Thursday, April 28, 2011

Final "Nightly"

Another episode of “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” finishes out the twelve-week sequence.


This story deals with President Obama finally revealing his long-form birth certificate, putting to rest speculation and rumors from the Conservative Right.  Anchor Brian Williams opens up by stating that people in Hawaii remember seeing the president’s mother pregnant and recall seeing Obama as a child.  Williams mentions the ongoing controversy about Obama not revealing his birth certificate and how Donald Trump, the famous businessman and celebrity, has recently brought the issue back into the spotlight.  The report shifts to reporter Savannah Guthrie at the White House.  She begins by discussing how the president showed his birth certificate in order to silence the “sideshows and carnival barkers.”  Guthrie reports that Obama was displeased that this issue kept creeping into the mainstream.  She says that the president felt it unnecessary to dig up this document because he had provided the short-form of his birth certificate during the 2008 campaign and also had newspaper clippings about his birth.  Guthrie reiterates that the “birther” debate came back into focus when Trump began to think about a presidential candidacy.  At a press conference Wednesday, Trump claimed responsibility for the long-form birth certificate being revealed, Guthrie states.  She talks about how Trump repeatedly requested to see the document, but then “ignored” NBC reporters saying they had the birth certificate.  The report shifts back to Obama and how he has “grown tired of the issue.”  He says that he has no time for this type of “silliness.”  The report ends by mentioning that the president appeared on the “Oprah Winfrey Show” Wednesday afternoon.
                NBC’s left slant is apparent in this report.  Williams starting the story by making undocumented claims about the President’s childhood and slamming Conservatives for bringing up this controversy clearly shows what he, and his parent network, believed all along.  Williams and Guthrie both seem to demonize Trump for bringing up the birth certificate as a means of garnering support for his presidential run.  They obviously do not see it as an issue that riles people up and is ripe for getting potential votes.  Guthrie echoes some of the president’s language by making this issue seem less than it was.  Obama certainly wanted to make this matter go away and finally did that today.  Guthrie makes amends for the president by saying that he already had the short-form of the document and other documentation.  She explains away the question of “Well, why did he wait so long to show the long-form?” by saying that the state of Hawaii would not release the document “even to the president.”  A further explanation of why Hawaii was legally not allowed to show this document is necessary.  Also, the NBC reporter trying to get Trump’s attention with the long-form certificate is a bit silly and sensationalist.  There was no way Trump was going to stop and look at the reporter in that crowd of people.  NBC includes that bit just to cast doubt on Trump’s legitimacy and credibility as a presidential candidate.


This segment discusses the changes being made in the defense and intelligence sectors of the government.  Williams begins by mentioning how there were major shifts of power on Wednesday, the same day when nine people were killed in Afghanistan.  Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski takes over and explains who received new titles and new duties.  He states Defense Secretary Robert Gates is retiring and that current CIA director Leon Panetta will be taking his place.  The report continues by describing how General David Petraeus, commander of United States forces in Afghanistan, will replace Panetta at the CIA.  Miklaszewski then gives detail on Panetta and Petraeus.  He says that Panetta, after having no background in intelligence, used his political skill to make a good name for the CIA, even under intense scrutiny from Congress.  Panetta also worked on the CIA’s budget, he reports.  The report praises Panetta for this and talks about how he will be able to use those skills at the Pentagon, the entity with the biggest budget in Washington, D.C.  Petraeus will be going into a civilian job after being at war for ten years, says Miklaszewski, but his skills in counter-intelligence and covert operations will aid him greatly at the CIA.  The report drifts to a description of Wednesday’s events in Afghanistan and talks about how the deaths are still under investigation.  Miklaszewski ends the story by talking about the troop drawbacks in July, saying that they will be minimal at best.
                Miklaszewski does a good job of keeping this report objective.  He accurately explains the changes being made.  The only reason given for this shake-up is the fact that Gates is retiring.  The report glazes over this fact and does not give Gates his credit.  Miklaszewski is a bit heavy-handed with his praise of Panetta.  He talks about Panetta’s lack of experience in intelligence like it is a good thing, which I feel is somewhat ridiculous.   The report makes it seem as if political prowess is more important than knowing the field in which a person will be working.  As for Petraeus, the report undermines his military success.  Yes, one of the interviewees does mention the fact that Petraeus is one of the highest ranked generals in the military, but the comment that “Petraeus has been at war for 10 years” comes off negatively.  Petraeus sounds like a warmonger, not a leader.  There is also no discussion of how the president came to these decisions.  NBC shines objectively for bringing up how much larger the Pentagon’s budget is compared to the CIA’s.  Hopefully Panetta will be able to manage it well.  Also, Williams’ introduction is fairly straight.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Objectivity Champion

In my estimation, “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” provides the most objective news broadcast among the major networks.  It more or less continues that trend this week.

