The Lincoln Plawg - the blog with footnotes

Politics and law from a British perspective (hence Politics LAW BloG): ''People who like this sort of thing...'' as the Great Man said

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Friday, February 06, 2004

Whilst bawling out the BBC, Yank J-critics look the other way for hometown boy Novak

I dealt at some length (January 29) with the surprising campaign (it went on long enough) of vituperation from Jeff Jarvis against the BBC in general and hapless hack Andrew Gilligan in particular.

From these rants, one might infer that pariah Gilligan was the only blot on an otherwise pristine journalistic escutcheon, inviting the Great Unwashed to baseless slander of the noble profession.

Jarvis is not the only resident of this peculiar Cloud Cuckoo Land: we have a piece (February 4) from the NPR ombudsman, Jeffrey A. Dvorkin [1] which, if mercifully shorter than Jarvis' material, is no less - open to criticism.

The Hutton Inquiry into the BBC concluded that the world's most reputable public broadcaster let politics get in the way of good journalism.

There's an old tabloid maxim: You build 'em up, you knock 'em down. Both the heights and the depths are artefacts of the journalistic imagination.

Or lies, as they are known to the rest of us.

But the technique is effective enough. A notion like
the world's most reputable public broadcaster
is what is known in contract law in the common law world as a puff. A piece of flimflam which the courts are happy to say is not a statement on which a reasonable man would place any reliance at all. The Greatest Show On Earth - that sort of thing.

That any journalist would believe the BBC's publicity on the point is - implausible. Most particularly, a journalist who works for a somewhat similar broadcasting organisation, and who must know from experience just what a ragbag of good, bad and (predominantly) indifferent work such an organisation produces.

Making the BBC out to be a paragon laid low by the evil Gilligan and his inadequate supervisors is, no doubt, more likely to persuade an audience that doesn't experience its product 52 weeks in the year.

From Dvorkin, not the slightest scepticism that Hutton's verdict might in any way be less than a paragon on a par with the pre-Gilligan BBC.
Other commentators rushed to the defense of the BBC.

One British columnist called the Hutton Report an overreaction, akin to a "second-rate burglary resulting in the demolition of the house."

These reactions miss the point entirely.

A good many, perhaps the majority of, commentators, accepting that the BBC screwed up on an epic scale, damn the Report for its whitewash of the Blair Government. It's the discrepancy that discredits.

(And I can't trace that second-rate burglary quotation in any article on regular Google or Google News. Anyone with Nexis?)

Then we get to the tub he wants to thump (which he's announced in his lede):
Investigative journalism projects are notoriously hard to manage and they sometimes don't produce the results hoped for.

As I said, pretty much everyone stipulates to the fact that BBC management is a shambles, and that control over Gilligan was woeful.

And then a radical assertion:
At the BBC, there seems to have been a general assumption of wrongdoing on the part of the government.

Firstly, if the BBC was an organisation sufficiently - organised - to be capable of answering a description like that, it would have been sufficiently organised to control Gilligan. Pay attention: it's a shambles. Among its journos, there has historically been something of a Labour bias. Blair had a honeymoon with journos, BBC journos included, which lasted for years.

Secondly, he says that
relations between the Blair government and the BBC were troubled and getting worse through 2003
but fails to point out that Alastair Campbell and Blair's spin team had been waging a relentless campaign of intimidation calculated to produce a major mistake that would be an excuse for mayhem against a much-hated organisation.

Thirdly, he fails to point out that the assumption of wrongdoing was based on the history of wrongdoing of the Blair government, from the Bernie Ecclestone million pound donation onwards. Blair has a long rap-sheet when it comes to deceit. It was the Blair record of serial deceit and the relentless bullying by Campbell and his underlings that would be responsible for turning a generally favourable staff of journalists at the BBC against him, to the extent that they have.

Dvorkin gives us a potted lesson in how to do investigative journalism - the answer seems to be, safest not to.

Then we get a dose of sanctimony: he cites listeners' emails saying, for instance,
Now that it has been revealed that the BBC is of the Jayson Blair school of reportage, wouldn't it be reasonable to drop them from NPR?

Ah, that other Blair of truth and decency!

