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Why The News Media Feels So Broken

“The news product of the past has been on life support for the best part of two decades in no small part because of the accelerated growth of the Internet — and the incalculable spread of information across the entire globe.”

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“I just want some news.”

A few years ago, I was sitting in a diner, tapping away on my laptop, slurping down coffee and eating pancakes, trying to block out the conversations around me.

The chatter from the table right behind me rose up. I listened as they chewed over the first few outrages of the Trump administration and debated the credibility of the Russia probe.

“I just want some news,” said a woman at the table.

I felt myself nodding in agreement, conjuring up an image of Peter Jennings anchoring the 6 o’clock news circa 1983. 

That kind of news product still exists – barely.  In reality, it’s been on life support for the best part of two decades in no small part because of the accelerated growth of the Internet  — and the incalculable spread of information across the entire globe.

So why does it feel like our news diet is so anemic? Or, perhaps more accurately, junk-filled?

And why do respectable and reliable public interest organizations that measure such things put out report after report showing that public trust in the news media continues to nosedive?

There’s plenty of blame to go around – the Internet and its multiple disruptions, the rise of opinion journalism, the Twittersphere, and political polarization coupled with a sped up news cycle and the death of legacy media’s ad-based business model.

But I’ll start with the elephant in the room: the presidency of Donald Trump.

“Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect. But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.”

James Fallows

Staff writer at The Atlantic

The title of James Fallows September 15th article in The Atlantic could not have been more stark:

The Media Learned Nothing From 2016.”

In it, Fallows, who warned of growing bad habits among news professionals in his 1996 book ”Breaking The News,”  outlines how White House journalists have lost the plot since confronting the norm-busting president, who has repeatedly deemed the press “the enemy of the people.”

In short, Fallows makes a compelling case that reporters keep naively responding to a president who, to put it mildly, isn’t playing by the same rules.  And, writes Fallows, they’ve yet to pivot, instead leaning on the traditional fact-check,“both-sides-ism,” and horse race coverage in a futile effort to hold Trump accountable.  

New York University journalism professor and writer Jay Rosen echoes this critique, arguing in his PressThink blog that White House reporters have repeatedly and mistakenly applied legacy notions of covering a president who has long since thrown the rule book out.

“My number one lesson after five years of Trump and the press: Common practices in journalism rest on assumptions about how candidates and office holders will behave. If those assumptions are incorrect, the practices break. This happened to fact checking.”

Rosen goes so far as to urge White House reporters out of the briefing room, arguing they merely serve as a vessel for the president’s distortions of reality.

“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor.”

Bari Weiss

Journalist

Former New York Times op-ed Editor

The culture wars had long since broken out on the pages of The New York Times when conservative journalist Bari Weiss announced she was leaving the paper of record on Twitter just a few months ago. Her letter of resignation read like a college journalism professor’s admonition to a wayward student.

In short, Weiss called out the paper of record for failing to make up for its own self-inflicted wounds of 2016: that is, failing to see the rise of President Donald Trump and the longstanding grievances of his supporters. She claimed to have been bullied by her post modernist far left former colleagues for “wrongthink,” and decried editorial decision-making driven by satisfying the narratives of the what she described as the “narrowest of audiences” and governed by the politics of the Twitterati.

Her resignation came on the heels of the abrupt departure of her former boss James Bennett, who was forced out after publishing a controversial op-ed by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, making the case for a military response to widespread civil unrest following the release of gruesome video of the death of George Floyd while in police custody.

On the same day Weiss announced her departure from the New York Times came another: this time from pioneering blogger and conservative writer Andrew Sullivan, who said on Twitter that he would be leaving New York Magazine. 

He explained his departure in his final column for the magazine on July 17.

“What has happened, I think, is relatively simple: A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative. They seem to believe, and this is increasingly the orthodoxy in mainstream media, that any writer not actively committed to critical theory in questions of race, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity is actively, physically harming co-workers merely by existing in the same virtual space.”

Sullivan told readers he would resurrect the blog that put him on the digital publishing map The Dish (this version would be a weekly, not a daily) by migrating to Substack, where he would join other non-mainstream journalists, such as Matt Taibbi, to write without limits.

All three resignations were high-profile, controversial, and highlight two increasingly worrying trends from elite news outlets: an overtly politically-driven approach to editorial decision-making, and the harsh realities of digital disruption.

