Horror at tv “news” seems to be building this month, which has some implications for information literacy. Last week I mentioned reports of some people working in tv “journalism” coming forward (anonymously) to share a sense of self-loathing at what their enterprise has done to the 2016 US presidential election.
Now a leading print journalist has cut loose. The New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof opens fire with a column titled “My Shared Shame: The Media Helped Make Trump”. It’s a fascinating piece.
Kristof begins by addressing media generally, and seems to indict all of journalism, including his own form (newspapers). “Those of us in the news media… I polled a number of journalists and scholars, and there was a broad (though not universal) view that we in the media screwed up”. This gentle intro (and perhaps the general title) lead Daniel Drezner to point out the real target:
“Media tweeps: if @NickKristof had globally searched-and replaced “media” with “TV,” would this have been better? http://nyti.ms/1RsyKCm “
Not to worry, as Kristof pounces on tv “news” right away. Jeet Heer misreads that focus , taking the term “media” very broadly, in order to insist on how well certain print/digital outfits did (like his own, unsurprisingly), and thereby letting tv “news” off the hook. Yet it’s clear that Kristof’s main target today isn’t media as a whole – he doesn’t even take a ritual stab at social media – but tv:
Our first big failing was that television in particular handed Trump the microphone without adequately fact-checking him or rigorously examining his background, in a craven symbiosis that boosted audiences for both.
“television in particular”; “craven symbiosis”: no other journalistic medium or platform receives this kind of excellent wrath in the rest of the column.
Kristoff, having seized his prey, doesn’t let go. He cites tv person after tv person throughout the piece, from NBC to CNN, and gets them to make incredibly revealing confessions:
Ann Curry, the former “Today” anchor, told me. “He stepped on to the presidential campaign stage precisely at a moment when the media is struggling against deep insecurities about its financial future. The truth is, the media has needed Trump like a crack addict needs a hit.” (emphasis added)
And you thought my language was getting flowery.
Ralph Begleiter, a former CNN correspondent and communications professor at the University of Delaware… notes that Sarah Palin received more serious vetting as a running mate in 2008 than Trump has as a presidential candidate.
some complain that “CNN has handed its schedule over to Mr. Trump,” and CNN had lots of company.
Read that again. Sarah Palin, a vice presidential candidate, received more scrutiny from tv “news” outlets than Donald Trump, the leading presidential candidate for one of the two parties.
Kristof’s conclusion? “[O]n the whole we in the media empowered a demagogue and failed the country. We were lap dogs, not watchdogs.” Which nicely echoes my use of the term “lapdog” last week.
Some further thoughts:
- My friend Jesse Walker (whom everyone should read) points out quite accurately that the tv creation of Trump is not a new thing.
Reality tv is key here, not to mention Trump’s other tv enterprises (wrestling, advertising, etc.).
- I don’t want to overstate the case and argue for a kind of tv determinism. Obviously Trump taps into deep currents in American political life. Clearly the other candidates, notably Bush, failed miserably on their own. But tv “news” played a major and unnecessary role in boosting this terrible candidate. Consider it an unforced error.
- Perhaps – just maybe – we’re seeing a growing realization that tv “news” has descended down a dark, foul path. As a result we could see (I live in hope) some popular dismay, and turning precious eyeballs away from CNN, Fox, et al. Maybe, too, those networks will rethink their offerings.
- I suspect we give CNN, Fox, et al a free pass because we’re witnessing a famed golden age in other realms of tv, mostly narrative storytelling. The old attitude of dismissing the entire medium no longer works in the age of The Wire. So we need to evolve a more nuanced approach, criticizing and avoiding tv “news” while celebrating the best of television’s offerings in fiction.
What does this mean for education? As I’ve said before, we need to teach skepticism and avoidance of horrendous information outlets. Educators should wean learners off of tv “news” while it continues to be so vile. People have challenged me on this, but I am unpersuaded. The world is so rich in information, and life is too short, to waste time on the worst media and information outlets.
Previous posts on tv “news”: here, here, and here.
(thanks to Steven Kaye and Ed Webb for nudges and contexts)
Jesse’s not incorrect… it was just a matter of time. Here’s an exerpt from an NPR interview with Don Hewitt after her retired from 60 Minutes.
“Michele Norris: You directed the Nixon-Kennedy debate, and over time that was sort of a turning point; that listeners took one thing from that debate, viewers took something altogether different. Was that a turning point for you, also?”
“Don Hewitt: Yeah. I think that’s the worst night in American politics. That’s the night that the politicians looked at us and said, “Hey, those guys are the only way to run for office.” And we looked at them and said, “Those guys are a bottomless pit of advertising dollars.” It took me a lot of years to realize that this whole money game that politics has become in America all began that night. ”
I can’t find the source of the quote, but apparently he’d said more than once that that was the night that TV broke American politics.
“I think that’s the worst night in American politics.” What a damning and powerful statement!
Today’s script was written in 1976 for “Network”, CNN is the new UBS “indifferent to suffering, insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality.”
Kristof and his shamed colleagues can do something more than wring their hands in sorrow, they can start being journalists. There is a lot of time before November. But hey, he has to sell himself too; c.f. the footer:
“I invite you to sign up for my free, twice-weekly newsletter. When you do, you’ll receive an email about my columns as they’re published and other occasional commentary. Sign up here.
I also invite you to visit my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter (@NickKristof).”
Step it up. Or live with it.
Did I tell you about showing _Network_ to my kids? They didn’t recognize it as satire.
Now it’s not satire!
Growing up in LA I learned early on to eject the media from my mind. Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television” (1978) just confirmed my conclusion. I’m still debating whether to “Kill My Computer” or not.
That’s a book I keep returning to.
It includes several points that I didn’t mention in these posts, especially the way tv encourages passive viewing.
Ever see William Gibson’s line about couch potatoes? It’s a good metaphor, see, because you have to keep potatoes in the dark and cover them in shit.
So my $.02, having been a journalist: The column is right that the news media in general did a bad job of fact checking and taking the candidacy too lightly. However, his point three “We failed to take Trump seriously because of a third media failing: We were largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans and thus didn’t appreciate how much his message resonated. ‘The media has been out of touch with these Americans,’ Curry notes.” is by far the most important. There is a direct connection to this failing and the collapse of the funding model for news – wealthier Americans buy higher-end products, which still do advertise. If you look in Kristof’s own New York Times now, advertisements are for watches, luxury cars and pearls, not soap and socks. To deliver the Rolex and Tiffany audience, the content of news has shifted to their interests, which included covering the candidate who must not be named as a clown, not as a candidate. This ultimately impoverishes us all.
I am so glad you addressed that point about class differences, Amanda. The NYTimes has become an upscale version of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, offering plutocratic puffery.
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