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Sunday Political Brunch: Is the Press Too Depressing?—June 18, 2017

Sunday, June 18, 2017

 

There was another flurry of news coverage this week over the Russian-U.S. election connection (Hey! That’s not a bad turn of phrase!) This time it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions before Congress. It got me thinking about news coverage of various political scandals and investigations over the years and how it has changed. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Watergate Waterloo” – Watergate marked a new era in American journalism. The scandal was broken by The Washington Post, which was head and shoulders above other media coverage. A lot of the daily network television coverage was guided by what the Post did. Much of the other media mimicked the coverage. At key moments of the Watergate Congressional hearings, the networks would interrupt the daily game shows and soap operas, as they did these past two weeks. It was 1973, and there was no such thing as CNN or any 24-hour cable news outlet.

“Iran Contra Conundrum” – In 1986, the Iran-Contra investigation broke. Much like Watergate, so many questions focused on “Who knew what, and when?” But there were a couple of new players. Cable News Network carried a lot of the hearings live, as did another new face – CSPAN. The TV networks seemed to spend less time on this, and certainly less time breaking into paid programming and losing commercial revenue. CNN was finding its niche.

“Lewinsky Lamentations” – Fast forward 12 years to President Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Not only was CNN thriving, but Fox News Channel and MSNBC both launched in 1996 and were still trying to “find their sea legs.” The Clinton impeachment was a bonanza for all. CNN had clearly found during O.J. Simpson’s trial, that daytime legal coverage could be far better than any soap opera script. The salaciousness of the Clinton allegations, and the media’s willingness to chat about previously taboo television topics was groundbreaking.

“The Bias Battle” – On the heels of the Vietnam War coverage, many Americans felt there was a strong media bias against the military, conservatism, and Republicans (the last item odd, since most of that war had been overseen by Democratic Presidents and Democrats in Congress). Be that as it may, the accusations of media bias against Republicans was only exacerbated by Watergate. People argued that President Nixon had received the worst press coverage in U.S. history. I would disagree. Nixon was hit hard by the daily newspapers and the evening network news. But when CBS, ABC and NBC were done at 7 p.m., it was over. By contrast, Bill Clinton’s impeachment was covered 24/7 by CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CSPAN, and endless talk radio, day and night. In terms of raw coverage hours, Watergate was a mere shadow by comparison.

“Tweeting Trump’s Troubles” – In 1998-99, I covered the entirety of the Clinton-Lewinsky mess in Washington, D.C. I did not think it was possible for any human being to get worse news coverage. It was relentless. At the time, email and the Internet were in their relative infancy. There was no such thing as social media as we know it today. Yes, there were Internet discussion boards and chat rooms, but that’s just a light rain shower compared to this social media hurricane of Facebook and Twitter, that exploded by 2008.

“Trump ‘Trumps’ Clinton” – By the time this is all over, President Trump will surpass Bill Clinton (and way surpass Richard Nixon) in terms of negative press coverage. Just the mere mention of Trump and Russia by some obscure social media poster (whether the content is true or not) will prompt hundreds of thousands of likes, comments, objections, memes, and the list goes on. Imagine if “going viral” had been a phenomenon during Watergate and the Clinton-Monica mess.

“For Better; or for Worse?” – I raise these issues because as journalism has evolved and expanded with new technologies, I worry about the declining quality of the industry and its product. We can now reach more people and faster, and solicit their input in real time. I consider these potential advantages, but also worrisome liabilities. Average people and reputable reporters are suddenly on something of an even playing fiel
d. The temptation is to publish first and verify second - to opine first and fact check later. Trust me. The pressure to “tweet” a lot in the news business these days is a real concern. When CNN launched, the phase “breaking news” came into the lexicon. The pressure was to “be first” with the news, and often accuracy was the first casualty. The fact that the President is a prolific tweeter only exacerbates the problem although I get that he wants the ability to fight back.

“Why All of This Matters” – This is my 40th year in radio and television. I love what I do, and want many more years on the air. But I am concerned about the eroding quality of what we do. Mark Twain famously said, “A lie gets halfway around the word, before the truth gets its shoes on!” I worry that speed leads to more mistakes, and a lack of balance and objectivity. We feel more inclined to ‘tweet” because that’s what the new “cool kids” of journalism are doing. Make no mistake; I love social media as a tool to supplement and promote good journalism. But it’s damn hard to give real, detailed, comprehensive coverage when you are handcuffed by a system that gives you just 140 characters.

What are your thoughts on the quality of news coverage given the pressures of social media? Just click the comment button at http://www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

 

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