Media Makeover: When News was News and Facts were Facts

Did you read, watch, or listen to news coverage of the release of the redacted Mueller report on April 18? If you did, the precise details of what you heard, saw, and/or read depended in large part on the TV network, newspaper, digital publication, or radio station you chose.

If you watched Fox News, you were told President Trump was completely exonerated before the network quickly pivoted to charge Obama with spying on the Trump campaign. If you watched just about any other network, you probably learned the actual facts and conclusions of Mueller’s 448-page report. And yes, some reporters did seem as incensed as Democratic legislators with Attorney General Bill Barr’s cheerleading. So, what’s a news connoisseur to do?

Remember back in the day, when news was just news and facts were real facts. Now there’s “fake” news and “alternative” facts. Oh, and we can’t forget, “truth isn’t truth.” Huh?

The late New York Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” I guess he forgot to add an addendum to address “alternative facts.” Renowned author Aldous Huxley (Pride and Prejudice, Brave New World) adds, “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” But, who are these “low IQ individuals” to argue with the “brilliant” brain trust now running our country?

The current President of the United States has called, and continues to call, the Press, “the enemy of the people.” This, despite the “fact” that the press has been an integral cog in the checks and balances system of our Democracy since it was founded. The first amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. That freedom is what separates a democracy from a dictatorship.

But a problem has evolved in the way news organizations report the news, which circles back to those adjectives “fake” and “alternative.” Some news organizations (and I use the term loosely) have injected the perspective of their owner or “brand” into their reportage. Thus, their version of the news is not the news at all, but an editorial, or worse yet, outright propaganda.

Back in the day, when I was growing up, news organizations across this country prided themselves on their impartiality, their intrepid and skillful reporting, and their tenacity. They took their role as a governmental watchdog seriously. They dug deep, researched thoroughly, investigated, and asked probing questions. Had it not been for Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, and the Washington Post, we may have never known about the crimes, lies, and immorality of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.

At that time, newspapers were influential, powerful, and lucrative business enterprises. Everybody read their hometown newspaper(s) every single day, at the breakfast table, sitting in the recliner after work, or both. The circulation of the Sunday New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and other big-city newspapers was astronomical. So, back in the day, newspapers truly were the fourth estate.

Not only did everybody read newspapers, they watched television news as well — religiously. Back in those days, viewers had but three choices; ABC (Howard K. Smith), CBS (Walter Cronkite), and NBC (Huntley and Brinkley). All three news organizations played it solidly down the middle. Just the facts, thank you. And the anchormen were part of one’s family, especially the man they called, “Uncle Walter.”

Walter Cronkite anchored the CBS Evening News from 1961 to 1980.

In fact, a 1972 nationwide poll named Cronkite the most trusted man in America — ahead of President Nixon and every other governmental leader. Just think about that for a minute. A newsman! And, that scenario played out throughout America as local TV news anchors received widespread recognition, celebrity, respect, and even reverential trust.

But the year 1980 signaled the beginning of the end of journalism as we knew it. That’s the year Ted Turner, a brash multi-millionaire launched CNN, the Cable News Network, in Atlanta. CNN was a 24-hour cable TV news network and in the beginning, it simply reported the news — all the news — in the U.S. and throughout the world. The network evolved seismically over the ensuing years to become a legitimate challenger to the broadcast network news divisions.

In 1991, the modern-day Internet fired an even bigger salvo at the establishment media. It began mostly as text with a few photos, before eventually experimenting with video. But, its video quality was poor, slow to load, and buffered incessantly, which caused people to lose patience and stick with TV. Today, 80% of global internet consumption is video content,[1]more than half of it is viewed on mobile devices.[2]More than 500 million hours of video content is watched each day on YouTube alone.[3]

The result of this digital cataclysm was that consumers no longer had to rely solely on newspapers, TV, and radio for news and information. It became available on their computer, and eventually their mobile phone and tablet, 24/7, on-demand. So, the traditional news media lost viewership, listenership, and readership, which meant lower profits, hence fewer resources for newsgathering and reporting. You get the picture. That said, the outlook for traditional news media was bleak.

So how could newspapers, radio, and television networks compete with the digital medium and remain a viable commodity?

Some decided to create a niche; news and information programmed for a distinct audience, a concept which is called narrowcasting. Yes, the cable news networks would have only a fraction of the viewers the three major networks had in their heyday. That was inevitable. More networks meant smaller slices of the pie for everybody. But, the viewers they did attract would be like-minded, loyal, and had the potential to become rabid consumers of their product — zealots if you will.

Enter Fox News in 1996, some sixteen years after CNN debuted. Founded by international media mogul Rupert Murdoch, Fox aggressively pursued conservative viewers. Toward that end, the network hired Republican mudslinger Roger Aisles to steer the ship down to the lowest depths of traditional journalism.

Today, most non-conservatives equate Fox News to state-run media in authoritarian countries. Fox does report the news, but it does so from its slanted perspective. It would probably be more accurate to say they spin the news, not report it. As a matter of “fact,” President Trump’s kitchen cabinet is comprised maybe solely of Fox hosts like Sean Hannity and whoever the hell is on the Fox and Friends morning show.

Ever hear of the Russian news agency Tass? Rupert Murdoch and Roger Aisles did. And so, they created Fox News in its image and likeness as a propaganda outlet for the Trump White House, and to a lesser degree, the Republican party. To be fair, not all Fox News anchors and reporters are biased. Chris Wallace, John Roberts, and others try to actually report the news, no matter how bad it is for the champion of their network.

