Tag Archives: American journalism

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Fake News?

It’s disheartening to hear a president use “fake news” to dismiss the very best of American journalism.

It’s the President’s favorite theme.  If the phrase had a history prior to his administration, “fake news” has been reborn as the mantra of the Trump insurgency.

         A worrisome sign of  Trump’s legacy

Anyone who has been paying attention knows that the President uses the term to mean news coverage he does not find to his liking. When he took that famous escalator ride to the lobby of Trump Tower to announce his candidacy several years ago he must not have understood that his words and checkered business would be under intense scrutiny.

Trump’s frustration with the news media is hardly unique. Most presidents and many mayors and governors have gone through rocky relationships with the Fourth Estate.  At the same time, Americans understand that good journalism is sometimes going to make the powerful uncomfortable.  Witness the sentimental heroics displayed in films like The Post (2017), All the President’s Men (1976), Frost/Nixon (2008) and Good Night and Good Luck (2005).

A reasonable description of this moment in our national politics is that, indeed, the American leader is getting terrible press.  No doubt about it.  He and his administration are at the center of a cable news cycle intensely focused on miscues and misdeeds. Evidence of malfeasance is also the subject of most of the negative coverage in the legacy print news media, including the New York Times and Washington Post, and in public policy publications like The Atlantic, The New Republic and, increasingly, The New Yorker. If that were not bad enough for the West Wing, reports from conservative outlets are only marginally more positive, with the important exception of Fox News. The Wall Street Journal and The Weekly Standard are far from positive.  In addition, important conservative journalists like Max Boot, George Will and Bill Kristol are not fans.  Even Tucker Carlson is wavering.

The term has become its own reality, obliterating distinctions between rigorous journalism and ill-considered rants.

Reality television and social media have proven to be bad models for the President. Anyone with a knowledge of American civil life will understand that “news” can take many forms and be shaped from a variety of perspectives.  Phoney journalism has a long history in supermarket tabloids and reality shows not known for treating news gathering as a serious profession.  And, of course, internet sites and social media largely ignore the rigors of traditional reporting. Most websites do little more aggregate stories from other sources, while issuing polemics to like-minded partisans. Indeed, there’s enough fake news around for everybody to lament.

Even so, it is disheartening to see a president dismiss the very best of American journalism from our legacy media.  Among his followers, at least, this bogus indictment has the effect of undermining a cornerstone institution in American life. “Fake news” has become its own reality, obliterating distinctions between rigorous reporting and ill-considered rants. The phrase has also become a poison in the American body politic, slowly infecting every policy decision and utterance.

What is traditionally celebrated by a President now exists under a cloud of wild allegations.

It seems like Trump or his instructors at the University of Pennsylvania badly missed the mark many years ago. One wonders if a Wharton degree includes courses in American history and politics. How could he have missed the lessons of Jefferson, Franklin, Oliver Wendell Holmes and so many other defenders of the free press in an open society?  Why is the language of human rights and press freedom hardly visible even at the margins of his limited lexicon?

Some of us occasionally have to pinch ourselves to realize that we are witnessing the use of the nation’s highest office to persecute a core institution of civil society. Among other things, Trump’s relentless attacks mimic old Soviet habits of fueling distrust for any sources not under the thumb of the state. Rather than celebrating a core value of the great American experiment, this administration seems intent on discrediting it.

Resisting The Fabulist Impulse in Television News

breaking news image wikipediaAt the rate we are going, all of us will have to suffer the fate of seeing our names–the forenames our parents so thoughtfully contemplated–appropriated to identify some crummy storm that has found its way to Wichita.

A tendency to see everything as a crisis is a prime symptom of what mental health professionals sometimes diagnose as a “borderline personality.”  Obsessions over supposed disasters consume persons with this tendency, which converts relatively minor concerns into major personal crises.

In television news—especially its forms on the major 24/7 cable outlets—we see the same pattern: too much of an obsession with one concern at the cost of a more varied news agenda. Anyone looking at this journalism these days will notice recurring patterns of repetition, overstatement and willful simplification that make it distinctly different from the nuanced exchanges most Americans have every day.  Sometimes this overcoverage is just silly, as with the compulsive over-coverage of deflated footballs in the NFL, or there is endless piling-on about a minor story such as Brian Williams inflated claims of danger after reporting from Iraq.

For sure, the chance to roll out the“Breaking News” slide pumps a network’s ratings.  CNN President Jeff Zucker seems to have believed that full and continuous days of coverage of the Malaysian Airliner that disappeared over the Southern Ocean a year ago was justified, even though there was precious little hard news to report. It was the same kind of endless hyping that characterized the network’s laughable coverage of what was a relatively minor January snowstorm in New York. This overreach left an anchor driving down Broadway in a “Blizzard Mobile” in search of a stray car—any car—that might be stuck in the three inches of snow that fell. The halcyon days of network news are clearly in our past.

This kind of fabulism is also the operating principle in the seemingly more science-driven precincts of weather reporting.  Inexplicably, The Weather Channel  has taken to naming every snow or rain storm that crosses a populated area as if it were a weather disaster. We no longer need a Hurricane to declare a weather emergency.  At the rate we are going, all of us will have to suffer the fate of hearing our names–the forenames our parents thoughtfully contemplated–appropriated to identify some crummy storm that has found its way to Wichita.

To be sure, the nation’s Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers did much the same thing in the heyday of yellow journalism during the later part of the 19th Century.  Drumming up passion against the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines became a way of life. It’s basically the same hunger for narratives of villains and victims that still serves as the primary formula for most versions of local television news, which feature the very worst that has happened in the last 24 hours.  Within metropolitan areas of 4 or 5 million, that means there’s usually some awful mayhem to breathlessly report.

The price of all this media fabulism is that it forces the nation’s attention to news that most viewers cannot use.  Riveting images of criminality give viewers little to act on, other than a vague sense that their communities are not safe enough.  With uninflated footballs to endlessly mull, who has time for the nation’s systemic challenges–underfunded schools, crumbling highways, aging mass transit, broken city budgets–with admittedly less interesting “B” roll footage, but more important consequences?  Read some of the good newspapers that are left in the United States—the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and others—and its easy to still discover what we are missing with single-focus coverage.  As the Progressive journalist Bill Moyers asked last December, where are the stories on CIA kidnappings and other governmental “black ops,” the widening gap between rich and poor, or impediments to voting that have been approved in many states?  Some of our better media cover these stories some of the time.  But cable television producers generally shy away from events that do not also have dramatic images.

Dramatic images of bedlam and bloodshed encourage individuals to view their world as more threatening than it is. Older Americans are especially prone to attitudes of chronic pessimism created by cable news coverage that makes nearly every story appear to confirm their worst fears: governments that don’t work, violent crime that is out of control, schools failing to serve their students, epidemic levels of pregnancy and alcohol use among teens.  In fact, even against these perceptions the trend lines generally allow for more optimism rather than less. For example, most American cities are far safer now than they’ve been in the last 40 years.  Most states, including my own, have many superb schools.  And drinking and pregnancy rates for teens are falling dramatically.

The recommendation researchers make to those who care for the aged is usually always the same: don’t let television news become a dominant activity in a senior’s life.  But the same recommendation should hold for the rest of us as well.  We all need to resist the tendency to get sucked into the gore that is justified by a news organization’s desire to troll for ratings on the pretext that its the next big story.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

“Breaking news” image courtesy of Wikipedia.org