News About the News

I am puzzled by an Opinion piece published in the Washington Post, entitled “It appears CNN and the New York Times forgot a lesson of the Trump years.” https://wapo.st/3v3aynM

The lead paragraph says,

Two of America’s most important news outlets, CNN and the New York Times, are signaling that they will continue and even increase some of the both sides-ism, false equivalence and centrist bias that has long impaired coverage of U.S. politics and therefore our democracy itself. I hope they reconsider.

The ensuing argument suggests that these decisions have something to do with limiting coverage intended “to reaching people whose views might not be in the mainstream,” including in particular Black people who “disproportionately lack power and influence.”

The changes, according to author Perry Bacon, Jr., are wrapped in the cloth of “independence,” citing, importunings that Times’ staff not use Twitter so much and a CNN memo saying the network “must return to largely covering ‘hard news.’”

Mr. Bacon notes that,

Twitter was essential to the rise of Black Lives Matter — and also was a useful platform for former president Donald Trump. Trump is now off Twitter, but it remains a powerful tool for movements and activists, particularly on the left and outside both parties’ establishments.

In terms of independence, let’s be honest, the Times and CNN are declaring freedom from the left — they are not worried about being cast as too aligned with the Republicans.… I suspect independence and not doing advocacy are just updated terms for problematic forms of objectivity and neutrality that mainstream news organizations have long favored. During Trump’s presidency, the Times and CNN played an important role in signaling to the nation that he was behaving in extreme and at times anti-democratic ways. This honest coverage was nothing to be ashamed of. Now, these news executives are implying some of that coverage was misguided and won’t happen in the future.

I worry that what these executives want in the future is for their coverage of political issues to be perceived as equally independent from Republicans and Democrats. Such an approach is likely to lead to false equivalence and obfuscation — for example, reporters being worried about forthrightly identifying inaccurate statements by politicians. It basically encourages Republicans to continue to lodge bad-faith claims of media bias. It will put Black reporters in a bind, since honestly describing that the aim of some GOP-sponsored voting laws is to make it harder for Black people to cast ballots might sound like what a civil rights advocate or a Democrat might say.

The problem here, I suspect, is that of which view of journalistic history we take here. My experience, and that of many, many others inside and outside of journalism, was that CNN helped Trump’s campaign and his presidency with its non-stop coverage of his every utterance, no matter how false or destructive. CNN became Fox-Light for a very long time. If there was a turn-around at all, it occurred during the worst days of the pandemic, when Trump’s dissembling, lying, incompetence and malfeasance regarding COVID, supported across the board by the Republican Party, was daily killing Americans by the thousands and tens of thousands.

Mr. Bacon speculates that what is coming is, “replacing political commentary with more reporters standing in front of buildings like the White House and summarizing the words of elected officials. Such an approach will no doubt limit anti-Republican commentary and make GOP officials happier. But the goal should be to inform the audience, not appease officials in each party equally. When I watch cable news, I learn the most from the commentators ….”

Maybe what’s at the root of the problem is that the Trump-era media, here looking mainly at New York Times, Washington Post, CNN and the old MSM networks, became confused about the distinction between actual “news” (what happened, when, etc. focusing on genuinely significant facts about significant events) and “arguments.” With the view that a 24-hour news cycle must be covered, and that “breaking news” was the only item of interest at any moment, it wasn’t surprising perhaps that major media bought into the Trump/Bannon “flood the zone” approach.

An alternative, still available, would be to revert to the model that worked well back in the day. For example, CBS’s Walter Cronkite, a news figure trusted by most Americans at the time, presented the “news” every evening. He was followed by Eric Sevareid who “analyzed” or “interpreted” a selection of important events. They did not need constant panels of political shills arguing endlessly and repetitively about what was happening, what it meant, and who was winning.

This is how Wikipedia summarizes Cronkite’s career:

Walter Leland Cronkite Jr. (November 4, 1916 – July 17, 2009) was an American broadcast journalist who served as anchorman for the CBS Evening News for 19 years (1962–1981). During the 1960s and 1970s, he was often cited as “the most trusted man in America” after being so named in an opinion poll. Cronkite reported many events from 1937 to 1981, including bombings in World War II; the Nuremberg trials; combat in the Vietnam War; the Dawson’s Field hijackings; Watergate; the Iran Hostage Crisis; and the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King Jr., and Beatles musician John Lennon. He was also known for his extensive coverage of the U.S. space program …. Cronkite is known for his departing catchphrase, “And that’s the way it is”, followed by the date of the broadcast.

When Cronkite spoke editorially, it was clear what he was doing, as in his famous report on the Vietnam War after the Tet Offensive:

We have been too often disappointed by the optimism of the American leaders, both in Vietnam and Washington, to have faith any longer in the silver linings they find in the darkest clouds. They may be right, that Hanoi’s winter-spring offensive has been forced by the Communist realization that they could not win the longer war of attrition, and that the Communists hope that any success in the offensive will improve their position for eventual negotiations. It would improve their position, and it would also require our realization, that we should have had all along, that any negotiations must be that – negotiations, not the dictation of peace terms. For it seems now more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate…. To say that we are closer to victory today is to believe, in the face of the evidence, the optimists who have been wrong in the past. To suggest we are on the edge of defeat is to yield to unreasonable pessimism. To say that we are mired in stalemate seems the only realistic, yet unsatisfactory, conclusion. On the off chance that military and political analysts are right, in the next few months we must test the enemy’s intentions, in case this is indeed his last big gasp before negotiations. But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could. [https://bit.ly/3L3DxgY]

Clear separation between “news” – the facts – and “opinions, interpretations, evaluations” is still possible but it requires a major change of focus by the media, an end to click-bait headlines followed by often inaccurate and confusing mixtures of “what happened” and “what it means.” It also requires resistance to the idea that “news” consists of constantly covering the most clownish and false claims just because someone “famous” said them. The best case in point was the constant coverage of the daily “press conferences” held by Trump to promote himself and his administration’s alleged response to the pandemic.

The separation of news and opinion will require more work from editors to be sure that “reports” are factual, clear about the unknowns in situations in which facts are unclear, and free of opinions of reporters about the importance of “facts” reported. Have reporters stick to facts and interpreters do the evaluating. Forget the panels of political shills and when an interpreter makes claims that are false, tell the audience that there is no evidence to support the statements made. It’s not easy to do this, obviously, but being clear will be appreciated by the audience in the long run.

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