The Day TV Journalism Died

image_pdfimage_print

The Day TV Journalism Died

 

Arthur Solomon, Public Relations Consultant

We soon will be approaching June 1, the birthday of the death of TV journalism. And Americans who care about truthful, factual, accurate news should still be in mourning.

People who grew up during the age of cable news might not know that once upon a time, TV journalism was not only well respected but also served as a watchdog, uncovering excesses of government officials and illegal actions by businesses. Today, political coverage on TV resembles parasitic zombies, the undead, whose life blood is rehashing news largely uncovered by major print pubs, notably from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post.

The most famous of the TV journalists – in the era when TV news reporters actually covered and investigated the news – were Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, both of who helped shape American history and both of who were on the CBS TV network.

On his March 9th,1954, “See it Now” program, Murrow, who was already famous for his radio broadcasting from London describing the Nazi blitz, brought to the American public the  ruthlessness and lies that for several years made Sen. Joe McCarthy one of the most feared politicians in Washington. It was Murrow’s expose of McCarthy’s tactics on national TV that was the beginning of the end for the senator.

On CBS, Walter Cronkite changed the way many Americans thought about the Vietnam War, when, after retuning from a trip to the war zone, he told what he witnessed during a one-hour special, “Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?” that aired on February 27, 1968. (Revisionist historians now claim that Cronkite, who for years was hawkish regarding Viet Name, advised the American army to admit defeat. He did not. He told his viewers that the stalemate could only be broken through negotiations.) After the telecast aired, President Johnson supposedly said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America” and a few weeks later he said he would not run for a second term as president.

Morley Safer, another CBS TV newsman, is credited with changing the way war is covered on TV, when in 1965 during his reporting from Vietnam he reported about U.S. marines torching Cam Ne, a village occupied by old men and women and young women with babies during a search and destroy mission. Most TV viewers know Safer for his long tenure on the “60 Minutes” news magazine program, unaware of his ground-breaking Vietnam War coverage.

Of course, there have been many other moments that TV journalists served the pubic by bringing the truth that governments and businesses wanted to keep secret. But none, in my opinion, changed American history as much as Murrow. Cronkite and Safer did.

 

Great television news reporting lived until the networks curbed the independence of the news division and thought of them as profit centers. (For a fictionalized, but largely accurate, version of how TV news divisions became subservient to the entertainment executives see Paddy Chayefsky’s famous movie, “Network,” which was redirected into a London and Broadway play .During an interview in the November 25 New York Times, Bryan Cranston, star of the London and 2018 Broadway productions, said, “If you’re not skeptical, you’re naïve. If you believe everything that you see on CNN or Fox or MSNBC, you are gullible. You can’t just go to one source. Because now the news is a news-entertainment program.”) And how right he is.

The death of reliable TV news began when CNN went live on June 1, 1980. In 1996, MSNBC (on July 15), and Fox News (on October 7) hammered the final nails into the legitimate TV news coffin. It wasn’t too long after that the network news shows, while still having much larger audiences than their illegitimate cable off-spring, lost their clout to the cables and their 24/7 flawed newscasts, featuring talk show hosts, who express opinions regardless of facts, pundits, who disguise personal opinions as true analysis of situations, reporters who repeat whatever politicians tell them verbatim, as if it was “Breaking News” without knowing details of a situation, or even if the comments are fictional,, and producers who rely on the morning newspapers – mostly the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post – for story lines. (An example of cable talent not knowing details about what they’re reporting occurred during the Florida recount of the 2018 election. A CNN anchor said, “What a mess.” It took a person who actually is a political expert and knows the election law to correct the host by saying, “That’s the law in Florida.”) In my opinion, the mess is when cable political personalities don’t know what they are talking about.

Ever since the advent of cable TV political coverage the American public has been entertained by performers, including members of Congress and the media, whose acts deserve to be covered by minor theatrical critics, rather than by knowledgeable political journalists (which most cable reporters are not).

In many instances the leading actors are the two Jim’s, Jordon, the tough talking GOP Congressman from Ohio, who thinks that acting like another Jim (Cagney), during his tough talking gangster movies, intimidates witnesses called to committee hearings, and Acosta, who should share at least half his paycheck with President Trump, since they both gained from their seemingly scripted encounters during White House press briefings.

But the Jordan, Acosta, and Trump acts can at least be cancelled by voters in the next election or by TV viewers by not tuning in. However, the aggregate damage that cable political coverage has done to American politics and news reporting will be more difficult to repair.

