The Digital Journalist

by Ron Steinman

I am not a pure defender of the craft, or, if you will, the profession of journalism, especially television and in particular the dregs of gossip programming. It is not my usual role. I do not blindly say that everything we have done in television news -- or especially what I call "fake" news -- and everything we may do, and how we do it, is right-minded and beyond reproach. If something is wrong, I will say so. I will then deal in specifics and not generalities. However, when I read the following from Stephen Holden, a respected film critic for The New York Times, and see something as egregious as I am about to relate, I take the opportunity to say my piece.

I must admit I am not a great fan of Mr. Holden's. But in the years I have been reading him, I have never seen him write anything so prejudiced as he did in a recent film review. I read him because he looks into some interesting and compelling films. Though I often find his conclusions somewhat strange, generally I look forward to what he has to say each time I read him. It is good fun to argue with Stephen Holden, even if it is only in my head.

In The New York Times on July 8, 2005, Mr. Holden reviewed a film called "Cronicas." It stars John Leguizama, who plays Manolo, a highly ambitious and self-serving reporter for "One Hour With the Truth," a Latin-American television gossip show similar to "Inside Edition," "A Current Affair," and others of its ilk. The show he works for fancies itself as "the only program that looks reality in the face." The movie is a jaundiced riff on sleaze. Mr. Holden's review takes the film apart, which is good, but he mainly enjoys how it exposes the netherworld of tabloid TV -- not, frankly, the most difficult or elusive of targets.

After Mr. Holden describes a scene of mob violence captured by the reporter's film crew, he goes on to say, "This harrowing scene of mob violence and an attempted lynching under the eye of the camera makes a great beginning. The reluctance of these tabloid news hounds to intervene says it all about live television's icy voyeurism." All good points and worth a discussion, because there is no denying that camera crews, whether engaged in political coverage, the celebrity life, or the underside of the world, almost always never interfere with the action they are witnessing. There are times when this is a valid concern and times when it is not. That is not what I am about here. Ethicists argue the rights and wrongs of such acts all the time. I am upset though, because without so much as a pause, Mr. Holden then says, " Anyone who has observed a news crew in action will recognize the sense of entitlement and the high-handed attitude of jaded media types who act like God's handpicked snoops as they nose around in downscale environments where they are both adored and feared."

Suddenly -- despite, in special circumstances, the correct use of "handpicked snoops" and "downscale environments" -- Mr. Holden has effectively shown his prejudice against all camera crews everywhere, whatever they are doing. He goes beyond criticism and allows his prejudice to flash through uncontrolled and without journalistic support. I wonder how many television crews of any kind, anywhere, he has observed to allow him such a broad, unqualified attack against broadcast journalism. Has he experienced firsthand what he describes in the film? If he has, he should let us know what it was, where, when and how. Where is his or anyone's evidence in support of his brash statement? What is his real motivation? Is what he said a sophisticate's bias toward television, the world's major mass medium? As I said earlier, it is easy to attack television for all that it is not.

More importantly, where were his editors when they read those lines? The first part of that sentence does not automatically parse to the second half. He and his editors at The Times made a classical mistake of logic when some becomes all, which is a well-known logical fallacy. There should have been a line between the two statements that said he was not talking about every cameraperson doing his or her job as a professional; he was only speaking to those dealing in the sordid details of the corrupt in society. There are a great many of them. The editors should be ashamed of themselves for allowing what I can only call bias to slip onto its pages.

Mr. Holden is blatantly unfair to all the hardworking and honest camera crews who toil across the world. Because he tars everyone with the same brush of baseness, it makes it nearly impossible for me to trust his judgment on anything in the future. What he has done in his attempt at being profound should have a negative effect on the minds of those who read him. It does me. That is too bad.

I know that what I write will have little or no effect on The New York Times. I hope that anyone who reads the review of "Cronicas," or any review of Stephen Holden's in the future, will take what he says with a grain of salt. See the film in question and then search your own minds to decide its value.

© Ron Steinman

Ron Steinman, a regular contributor to The Digital Journalist, is an award-winning producer of television news and documentaries. He was NBC's bureau chief in Saigon during the Vietnam War. He is also an author and freelance documentarian through his company, Douglas/Steinman Productions. Buy Ron Steinman's book: Inside Television's First War.