This story focuses on the changes being made to the Homeland Security Advisory System and the reasons why changes were implemented.  Anchor Brian Williams introduces the current system as one of the “most routinely ignored and misunderstood” policies to date.  He then mentions how the system will be discontinued and then passes the report to justice correspondent Pete Williams.  Williams begins with footage from late 2001 of former Homeland Security Secretary John Ashcroft announcing the Advisory System.  He goes on to discuss how the system’s color coded levels were not heeded by the public and provided fodder for late-night comics.  Williams next presents the changes to the system which will take effect in two weeks.  Footage of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano describing the new system is shown, along with a graphic explaining the two threat levels.  The first level is “Elevated” and will be used when the government has “credible information” about terrorist plots in the United States. The second tier is “Imminent,” which will be used in the event an attack could happen soon.  Williams talks about how the new alerts will have more information and be more specific, allowing citizens to know which areas to avoid and how they can help out.  The alerts will be more targeted to the certain threats, making sure Americans know to stay away from malls or airports, rather than to have a general sense of “awareness.”  Williams reports that these alerts will also expire two weeks after issuance, unless further information is added to them.  The Department of Homeland Security will let people know about these alerts in a myriad of ways, by posting to Facebook and Twitter along with traditional media sources.  Williams closes by answering a question about whether or not these new alerts will be better understood and heeded by Americans.  His response echoes the idea that the targeted broadcasts will let citizens know more, thus reducing panic.
                Both Brian and Pete Williams do a great job staying in the middle for this report.  This Advisory System has been the target of so many jokes and continuing ridicule in the years since it was first implemented.  I am glad to see that there was little mockery of the existing system.  Pete Williams makes it clear that a change was needed, yet without skewing the current alerts.  When he gets to the facts about the new method, he may be a bit overzealous, though.  He makes it sound like this new system will make people safer when going to work or buying groceries and the simple fact is that it will not.  The Bush administration had the same idea with the color code, which was not understood by the majority of Americans.  Also, in terms of fairness, it would have been nice for Williams to have included an interview with someone who either supported the current system, helped shape it, or worked to fix it, rather than just including an interview with an opponent of the Advisory System.  As to Brian Williams’ piece of the story, his word choice may have been a bit strong for some viewers.  I feel it is appropriate for this situation.  It will be interesting to see how well this new system works and whether or not history remembers it in the same way as the Homeland Security Advisory System.

This feature details the anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the ongoing clean-up efforts in the Gulf of Mexico.  Williams opens this segment with a note about how the survivors and family members of victims of the oil rig explosion flew over the disaster site to commemorate the event.  He mentions how the oil spill is still thought of with a “sense of grief mixed with anger.”  The report then shifts to correspondent Anne Thompson in Venice, La.  She begins by talking about how BP has filed suit against the makers of the faulty blowout preventer which caused the rig explosion.  Thompson then explains that there is still oil in the gulf and Louisiana’s wet lands.  Footage of crews cutting marsh shrubs is shown along with commentary about whether or not the efforts are actually worthwhile.  Thompson interviews James Peters, a fisherman who reports still seeing “oil sheen” on the water.  She highlights Cat Island, where mangroves are dying.   The National Wildlife Federation’s David Muth questions if the clean-up efforts are effective without any coastal rehabilitation.  The report ends with an aside about the United States government disputing an Associated Press report about 3,200 oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico not having “cement plugs.”  The government assures the public that all of those wells have been inspected and are in proper operating condition.
                This segment had a bit more slant, but like many other events, it is hard to give good press to one of the parties, namely BP.  Thompson focused more on the environmental aspect of the oil spill than anything else, barely touching the human or economic impact.  She should have mentioned how the economies of the Gulf States have tried to bounce back after last summer and examined whether or not tourism took as great a hit as was projected.  She also depicts the progress in terms of clean-up to be minimal, while in fact, it is quite astounding how much has been done.  Thompson does mention that there is no more oil in the gulf, but breezes past this fact, rather than highlighting it for the achievement it is.  All of the recovery efforts she looks at have a negative bend: the marsh cutters find oil, the fisherman sees sheen, and Cat Island is in danger of erosion.  Yes, the public understands that this was a disaster.  Yes, there will be detrimental ecological effects from this spill.  Why must Thompson beat this dead horse on the anniversary when she could have produced a more positive message about how BP kept its promises, how the coastal culture came together to help, and what has been done already to stem the ecological impact?  Furthermore, there is only one mention of BP in this report.  An interview with a spokesperson or executive of BP was in order for an anniversary story.  Thompson’s own bias toward environmentalism colored this story in an unnecessary manner.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Good "Nightly News"