Perhaps the damage that will be most difficult to, if not impossible, to overcome is cables willingness to turn every ant hill into the Rocky Mountains. In order to feed the 24/7 beast that is cable TV, any government individual willing to comment is given an opportunity to preen before the cameras, whether what the say is “news,” or not, makes sense or not, or, most important, is true or not. And the comments go largely unchallenged by TV camera reporters running down the hall after a member of Congress because the reporters don’t know enough details to call out the politician’s untruths.

The heart of cable political programming is the anything goes monologues by left and right-leaning talkers, who excuse themselves by adapting  Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” theory of communications by saying, “We are not reporters,” meaning we can lie as often as we want to. The result is that too many people tune in to the programs that agree with their political beliefs and tune out the

serious reporting from papers like the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and other respected pubs. It’s as if the extreme far right commentators resort to The Big Lie propaganda technique used so successfully by Adolf Hitler, which was that the bigger the lie the more people would believe it. (Not that I’m saying any of the far-right propagandists are Nazis, only that their lies are so outlandish that many people believe that they must be true.) Unfortunately, The Big Lie technique is also used by many of our politicians, “stolen elections,” “illegal voters,” “fake news,” “President Obama not being born in the U.S.” and other statements that have been proven to be Big Lies, the chief practitioner of which is President Trump. (Students of history know that The Big Lie propaganda technique was invented by Hitler, who wrote in “Mein Kampf” about telling lies that are so outrageous that people will assume they are the truth.)

Cable TV political reporting has opened Pandora’s Box on both its viewers and the political scene. The evils emanating from it include inaccurate information, citizens who assume everything the media says is a lie, biased and flawed reports, a political scene devoid of serious discussions, reporters instead of uncovering news just talking about news uncovered by print pubs, and still often getting the facts wrong, failing to correct inaccurate information (as print pubs do every day), providing unlimited access to hateful propagandists, an unlimited number of pundits who contribute nothing but their own opinions disguising it as analysis, the use of what in reality are long sound bites camouflaged as reporting a story, the on-going race among cable reporters to be the first to get it wrong, reporting and commentary that sounds as if it’s on a recording loop, and, perhaps, the most evil aspect of how CNN, MSNBC and Fox has damaged good TV journalism, — the preponderance use of female and male “eye candy” talent, and shutting the door on reporters who might have provided great journalism, but don’t get the opportunity to do so because they don’t look as if they came from central casting.

The little credibility that cable political reporting has is a result of cannibalizing stories from respected print pubs like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post and having the papers’ journalists provide intelligent insight about the articles they wrote. It’s what I call parasitic journalism, with the cable stations being the parasites. MSNBC seems to be the biggest duplicitous parasite on TV with their, “We can now confirm the story in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal,” etc. shtick to give the impression that they’re actually breaking news instead of co-opting it. (In a way, it’s less honest than the talk hosts on Fox, who, at least, don’t pretend they are journalists.) 

One of the many problems with cable TV political reporting is that it’s headline driven. It’s like reading a print headline and not reading the text of a story for details. That’s because, as a magazine investigative reporter, who broke many major stories, said while being interviewed on TV during the 2016 election, cable reporters often don’t know what they are talking about and resort to words like, “looks bad,” bad optics,” “wave election,” and other weasel words to camouflage the fact that they don’t know specifics.

But even when the specifics are obvious cable TV “news people” can’t stop from dramatizing or misstating a situation.

A few examples:

  • An appalling example occurred on December 4, when President George Herbert Walker Bush was lying in state at the Capitol. Leading into an interview with Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security Secretary and a Bush associate, John Berman on CNN’s “New Day” program said, “All night, all morning long people have been filing past the president’s casket,” oblivious to the reality that “Today” showed that no one was filing past the casket and that a reporter from WCBS-Radio, New York, at the scene said a minute before that now’s the time for people to        pay respect who don’t want to wait on line.  It’s empty now.
  • The shallowness of all TV news reporting (since the days of Murrow and Cronkite) was exemplified during the mourning period for President Bush, when network and cable reporters tripped over themselves trying to be the first to point out the bipartisanship shown because Democrat and Republicans were civil to each other during the funeral services. This bipartisanship lasted less than 24 hours after the burial of the president, when Republican and Democrats differed on the testimony of former FBI director’s James Comey before the House Judiciary Committee. The reporters either forgot, but probably purposely ignored, the history of bipartisanship during the services when Sen. McCain died, which transformed into partisan bickering almost immediately after the senator was buried. But referring to that would have interfered with their script. (That’s the trouble with cable political news. It doesn’t believe in straight reporting. Hence, “he said, she said” guests and pundits whose opinions are as valid as my all-know-it- relatives at a Thanksgiving dinner)
  • Remember how for months the cable pundits said that the payoffs to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal wouldn’t amount to anything because “it’s just a campaign finance violation that happens all the time.” I’m still waiting for their corrections now that the federal prosecutors ruled otherwise.
  • An egregious error was made by veteran political reporter Andrea Mitchell on her December 19 “Mitchell Reports” program. During a discussion on the dissolution of Trump’s charity for illegalities,Mitchell twice said that the then New York State Attorney General Barbara Underwood, who headed up the investigation, is an elected Democrat, before Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold, who won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the matter, said that Underwood was not elected, but appointed to the position. (If an old TV political hand like Andrea doesn’t get it straight, what can we expect from the “eye candy” newcomers?)
  • One would expect that at least the NBC and MSNBC political guru would get his facts correct, but Chuck Todd proved otherwise. On his October 20 MTP Daily program, while discussing the resignation of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Todd, the lead NBC political star, compared Mattis’ resignation to that of General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War.  Two mistakes in one sentence: The comparison was faulty; MacArthur was not a cabinet member. But even more important for people who like to get their history straight, MacArthur did not resign his command. As the New York Times reported on April 11, 1951, President Truman fired the general because he had concluded that the Far Eastern commander “is unable to give his wholehearted support to the policies of the United States Government and of the United Nations in matters pertaining to his official duties.”

