Commentary

‘Don’t tell me what you think. Tell me what you know.’ Media bias, real and perceived, is a threat.

February 1, 2021 12:01 am

Pro-Trump rioters smash media equipment during a riot at the Capitol last week. (Alex Kent/ For the Tennessee Lookout)

The past few years have been a real crucible for this country, and no institution has faced more challenges (from within and from without) than the big, brawling, chaotic and cutthroat-competitive entity that we know by the overbroad shorthand “news media.”

I grew up a news junkie, enraptured by the sonorous, dispassionate delivery of the day’s events by Walter Cronkite at suppertime five days a week, with Mike Wallace each Sunday night, and with Chet Huntley and David Brinkley on the rare occasions our shaky outdoor antenna in the pre-cable years could capture enough signal from NBC’s Memphis affiliate 100 miles away.

They were the gatekeepers, and theirs was an unembellished, almost terse take on the news. They were the Sgt. Joe Fridays of journalism: “Just the facts, ma’am.” Cronkite, for instance, had vested feelings about the events of his day, but you rarely glimpsed them except perhaps for the afternoon of Nov. 22, 1963, when he removed his black-rimmed glasses, looked away from the camera, swallowed hard, and somewhat haltingly read the wire service bulletin that President John Kennedy had died.

It informed my decision to study journalism in college and enter the brave world of newspapering that had just held a criminal president to account in the broad scheme of corruption known as Watergate. I learned from my first daily newspaper editor, when I was pitching a story about improper personal favors dispensed by local government to a prominent landowner, that my suspicions meant nothing until I could prove it. “Don’t tell me what you think, tell me what you know,” the late Joe Ellis, editor and publisher of the Clarksdale (Mississippi) Press-Register, admonished me.

And I remember my bureau chief’s directive on my first day with The Associated Press: “Get it first, but first get it right.” That advice from the late Jake Booher was my guiding star for 28 years at AP until, tragically one night in 2013, it was not.

My error was not in slanting a story to fit an ideological or cultural bias. It was succumbing to “confirmation bias.” I had the documentation right there in my hand, and the pressure was on to break a major story in that year’s gubernatorial race, a story I knew competitors were pursuing. I should have waited longer for definitive confirmation of what the document apparently alleged. I failed my journalistic duty to be sufficiently skeptical — to wait for one more call to be returned, one more email reply — all in my frenzied pursuit of the blockbuster byline. I would learn to my horror that the document omitted a crucial detail that I would have discovered had I been more patient. To my abiding shame, I falsely blamed a candidate — future Gov. Terry McAuliffe — for a wrong he did not commit.

I knew the moment we learned the story was fatally flawed and AP “killed” (or rescinded) it that my reporting career could be over. It was. The fault was all mine: I said so at the time, I say so now, and I will say it for as long as I live. I don’t begrudge AP for my dismissal. I consider the news cooperative, which turns 175 years old this year, a shining beacon of fair, unslanted, top-quality global reporting that’s increasingly rare these days. But AP was wrong to also fire two of my colleagues.

I spent several years after that pitching stories about Virginia-born McGuireWoods to journalists, particularly those who cover the world of Big Law. And after that, I had the good fortune to connect with The Virginia Mercury and, in retirement, return to what I love in writing this column.

But here is the crucial distinction: what I did for AP and for the newspapers I served for more than 35 years – reporting – is not what I do now. What you’re reading is commentary, and it is clearly marked as such. I have a point of view, an argument to make, and the Mercury allows me and other columnists the forum in which to do it, carefully and responsibly differentiating it from the unbiased news coverage by its talented reporting staff.

Much of today’s media, however, have allowed the wall between news and opinion to crumble. That has long been evident among the 24-hour cable news networks, and it has been catalyzed over the past decade or so by the Internet and a downright predatory social media environment. It has taken an immeasurable toll on the credibility of legacy (or “mainstream”) media and, consequently, on the functionality of American society.

It’s jarring for my contemporaries — those who grew up in the era of unadorned prose in their afternoon newspapers or network newscasts of the mid- to late 20th century — to now see what they presume are reporters telling them what they think, not what they know.

Chris Halsne, a longtime investigative journalist who is American University’s investigative broadcaster-in-residence, says much of it could be traced back to Ted Turner’s founding of CNN, the first live 24-hour news network beamed via satellite to cable systems worldwide.

“There’s only so much news in a day. So, over the course of a day, in order to fill these commercial news operations, they have been infiltrated with commentary. It’s really no different from the editorial page in a newspaper. It’s opinion. They talk about news but in a certain way. The institutions that have done that, they don’t clearly mark it,” Halsne said. “There’s a blurring of lines between news and editorial and entertainment these days.”

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The truth is out there, Halsne said, but viewers and readers must be savvier, to work harder, to take in a wider array of credible sources to find to it.

It’s no longer just a matter of intermingling opinion with real news or tinting facts red or blue. Now, news organizations nakedly accuse one another of lying, and they’re fighting it out live and on-air as happened Thursday night on left-leaning MSNBC where host Chris Hayes confronted fired Fox News political editor Chris Stirewalt, claiming that Fox repeated and lent credence to former President Donald Trump’s falsehoods. Imagine a WWE smackdown but with geeks behind desks instead of muscled toughs in a ring. 

And that says much about why commercial news has become what it is. The business of news is making money, and the WWE’s style of over-the-top confrontation rakes it in. So if confrontation — even involving contorted takes on facts — is what the market wants, many in the news/entertainment business are willing to do it to chase those clicks, to hold those viewers, to keep those subscribers and to sell those ads. That creates a dangerous societal dissonance and exacerbates cultural and political divisions. It doesn’t help when outlets that are supposed to be the guardians of journalistic integrity, like The New York Times and The Washington Post, get caught doing “stealth edits” to past published work, including the Times’ much-lauded and much-criticized 1619 Project.

In a journalism education career now in its fifth decade, Will Norton has imparted inviolable basics of journalism to thousands of college students in Nebraska and Mississippi, including numerous Pulitzer honorees. No rule was clearer or more sternly enforced than the sanctity of verified facts in all our reporting. I feared Will and learned from him then, when he was my professor and adviser at the University of Mississippi. He is a beloved friend and mentor now.

Will approaches retirement from Ole Miss at the end of this semester somewhat disheartened that a confluence of economic, technological and societal factors bodes ill for the continued vitality of honest reporting that he spent a lifetime evangelizing. He notes that more than 300 million Americans have devices that are today’s equivalent of a printing press and video and audio production and distribution suites but lack experience, training or even the concern over whether what they publish is fair, factual or false.  

“Americans are so accustomed to opinion (that) they can’t tell when it’s a factual story or not,” he lamented in a phone call last week.

“CNN, when it started, covered facts, but then they found out that what people want is more opinion and thinking, more ‘this is what I think.’ How can you come out of those sessions knowing what are the facts? You don’t,” he said.

The era when a handful of networks and major papers were gatekeepers of the limited channels news dissemination died decades ago. The online news landscape has brought a welcomed diversity of opportunity and perspectives unimaginable a generation ago. But it has also created an ungovernable and dark realm where points of view need no longer be challenged by reality, where malignant lies and propaganda from the fringes of the left and the right enjoy parity with – even primacy over – verifiable, empirical fact.

In short, it erodes the common basis of acknowledged truths necessary as a shared basis for an informed citizenry to debate policy and chart its best path forward. And that should scare everyone.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]

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