Saturday, June 18, 2005
INTERVIEW: Rebecca MacKinnon on why she quit CNN for Berkman blogging
Posted 06/17/05 at 05:21 PM
© 2005 Columbia Journalism Review at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism
The Water Cooler
June 17, 2005
Rebecca MacKinnon, Pretend Tourist No More
Rebecca MacKinnon is a research fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. For more than ten years she reported for CNN in China and Japan, working her way up from assistant in the Beijing bureau to bureau chief in Beijing and Tokyo. She currently spearheads the Global Voices blog and posts at North Korea Zone and at her own personal blog, Rconversation.
Thomas Lang: Last year, you took a break from CNN to work on a fellowship at the Joan Shorenstein Center at Harvard, then resigned [from CNN] shortly thereafter. What prompted your decision not to go back to CNN?
Rebecca MacKinnon: Well, a couple of things. One was that over the year leading up to my resignation I had been growing increasingly frustrated with the direction CNN was going in. [I was] feeling that the ... trend [toward] less interest in serious news was accelerating and the trend towards more infotainment, from anything but a war zone, was also accelerating. I'm neither a war correspondent nor an infotainment news bunny, and I was beginning to wonder whether there was any place for me in international news at the network.
So there was that general feeling that was buttressed by being told things by my boss like, "Your expertise is getting in the way of doing the kind of stories we want to see on CNN," and "We'd like you cover the region more like a tourist." That kind of thing that just made me increasingly question whether my job was any longer consistent with the reasons I'd gone into journalism -- which was not to be an infotainment news bunny.
This leave had been planned for a long time because I'd been living in Asia since college -- I was in China for nine
years, I was in Japan for two and a half, I had been with CNN for most of that time, and I had been freelancing in Taiwan before that. So I thought it would be good to step back a little bit, take a break in the States to see what else was going on in the media space, and get some perspective on where I was going.
The Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy, which is attached to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, [has] these one semester visiting journalist appointments where you do some kind of research project that you write up. ... I did my project on blogs and international news and what one could do with a blog related to international news that would be different than what one could do in a traditional reporting format. I started a blog focused on North Korea, which is called North Korea Zone, just to see what would be possible. It was a fascinating experiment and I got very excited with the potential of what some call participatory media ... just the fact that its now very easy to create media with very little money that specialize in things that CNN audiences may or may not be interested in. There are a sufficient number of people out there who are [interested].
So I ended up deciding that this was as good as a time as any time to resign from CNN and try to figure out what I wanted to do next. The Berkman Center around that time offered me a fellowship to be a research fellow here this past academic year. ... We recently started building a project called Global Voices which the Berkman Center has asked me to stick around another year to help build. [Global Voices] is a site to aggregate and index blogs from around the world and try to point to and filter and highlight what we think are the most interesting and noteworthy and perhaps newsworthy conversations, information, images, sounds, whatever, from grassroots media online from around the world.
TL: Do you see this project as a viable alternative to cable news?
RM: I don't think mainstream media is going to go away. We aren't trying to kill it. I think that there is just a much
broader universe that has evolved. I think that there is still a tremendous audience for cable TV. Most people don't have the time to troll the Web or don't have the technological wherewithal or bandwidth. [People] just get home after a long day, they want to veg out in front of the TV for 30 minutes, figure out what the news is, and then watch the football game. That's great. But there are a lot of other people who are frustrated with their inability to get what they want, and that's what we hope the site will provide.
We're also already finding that journalists are finding the site useful as a way to get information from countries where their news organization doesn't have a bureau.
TL: Are you ever concerned about the accuracy of the blogs you are linking? Or do you just let the reader determine
RM: We're letting the reader determine [accuracy]. We don't have the resources to go through and vet and fact-check [the postings]. As with all information online and in the traditional media, caveat emptor -- don't believe anything you watch, read, or hear until that source has earned your trust. That is definitely the case with any blog. What we're doing is pointing to things. Over time we are going to try to be gathering more information about who some of these people are that we point to a lot, and try to make that available. ...
