My first job in public relations was with a political PR firm, where I worked on local, statewide, congressional and presidential campaigns.
After a few campaign seasons, I decided on another PR career path. But that doesn’t mean I’m still not a political junkie. I follow media political coverage very closely on a daily basis, campaign season or not.
There have always been divergent media views about candidates and political parties. There were newspapers that editorially supported the Republicans and others that were in the Democratic Party camp.
Then, around the 1950s or so, advertising — which was the lifeline of the print media — began spending ad dollars on television programs, a trickle at first, which soon turned into a massive flood of money from print to TV. And within a decade or so newspapers, where I had worked as a reporter and editor, as well as magazines, began to drown.
Disappearing with the print pubs were the original pundits, editorial columnists, some of whom were vicious in their commentary. But as insensitive as some columnists were and as slanted as the editorial policies of their papers could be, they didn’t destroy intelligent and incisive political coverage and discussions.
It took the emergence of cable TV political shows to dumb down political coverage and, perhaps, swing elections.
The 2016 election is a prime example of how simplistic cable TV journalism is, covering every minute of every Donald Trump rally and then booking his less-than-truthful spokespersons, like Kellyanne Conway and Katrina Pierson, to defend and extend his remarks to people who didn’t watch the rallies in real time.
Speaking of the 2016 TV coverage, CBS executive chairman and CEO Leslie Moonves said of the Trump campaign, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” The three major cable stations — CNN, MSNBC and Fox — obviously agreed.
Here are some specifics on how cable TV has killed good journalistic political reporting:
• The carpet-to-carpet coverage of Trump rallies.
• Covering his tweets as important news.
• Permitting him to call into TV programs at will.
• Minimizing the coverage of Bernie Sanders.
• The constant coverage of Clinton’s email use.
• The minimal coverage of Trump’s business practices.
• All the TV pundits predicting a landslide Clinton victory for over a year.
• Pretending TV pundits actually had inside information and knew what they were talking about.
• The glorification by pundits of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner as a moderating influence of Trump policies.
• Pundits saying that Trump was a “closet Democrat,” who would disappoint conservatives with his agenda.
During the political campaign, the cable TV beat reporters mostly acted like GOP parrots. They didn’t ask incisive questions, and they couldn’t challenge the GOP propaganda merchants because they didn’t know specifics of what they were reporting.
It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a person to think that cable TV would change its formula after its disastrous performance during the 2016 election.
We’re now five months into the Trump presidency and the same lame cable TV political coverage continues. Beat reporters still echo what’s told to them, without knowing if they’re reporting fact or fiction. Program anchors still let remarks by political operatives go unchallenged because they’re uncertain of the veracity of what guests say. The same alleged analysis by the same pundits, who universally predicted a Clinton landslide and that Trump would never get the nomination — and if he did was certain to be defeated — remains a staple of TV political shows.
Programs still feature guest spokespeople known to have a specific agenda, regardless of the questioning. And all too often, the interviewers move on to another apparently scripted question instead of asking follow-up questions.
A prime example of not having politically knowledgeable hosts was seen on the May 31 edition of “CNN Tonight” with Don Lemon. During a discussion about possible Russian election collusion, guest Michael Reagan said Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter asked the Russians to help them in their campaigns for the presidency. Instead of Lemon countering with, “Where’s your proof?” the CNN anchor said, that was in the 1970s, giving the impression that he agreed that what Reagan said was correct.
Just as lame as the non-existent original news reporting on cable TV is MSNBC’s promos. One in particular shows Kristen Welker continually asking a Congressman about his views on impeachment of the President. Ms. Welker asks the question several times and receives no answer. Any novice reporter should know how easy it is to report on how members of Congress feel about impeachment — you don’t have to be Edward R Murrow to do so. But that takes enterprise reporting, something that’s missing from the parasitic journalism practiced by cable TV networks and the “assumption analysis” of their pundits. Perhaps Journalism 101 is no longer taught in communications schools.
Among the worst of the cable programs is Fox’s “Media Buzz,” hosted by Howard Kurtz, which has largely evolved from an interesting analysis of the week’s political news coverage into a platform for conservative viewpoints. Among the best is Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources,” which provides a semblance of respectability tor CNN’s political reporting.
While coverage of the 2016 election might have been the nadir of cable TV’s political coverage, Megyn Kelly’s interview with Putin for her new NBC show might have surpassed it. The fact that Kelly provided a platform for a former KBG official, a totalitarian, anti-free expression individual — whose government interfered with our election — to spread his propaganda and lies is not surprising, because the bloodline of TV political reporting is viewership, regardless of the lack of truthfulness, news or the credibility of people given an open mic. (Then again, it’s not unusual. TV has always provided an anti-free press, anti-free expression politician with authoritarian traits excessive air time. His name is Trump.)
The hypocrisy of cable TV political reporting is evident almost every day, when Trump’s tweets become discussion points, despite pundits saying how awful they are, unlike major print pubs that mostly began ignoring them months ago.
What cable TV has done is turn over the coverage of political news to attractive and verbally-gifted performers, instead of having knowledgeable politically experienced anchors and beat reporters, who know the specifics of issues so they can challenge comments.
The misleading information emanating from the White House and its spokespersons before and since Trump took residence — which are treated as legitimate story lines by cable political reporters but are largely ignored by print journalists of major pubs, along with the outright lies from — clearly illustrates why people should not take cable news political reporting seriously. They should instead get their news from reputable major news organizations.
If the cable programs didn’t book political reporters from major news organizations to discuss breaking news stories, they’d be devoid of authentic and important news.
Instead of Breaking News, here are two suggested truthful banners for cable TV shows: “Who needs original reporting, when the New York Times and Washington Post provides our discussion points for the day,” or “Our reporters can now confirm the stories first reported by the New York Times or Washington Post hours ago.”
In a 1961 speech, Newton Minow, then Federal Communications Commission chairman, called television “a vast wasteland.” That characterization rings true today. Depending on cable TV political shows for detailed information and meaningful discussions is a fool’s errand.
Arthur Solomon was a senior VP at Burson-Marsteller. He now is a contributor to public relations and sports business publications, consults on PR projects and was on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.