Extra People than ever mistrust the information; here is why and what to do about it
The 60-minute correspondent Lesley Stahl often cites a conversation she had with Donald Trump in 2016. She wanted to know why he was pounding the news media so hard. His answer: So that ultimately “nobody will believe you”.
Four years later the mission was accomplished. Confidence in the news business is lower than ever. Reporters, editors and broadcasters now face a major post-Trump challenge: do something about it.
President TrumpDonald Trump Senators Reach Agreement on the Powers of the Fed and Set the Stage for the Coronavirus Aid Passage Near 200 Organizations Allegedly Hacked by Russia: Cybersecurity firm Trump has named Sidney Powell as special adviser to investigate election fraud: MORE is only part of the trust problem, and there is no real solution to just finding it when you exit 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. to observe. There has been a decades-long change in the DNA of the news world that needs to be recognized.
For a long time, television and radio stations had to live according to a federal ordinance called the “Fairness Doctrine”. It was mandated that in the interests of an informed electorate, all sides of a topic must be presented. In 1987 the Reagan administration stopped enforcing the doctrine, believing that a free market could better regulate itself.
That didn’t work out so well, at least not when the goal was a fully informed public. Instead, it has helped foster a polarized public based on a sugar high with exaggeration rather than a steady diet of fact-based meat and potato journalism.
Soon after the Fairness Doctrine disappeared, conservative talk radio began its rapid ascent, led by Rush Limbaugh. In 1996 there was another shift: when Fox News and MSNBC debuted, competition came into the cable news universe. Initially, the programs on these channels were not purely tribal. The fairness DNA lasted for a while: Fox featured mainstream anchors like Mike Schneider and Catherine Crier. Sure, there was Sean Hannity, but he was with Alan Colmes on the left of center. At MSNBC, Tom Brokaw, Lester Holt, and Brian Williams hosted news programs and interview segments.
But bit by bit, this DNA was changed. Fox star Bill O’Reilly, for example, became more open – his centrist-sounding “O’Reilly Report” was reborn as “The O’Reilly Factor”. After years of trying different formulas, MSNBC found its left step. Keith Olbermann began anchoring a daily headline program called “The Big News”, but by 2006 his show “Countdown” contained politically skewed “special comments”.
CNN soon became the last safe haven for the DNA molecule. In 2004, the network was even the subject of controversy that now seems curious. At the time, “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart was fighting against the broadcaster’s “Crossfire” debate show. Its format presented both sides of an issue – Paul Begala on the left, Tucker CarlsonRupert Murdoch, Chairman of Tucker CarlsonNews Corp. Receives COVID-19 Vaccine in UK Fauci Urges Americans to “Step on the Plate” and Get Vaccinated Tucker Carlson: Coronavirus Vaccine Adoption “Feels Wrong” , “Too smart” MORE on the right. For Stewart, the argumentative style of the program trivialized important issues. He even appeared on Crossfire to insist that the show “Hurt America.” A year later, CNN canceled it.
This move could have stopped the polarizing trend of opinion – Stewart certainly hoped it would. But something funny happened on the way back from the sidelines: CNN saw ratings – and earnings – decline, while Fox and MSNBC numbers rose. News in particular was clearly not good for the bottom line.
Media managers under pressure to increase audience numbers were puzzled. Yes, respondents told respondents that trust in the news media is falling sharply – but the same people voted very differently on their televisions. They weren’t interested in just telling the facts and increasingly gravitated towards adrenaline rush opinion shows.
By 2016 and Lesley Stahl’s conversation with Donald Trump, the DNA of television news had already changed. Trump just capitalized on that.
All of this has sparked recent efforts to revive the Fairness Doctrine, all unsuccessful. The media has changed a lot since 1987. Trying to monitor “fairness” on television, cable, radio, streaming services, internet blogs, websites, and social media is a daunting task – and not something government regulators should try at all.
However, large media companies do not need federal regulation to restore fairness. Yes, Pandora’s opinion box is open and cannot be closed. But it can be better labeled so that news consumers – like supermarket shoppers – better understand what they are consuming.
Opinion hours – mostly primetime shows on cable – should be topped off with five- to ten-minute newscasts: just the facts and key headlines that come from another anchor on another set. Closing this segment would signal to viewers that the “real news” part is over and they are now stepping through the mirror into something else.
In this alternate universe, producers would have to stick to the old rubric: “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.” The blurring of this line is a major factor in erosing trust and perceiving bias. Editors and producers should review scripts and outlines from commentators and influencers before they air.
News organizations should also publish a user guide on various terms. Both TV and print throw up editorial labels such as “Analysis”, “Reporter’s Notebook”, “Perspective” and “Political Memo”. What do they mean exactly? These labels can be found on front pages and in news segments – but the associated content sometimes reads more like an opinion on what further muddies the water.
Turning away from Trump means it is time to take steps like this to restore confidence in the basic DNA of journalism.
Once the trust is completely gone, there is nothing left but screaming, shouting and naming. And given the reviews, this would clearly be top notch entertainment for many viewers.
But it’s nobody’s definition of news.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media manager, producer, and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news manager at NBC, writer and producer at Dateline NBC, and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ ironworker1.