“These technologies that all of us are using: iPhone, Google, Instagram, Twitter, go down the list….In terms of human history and certainly communications, these are all baby products and we’re treating them like babies. We’re still very adolescent in usage of these really cool technologies that if used right, can be very transformative in a positive way. If abused, they can really grind up and grind down our country.”

Jim VandeHei

Axios & Politico founder & CEO

In 2006, Twitter was launched to be followed just a year later by the unveiling of the first ever smartphone. Longtime print journalist and later CEO and founder of Politico and Axios Jim VandeHei believes the disruption of digital technology can only be described as a profound transformation, one that the news media are presently confounded by.  A notable concern of his is the loss of a once “shared understanding of the news” that leads to our collective self-sorting and siloing into news bubbles.

Combine that with the scale of social media platforms like Facebook and what you have is the loss of traditional informational gatekeepers and news literacy – the ability to determine which sources of news and information are credible and which aren’t.

“My biggest takeaway of the last four years is probably realizing the extent to which big chunks of America are living in a different universe of news/facts with basically no shared reality,” was how Charlie Warzel, who writes about the information wars for the New York Times, put it in a Tweet in late August. 

In this hyper-sped up information environment, political polarization rushes in, especially with a highly unusual commander in chief who skillfully uses it to send a torrent of messaging and policy changes on Twitter.

No matter their protestations to the contrary, journalists being human beings first have undoubtedly changed the way they perform their craft.  And some days it can seem as though they have collectively gone mad.  Just spend a few hours watching CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC.

But before we fall into total despair, history tells us we’ve been here before.

“Imagine that we are suddenly at a moment when everybody can read and everybody can write and suddenly, the people who used to control all the sources of information no longer have access to it. And good things are multiplying and information is traveling more quickly, but so is disinformation and so is political scandal and things are moving very quickly and they’re leading even very quickly to wars and conflict of kind we couldn’t imagine before.

And no I’m not talking about the present moment. I’m not talking about the invention of social media and the internet.

I’m talking about the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, which was a previous moment in history when there was an information revolution that very quickly became a religious, culture and political revolution.”

Anne Applebaum

Journalist & historian

We survived the fallout of the printing press.  I’ll place my bet on the news media, warts and all, surviving the Internet.

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What Chris Licht Got Right, and Wrong, During His CNN Tenure

Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.

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The departure of Chris Licht from CNN was abrupt but expected after a string of missteps. His criticism of his predecessor Jeff Zucker spilled into criticisms of the network’s coverage of Donald Trump and the Covid pandemic, which undercut his staff. Journalists who stood up to conspiracy theories and election falsehoods from the very top felt betrayed.

I’ve known Chris for 30 years, when he served as an associate producer at a KNBC/CNBC for a daily half-hour program centered on the O.J. Simpson trial. Later, we were colleagues at NBC and kept in touch while he was at CBS and I was at ABC. He is whip-smart, congenial, worked well with big talents like Joe Scarborough, Charlie Rose, and Gayle King, and, until now, had a stellar track record.

And in his latest and biggest post — despite being put in an impossible position — did some things right, which I will highlight in a moment.

But first that impossible position. His new bosses at Warner Bros. Discovery wanted a restructuring and high ratings. They insisted on less calling out of misinformation and more “both sidesism”. So Licht had to derail the CNN train and then try to lift it back on the ratings track. No small job. Especially in a news climate that is in decline.

All the cable networks — who depended upon Donald Trump’s unpredictable, often treasonous and dangerous style — have suffered ratings decline. Fox numbers are down and so is MSNBC. The viewing public no longer has to tune in every minute of the day to see what the President is going to do or say. Life has largely returned to normal for most people.

So CNN, which could once depend upon airing and then fact-checking Trump’s latest absurdity, had to find new content.

Licht’s decision to emphasize down-the-middle news gathering seemed like a solid response to life without a bombastic — some say irrational — President.

Just cover the news, at which CNN is great. It’s the first place to turn during a mass shooting, a war, or natural disaster. But those are inconsistent events and cannot be depended upon for steady ratings. That’s the environment Licht stepped into.

He reacted with some good moves. His midday CNN News Central program, 3 hours of straight news, positions itself well to cover breaking news. It’s followed by Jake Tapper and Wolf Blitzer, also emphasizing news coverage.