The conservatives also count radio talk show blabbermouths like Rush Limbaugh and a cadre of other divide-and-conquer mouthpieces in their stead. Limbaugh was on the radio during a recent Uber ride I took. I finally had to ask the driver to turn it off. I was aghast at the hateful and divisive vitriol. If I wanted to hear that crap I could watch a rerun of Jerry Springer. And, we can’t forget digital publications like Breitbart, the Daily Caller, the Weekly Standard, and others. It’s more of the same — bashing the opposition party, idiotic conspiracy theories, and self-congratulatory mythology, but in prose.

Now, to be fair, the liberals have their own media outlets too. Some MSNBC and CNN personalities (Rachel Maddow, Don Lemon, Erin Burnett, and others) clearly present a more liberal point of view. The White House claims the New York Times and Washington Post favor the Democrats too, but that’s not a universally accepted view. Those organizations do what reporters are supposed to do. They seek answers through investigation, asking tough questions, and finding answers. But, there certainly are digital publications that lean to the left like Raw Story, Buzzfeed, and Politico.

The three major TV network news divisions, as well as PBS, still seem to usually take a middle of the road approach, although the White House would and does vehemently dispute that assertion.

Whichever side of the aisle you sit on, I hope you’ll admit that we find ourselves in a quagmire of disparity, partisanship, and disingenuousness. The current state of journalism, as well as the national discourse it reports on, makes me profoundly sad. I worked as a TV News reporter for fourteen years. My dad worked as a newspaper writer for most of his professional life. We both learned the tenets of journalism, which were sacrosanct. Sadly, that’s no longer the case.

Nowadays when I flip through news stories online, I look to see who’s telling the story. Is it a reliable, unbiased news source, or somebody with an agenda? Is the reporter reporting the facts or selectively adjusting those facts to fit the narrative of its brand? I am open to different points of view and will always entertain an intelligent, well-reasoned argument. But I have no time for hucksters, shamans, gas lighters, or outright liars.

Donald J. Trump is a congenital liar. That’s a fact! Washington Post fact-checkers (You can discount them as liberals, but the numbers don’t lie.) keep a running tally of Trump’s lies and misleading statements. He averages about six per day, whether by tweet, interview, or press conference. And, many of the falsehoods and fabrications are outlandish, bald-faced lies. He can and has said the complete opposite of something he said days, weeks, months, or years earlier, and there is almost always video proof of him saying what he did and contradicting himself. But Trump and his sycophants would say, “you didn’t see what you just saw.” (I think I just gave Rudy Giuliani a new line.) Maybe, the video was created in Hollywood by liberal special effects artists in order to smear the president. That’s a good one! And yet, Trump’s base would buy it, hook, line, and sinker.

The conservative media enables Trump and his lies. His press secretary (she admitted misleading the American people under oath in the Mueller investigation) and cabinet members (few they may be) provide cover. The bulk of the Republican party looks away, choosing to abide by the phrase, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” They all know better… except for the guy in the Oval Office.

We expect this kind of behavior from corporate PR hacks and political spinmeisters, but not from journalists. Journalism has always been held to a higher standard. To bastardize these principles and shill for the home team is wrong and jeopardizes the long-term viability of this essential pillar of our democracy.

There was some good news in the Mueller report for the “mainstream media.” It was vindicated from the echo chamber conservative claims of “fake news.” Even though numerous White House officials scoffed at and ridiculed press reports ad nauseam during the investigation, they all admitted the truth under oath. And, the truth is reporters did their jobs honestly, professionally, and with no ulterior motives.

Let’s not forget It’s their job to ask tough questions and make damn sure they get to the truth. Yes, you can make an argument that the media hammers Donald Trump on a daily basis. Are some reporters and organizations fair to Donald Trump? Probably not. But, the only person he has to blame for that is himself. He provides them with so damned much ammunition.

I bet not a single one of the 45 presidents we’ve had was pleased with the media coverage he received all the time. Each of them could complain about times they were treated unfairly. Did Fox News bash President Obama on a daily basis? Absolutely. But I don’t recall Obama or any other president whining about it incessantly or smearing the news media with every other waking breath. Enemy of the people, indeed!

Now This News, a left-leaning digital news organization, compiled the video vignette below that illustrates how Fox News unabashedly attacked President Obama for exactly the same charges it now defends Donald Trump against. What? Just watch.

So, what’s the solution? I hope someday we will see the pendulum swing back to a kinder, gentler time. Yes, it seems like we’re traveling on a runaway train right now but hopefully, the brakes engage before we crash and burn. Sadly, that’s where we’re headed. Excess breeds excess until we destroy ourselves with excess.

I think we have to reach the point where we become sick to death of the rampant divisiveness, partisanship, cruelty, narcissism, us-against-them mentality, and propensity to fight rather than compromise. We have to realize how deeply this is negatively affecting our country, our communities, our families, and our relationships. When we finally reach the boiling point, we’ll simply stop consuming media that doesn’t live up to the standards of Walter Cronkite. In order to flourish, or even survive, TV networks, newspapers, digital publications, radio shows, podcasts, all need an audience. Without an audience, they don’t exist.

How do we get to that point? Maybe we, as parents, teachers, community leaders, and clergy, need to do a better job teaching and modeling the principles of integrity, empathy, transparency, and accountability for the sake of our children. This isn’t just a journalism issue. It’s a societal issue. We must identify and embrace the things we have in common and stop dwelling on our differences. Compromise is not a dirty word. It’s an essential component of achieving a just, peaceful, empathic society. That might be boring to report on but I’ll take it over the anxiety-inducing three-ring-circus we live with now every day of the week.

Then, maybe when these enlightened children grow up and run the country they’ll take it upon themselves to right the ship. Maybe then news will again be news, facts will be facts, and the truth will actually be true.




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