In addition to factual errors, cable news is also guilty of flawed analysis and not knowing what they’re talking about. Two prime examples: 

  • The Trump-John Kelly-Chief of Staff Affair. For many months, cable news reporters reported their sources said that that Kelly will resign. He eventually did, proving that if you repeat the same thing continuously even on cable news you might someday be correct.
  • On the same day, a second fable spun by cable TV reporters exposed how little they know of what they report “Cableists” (as I crowned them) confidentially reported almost every day for many weeks that Michael Cohen was fully cooperating with Southern District of New York prosecutors. But the feds court filing said Cohen didn’t fully cooperate and asked for considerable jail time. (It was only then that Cohen began to fully offer more cooperation.)

And if I had a dime for every time a cable reporter said that they learned that the Mueller investigation will be issued by (you fill in the date) and that General Flynn will walk out of the courtroom without prison time because of his cooperation, I’d be wearing a Rolex instead of a Timex. Only space limitations prevent more examples.

As someone who has worked on local, state and presidential campaigns at a political PR firm before joining Burson-Marsteller, and traveled the world a as media advisor to high government officials, I find that a major  problem with many of cable’s political reporters (including anchors) is their inability to properly analyze occurrences. On December 14, after a Federal judge ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, some cable reporters said it was a victory for President Trump. Actually, it was a victory for Democrats, who won control of the House in 2018 by campaigning largely on health care. The judge’s ruling keeps the health issue in play for the foreseeable future, and you can bet a few Lincolns that the Democrats will again make heath care a prominent campaign issue during 2019 and 2020.

In my opinion, the best TV political news interviewer is Chris Wallace of Fox News. His questioning of politicians from both parties are incisive and tough, unlike other TV interviewers on network and cable programs who seem afraid to ask questions that might result in politicians refusing to appear on the programs.

In his November 25, 2018 New York Times column, Nicholas Kristoff wrote that cable television believes that as long as the topic is President Trump, revenue follows. He also says more effective fact checking is necessary to call out lies without compounding them.

During the 2016 presidential election, Leslie Moonves, then CEO of CBS said of Trump’s campaign tactics,” It my not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”And he was right on both accounts: TV ratings and political advertising increased, and it is still not good for the U.S.  Both Kristof and Moonves.are correct.

In his December 15-16, 2018, Wall Street Journal column, Jason Gay wrote: “Everyone on cable news acts like their pants are on fire. And yet, minutes later, I can’t remember a single thing I watched.” While I certainly agree with Mr. Gay about his reaction to cable news, I must add a qualification: Except those who watch Fox News; they seem to believe anything.

Russell Baker, the great, late New York Times columnist, once said in a memoir that as a young reporter he had to wait for senators to come out of a closed meeting and lie to him. That’s what cable TV political reporters do today, but their producers accept it as great reporting.

In his An Essay on Criticism,” Alexander Pope, the 18th century English poet, wrote “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” He could have been writing about TV cable political reporters.For people addicted to getting news only from television, there is a way of knowing what their representatives truly feel about issues. Tune in C-Span. There member of Congress make speeches, mostly for their constituents, without it being interpreted by the media. There you can learn how members of Congress really feel about matters.

As we approach June 1 and reflect on the passing of great TV political reporters, we should all say, ‘Rest in Peace. If you could see what passes for political reporting on TV today, you’d be turning over in your graves.”


The Unspoken PR Tenet: Bad News Is Good News for Our Business By Arthur SolomonAbout the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com and artsolomon4pr (at) optimum.net.