderbilt, he has been appearing on television since the age of 3. He drove across South Africa in a truck and studied Vietnamese, was a successful model… But he also is a serious, award-winning journalist with a degree in political science from Yale.

CNN’s Candy Crowley looks like a journalist. But she actually graduated from Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia with a degree in Mathematics. She started her career as a newsroom assistant at a radio station, and worked her way up through the ranks.

MSNBC’s Contessa Brewer, on the other hand, may not quite fit the image of a “news hen.” But she is a magna cum laude graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, and has a Bachelor of Science degree in broadcast journalism.

To be fair, MSNBC has several real journalists on its staff. In spite of his eccentric style, Chris Matthews is a former newspaper bureau chief. He covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, the first all-races election in South Africa and the Good Friday Peace Talks in Northern Ireland. In 1997 and 1998, he wrote a series of San Francisco Examiner scoops on the Nixon presidential tapes.

In March 2004, he received the David Brinkley Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism. He has also been awarded The Abraham Lincoln Award from the Union League of Philadelphia and in 2005 he received the Gold Medal Award from the Pennsylvania Society

But I think his objectivity may be suspect because of his political involvement. He was a speechwriter for President Carter and was on the staffs of Senators Frank Moss and Edmund Muskie. He even ran for a seat in the House of Representatives, losing the nomination to Pennsylvania Congressman Joshua Eilberg in the 1974 Democratic primary.

Keith Olbermann, who admittedly has a rather unjournalistic style, is a former child prodigy who wrote his first book at age 14, went to college at 16 and graduated at 20 with a Bachelor of Science degree in communications arts from Cornell University. He has won awards both as a sportscaster and a hard news reporter. Olbermann has written for dozens of publications, including The New York Times, USA Today, Newsweek, Time, Sports Illustrated and Playboy.

While not as spectacular as Olbermann and Matthews, Andrea Mitchell is another genuine reporter at MSNBC. In 2005, she received the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism from the John F. Kennedy School of Government and in 2004, the Radio-Television News Directors Association honored her with the Leonard Zeidenberg Award for her contribution to the protection of First Amendment Freedoms.

I am not saying you have to study journalism to be a good reporter or commentator. Radio talk show host Rachel Maddow, who is often on MSNBC, is not a journalist by trade but she has impressive credentials nonetheless. She is a Rhodes scholar with a degree in public policy (Stanford University, 1994) and a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford (yes, the one in England).

Conversely, journalism students can become egotistical windbags. Bill O’Reilly, who is certainly not my idea of a journalist, has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Boston University. (He attended school with Howard Stern, another journalistic aberration). And Lou Dobbs, whose self-congratulatory rants seem to be the antithesis of responsible journalism, is a Harvard economics graduate who paid his dues on the police beat in Yuma, Arizona, and has an impressive collection of broadcast journalism awards.

Still, it seems only fair that TV viewers should be made aware of the credentials of the people who offer us guidance on the affairs that affect our daily lives. We might react differently to the views expressed by a Rhodes scholar than to those of a former stand-up comic or bartender – or an ex-Congressman who might have an ax to grind.

gwgraeme

I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for Jamaicans.com

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