By Dan Shelley, RTDNA Executive Director
I was struck this week by two inside-baseball journalism stories following Monday’s Mueller investigation bombshells that spoke, tangentially but notably, to what I have often said about a main obstacle in our industry’s ability to regain the trust of the public: The conflation in many information consumers’ minds between responsible journalism and the opinion media.
Too many people think what they see on some cable networks’ early-morning and/or prime-time lineups, what they hear on talk radio, and what they read on newspapers’ editorial pages are the facts. Period. Such content certainly contains facts, but those facts are almost always used to reinforce the purveyor’s predetermined point of view, or detract from points of view that conflict with their own.
Compounding the problem is that too many people seek information exclusively from sources that tend to reinforce their own outlooks on the body politic and the general state of affairs.
The first story came from CNN senior media reporter Oliver Darcy, who wrote about the growing frustration of Fox News Channel legitimate journalists and the prime-time hosts, to whom many have ascribed the less-than-flattering description, “talking heads.” Such hosts spew their sometimes-venomous opinions to shape the day’s news narrative so it aligns with their personal views. In the case of Fox, those personal views tend to support President Trump and deflect attention to other “scandals” they view from their often-grassy knoll perspectives.
“’I’m watching now and screaming,’ one Fox News personality said in a text message to CNN as the person watched their network’s coverage [of the Mueller developments]. ‘I want to quit,’” Darcy reported.
“’It’s another blow to journalists at Fox who come in every day wanting to cover the news in a fair and objective way,’ one senior Fox News employee told CNN of their outlet’s coverage.”
This may come as a shock to some of you, but I can personally attest that there are, indeed, journalists who work at Fox News and have no preconceived agenda other than to fulfill their Constitutionally-guaranteed duty to seek and report the truth.
I know a few of them personally. I have met others. I have visited the Fox News Washington bureau, across the street from the U.S. Capitol, where I saw some of those journalists in action. For what it’s worth, I noted during my visit that there were no pictures on the wall honoring Fox News Channel’s “Fox & Friends” cast, or Tucker Carlson, or Sean Hannity.
One Fox News Washington bureau staff member pointed to a blank spot on the wall with pride and explained that he couldn’t wait to take down the picture of Roger Ailes that once was displayed there, the moment Ailes left the network he had founded amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
I would also note that Fox News’ Chris Wallace, the 2013 recipient of RTDNA’s highest honor, the Paul White Award, was quoted last month criticizing his network’s opinion hosts.
“If they want to say they like Trump, or that they’re upset with the Democrats, that’s fine. That’s opinion. That’s what they do for a living,” Wallace told the Associated Press. “I don’t like them bashing the media, because oftentimes what they're bashing is stuff that we on the news side are doing. I don’t think they recognize that they have a role at Fox News and we have a role at Fox News. I don’t know what’s in their head. It’s just bad form.”
This week’s second inside-baseball journalism story that caught my attention was a piece by Vanity Fair media reporter Joe Pompeo, which quoted a number of former and current Wall Street Journal editors and reporters as being highly critical of how, as they view it, the paper’s editorial page is undermining the responsible journalism the newsroom is committing on a daily basis.
“The editorial page has been doing crazy sh-- for a long time,” one former Journal editor told Pompeo. His story also reported:
“People are always mad about our editorials undermining our reporting,’ a Journal reporter told me. … “It’s frustrating to have to contend with this, even if smart people recognize the separation between the editorial side and news.” As another reporter told me, “We could disprove half the stuff” the opinion writers “are saying if they just read our own reporting. It’s like living in some alternate universe.”
The tension between the Journal’s reporting staff and editorial page has existed for decades. It seems to be exacerbated in the current ideological climate, which has become significantly more volatile because of the general increase in political polarization and erosion of civil discourse.
This Saturday, November 4, would have been Walter Cronkite’s 101st birthday. Shortly after his death in 2009, I was honored to be part of a small delegation representing RTDNA at his memorial service in New York.
Those wishing to honor Cronkite and his legacy filled Lincoln Center’s large Avery Fisher Hall to capacity. The service attracted a long list of political, journalism and entertainment superstars, not the least of whom were not one, but two, U.S. Presidents: then-President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton.
Walter Cronkite, the anchor of the “CBS Evening News” from 1962 to 1981, was once voted “the most trusted man in America” in a public opinion survey.
His right-down-the-middle, capital-J journalism chronicled many of the most consequential events of the 20th Century, including the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War, the moon landings, Watergate, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord, which he himself helped broker by bringing the two nations’ leaders together on one of his evening newscasts and eliciting commitments that they would meet each other face to face for the first time.
I invoke the spirit of Cronkite in this context to make some points that I believe are critical in our current time.
First, we have a responsibility as journalists, as we face more obstruction, threats, harassment, arrests and even physical assaults, to answer our misguided critics – by that I mean those acting out harshly against responsible journalism, egged on by the bullhorn of some powerful bully pulpits, merely because they don’t like or understand responsible journalism – by doing more and better journalism.
Second, as frustrated as the Fox News, Wall Street Journal and, clearly, other responsible journalists are, merely criticizing the opinion media isn’t enough. We must help the public better understand why the countless flagrant acts of responsible journalism being committed every day across the country are essential to their daily lives.
A major part of that effort must be to point out that information people consume from the opinion media is just that, opinion. Responsible journalism, conversely, is hard work done by professionals who have dedicated their lives to serving their communities by shining a light on issues that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
The result of responsible journalism is very often positive change, in local cities and towns, at the state level, and across the United States.
I’d like to believe that if Walter Cronkite were alive today, he’d be a champion of that message.