Everyone is a media critic. President Barack Obama, unsuccessfully pleading for a peaceful reaction to the grand jury exoneration of policeman Darren Wilson, made it a point to show his scorn by describing the coverage of the “negative reaction” on the ground as exploitive “good TV.” Meanwhile, in his news conference, prosecutor Bob McCulloch couldn’t resist taking a shot at the “24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something — for anything — to talk about.”
I’ll tell you what, Mr. President and Mr. Prosecutor: You do your job, and we’ll do ours, which is to cover the debate over how well you are doing it, as well as the kind of violent damage we see in Ferguson, Missouri. That’s presented by journalists on the ground, in the face of danger, some of which has come at the hands of bullying cops. Granted, there are some hot dogs among them, but most are responsible and gutsy.
Of course, those of us who try to be serious about journalism must get used to, if not embrace, the reality that if we do our job properly, most people won’t like us. Many times, they hate the idea that we’re interested in what they’re doing, because it means that they’re doing something very wrong.
Ferguson is certainly a case in point. The protests and violence that erupted after the fatal shooting of black teenager Michael Brown by a white cop is clearly big news. Obviously, the explosive reaction to the grand jury’s nonindictment of Wilson also is huge.
Even so, many of those who call the area home deeply resent all the reporters, videographers and photographers, to say nothing of big satellite trucks, that have descended like a bunch of “vultures,” a term commonly heard from the locals. The president and prosecutor are merely channeling Americans who believe that those covering the story are irresponsibly promoting trouble with their very presence.
The vitriol comes from all sides, including those who are suspicious that the same media are plotting to slant the story in favor of the authorities.
Cries of “conspiracy” raced across Twitterdom the moment it was learned that various national-network celebrity anchor people had met with Officer Wilson in an effort to land the big “get” — an interview, preferably exclusive. Usually, relatively low-level bookers compete for the newsmakers, but when it’s a really big deal, the bigfoots tromp in. Included this time were some really big feet: Matt Lauer, Scott Pelley, Anderson Cooper, George Stephanopoulos and other heavyweights making their pitches wherever Wilson is hiding out.
The critics charge that by stumbling all over each other to secure this major headliner, they were promising to show him in a sympathetic way. Stephanopoulos got the get, by the way, and others can decide how tough he was.
The fact is that this kind of off-the-record encounter is routine. In the mid-’90s, when I was still in my CNN phase, I went up against the other networks seeking the first TV interview with CIA agent Aldrich Ames, who had been convicted as very high level Soviet mole. It was a sensational case. Knowing that the competition probably would sweet-talk him, my approach was to tell him that if I did the interview, he could expect hard questions. It worked. Wolf Blitzer and I did an hour special with him at his prison.
I also can tell you that there have been other big fish that got away. The point is, this high-stakes competition is normal, but it is certainly cutthroat. People observing from the outside can get really turned off by watching us throw our sharp elbows.
We definitely can be intrusive pains in the butt. For the most part, though, we aren’t playing favorites. But if everybody thinks we are, then we’re probably doing our jobs.
Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.