The Failure of TV News, Or Why I Have Given Up on TV Journalism

screen-shot-2016-12-02-at-7-57-10-pmI have watched one news program on television since the election, BBC America.

I’ve kept up wth the news through online reading and Reuters video among others.

When I started writing this post my intent was to explain why I was turning away from watching TV news. After the way television news programs handled the Trump campaign I resolved to personally boycott TV news. Given a plethora of options for information today, that’s not a radical step, I admit.

But it’s a big change me.  For most of my life I’ve been an information junkie. I’ve worked in and around TV news for most of my adult life.

I devoured newspapers and TV news programs. But, that has come to an end.

Rather than a total boycott, I’ve become a cautious skeptic, watching only to get information about those stories that I know are current and unfolding. (The fires in the Smoky Mountains are the most recent example.)

And I rely on other media for substance and perspective.

Election coverage turned me off TV news. Here’s why.

1.The willingness of TV executives to allow Trump to dominate airtime.

Trump manipulated the media and many TV journalists and program executives were willing accomplices in his manipulation. CBS President Les Moonves made a boast that was irresponsible, greedy, and lacking in civic principles when he said of Donald Trump, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

NBC decided to put Matt Lauer, an entertainment show host, in a primetime role as host of a “candidate forum” which had the effect of mixing politics and entertainment, and subsequently blew up in Lauer’s face when he failed to fact-check Trump and shorted Sec. Clinton.

According to one study, Trump received $3 billion in free air time. This started even before he had begun to raise funds for his campaign and was invisible in the Republican primaries.

He dominated the airwaves not because he had better ideas but because his outlandish comments, media savvy, and constant availability drew an audience and made the TV networks money.

Journalism is about more than money and entertainment. It’s about providing accurate information so people can be well-informed and make considered decisions.

What we got with coverage of Trump was politics as entertainment laced with lies and extremism.

2. Unfiltered airing of Trump speeches including outrageous claims made with virtually no fact-checking until after the claims had circled the world.

Media exposure has a legitimizing effect. It’s invisible, subtle, and often denied. But I learned early in my career as a journalist that when I told the stories of people in poverty in the U.S. and the developing world, it was validating and legitimizing.

Journalism isn’t only about reporting what’s happening. 

It’s about exposure. Under certain circumstances exposure can mean a platform for presenting your ideas. It cannot be otherwise. How this is managed is crucial, and for too long in the primaries and for the early months of the election, this crucial management was treated too lightly by TV news.

By providing a platform for Trump to tell his stories unchecked to millions of people, media exposure served to legitimize extremism and bring it into the mainstream.

3. Applying euphemisms to Trump’s remarks and treating Trump as if he were a political candidate like traditional candidates of the past—as if he had a platform and vision.

The traditional journalistic practice is to present at least two opposing claims with quotes from both sides, giving each equal attention. But Trump is a liar and a demagogue. To give his conspiracy claims status equal to the policy proposals of his primary opponents, and later to Sec. Clinton, was to elevate a charlatan to respectability, and to diminish serious policy discussion.

The traditional journalism model and its business plan undermined responsible decision-making in this election. Where it will lead us is still open to question.

4. Covering the campaign as a horse race without pressing the candidates for substance.

By emphasizing polls and ignoring policy discussions, this campaign lacked vital substance. Polls over policy.

We face a global environmental crisis. We’re hearing about potential mass extinction of wildlife. But the environmental crisis, along with many other critical issues affecting us, was completely invisible during this campaign. Not one question was posed in any debate about our common environmental global future. This was irresponsibility to the maximum.

Journalists covered the election as if it were a horse race. They have done this before. In this election, however, it put us at peril.

5. The hunt for scandal.

Subjecting Sec. Clinton to a higher level of scrutiny over email practices, as if this were scandalous, not to mention a major indicator of integrity (when it was not), diverted attention from a body of historical reporting about Trump that told us exactly who he is.

Past Secretaries of State had followed the same practices as Clinton and Snopes clarified that roughly 22 million White House e-mails exchanged via private servers during the G.W. Bush administration were deleted instead of being archived in accordance with the Presidential Records Act.

The electronic media emphasis on an email scandal that wasn’t created a straw man that continued as a diversion throughout the campaign.

6. Repeating the politically generated claim that Clinton could not be trusted.

This became a self-fulfilling loop.

Jill Abramson, former executive editor of the New York Times, who has extensive experience covering the Clintons, wrote in The Guardian, that “Hillary Clinton is fundamentally honest and trustworthy.”

Such reporting, however, was not the norm. The norm was to repeat the polls that showed voters believed the trumped up claim that she was dishonest. Couple this with the on-going crudeness of Donald Trump’s “lying Hillary” mantra and the media provided a platform to undermine the integrity of Sec. Clinton.

And so, we now have President-elect Donald Trump. An idea once laughable is now a reality.

Are the media the sole reason for Trump’s election? No. But they are a significant player through the misapplication of traditional journalistic practices applied uncritically to an untraditional, dangerous, and manipulative candidate. Trump played the media, especially the television journalists.

TV executives who let greed lead them over principled civic responsibility played along. They now bear a burden that they must face as Trump threatens a free press.

There was too much stenography and too little truth-telling, too much greed and too little concern for the common good. Too much entertainment value and too little concern for policies that will shape our lives and the well-being of the world.

This is not good for America nor CBS.

There were journalists, print and electronic, who did not fall victim to the manipulation. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post provided a lesson in investigative reporting on the Trump Foundation, for example.

But in this election, the media lost and foremost among the losers was TV news.

One Response to “The Failure of TV News, Or Why I Have Given Up on TV Journalism”

  1. Dan J Frisby December 4, 2016 at 12:10 pm #

    Excellent review, Larry, of the political palaver dominating the election cycle.
    It also appears to me that our American public has allowed the “soundbite scenarios” to become ‘news’ for those whose intelligence became less important than their emotional pejoratives toward humans whose exteriors
    [ race, culture, gender, wealth, stature, social position, peers and homes, etc]
    were given priority over their human interiors
    (conscience, veracity, civility, empathy, generosity, benevolence, hospitality, etc.).
    Thank you for sharing your unique perspective 🙂

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