[ this post has updates below; Cronkite gif credit: Tom Kazsuba on Tumblr ]
In 2012, GOP chairman Reince Preibus conducted an “autopsy” on the party’s loss. Even though an autopsy is a postmortem examination on a dead person, using that specific word was both unintentionally hilarious and the perfect allegory for a national party that has, since that time, nominated, championed and elected Donald Trump as president-elect.
The day after Election 2016, a similar examination is desperately needed for U.S. media. Disclaimer: our journalism field is filled with heroic professionals who dedicate their lives to bringing stories to our general consciousness. They’ve sacrificed time with family and, in some cases, have bore the brunt of exhausting travel, grueling hours and direct threats to their well-being.
Journalists are, largely speaking, seekers and purveyors of truth.
All that is good, but here’s the infuriating rub: those journalists—and the conglomerates that oversee them, more broadly—have succumbed to an affliction that has poisoned newsrooms across the country. It’s a sickness that will only be cured by a deep and thorough soul-search and revision of best practices. A New Deal between newsers and viewers.
We’ll call it Horserace Influenza. And we need to find a cure, so here are five to get us started. They appear in no particular order because no single entry is worse or less horrible than the next.
Surrogates as contributors
Short version: campaign minions may have inside perspective on their candidates, but the practice of hiring and paying them as contributors needs to end.
For the record, I have the highest expectations of CNN. Fox News is the promotional arm for the GOP and was chief cheerleader for Donald Trump, including regular appearances on Fox & Friends, Hannity, et. al. Fox is automatically discounted. MSNBC is, of late, obsessed by using the most radical and partisan RWNJs as guests—”giants” like Michelle
Bachmann, Ann “Coultergeist” Coulter, Dana Loesch, Hugh Hewitt—and they render all shows useless unless it’s 9:01 p.m. on a weekday. MSNBC has fashioned itself as “Conversational Conservative,” but instead they’ve lost nearly all credibility as an independent, left-of-center network who will challenge orthodoxy and move minds in the right direction.
CNN brands itself as gold standard, “The Most Trusted Name in News,” but how are we supposed to trust a network who pays Rick Santorum for fake “balance”? Even my beloved BBC News crashed and burned in its attempt to cover tRUmp’s regime honestly, which I wrote about here. Election 2016 marshaled in a disgusting dissolution of ethical lines between “analyst” “contributor” and campaign minion, with CNN as Guilty Criminal No. 1.
Related: ‘Journalists have an indispensable role in our political system.’
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski is probably the most egregious example. This past March, he was accused of assault by Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields, and has shown flashes of violence at other campaign stops. You’d think that would be beyond the pail for any network, but not CNN—they hired and compensated him while he received severance from Trump. At the same time, while Lewandowski was reportedly still advising the candidate. CNN made a deal with the devil and there’s no way to un-do it. Lewandowski was paid not to analyze—but defend, deflect and justify Donald Trump’s existence.
Lewandowski offered no “analysis” or original logic on issues. He was and is a Trump shill who got a plum gig without any consequences for his actions. Or theirs.
You don’t need 16,600 pundits around a giant table, CNN. None of the major news nets do. You need a handful of stalwart and smart analysts of all persuasions who can give the people what they need: truth, not spin.
UPDATE: Corey Lewandowski has resigned his CNN position, effective yesterday 11 Nov. 2016.
— Will's Media Reform School #DoBetter ⚖️ 🌻 (@bywillpollock) November 12, 2016
UPDATE 2: Col. Ralph Peters, CNN’s newest contributor, says Putin has a grip on Trump.
— Anderson Cooper 360° (@AC360) June 7, 2018
Profits over purpose
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS. What can I say? The money’s rolling in.”
I’ve written about this issue in multiple editions of CrankyYank, because it is a cancer in the failing body of news gathering, gatekeeping and journalism writ large. “That should be the one of the most sobering pieces of audio,” Thom Hartmann says, correctly. “This should cause every Federal legislators and have them say, ‘Oh my god.'”
Greed is a cancer in the failing body of news gathering,
gatekeeping and journalism writ large
But they haven’t, and they won’t. Money talks. Media lobbyists are in the pocket of politicians, and vice versa; media CEOs whose sole task it is to earn shareholders money means that we the viewers get totally and royally screwed in the end.
Les Moonves is not alone in his naked greed. CEO Jeff Zucker and CNN reportedly made $100 million leading up to Election Day 2016. You think they want to upset that apple cart?
Now that Trump is fake-President-elect, don’t expect any meaningful changes to happen to this dynamic in congress. What you can do is seek out independent, unbiased and not-for-profit news wherever you can. More on that later.
UPDATE: so far Trump has staffed up his transition team with some of the most radical lobbyists a politician can find. I’ll let the New York Times take it from here:
Jeffrey Eisenach, a consultant who has worked for years on behalf of Verizon and other telecommunications clients, is the head of the team that is helping to pick staff members at the Federal Communications Commission.
