American Broadcast Journalism: STILL trying to serve God and Mammom

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New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg Visits FOX's "The O'Reilly Factor"

                          What I’d like to know is how you Americans can successfully                worship God and Mammom at the same time.

                                        John Reith, Director General of the BBC

This incisive challenge which the BBC’s John Reith made in 1930 to a group of CBS executives, champions of commercial broadcasting favored in the United States, echoes through the turmoil of the past several weeks involving two leading figures of American broadcast journalism, Brian Williams and Bill O’Reilly, on multiple levels.

As analyzed by legendary New York Times media crtic David Carr in what turned out to be one of his last columns, Williams was encouraged by NBC news executives to make numerous appearances on popular television talk shows to help promote his nightly newscast. It all seemed to be working well until he was finally caught exaggerating his role in covering the Iraq war which he had increasingly embellished over several years.

Before Williams was suspended for six months without pay, there was much media speculation about his monetary value to NBC News given that his newscast had the highest ratings, thus earning NBC more revenue than his competitors, but whose integrity was now tarnished. The recent announcement that Andrew Lack is returning to help NBC News to restore both it’s reputation and ratings suggests to some that there is simply too much at stake to abandon Brian Williams altogether.

The proliferating questions about exaggerated news reports and comments by Fox TV talk show host Bill O’Reilly ironically have completely different economic considerations. As Jay Rosen, a professor of journalism at New York University, makes clear, “Fox News has a market; the market is people who don’t trust the news media. That strategy requires personalities like Bill O’Reilly to be under attack from the rest of the news media. When something like this flares up, it gets incorporated into a programming strategy.”

In the early years of broadcasting in the US and the UK, the BBC’s John Reith strongly believed that commercial interests would be too focused on profits to properly serve the public interest needs of citizens. William Paley and his colleagues at CBS argued that enlightened business interests would provide what is needed, therefore saw no need for a separate public media sector. The Media Stewards Project believes Reith was right, and that it is past time for a robust consideration of this basic question.