GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Do this job long enough, and you'll hear certain phrases repeated by people when they're criticizing news. Fake news is obviously up there in today's world, but that's for another episode.
The phrase I'm going to talk about actually refers to yesterday's world. My parent's world. My grandparent's world. In the news world the belief is no longer in existence, and I lament having lost it.
In some aspects, they're right. The industry has evolved. You don't need to wait for morning papers or the 6pm newscast. Information is delivered faster and on more platforms. There are way more options than the big three networks and PBS. Part of the problem, however, is that all those options aren't really news. Many are opinion-driven shows that push political ideologies and are masked up as newscasts. One of the consequences is predictable. The public says they are tired of opinion bleeding into their news. And this is the phrase - or one of the variations - that I hear all the time: "There's no one left like Walter Cronkite. He never gave his opinion."
Walter Cronkite. The longtime, legendary anchor for the CBS Evening News was famous for a lot of things. A pioneering news anchor. He covered some of the biggest events in US history - the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, Vietnam, Watergate. A big part of his identity, however, was his sign-off. At the end of every newscast, he would say, "And that's the way it is." The odd thing is... people say they want their newscasters to be like Cronkite. Not give their opinion. But - in a way - he gave his opinion every single night.
I completely get why people are upset. I'm upset. I've seen the TV news industry completely overrun with prime time opinion hosts. Panels of 'contributors,' who do nothing but yell at each other and shill for their parties. Local news owners that force their local affiliates to run propaganda pieces to push policy and protect or attack politicians. Add to that... part of the job of some cable entities is to do nothing but rip apart the credibility of genuine news agencies, so you you never believe them when they report something - however true - about a politician or position that host favors. It's easy to see why news consumers are fed up and confused.
But, let's bring this back to Cronkite. With his phrase, "And that's the way it is," he's essentially saying, "everything I've just told you is the truth." Imagine if any news anchor, local or national, said that today. They'd probably be ripped apart. Because - due to all the reasons I mentioned a moment ago - we as a society cannot agree on what basic facts are anymore. So if a news anchor ends a broadcast saying, "Everything I've just told you is true," there would be a portion of viewers who basically say, "the hell it is."
Let's just take a real life example. And I know this is probably going to get people angry. But, President Trump has repeatedly told a lie that President Obama gave Iran $150-billion to appease them when signing a nuclear deal. Again, it's simply untrue. I had to correct this one just today when a viewer put the claim on my Facebook page. I linked right to a fact check dot org article. And right at the top it says, " The deal, approved by six countries and the European Union, gave Iran access to its own frozen assets." The article goes on to say, "First of all, former President Barack Obama didn't give "$150-billion in cash" to Iran. The nuclear agreement included China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States and the European Union, so Obama didn't carry out any part of it on his own. The deal did lift some sanctions, which lifted a freeze on Iran's assets that were held largely in foreign, not U.S., banks. And, to be clear, the money that was unfrozen belonged to Iran. It had only been made inaccessible by sanctions aimed at crippling the country's nuclear program."
So - facts. Now, if I go on TV... and do a newscast on this story, with these facts... and then end it by saying, "and that's the way it is."... it would not go over well. Because FOX News opinion hosts and other right-wing personalities continue to twist the narrative.
And here's the thing: People watch. They watch in the millions. FOX News is and has been the number one cable news network for a loooong time. Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson are the two top - or two of the top - hosts on cable TV.
Democrats do this, too. Politifact gave President Obama its Lie Of The Year when he said of Obamacare, "If you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor." Liberals say he wasn't lying. He was. At best, he was just wrong. And going back further, they'll say Bill Clinton didn't perjure himself. He absolutely did. You may not like what he was being asked about or how the investigation went from a land deal to a sex scandal. But, when he took an oath to tell the truth, he lied.
So two things become obvious. One - society is watching programs that re-enforce what they already believe. And two - they're criticizing legit newscasters for injecting their own opinion, when they're actually not doing so.
But, they're accusing them of it because honest news people are being conflated with opinion hosts. Those opinion shows look and sound like legit news. And when you're working 40 hours a week or more and raising a family, who has time to tell them apart?
It was easy back in the day. You had Cronkite, Roger Mudd, John Chancellor and David Brinkley. That's about it. And there was no cable, no internet. Certainly no Netflix. It was the habit of nearly every one in the country to sit down and watch the evening news as a family. Everyone was being given - largely - the same honest facts every night. We agreed as a country what the truth was.
Now, I could write a thesis on how that trust was lost. I highlighted some at the top. Ultimately, slowly but surely, the American public lost confidence in our major institutions - government, law enforcement, the news media. We became - rightly and wrongly - more skeptical... and worse, cynical.
And now - in today's internet world - with partisan hosts and pundits screaming from all over the political spectrum that the other side is lying to you, people are just tuning us out as a whole. And by 'whole' I mean the entire media complex, honest journalists included, who are just trying to get to the truth and bring it to you.
The situation is complicated by the fact that any mistake that IS made by reporters - and they will be made, because we're human - any mistake that's made is recorded and blasted out as though it were the norm and not the exception. But, the truth is, when journalists make mistakes, we are SEVERELY reprimanded. First time offenses can mean you get fired, depending on how big the mistake is. I don't often see politicians losing their jobs because of a factual error. I'm not looking for sympathy. But, even truthful stories get called fake news now, just because someone doesn't like what the facts say about them or their candidate. We're under assault for the truth as well as our mistakes.
Don't get me wrong, the adversarial natural of news and politics has always existed. Go read what some of the founders thought about their press coverage. Even they thought it was unfair. But they knew it was necessary. Because they didn't trust themselves and they certainly didn't trust the people that would come after them. That's why they enshrined the free press in the very first amendment. And they did it, not because so we could take you to the cat parade at the local mall. And they certainly didn't do it so we could act as a stenographer and tell you everything good that any politician was doing. They did it so we could hold people in power accountable. They did so we could tell you when they were lying. When they became corrupt.
That's what Cronkite did. He did it his whole career. The difference then was people believed him. And when he actually DID give his opinion in his famous commentary on Vietnam... it carried monumental weight.
The job we do today - and the reason we do it - is no different than the job Mr. Cronkite did. The tools we have are certainly different. But our purpose remains the same. To ask questions. To get answers. To bring you the truth as best we know it to be. And that's the way it STILL is.
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