Media profits are not only safe under this future administration—it’s likely that any restraints will be lifted.
J-School: Dare Something Worthy ✓
People attend Journalism school (grad and undergrad) for different reasons. As Jon Stewart and Maziar Bahari will tell you, it’s critical to go in with open eyes—and a commitment to a single mission. For me, I wanted to go back and get my graduate degree so a) I knew I was doing the right thing and b) goose myself in taking my career to the next level. Since that time, I’ve published multiple blogs, two personal-development books, a song, and many photographs and artwork for charity. I’m sticking to that goal of truthful storytelling with an curious-investigative bent.
If students go in thinking they’re gonna achieve instant glory, fame or wealth from the practice of journalism are lying to themselves. J Schools are where all these missions start, and we have to re-up our commitment and funding to them so they are more robust than ever, churning out exceptional storytellers who don’t take no shit from nobody. I attended The Medill School of Journalism and I got thrown in to the fire with Man on the Street interviews that scared the crap out of me—and taught me the foundations of the craft.
Important not to go in thinking that specializing in “New Media” is gonna give you the reporting fundamentals you need. It won’t. You need foundational knowledge and practices first with a knowledge of and thirst for the latest technology and reporting vehicles. But New Media alone will get you nowhere. Our schools and professors need to commit to that order of learning.
Go to J-School. Get clarity on what your mission or mission is. Ask yourself: “why am I here?” or “How can I best make an impact?” Dare something worthy so that you may discover your Raison D’etre; all journalism curricula should inspire students to find it.
Fairness Doctrine 2.0 ✓
The above ReasonTV clip above is an excellent primer on where we are as a country with the First Amendment, broadcast licenses and the “wild west” of opinion-based broadcasting. In broad terms, the original Fairness Doctrine from 1949 stipulated that if folks wanted to put on a show, they had to have a broadcast license and adhere to a federal statute that said you had to present issues of national importance and offer both sides of opinion on the matter. (Ronald Reagan led the charge to repeal it.)
Here’s the reality: the Fairness Doctrine actually lives on today in a much more perverted, contrived way in “both sides” journalism. In the first bullet I picked on CNN for hiring Trump PR people as “analysts” to give the conservative side’s perspective. A Fairness Doctrine 2.0 would banish this practice to oblivion in favor of smart historians; skilled strategists; previous party leaders; and other intelligent people who can have smart discussion.
If you put people on-air who will tell you the sun is cheese and the sky is khaki—just because that’s what Trump’s MAGAs believe—you cease to be a news organization. You’ve become a panel of PR flaks talking about bullshit talking points that don’t have any value to our country. Media bending over backward for uneducated hypersensitive news consumers means content gets dumbed down for all of us.
Permitting ‘Earned’ Media
The misnomer to end all misnomers. First, some background: “earned media” is a marketing term for organically occurring exposure of a person or brand. From the Wiki page:
A Nielsen study in 2013 found that earned media (also described in the report as word-of-mouth) is the most trusted source of information in all countries it surveyed worldwide. It also found that earned media is the channel most likely to stimulate the consumer to action.
As we fast-forward our commercials on the DVR or hop on Netflix for an ad-free experience (which thwart marketers’ chance to message directly to consumers)—brands and public figures crave earned media.
furthermore: Trump's $2 billion in coverage was NOT "earned media," it was gifted media. and the spigot stayed on for the primaries. #maddow
— Will's Media Reform School #DoBetter ⚖️ 🌻 (@bywillpollock) August 12, 2016
With that in mind, Donald Trump was gifted somewhere around $2 billion in earned (free) media for the election. He had that in his primary race and in the general election, too. And no effort was made to balance that out for people like John Kasich or Hillary Clinton. This should send shivers down the spine of journalism ethics people who want a fully fair hearing for politicians.
How we get that fairness, and avoid this free media in the future, is up for debate (see the above Fairness Doctrine section). But it must end. We must never dole out an unfair advantage to someone who will, in turn, bring eyeballs to your content, clicks to your website or viewers to your programs.
Earned media is anything but—it’s free media. And news orgs should hang their heads in shame for allowing it to take over their decision-making.
Penalties for Chumminess ✓
Coziness with sources is another topic I’ve covered extensively on this site. I don’t see this phenomenon covered very much in the mainstream press because, well, they’re the ones doing it. Through social media, politicians can reach out to constituents directly and manage their communications. Today’s connection tools mean that the traditional press isn’t as essential as it used to be.
Enter coddling. If a politician knows they have established a personal bond with a reporter, they are more likely to go back for favorable coverage. Likewise, if a journalist can use that bond to have repeated access to that person, they get the edge.
They get more visits, more access and more viewership. It’s a win-win, right?
WRONG. This is a disgusting practice that many on cable news have engaged in: Sean Hannity, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brezinski, Chuck Todd, and many others. If your journalism program hinges on access permission you’re doing it completely and totally wrong. Media organizations need to institute (or bloster/strengthen) code of ethics that mandates repercussions for on-air “talent” who engage in behind-the-scenes canoodling of sources.
