Training a Gimlet Eye on the News Media and Finding Them Wanting
By BRIAN STELTER

As self-absorbed as the news media can sometimes be, only a small amount of self-criticism appears on television.

The cable news networks seldom speak about their infatuation with stories of white women gone missing or delve into their military analysts’ conflicts of interest. But a new series on the Independent Film Channel, “The IFC Media Project,” finds plenty to be introspective about.

The program, which begins on Tuesday, calls itself a “user’s guide to how the news gets made.” It examines a wide range of subjects, from coverage of the financial crisis to the narrative of the “war on drugs.”

“The point of the show is that American journalism and especially broadcast journalism right now seems to be spiraling downward,” said Gideon Yago, the host of the six half-hour installments.

Mr. Yago, 29, may seem too young to be disillusioned about journalism, but his seven years spent at MTV News and his contributions to CBS News would suggest otherwise. In an interview last week, he said he had watched “news stories that were super-relevant get the kibosh because Purina had bought the first hour of the morning show and they wanted to do a profile on fat cats.” He added, though, that the practices examined on the program are not only ones he has witnessed personally.

Asked if he has become a journalistic cynic, he responded, “That, my friend, is the understatement of the year.” He then quoted a line from the 1987 film “Broadcast News”: “You’re lucky if you can get out while you could still cry.“

“The IFC Media Project” gives Mr. Yago a chance to critique what he sees as misleading media practices. Much of the territory it covers is well worn in print and on the Internet, although not addressed as often on television. Mr. Yago said the series hoped to cover both original stories and ones that “fell through the cracks on broadcast.”

The first segment profiles Larry Garrison, a consultant who helps families of missing children deal with the news media. At the time of the filming Mr. Garrison was a spokesman for the family of Caylee Anthony, the Florida toddler who was reported missing last July.

“People love to hear stories about tragedies,” Mr. Garrison tells the producers, sitting in his office, a framed copy of a People magazine cover saying “What Happened to Caylee?” on the wall. “It’s like eating a potato chip; you just can’t stop.”

Cable channels presented almost 900 reports about Caylee in the first 12 weeks after she disappeared. “During that time, approximately 100,000 other children were reported missing,” the program observes. (Last week The Orlando Sentinel reported that Mr. Garrison had collected payments from news organizations. He denies profiting from the Anthonys, although he is no longer working with them.)

But the segment does not directly ask the producers of cable news about why they devote so much time to certain cases. Similarly, the second episode’s long examination of television military analysts, titled “How to Sell a War,” does not include the perspective of the networks that hired the analysts and allowed them to espouse the government’s talking points without any disclosures about their ties to the Pentagon or to defense contractors. The segment is based on an investigation by The New York Times in April and includes an interview with the Times reporter David Barstow.

Meghan O’Hara, the program’s creator and executive producer, said the omission was not for lack of trying. “None of them wanted to talk to us,” she said.

The television networks have generally declined to talk about the military analysts. On Monday representatives of ABC, NBC and CBS declined comment.

Ms. O’Hara worked with the filmmaker Michael Moore on the documentaries “Bowling for Columbine,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Sicko,” and the series adopts an outraged tone reminiscent of those left-leaning films.

Jennifer Caserta, the general manager of the Independent Film Channel, sidestepped questions about whether the program represents any kind of partisanship. “The goal was to just present the stories and allow the audience to make the judgment,” she said.

While the series is essentially an exercise in media literacy, it is far less academic than one might expect. Each episode includes an editorial cartoon, “News Junkie,” that pokes fun at media stereotypes and shortcomings. While the media criticism programs on cable news, “Fox News Watch” and CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” emphasize debates among guests, “The IFC Media Project” prefers taped segments and one-on-one interviews. The third episode applies neuroscience to so-called shout shows to see why pundit-driven talk is so entertaining to viewers.

Mr. Yago said the program seeks to praise great journalism just as it criticizes questionable media practices. “Mostly,” he said, “it’s trying to get into the process — to ask why stories become news and how stories get to the top of the queue.”


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