However, unfortunately, the list of mistakes is a lot longer. Starting with Don Lemon. His “whole thing” in primetime was to be provocative and with a strong progressive bent. Licht attempted to turn Lemon into what he is not, an easy-to-watch, not opinionated host in the morning. A broadcast that was supposed to keynote the Licht agenda blew up in months. Lemon had an opinion on everything and could not get along with his co-hosts, which in morning TV is critical. The all-important chemistry was not there.

His meeting with Republican politicians on Capitol Hill to invite them back to CNN sent a message that they would no longer be challenged for disinformation. And Licht balanced the commentary panels on CNN with GOP election deniers who shouted over questions they could not answer, in turn sticking to talking points. A move that did little to attract viewers from Fox, and instead drove away legacy CNN viewers accustomed to progressive analysis and Republicans who respected opposite opinions.

Next, his attempt to normalize Donald Trump with a CNN Town Hall, somehow expecting the old rules of decorum would work became a disaster. Trump has to be covered. 30% of the electorate supports him, as do nearly 50% of Republicans. But a live Trump supporter audience overwhelmed Kaitlan Collins who was drenched by a firehouse of lies and deception.

And finally, there was Licht’s decision to make his criticisms of staff and their former coverage public in The Atlantic. A profile that made his gym trainer appear to be his top adviser.

To sum up: Chris Licht faced an impossible mission of improving ratings without Donald Trump and with a staff he alienated.

It was an opportunity wasted and a good man self-defeated.

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6 Tips For Dealing With Publicists

I’ll give you my rules for the people slinging guest pitches.

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Especially for morning drive shows using the news wheel, ‘newsmaker’ guests are a part of the format. Beware of publicists that may be stealing bread from your station’s mouth. I’ll give you my rules for the people slinging guest pitches.

No Local Pitches From Publicists

We are often told to keep it local. I generally agree with that statement, but working with a local publicist is a bad idea. Publicists usually get paid for any appearance. If this is a local business, you are stealing money from your station’s bottom line. Why isn’t the guest purchasing advertising from the station? 

Depending on the market, the publicist may be making enough money that would be better used on a spot campaign on your station. I programmed a station with the news wheel with “newsmaker” guests every half hour. A local doctor was talking about the ‘innovative’ procedure his office provides. Post-show, I called in the morning show host and producer. I asked if they stole from the company. These guys said, “No!” 

Then I explained that the doctor was just given 12 minutes of free advertising. The publicist got paid and the station got nothing. I also explained that that the host could have made money with endorsement spots. Now, that was never going to happen. I suggested that the host speak with sales about this amazing doctor. Of course, the doctor never met with the account executive. Lesson learned.

You Are Enriching Them, So Make Them Work for Their Dough

You booked a guest from a publicist. Make them work for the money. Have them provide all the information that you need. A picture of the guest for social media. The interview is on your time, not theirs. 

I had a publicist ask if I could pre-record their amazing guest at 4 in the afternoon, I said no. I only do guests live except in extraordinary circumstances. Occasionally, I’ll do a hit with one of the weekend syndicated hosts on my station. He does a local show at the same time that I am on the air.  So, that is fine. I would pre-record Donald Trump and Joe Biden, but almost no one else. 

It’s Your Show. Ask the Guest Your Questions. 

If a publicist provides a list of suggested talking points, shred them. Do not do the interview for the guest or publicist, do it for your audience. Ask the questions that are focused on your listener. 

The guest is getting free air time and the publicist is getting paid. If the guest and booker don’t like that? Who cares. I don’t do my show for them. I also never tell any guest about the questions that I could be asking. If there is a news story that is related to the guest, I am asking about that first. Being topical is your job.

The Emails Often Look Like the Endcap at Walmart

Here is what I mean: Publicist offers someone very cool. You contact them.  The guest that the publicist offered is unavailable or ‘already’ booked at the time you need. So, the publicist highlights other potential guests that are not that appealing. 

Just like the endcap at Walmart, the email looks appealing. Unfortunately, it is only to get you to open the email. 

I received an email offering a really top guest that would be perfect for my show. I called the publicist and she told me that her guest was open at my time. Awesome. I thought that I had a good score. 

I booked 3 days ahead and the publicist let me know that the guest was unavailable the afternoon before the interview. Since the guest was never confirmed, I didn’t promote it. 

When to Cut Ties With a Publicist 

If the guest slinger only provides people who are only wanting to sell stuff on your show? Move along. Obviously, all guests need to plug their stuff. We all know this. 

