Lunch Panel With Kristol, Hamill, Huffington Debates War Coverage, Blogs and Fairness

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By: Joe Strupp

Several of journalism’s big guns debated media issues ranging from Iraq War coverage to the proliferation of opinion online and in cable television during a spirited debate Tuesday sponsored by the Independent Film Channel to promote its IFC Media Project, debuting tonight.

During the lunchtime event Tuesday at Michael’s Restaurant in New York City, that media industry eatery, many thought the sparks would fly between conservatives William Kristol and Christopher Buckley.

Given Buckley’s surprise endorsement weeks ago of Barack Obama, and Kristol’s vehement opposition — and the current battle for the “soul” of the GOP — seating them next to each other on the five-person panel was likely to breed arguments.

During a reference to Buckley, moderator Arianna Huffington quipped he “single-handedly ensured the victory of Barack Obama.” That led to him joking about expecting an ambassadorship. But it was Kristol and New York tabloid legend Pete Hamill who got into it during the event that also included Media Project host Gideon Yago.

After a clip of the series, which referenced the April New York Times story by David Barstow that revealed numerous retired generals serving as pundits were linked to defense contractors, the panel took on the issue of war coverage. Yago said that even with an expansive new media world, war coverage was tighter than it should have been.

Kristol launched in, stating: “That is ridiculous. The discussion over the war in Iraq was much more sophisticated than the debate on Vietnam. All sides were well-represented. “

That led Hamill to chime in against some of the Pentagon censorship of photos: “There is no sense of the reality on the ground by editing out the corpse.”

Kristol defended the move, stating the tragedy and death of the war was not censored by such practices: “People don?t know that people die in a war if they don?t see bodies on the ground??”

A louder Hamill bellowed, “let them see the coffins.”

At one point, Huffington sought to calm the group, saying, “one at a time.”

Elsewhere in the discussion — which occurred as some 50 guests dined on salad, chicken and potatoes — issues roamed between the impact of anonymous sources to growing Internet opinion and reduced newspaper resources.

Yago, who worked his way up the journalistic ladder at MTV, decried the loss of some traditional news coverage: “There has been that shift away from funding beat reporters and bureaus.” Hamill agreed, but said great work is still being done: “There are some really hard-working reporters doing the work of a newspaper.”

Hamill also said there have always been bad reporters, stating, “In my day, there really were some terrible ones, you wouldn’t believe anything they wrote about their mothers.”

When Huffington pointed out the Barstow story and criticized the lack of follow-up by some other news outlets, particularly the television networks that employed these generals, Hamill stated, “one of the reasons is the ancient tradition of never playing up the scoop of the other paper.”

Huffington lamented that it was a case of when “something breaks on the front page of The New York Times, above the fold, it died there,” later adding, “until bloggers picked it up.”

All parties agreed the Internet, and blogosphere in particular, had changed news coverage, with differences of opinion on whether it was good or bad.

“I am a fan of the blogosphere,” said Kristol. “People should not be too nostalgic about the past. The good old days weren’t that good, journalism wasn?t always that good.”

Kristol noted the limits 30 years ago of news outlets, with three networks and a handful of major newspapers, and few available outside big cities: “Kids today just take for granted they can go online and read five different news reports on the financial markets.”

Buckley’s view: “blogging? sounds like a disease.” He recalled when his father, William F. Buckley, died earlier this year and the New York Times had a lengthy story up in two hours: “This hyper-connection is really quite stunning.”

On anonymous sources, Huffington cited some of the reporting on the McCain-Palin campaign, saying unnamed campaign workers spread lies and falsehoods: “It said more about the media than it did about Sarah Palin. Without any real fact-checking, without any real sources.”

Kristol agreed, adding, “it has been ridiculous, everyone is given anonymity when they don’t deserve it. [In the past] you wouldn’t just let someone anonymously attack someone else.”

But when concerns arose over the negative impact of blogging and opinion over straight reporting, Kristol added, “we just had an election where the youth vote went up again. Thanks very much to the blogosphere.”

Some other views at lunch:

Buckley: “They go to Fox News if they are Archie Bunker and want a good dose of that,” but Harvard-educated types “go to Jim Lehrer.”

Hamill on the pundits: “I don’t see reporting pieces by Olbermann and Maddow.” He added that, “Bill O’Reilly is a populist,” which led Huffington to ask, “is populist a polite way of saying a liar?”

Finally, when discussion turned to the dangers of growing opinion online and on cable television and the reduction of investigative reporting, Kristol sought to ease worries, stating, “people should just relax. People aren?t fooled. When they watch O’Reilly, they know what they are watching. You guys are so worried. People are grown up. The American people are certainly able to judge all of this.”

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