Actor Harry Shearer blasts mainstream media during trip to Washington

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?”

  • clw

    All anyone needs to know about Katrina is that they had at LEAST 3-5 days advance notice, and everyone SHOULD have gotten out of Dodge. I had over 10 family members there at the time in various areas. They LEFT, but for a cousin whose dog just had a LOT of puppies, and she refused to leave any of them. Mercifully she was OK. Anyone who stayed had to take their lumps, NO ROOM for complaint, unless they were PHYSICALLY unable to get out.

    Japan has had a 9.0 Earthquake, a devastating TSUNAMI, and major nuclear power plant issues. They’ve out-classed us by about 100% by dealing with all of it with dignity. I agree with Harry Shearer in some respects, I mean how can you NOT criticize the mainstream media? They’re blatantly and shamefully BIASED! The fact that they could spin Katrina into an anti-Bush rant, and a “those poor people who didn’t leave” theme, is disgraceful. The people who live there do so knowing that they live in a BOWL, BELOW sea level, right next to the gulf! Go ahead and live there …at your own peril.

    A fact-based news report for Katrina would have gone more like: “Here are the thousands of people in utter despair, who COULD have left, having been given plenty of advance notice, but didn’t. WHY?! We’ll find out.”

  • lukuj

    When taking journalism classes in high school, I was taught that only provable facts should be included in news stories, whether in print or video. All words that could be construed as leaning toward an opinion were strictly frobidden. I had to revise articles to make sure they didn’t appear. This rule is no longer followed in print or other media. The opinion in injected into news articles, either stealthily or blatantly, and many Americans don’t have a clue they are being steered in one direction or another. About 905 of the time, they are being steered to the liberal/progressive point of view because that is the view of many, if not most, in lamestream journalism.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ellen-K/513509739 Ellen K

    The media has become monolithic and incestuous in its move into wireless Internet outlets. While newspapers have cut writing staffs, the eyes on the situation have diminished to the point that “writers” are little more than glorified copy boys running lines directly from the AP story. This is not journalism and it skates desperately close to plagiarism. But even more, it appears that where the free press offered countless views it now only gives a few. And those few seem frighteningly devoid of diverse thought. At times I hear the echoes of other voices saying the same thing over and over until even if it is untrue, it endures as “conventional wisdom.”

    There is so much that went on during the last general election that went unremarked. Even Democrats were alarmed when their own rules were breeched to acclaim a candidate without even insuring the caucus attendees were members of the precinct. “We Will Not Be Silent” tried to address that, but the media, which has a large stake in this administration, squelched it along with many other doubts that were cast aside in folders labeled “racist”, “crazy” or “conservative”. To be dismissed so easily one wonders how diminished research staffs were able to crank out these opinions.

    Once upon a time, I wanted to be a journalist. I believed then that telling the stories, letting people know the truth, was a calling. Today’s journalists seem far more interested in their celebrity status. This became apparent during Katrina but even plays out now with the tragedy in Japan. They issue opinions as if they have inside knowledge and mislead with the intention of supporting an agenda whose wording we are not allowed to read. Is it any wonder journalists rank so low on the polling?

  • J Baustian

    I still wonder why none of the reporters ever discussed the real function of FEMA, before and during the Katrina flood. FEMA was never a first- or even second-responder like the police, National Guard, or even the Coast Guard. It was a bunch of guys, from an office with about 100 employees, who went in after the disaster and handed out checks to help pay for the rebuilding.

    The issue should not be hard reporting versus human interest, but accuracy and honesty. The MSM was blatantly dishonest in its narrative and its reporting.