About a decade ago, New York Mets pitcher Matt Harvey was booked on The Dan Patrick Show. Part of the reason was he was going to plug Qualcomm. Well, Matt Harvey didn’t want to speak about anything but Qualcomm. It was a sales pitch and nothing else. 

Publicists should have their clients prepped so that they are booked to talk about their expertise and will get a chance to plug their book or service. 

How to Get Guests Off the Talking Points

In the ’90s, I produced The Barbara Carlson Show in Minneapolis. The great actor Karl Malden was booked to promote the Oscars. 

Let’s say that Karl was not in the mood to discuss anything but the Oscars. So, Barbara wasn’t going to let Karl get away with it. She buttered him up, telling Karl that he had a sexy nose.  Then Barbara asked Karl if he had snorted cocaine at those amazing Hollywood Parties. 

80-year-old Karl lost his cool. She got him off the talking points. It became an interesting interview. 

The publicist was really mad about this. It was really good radio. It’s always about good radio and not pleasing some guest that is a one-time hit. Please the audience. Make memorable radio.

We all use publicists.  Realize that you are their meal ticket.  I am always surprised that I don’t at least get a holiday card from the publicists that I use on a regular basis.  Don’t be naïve about these people.  Hey, we all must make a living.  They are a tool for you to use as you please. 

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Samantha Rivera Is What Every Live Reporter Should Strive For

Bill Zito

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Moxie. It’s a great word and it is not used enough these days. Maybe it’s not applied enough because not enough people have it, or not enough people show it. Samantha Rivera has moxie.

That is no patronizing remark, it is an unquestionable fact if you ask me, so do not even go there.

Samantha Rivera is a sports reporter for CBS News Miami, but she hit the jackpot in Las Vegas during a live shot at game two of the Stanley Cup Final.

What did she do you ask?

She did her job, with a flourish, strength, and without even breaking eye contact with the camera.

It’s the age-old story; a jersey-wearing nitwit sees the camera, the mic flag, and decides to bust in on the live shot.

Samantha Rivera’s live shot. And as we all have seen by now; she was not having it.

I am no play-by-play champion, so I recommend watching for yourself if you haven’t already. In this instance, watching an act of capability and composure takes extraordinarily little time.

Look, I still like sports and I still understand the motivation some fans have when they’re at a game or at a bar or even on the street outside the arena.

And as one of the inaugural season ticket holders for the Florida Panthers, a former South Floridian, and a guy who shares a first and a last name with the Panthers GM (I came along first, I checked), it’s not like I wasn’t keeping tabs on the game anyway.

But back to the fans, let us remember something: fan is short for fanatic or fanaticism.

Sports fans are much like those with strong political leanings, although in my observations sports fans usually have a little bit more on the ball and they possess a greater knowledge of the facts involved.

But we need to remember something else as well: reporter is short for somebody with a job, a job that has to get done, often in a challenging environment.

When the journalist meets the village idiot, for all our sakes the journalist has to win.

And Samantha Rivera won. And it was a victory we all should appreciate. News and sports coverage remained that one degree smarter as a result of a professional doing her job and doing it well.

We were spared a black eye, a dose of ridicule, and a round of catcalls because Samantha Rivera stepped up to the plate and went to bat for herself and for all of us really, and she did it at hockey game.

A great moment has gone viral, everybody is covering it and CBS Miami has an exceptional story to tell. They even got to interview their own reporter, a reporter who was the story.

This is one of those times when a reporter making the news is a good thing.

No idiot is calling a colleague a reprehensible name and getting fired here.

A professional’s personal life is not sending their career over a cliff in this scenario.

This time the reporter is seen pushing back against wrongful interference and emerging victoriously.

No big fight, no injuries, no penalty box.

Of course, there is at least one mutant out there still looking for high-fives for the half-second of screen time his shoulder and a third of his face got.

A live shot is not a “free swim” for the moronic, that lesson was reinforced in of all places, Las Vegas.

Live coverage is fun because it’s challenging but what I think should be called to attention here is how well Samantha Rivera handled things and did the job all while keeping a “take no shit” attitude.

I believe it’s a good representative look for a reporter.

That’s the way it’s done, the way it needs to be done and all the praise this pro among pros is getting is just.

Samantha Rivera now has the only shot she will ever need for her reporter reel.

So, in this case, it was a good thing that what happened in Vegas did not stay in Vegas.

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