From his perch in the stratosphere of self-righteousness, Dvorkin is prepared to be lenient:
In my opinion, the BBC, like The New York Times, is still strong but damaged. Both are capable, I hope, of repair and learning from what happened. NPR and NPR listeners can and should continue to rely on both those institutions. But for all our sakes, and not just of their own reputations, both the Times and the BBC must find ways of restoring our trust.

For now, I'll keep reading the Times and listening to the BBC on my local public radio station.

But I am disappointed and more skeptical than before.

...more skeptical than before - we evidently have another Jefferson Smith, bewailing his being deprived of his innocence by a cruel, cruel world! Jeff, I truly feel your pain.

The guy's a journalist, for crying out loud - he should have scepticism running in his veins. Does he know there's no such thing as Santa?

So - time to compare and contrast.

On the one hand, we have Gilligan who rashly, in the course of an unscripted broadcast, went beyond the evidence he had, and made a statement that was, in terms, incorrect. And, only partly corrected that statement afterwards.

And this guy is crucified.

On the other hand, we have hometown boy, the People's Choice, Robert Novak, who rashly, in the course, etc, etc.

I'm talking, of course, about the allegation that a bunch of South Dakota Indians stuffed ballot boxes in favour of Senator Tim Johnson in his 2002 election victory over John Thune.

(An incident I looked at first on January 11, and followed up with a piece on January 13: relevant URLs available there.)

Novak said (on CNN's Crossfire on January 6):
In 2002, Thune would have been elected to the state's other Senate seat, but the election was stolen by stuffing ballot boxes on the Indian reservations. Now Tom Daschle may have to pay for that theft.

He never produced any evidence whatsoever of stuffing of ballot boxes by anyone in that election.

There were some irregularities - and a conviction resulting - in the voting in that election. But not box stuffing.

Novak either deliberate lied on January, or didn't care what he was saying, or had - misunderstood the situation.

A few days later, in Capital Gang he clarified:
...I do feel, based on my reporting, that there were very serious voting irregularities in 2002 in South Dakota, which the -- I also believe that -- which the Republican Party, for political purposes, did not want to protest.

He doesn't withdraw the allegation of box-stuffing in terms, note. Parsing the words as if they were in some kind of statute, you might argue that one is meant to infer that the irregularities he refers to were something other than ballot-stuffing. Sounds to me as if he wanted to make the waters as muddy as possible.

Was there a campaign of vilification of Novak by his fellow journalists for bringing the profession into disrepute by his reckless misuse of the airwaves?

It so, there's no sign of it that I can find. Some ranting in the Native Times, I seem to recall (before it went pay-only). One or two pieces elsewhere. But not 1% of the flack that Gilligan and the BBC came in for.

A pretty putrid double standard one might have thought. Certainly, in the eyes of someone with the naivety of the NPR's Dvorkin - or that other-worldly avatar of his who seems to have been mind-raped by the BBC.

The answer, of course, is that it's politics as usual. The whited sepulchres of American journalism find there's enough in the budget for another lick of paint (I'm sure Lord Hutton could do them a good deal on that whitewash he has half a shed-ful of.)

Novak needs to do much more to fire the wrath of the bleaters of moral outrage.

Good ol' Bob Novak, salt of the earth, doyen of his profession; no hack wants to be the one to cast the first stone at Bob.

There are certainly lessons to be learned from the Gilligan case - and, thanks to Dvorkin and Co, we get a bonus one.

  1. Why the A? How many Jeffrey Dvorkins are there in journalism?


One or two URLs to round up: a couple on a page on Rush Limbaugh's site.

And a 4,500 word essay on the 1948 primary for the Texas US Senate seat in which 'Landslide' Lyndon Johnson had his famous victory over Coke Stevenson, secured by box-stuffing. (Courtesy of the famous George Parr, Duke of Duval County - who I'm fairly sure I've mentioned before, but am too lazy to track down right now.)

One part of the tale I'd not taken cognizance of was the intervention of
the state Democratic Executive Committee. After a debate that included many harsh accusations, the Committee agreed fraud played a part on both sides but awarded the election to Johnson by a vote of 29 to 28. The deciding vote was placed by Charley Gibson, a drunk committee member rushed in at the last minute by Johnson supporters.

Ain't democracy grand?

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