This week, “NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams” once again provided fair commentary and criticism.

This story covers the Wednesday morning incident in Reno, Nev. where a medevac plane had to land itself because the air traffic controller on duty had fallen asleep. Anchor Brian Williams opens up the story with remarks about how and when the event took place, stating that the sick person was in desperate need of medical attention.  A sound bite of the pilot’s voice saying that he would just have to land whether or not he had clearance is then played.  The report goes next to correspondent Tom Costello.  He begins by talking about how the pilot repeatedly radioed the air traffic control tower to no avail.  A radar station in California was listening in and called the tower but was unable to rouse the sleeping controller.  The pilot then landed on his own and rushed the patient to the hospital.  Costello then investigates why the controller was allowed to fall asleep on the job.  The reason, he concludes, is that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been cutting costs by understaffing towers at low volume hours.  Ray LaHood, secretary of transportation, is then quoted as saying that these instances are unacceptable.  Next Costello provides insight into just how many of these occurrences have happened.  He cites episodes of air traffic controllers sleeping on the job, accidentally and willfully, across the country.  The report concludes with the proclamation that the FAA will now make it mandatory for there to be at least two people working in the tower at all hours.  This change affects a total of 27 airports, even some in major cities.
                This report is a bit one-sided.  No one is really going to be supporting the sleeping controllers, and the FAA comes out as the bad guy for its wish to reduce costs by cutting employees.  Williams may sensationalize the story a bit by making it sound like there were other planes waiting to land and that the pilot had no experience whatsoever in landing.  Costello is also a bit guilty of this when he makes note at the end of his segment that the person in the medevac is “now is stable condition.”  This was a life-or-death situation though.  The FAA is adequately ribbed by this report and the comments about their budget cuts are warranted.  The inclusion of LaHood seems to be an almost unnecessary appeal to authority.  The report is somewhat bolstered by having his statement but would have been fine without it, too.  I appreciate Costello’s use of the other recent sleeping controllers.  This graphic really brought the issue into a larger context.

This feature deals with the United States’ budget and how President Obama plans to reduce the national debt.  Williams starts with a chart explaining how much the federal debt has grown since 1980.  He reports that the debt is hovering around $14 trillion.  Williams segues into correspondent Savannah Guthrie’s report by asking how the president plans to “chip away at spending.”  Guthrie leads in by discussing Mr. Obama’s Wednesday press conference on spending.  She highlights how he rips the Republican ideas for the budget.  Obama does concede that the debt is currently out of control.  The president proposed a plan to cut $4 trillion from the national debt in 12 years, Guthrie states.  He plans to do so by cutting discretionary, defense, Medicare, and Medicaid funding along with some increased taxes to the highest income brackets.  Guthrie then focuses on the Republican retort, showing how congressional leaders do not feel the president is willing to thoroughly execute his plan.  The report ends with Guthrie discussing how Vice President Joe Biden will be meeting with Republican leaders to negotiate more on the budget.
                This report keeps things fairly balanced.   Williams controls himself when discussing the rising debt and how it relates historically.  I would have liked to know more about how the debt grew almost one trillion dollars between 2010 and 2011, though.  That, however, is probably better suited for another report at another time.  Guthrie could have taken this report in a direction that utterly bashed the Republicans’ ideas, but instead goes with a more balanced approach, letting the president make his points and then allowing the Republicans to fire back.  This style prevents partisanship and makes for a better newscast.  The president’s plan to cut funding and raise taxes was discussed very quickly though.  More analysis would have provided a better understanding of what Obama plans to do and why the Republicans are so frustrated.  I like how Guthrie points out how Obama invited Congressman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to attend the event.  It was necessary for her to include this detail, and it highlights the antagonism between the parties.  This was a quality story on a hot issue.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A Mixed "Evening"

This week, “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” has its final shot at winning the objectivity competition.