These are all individuals for the most part who are writing their views of what's happening in their countries on the
Web. It's one person's opinion. It's one person's perspective. Should that replace your diet from mainstream news
sources? No. Is it a very interesting and useful supplement that helps you get a sense of what its like to be an Iraqi?
For instance, there was a blog post we pointed to from a couple weeks ago from an Iraqi that described the bomb that went off down the street and how her cousin was nearly killed and how her family reacted. This is a granular look at people's lives that you are not going to get from newspapers. This is something that blogs can do that can enable people to circumvent the filter of whoever is choosing the sound bite and just hear directly from individuals in other countries. I think that is valuable.
TL: You mentioned that journalists are enthusiastic about the project. What type of feedback have you gotten?
RM: They use it a source ... as background. A major news organization -- the BBC -- somebody there was telling me they have it bookmarked and they check it regularly to get tips on international stories that they may or may not be getting off the wires, that they may want to go look into.
I've also found that journalists are finding bloggers in various countries to be very useful interviewees to talk about
issues that are in the news in those countries. They're taking blogs as sources. Nobody is using blogs [the same way they use] a Reuters news report. And if they are, they are really dumb to be doing that. [The] best way that journalists should approach blogs is as a really valuable set of insights into what locals or sometimes experts in a country are thinking.
TL: In an interview last year on NPR you discussed the difficulty of getting first-hand reporting from North Korea. Has your North Korea Zone blog helped draw out any first-person accounts from North Korea?
RM: A little bit here and there. There is no opportunity or possibility for actual North Koreans to do anything like
that. The site does receive emails from time to time from people who are traveling in North Korea or working in North Korea.
TL: Such as NGOs?
RM: Yeah, NGOs and business people. ... There are also tour groups that go through pretty regularly -- non-Americans. Americans have trouble going, but actually there are Europeans going to North Korea all the time as tourists. Sometimes people will have interesting material that they'll bring out. They might post it on their own personal Web sites and they want to share it more widely and they'll let us know and we'll link to it.
TL: You spent most of your time as a reporter in Eastern Asia. Is their one big international story, specifically in that
region, that the American media is missing?
RM: Since 9/11 events in Northeast Asia, in general, have just really not gotten much attention. Because of the way TV works, especially, but I think newspapers and radio also, to a certain extent, is Iraq, Iraq, Iraq, a bit of
Israel-Palestine, every once in a while Afghanistan -- "Oh, we forgot about that." And then something about the latest trade spat with China. And then if North Korea rattles its saber, then a brief mention of that.
But, basically the complexities of the change going on in Northeast Asia -- and when I say Northeast Asia [I mean]
greater China, Japan, the Korean peninsula primarily -- there is a tremendous amount of change going on there. The geo-political tectonic plates are shifting with China's rise. Japan is basically remilitarizing. Korea is an incredibly
unstable situation with the North, plus you've got South Korea headed very quickly to a divorce with the United States, in terms of the alliance. You've got China rising in power and credibility amongst the countries in the region. You've got a lot going on that is going to have a tremendous amount of impact on the future of American power in Asia, and the coverage of the events there is very unsophisticated.
TL: Specific to CNN, do you think that when you joined the network in the early 1990s that international coverage was that much better that it is now?
RM: CNN, in 1992, when I joined, was part of Ted Turner's family company, basically. In 1992 we had just come out of the Gulf War. It hadn't been that long since the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. CNN's big cause had been big international stories that the competition completely didn't hold a candle to in terms of coverage. There was this real feeling that if a story mattered, we should cover it. If you had a strong argument to that effect and you could pitch that to Ted Turner, the funds would be there, because he viewed CNN as something other than a product that you just sell on the market for profit maximization. He saw it as something more socially significant than that.
