More Americans than ever distrust the news; here’s why and what to do about it
60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl often quotes a conversation she had with Donald Trump in 2016. She wanted to know why he hammered the news media so much. His answer: So that, eventually, “no one will believe you.”
Four years later, mission accomplished. Trust in the news business is at an all-time low. Reporters, editors and broadcast producers now face a powerful post-Trump challenge: Do something about it.
President Trump is only part of the trust problem, and simply watching him exit 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. is no real solution. There has been a decades-long shift in the DNA of the news world that must be acknowledged.
For a long time, TV and radio stations had to live by a federal regulation called the “Fairness Doctrine.” It mandated that — in the interest of an informed electorate — all sides of an issue had to be presented. But in 1987, the Reagan administration stopped enforcing the doctrine, believing a free market could better regulate itself.
That hasn’t worked out so well, at least not if the goal was a fully-informed public. Instead, it has helped to nurture a polarized public, raised on a sugar high of hyperbole rather than a steady diet of meat-and-potatoes fact-based journalism.
Soon after the Fairness Doctrine faded away, conservative talk radio began its rapid rise, led by Rush Limbaugh. In 1996, another shift: Competition came to the cable news universe when Fox News and MSNBC debuted. At first, programs on these channels were not purely tribal. The fairness DNA held out for a while: Fox featured mainstream anchors like Mike Schneider and Catherine Crier. Sure, there was Sean Hannity, but he was paired with left-of-center Alan Colmes. Over at MSNBC, Tom Brokaw, Lester Holt and Brian Williams all hosted straight-news programs and interview segments.
But, bit by bit, that DNA was altered. Fox star Bill O’Reilly, for example, became more outspoken — his centrist-sounding “O’Reilly Report” re-born as the “The O’Reilly Factor.” After years of trying on various formulas, MSNBC found its left-leaning stride. Keith Olbermann started out anchoring a daily headline program called “The Big News,” but by 2006, his show “Countdown” included politically-skewed “special comments.”
CNN was soon the last safe harbor for the straight-news DNA molecule. In 2004, the network was even the subject of a controversy that now seems quaint. Back then, “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart campaigned against the channel’s debate show, “Crossfire.” Its format presented both sides of an issue — Paul Begala on the left, Tucker Carlson on the right. But to Stewart, the program’s argumentative style trivialized important issues; he even appeared on “Crossfire” to insist the show was “hurting America.” A year later, CNN cancelled it.
That move could’ve stopped the polarizing opinion trend — Stewart certainly hoped it would. But a funny thing happened on the way back from the brink: CNN saw ratings — and profits — decline while numbers at Fox and MSNBC grew. Clearly, straight news wasn’t good for the bottom line.
Media executives, under pressure to grow viewership, were faced with a conundrum. Yes, respondents told pollsters that trust in news media was declining sharply — but those same people voted very differently with their TV sets. Uninterested with just-the-facts reporting, they increasingly gravitated toward adrenaline-rush opinion shows.
And so, by 2016 and Lesley Stahl’s conversation with Donald Trump, the DNA of television news had already transformed. Trump just capitalized on that.
All of which has sparked recent efforts to revive the Fairness Doctrine, all unsuccessful. Media has vastly changed since 1987; trying to monitor “fairness” on TV, cable, radio, streaming services, internet blogs, websites and social media outlets is a daunting task — and not something government regulators should even try.
But major media outlets don’t need federal regulations to rebuild fairness. Yes, the Pandora’s box of opinion is open and can’t be closed. But it can be better labelled, so that news consumers — like supermarket shoppers — better understand what they’re consuming.
Opinion hours — mostly primetime shows on cable — should be topped with five- to ten-minute straight newscasts: just the facts and major headlines, coming from a different anchor on a different set. The conclusion of that segment would signal to viewers that the “real news” portion is over and they are now stepping through the looking glass into something else.
Once inside that alternate universe, producers would need to abide by the old rubric, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” Blurring that line is a main contributor to the erosion of trust and perception of bias. Editors and producers should fact-check scripts and outlines from commentators and opinion hosts before they go on air.
News organizations should also post a user’s guide to various terms. Both TV and print toss around editorial labels like “Analysis,” “Reporter’s Notebook,” “Perspective” and “Political Memo.” What do those mean, exactly? These labels are found on front pages and in news segments — but the accompanying content sometimes reads more like opinion, further muddying the waters.
The shift away from Trump means the time is right to enact moves like these to restore confidence in journalism’s basic DNA.
Once trust is gone completely, there’s nothing left but the shouting, screaming and name-calling. And, sure, given the ratings, that clearly would be top-notch entertainment for many viewers.
But it’s no one’s definition of news.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and journalist and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was a news executive for NBC, a writer-producer for “Dateline NBC,” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on Twitter @ironworker1.