                This story deals with the recent incident in which a tear in the metal of a Boeing 737 opened up during a Southwest Airlines flight and the reactions by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Boeing, and Southwest.  Anchor Katie Couric begins this report by reminding the viewer of the events of Southwest flight 812.  She speaks of how the FAA will be conducting more stringent checks on 737s.  Southwest is currently inspecting its fleet of 737s and has found cracks in three other planes, while “57 of the 79 grounded have passed inspection.”  Reporter Don Teague then takes over the report.  Teague begins his portion by giving a harrowing account of the tear in the fuselage of Flight 812.  He speaks of how the passengers heard what sounded like a “gunshot” and then had to make use of the plane’s oxygen masks.  Teague makes note of how the pilots had to dive from 36,000 feet to a more steady elevation of 11,000 feet in a matter of four minutes and thirty seconds.  The altitude caused two people to faint.  Teague then speaks of why the flight may have experienced this tear.  He talks about “metal fatigue” in the lap joints of planes with more than 30,000 takeoffs and landings.  The fatigue is caused by the constant changes in air pressure.  Teague closes his report by mentioning past Southwest plane failures and commenting on how Boeing and Southwest will continue testing to avoid further problems.
                Couric and Teague keep this report fairly objective.  Nowhere do they place blame or even speculate as to why this event happened, beyond the scientific explanation.  This stance is a welcome change to the usually polarizing placements of culpability.  Couric points out that the FAA mandated the inspections and that Southwest and Boeing have been more than willing to comply.  It is good to see that the structure in place is working.  Teague reports mainly straight facts, with very little opinion or any coloring.  He does include some sound bites from experts and transportation officials on why the hole was formed and also interviews one of the passengers, but beyond those doses of outside influence, Teague provides a crystal clear description of why the incident happened and how the pilots reacted.  My only criticism would be that the main focus is on Southwest, yet Boeing is the company that made the plane.  I feel that they should be receiving equal scrutiny.  However, Southwest grounding flights makes for a better story.

                This report is about how the Obama administration has changed its mind on where 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four other detainees will be tried.  Couric begins the story by saying that “a lot of people thought it was a bad idea” to hold trials of the five terrorists in New York City.  She mentions how security could have cost over one billion dollars.  Couric sends the report off to justice correspondent Bob Orr with the statement that the Obama administration has decided to hold the court proceedings in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, with a military tribunal.  Orr starts by saying that Attorney General Eric Holder is the person most displeased by this decision.  A sound bite of Holder expressing his discontent follows.  Orr then mentions how Congress, “bowing to public pressure,” barred transfer of the prisoners to the United States.  The impact this decision has on families of 9/11 victims is then mentioned.  Next, Orr focuses on how Mohammed has been treated while at Guantanamo Bay.  A graphic of waterboarding is shown along with statistics about how many times Mohammed went through this process.  The report ends with Orr mentioning how Mohammed has expressed a desire for the death penalty in the past.  No word on whether or not the tribunal will seek the death penalty has been given.
                There is a striking amount of bias in this report.  First, the comment about a “lot of people” thinking the location of the trials to be a bad idea somewhat underplays the drama that took place when Holder announced the plans to try Mohammed in New York.  This statement seems to be CBS wishing to sweep that unsavory tidbit under the rug in order to push out a more favorable look for the Obama administration.  Second, the graphic about waterboarding is totally irrelevant to the story.  This report deals with a trial of confessed terrorists, not with the legitimacy of torture as an interrogation technique or even the question of whether or not waterboarding is torture.  That segment is meant to distract from the White House’s policy switch and stir emotions which are not connected to the matter at hand.  On the good side of things, Orr does mention why Mohammed wants to be put to death: in order to be a martyr for Al Qaeda.  Hopefully, the tribunal realizes this and will give appropriate punishment.  I found balance in the report when Orr includes the fact that this reversal almost cements the continuation of operations at Guantanamo Bay, further hindering (or negating) President Obama’s promise to close down the detention facility.