Cable news could learn something from Psaki and Cronkite

Cable news could learn something from Psaki and Cronkite
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With Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump takes shot at new GOP candidate in Ohio over Cleveland nickname GOP political operatives indicted over illegal campaign contribution from Russian national in 2016 On The Money — Dems dare GOP to vote for shutdown, default MORE banned from Twitter and exiled to Mar-a-Lago, television news channels find themselves searching for a new tone and a fresh direction.

Here’s a modest proposal: America’s overheated, hyper-dramatic cable personalities might want to take a page from Jen Psaki — because the White House press secretary is cool.

And by that, I mean: “medium cool.” 

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Media guru Marshall McLuhan was the first to call television a “cool” medium. His original definition was very academic, but it’s evolved to mean that TV communicates best through “cool” emotions. Television — especially live television — is a universe of facial close-ups, where “hot” emotions like anger, bitterness and frustration don’t play well over the long haul.

On TV, an angry person is literally “in your face.” This captures your attention at first — but after a while you tune out what the person is saying, focused only on the furious image coming at you. That’s even more true in today’s smartphone environment, when we literally hold these visuals in our hands and keep them in our pockets.

Cooler emotions don’t grab the spotlight as quickly but engage our attention longer. That’s where Psaki comes in.

During the Trump years, his press secretaries — and the media they dealt with — became increasingly combative. Eventually, it turned into little more than a performance: The person at the podium got to insult the media; reporters got to growl at someone in power. The result was a series of short soundbites that played to various constituencies, especially when wrapped inside hyperbolic opinion programs.

Lost in this heated atmosphere was a sense of anything getting done, of government in command and the media able to gather useful information.

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Psaki is different. Her voice is modulated, her tone typically even-keeled. She comes across like that respected colleague who always does a smart job with power-point presentations. To be clear, you despise PowerPoint presentations — but when she does them, you expect to learn something.

In this start-up stage of the Biden White House, her coolness in front of the camera communicates competence, a signal that everything’s running smoothly behind the scenes. This may or may not be true, but Psaki’s assured style is an effective way to convey credibility.

The briefing room atmosphere will no doubt shift once the new administration passes its honeymoon phase, but the relief that is greeting Psaki indicates there is a hunger to dial down the media temperature.

In the early days of TV news, anchors saw their role as one of calm reassurance. The medium-cool approach of CBS’s Walter Cronkite or NBC’s John Chancellor provided a model of stability in a country haunted by nuclear stockpiles, communism, the Cold War and Vietnam.

In fact, when Cronkite — often called “the most trusted man in America” — began to question the direction of the Vietnam War in 1968, President Johnson reportedly told aides: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost middle America.”

We live in pretty volatile times ourselves, but constancy and cohesion are not typically on display in cable news. Reporters and hosts working in today’s 24/7 environment have a very different job than the Cronkites of decades past. They need to consistently communicate hot emotions like urgency and turmoil in order to keep viewers tuned in, hour after hour. They don’t want you to drop by for a few headlines and then just leave.

But that approach — akin to a desperate infomercial pitch that insists “These deals are going fast, call now!” — has undermined credibility. Viewers aren’t stupid: They understand the TV salesman has plenty of cubic zirconia rings in stock. They also know news isn’t “breaking” every second of the day and a story doesn’t keep “developing” endlessly, no matter what the chyrons on their screens scream. Sustained tension and stress certainly keep diehard fans hooked, but most Americans say news integrity goes down as the volume goes up.

A pair of polls offers proof: A survey released late last month shows media trust is at an all-time low, while another made public just last week reveals three-quarters of those canvassed are confident in Biden’s ability to manage the White House.

This early in the game, that’s mostly a reaction to style — a contest between the medium cool of Psaki as the face of the administration and the overheated faces dominating TV.

Political journalist Norman Cousins once said: “He who keeps his cool best wins.” In our post-Trump world, that sounds like a good slogan for the White House communications team — and a smart tip for cable 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.