Harry Shearer, the actor, writer, musician, and most recently filmmaker who is best known for being the voice of characters on “The Simpsons,” had some harsh words for the news media during a visit to the D.C. journalists’ private club Monday, accusing the industry of being driven by group-think and unable to divert from the narrative it creates, even when new facts dispute it.
The man behind the voices of Mr. Burns and Ned Flanders spared no one in his biting critique of the national news media, with some specifically tough words for Newsweek, CNN and NBC News. Shearer, who worked in journalism before joining the entertainment industry, said his castigation was a labor of love more than angry demagoguery.
“What I’m about to say comes not from hatred, but love of it,” he said during a speech at the National Press Club. “I spent much of my youth around journalism and journalists.”
“The press release for this talk said I’m accusing the media of ‘myth making’ today. I’m actually saying something a bit different. Myths I think are manufactured out of whole cloth. What I’m calling a ‘template,’ is based on facts. Some facts. A partial collection. The first dusting. It then becomes adopted as ‘the narrative,’” Shearer said. “The mental doors lock shut, and no further facts are allowed in.”
Shearer visited Washington this week to debut his new film, “The Big Uneasy,” which takes a serious look at the devastation in New Orleans caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — and sharply critiques the coverage the catastrophe received from national news outlets. Shearer lives in New Orleans, which he calls his “adopted” hometown.
He made the case, using coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War and Wikileaks as examples, that once a “template” is set, news practitioners have a hard time diverting from it.
On Katrina, he recalled the time NBC News anchor Brian Williams told him that viewers prefer personal feature stories over detailed accounts of why the levies broke during the storm.
“A bias toward sob stories is as old as William Randolph Hearst’s first hard on for an actress,” Shearer cracked.
He said that the tendency for national news media outlets to “parachute” into an area they know little about for a story, combined with a dash of hubris, makes it difficult for them to rethink whether they even had it right in the first place.
“You can’t stay on a story very long, and when you come back, as everybody did to New Orleans for the fifth anniversary last fall, there’s now corporate institutional ego involved in defending the template against the assault of new information. After all, the networks, cable and broadcast bragged big time about the ballsiness of their Katrina coverage,” he said. “Exactly how do you go about retracting a boast?”