Jeffrey Toobin on Media Sensationalism
Jeffrey Toobin, a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1993 and the senior legal analyst for CNN, is one of the most recognized and admired legal journalists in the country.
His most recent book, The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court, was published in the fall of 2007. The book spent more than four months on the New York Times best-seller list and was named one of the ten best books of the year by the New York Times Book Review, Time, Newsweek, Fortune, Entertainment Weekly, and the Economist. The Nine also received the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize for Non-fiction and the Silver Gavel Award of the American Bar Association.
Toobin joined CNN in 2002 after six years with ABC News. In 2000, he received an Emmy Award for his coverage of the Elian Gonzalez case. Before joining The New Yorker, Toobin served as an Assistant United States Attorney in Brooklyn, New York. He also served as an associate counsel in the Office of Independent Counsel Lawrence E. Walsh, an experience that provided the basis for his first book, Opening Arguments: A Young Lawyer’s First Case: United States v. Oliver North.
Jeffrey Toobin received his B.A. from Harvard College in 1982, and, in 1986, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, where he was an editor of the Harvard Law Review. He lives in Manhattan.
Question: Do sensational stories move us forward?
Jeffrey Toobin: Well, I… That’s a hard question. I think, all… I think all of us fundamentally understand the world through stories rather than through abstractions. Much as we would like to think we analyze political and legal issues, you know, with a coldly analytical eye, I think it is much easier to talk about race for better or worse in terms of the varying reactions to the verdict in the O.J. Simpson case rather than statistical data. I just think… I think its human nature. I think we like stories. We like to understand, we’re interested in narratives. And that’s the kind of journalism that I like to do, telling stories. Telling stories that illuminate the individuals involved and the quirky people and events, but also that does address those big issues. So, do they… Do these stories move us forward or not? I don’t know. Frankly, I don’t worry too much about that. I don’t have such an elevated conception of my own role. I just, you know, want to tell interesting stories.
Question: Do too many trite stories command headlines?
Jeffrey Toobin: Sure. Absolutely. I mean, my mother was a great pioneer in television correspondent. And one of the things she said to me, which I often remember is, “Television is a good medium for conveying character. It’s not a good medium for conveying information.” So we tend to gravitate towards stories about people rather than stories about issues on television. And sometimes it leads to just trivialization. And I often try to bring issues into the story. There was a… One of the anchors, I won’t name who asked recently, “Do you think it’s a big deal that Bill Clinton is not going to attend Barack Obama’s speech at Invesco Fiedl?” And I said, “No. And who cares?” I mean, it’s just like, why would we think about something like that. Why is that, I mean, that to me was sort of personalizing issues to an unreasonable extent. I would much rather talk at least a little about what is Barack Obama’s healthcare proposal? You know, what is he proposed to do? I mean, those things are hard to explain and television isn’t that great at it. But we are very good at, you know, what’s the relationship between Hillary and Clinton and her supporter and Barack Obama and his. That’s something that… So, yes, I worry about it and, yes, we’re imperfect, but I think we do a pretty good job.
Jeffrey Toobin doesn't fret too much about the stories that compete for ratings.
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