Then in the mid-90s CNN and Time Warner merged. The issue of Time Warner's share price became fairly central to
management. Thus, CNN's bottom line became much more central, and the efficiency ... of the news gathering operation was also suddenly more important. [This] meant that if you couldn't justify high ratings with a story, increasingly, they didn't want to spend money on it. Of course, it's hard to know in advance sometimes. And sometimes there are stories that are just damn important and your coverage decision should not be determined by ratings, if you consider your organization to be doing something other than just making money. If you do believe as a news organization you are part of a public trust and you're trying to serve democracy and citizens of a democracy with the information they need in order to judge their country's policies ... then making newsgathering decisions about international stories based entirely on ratings is extremely irresponsible.
Then there was the AOL-Time Warner merger. It's been made very clear by [CEO] Dick Parsons and other people at the top of what is now called Time Warner again that CNN is a product like any other product in the Time Warner family of products, be it MAD Magazine or whatever movie studio. It might as well be toothpaste. The idea was profit maximization. Within that, there was less and less room for the kind of journalism that says, we need to inform the citizens of our country with things that are just necessary for them to know, even if that means that on a particular night the ratings on Fox might be a little higher.
As a result, when I interviewed the Prime Minister of Japan not a sound bite of it aired in the United States, even
though he was talking about Iraq the entire time -- even though he was talking about his decision to support President Bush by sending troops to Iraq, which was the first time since World War II they were sending troops into harm's way with tremendous implications politically in Japan. That story was deemed to be of no interest to American viewers.
TL: So as bureau chief you just found yourself advancing stories that got no play?
RM: The story got play on CNN International ... but there was just increasingly this frustration that there was an
assumption Americans didn't want to know anything about most of the rest of the world, that it was just too complicated for them. ...
Let me just explain how the process works.
So I interview [Junichiro] Koizumi, the prime minister of Japan. Obviously I knew about this interview in advance -- it doesn't just happen. So the shows know about it. That means that the producers of the prime time shows in the United States are alerted to when it's going to be completed and fed into Atlanta, and the shows on CNN International are all alerted also. Of course, they are not going to make final decisions about anything until they find out what he said. [It also depends] on what else happened that day. But it's up to the producers of every individual show to decide what runs on the show. The producer's job depends on their show having high ratings. If their show declines in ratings, after ... a certain amount time, then they get replaced. Their entire incentive is short-term, night-to-night ratings.
As it was put to me, you're fighting with Fox for every fifteen seconds of airtime. You're trying to put on whatever is
the most titillating, gripping stuff to keep people from changing the channel. What that means is that if there is
something that one thinks the American public needs to know, but it is not as sexy as Michael Jackson, then they'll go with Michael Jackson.
So what happened on that day was that there was a lot of news. In fact, there was a Michael Jackson trial development that day. There was a development with Jessica Lynch. Colin Powell came out and talked to CNN. So they didn't have room for the Prime Minister of Japan because they considered all these other things to be of higher priority.
TL: Why do you think CNN International is different? I recently reviewed it for CJR Daily, and it's a far more
RM: They're going to a global audience. And they're treating their audience as an intelligent audience that wants to be informed about world affairs. They're not treating the American audience that way ... because the Nielson ratings are telling them that the American audience wants to be entertained. ... As you say, why isn't a show like "Your World Today" on CNN USA all the time? Because decisions have been made for a long time that that kind of thing isn't of interest to Americans.
TL: It's something of an endless cycle, because if you continue to feed out pointless news, then no one is going to be
educated enough on a serious subject to appreciate the stories that do air.
RM: Yeah, exactly. It's completely self-fulfilling -- the self-fulfilling vicious cycle.
TL: Finally, on your personal blog you call yourself a "recovering TV reporter." What do you mean by that?
RM: [In one way], it's a joke. I dated a recovering alcoholic once and so I just thought it was kind of funny to call
myself a "recovering TV reporter." Slightly more seriously, there are habits you have to unlearn when you come out of the very formulaic world of reporting that I was in at CNN ... just in terms of being honest with your viewers, not talking down to them, having a conversation with your audience, being more transparent ... allowing your personality to appear publicly. But also just being able to do what I want, as opposed to what my editor wanted, which was to cover my region more like a tourist, rather than a journalist.