It’s our job to hold those figures accountable. As evidenced by the clip above, MSNBC’s Morning Joe cheated its viewers out of the truth on behalf of access. They should be held accountable for compromising their ethics and integrity by getting too cozy with the sources they are supposed to report on objectively.
UPDATE: Excessive chumminess allowed media to overlook Paul Manafort’s obvious Russian-mob connections; Paulie Walnuts went prison for violating parole.
— Garance Franke-Ruta (@thegarance) June 15, 2018
Return to Gatekeeping ✓
Closing with the most critical failure of this Election 2016 news cycle: the job of major news and cable nets’ news-gatekeeping responsibilities. TV news anchors plan their shows with varying degrees of autonomy, but together with their managing editors, producers and net honchos they choose and guide the content they feature. The Houston Chronicle has the perfect definition:
Gatekeeping describes the process by which news stories are filtered by journalists and editors for dispersal in any medium. The process comes into play every time a blogger chooses to feature a story in a website’s top position, a news producer decides to cover one issue but not another, or a magazine reporter selects a source to interview for an article.
And herein lies the crux of our catastrophic, wide-sweeping, systemic collapse of journalism—investigative or otherwise—broadly speaking.
True, we had some heroic investigative work done by the likes of David Fahrenholdt and others. But an important Media Matters post reports that the major news networks have, “since the beginning of 2016… devoted just 32 minutes to issues coverage, according to Andrew Tyndall.”
32 minutes. Let that rancid stench of failure waft over you.
They could have dedicated time to issues like voter suppression, which has been a top priority of party leader Kris Kobach of Kansas. (The courts struck down the measures, but there were so many of them it was like playing a losing game of Whack-A-Mole.) They could’ve dug deeper in to both candidates’ track record on our Climate Emergency, which is the greatest threat to our well-being and security. They could’ve cut back on using Sec. Clinton’s email controversy as a way of evening out a horserace that the media was not just rooting for—they were crafting it on an hour-by-hour basis.
Perhaps the most glaring example of the national media’s gatekeeping fail is Donald Trump’s association with Russia. Starting with the mysterious GOP platform change (although occurring in shady business deals long before that) through the campaign when either Trump or his associates (or both) were in touch with the Russian government. I saw no meaningful investigation on that—even though that ratty sweater had a ton of threads to pull on.
One candidate to be leader of the free world is canoodling with an aggressive foreign actor and it barely made anyone raise an eyebrow in the media. Inexcusable.
There’s no way to legislate this. The only way this will change is if we the people fight back. I went to school to learn this critically important craft and art form, and I’m saddened that I don’t even recognize the industry anymore.
We must continue to watch and call out people in the media who aren’t doing their jobs.
My new slogan: “Don’t boo, FIGHT.”
☆ ☆ ☆
Writer’s postscript: This is by far the saddest post I’ve ever had to write. I’m fearful of what comes next for our country under a president* Donald Trump. But I’m even more worried about how our profit-hungry media will stifle any sort of journalistic self-examination, at a time when we so desperately need it.
The time for reform is now. We must seize this moment as a marker and turning point to transform what we do and how we do it. We already know political prognostication has been humiliated to the dustbin of history; our media gave itself over to the devil and it’s time for us to snatch it back.
Find news sources you trust. Seek unbiased news from independent sources, like FreeSpeechTV and others. Go out there, as I have with CrankyYank, and create your own news source upon which people can rely. Do your part. ❏
“Shame on us, the American Media” (New Republic)
> “Media obsession with a bullshit email scandal helped Trump win” (Vox)
> “Mainstream media does some soul-searching” (TVNewser)
> “#NeverForget: The Day Humanity, Manhattan & Media changed forever” (CrankyYank)
Russia if you're listening you can have Peter Baker and we'll throw in Vogel for free pic.twitter.com/dESOcRKhR8
— Will's Media Reform School #DoBetter ⚖️ 🌻 (@bywillpollock) March 14, 2021
Will Pollock is a perpetually crabby New York City escapee based in Midtown Atlanta. He’s a freelance multimedia journalist and author of two books (award-winning Pizza for Good & Leaving Triscuit), with more on the way.
In 2001, Will earned his Masters from The Medill School of Journalism, graduating with highest honors from the magazine sequence. As permanent member of Journalism’s National Honors Society, he’s been active in monitoring, writing and blogging about media and journalism ever since he graduated.
Obsessed with good storytelling and journalistic excellence, Will uses snark, humor and reason to distill dumb shit and make it fun. He is a seeker/maker of non-consensus news, and cures his crankies by finding the nut in every story.
As for-profit media and news outlets continue to fail us, it’s more important than ever to find reliable sources. Authentic storytelling exists—you just have to look for it. On this blog you’ll get ideas, not ideology. Sass with class. Reporting with rapport. Evidence with a touch of evil. You get the idea.
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