Television Journalism or Carnival Barkers: It’s Time to Choose

I can remember a time when, according to my university journalism professor, the mission of journalism is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Seemed a bit odd to me at the time but since I was a business major on my exceedingly slow pace to Masters degrees in Economics and Accounting I figured what the hell, and just wrote it down in my notes (yea, we had to take notes with pen and paper in those days).132315_600

But the irony of that idea is that now, the TV news media in America itself is looking quite afflicted and very uncomfortable. TV news organizations themselves have done the damage to themselves of course. Now, to forego any type of analysis of why and how it’s come to this, maybe we should turn the camera around and take a look at the lookers.

First of all, television news really has only one thing going for it…credibility. That’s because television used to speak to us, gathered around our dinner tables with a voice of infallibility. Walter Cronkite could have said Godzilla was attacking Omaha, Nebraska and my granddad would have grabbed his shotgun and headed to Omaha.

But old Walter didn’t have the internet, idiots like Joe Scarborough or Sean Hannity spewing bullshit 24/7 like we have now. Brian Williams, one of my favorite “newscasters,” wasn’t cooking up stories just to give himself a leg up to the top of the pile he was already standing atop; it was the pressure from NBCUniversal to gain market share that did it.

And now, television no longer attracts the sheer size of the captive audience they used to enjoy. For gawd’s sake, your got-damm watch can give you “the news.” All television has going for it now is the value of its good name….and that name credibility has been beaten worse than John McCain’s after he chose a bimbo from Alaska as his presidential running mate.

The first thing mainstream TV journalism needs to do is stop shooting itself in the foot–that’s the job of the GOP. And the last things what’s left of the industry can afford these days are :

  1. A high-profile news anchor like NBC’s Brian Williams exaggerating what happened while he was reporting stories.
  2. ABC’s George Stephanopoulos giving money to organizations run by his former employer, Bill Clinton, while he reports on Hillary Clinton.
  3. Rolling Stonemagazine publishing a bogus story on campus rape that it later retracted.
  4. 60 Minutes doing biased bullshit stories about the abuses of the Social Security system just to get better ratings from the good ole ancient white males that make up their audience that hates government until they need it themselves.

These indiscretions only hasten the erosion of what’s left of the public’s trust in the product that thousands of ethical journalists work indefatigably to gain with honest reports, good writing, good producing and efficient selling…stories that actually give evidence and tell the truth.

The recent ethical lapses in judgement are partly because the news divisions used to be cost centers, not expected to make a profit but to lend credibility to the network it was representing. Now they’re supposed to just “put asses in the seats” like professional wrestling. I mean come on, can you really call that professional or wrestling? Can you call the nightly newscasts professional or news?

Recent Gallup polling states that the percentage of people placing a “great deal” or a “fair” amount of trust in mass media fell to 40 percent in 2014, down from 55 percent in 1999. Even worse, faith in the media among 18-to-29 year olds – millennials — is a dismal 12 percent, according to a recent survey by the Harvard Institute of Politics. These numbers are a reminder that journalists can’t afford to take anything for granted.

But maybe I’m putting the blame on the wrong parties. Let’s be honest, even if the journalists want to give honest, incisive, in-depth reporting, the bosses at the news divisions report to the bosses at the entertainment divisions and those scumbags demand Jerry Springer-esque reactions to keep the audience’s attention so they want surf to another channel showing the Kardashians newest way to display their asses in tightfitting (or non-existent) clothing, while texting, checking email or whatever the newest equivalent to checking whatever today’s version of Facebook is at any given millisecond.

The result of all the exaggeration going on in front of them is, quite frankly, people don’t trust television news. And the networks, instead of doing everything possible to retain what little of the trust of the minority still exists, and going about doing their damnedest to convince the majority to give television news another chance, keep going back to sensationalist television.

I’m hoping this latest crisis of confidence has the same effect that a minor brush with death often has on a man in his middle age: it forces him to take stock and re-evaluate the way he’s been living and take steps to make himself healthy again. For TV journalists, or their bosses, the first step is to remember that verifying the facts is the single most important part of what they do, not just regurgitating whatever the right-wing or left-wing wants to hear to shore up their arguments on whatever the political issue of the day might be. Just don’t say it, report it or write it unless you’ve confirmed it. Question everything and everyone; especially your sources. If that sounds obvious, it should, but the failure to do it can jeopardize reputations and discredit the news organization that employs you.

Just ask Lara Logan and CBS about Benghazi. I can’t believe she still has a job there….or anywhere in news.

Restoring the TV journalists and their respective network’s reputational health also requires a renewed commitment to doing everything possible to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest and bias. If you’re covering politicians, then you don’t contribute money to political campaigns for pete’s sake. If you’re covering General Electric, you shouldn’t be in a position to benefit directly from movement in the company’s stock price. That’s the type of actions for people like Phil (R-Texas) and Wendy Gramm who schemed and talked Reagan into making Enron a gold mine for the Gramms at everyone else’s expense. The point is to respect the ethical lines and let your audience know you take their trust in your objectivity as seriously as you take your commitment to telling stories that are based on confirmed facts.

These are things TV journalists and news divisions can aggressively do to get back in shape and take back the luster they used to enjoy. We can’t turn back the clock to a time when everyone watched the evening news at 6:30 p.m. And we can’t pretend the Internet and mobile devices haven’t upended the economic model upon which mainstream TV media depended for decades.

Granted, only the agile survive and they have to adapt to changing technology, shrinking attention spans and countless new ways that audiences can choose to spend time and money. But they need to do it honestly, to the best of their ability, and not just the fastest to get it on the air.

The good news, in my view, is that there’s never been a better time for good TV journalism. The need for credible, intelligent news and analysis has only increased with the number of new threats to our prosperity, safety and security.

Viewers and readers need reliable news and information more than ever as they face a world where Wall Street bankers can destroy the economy with bullshit financial products and suffer no consequences.

Where global warming threatens our environment and, regardless of who, what, or how it’s happening, it is happening and it’s threatening the survival of our species.

Where ISIS, which the media helped enable by not challenging the bullshit rhetoric of George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice, brings new levels of instability to the Middle East.

The public desperately needs a dynamic adult in the room to discern what people need to know about, even if they’d rather watch jackass videos, read celebrity gossip or play video games. Serious news organizations have the potential to be that adult. But only if they take the steps to get ethically healthy, earn the public’s trust and act like honest journalists instead of carnival barkers.


Harvey Gold