Is a post-Trump media world beginning to take shape?
It looks like exhausted news consumers — battered by polarized cable channels that elevate opinion over facts — are finally being heard.
Piece by piece, a post-Trump media world is starting to take shape. It looks something like a universe where resentment and resistance are pushed to the side and straight news steps back into the spotlight.
In just the past few weeks, several high-profile developments point to an emerging correction in journalism:
Spectrum, a cable distributor which operates more than 30 local newsrooms around the country, has announced it will soon launch a national newscast, headed up by a former executive producer of “NBC Nightly News.” The move comes, Spectrum says, after a survey of 10,000 viewers showed a high level of trust in the company’s local newscasts.
At the same time, cable outlet NewsNation said it would continue to expand the number of newscasts on the service — reaching 21 hours a day by June. NewsNation, owned by The Hill’s parent company Nexstar Media Group, was launched in 2020 with a mission to deliver straight news.
And it is now apparent that CNN’s new bosses will move quickly to bring the network back to the journalistic center. David Zaslav, who takes over as CEO of CNN’s parent company later this spring, has said that “overall we’d probably be better off if we just had news networks in America” rather than partisan opinion. To head CNN, Zaslav has tapped CBS producer Chris Licht, someone he calls “a true news person.”
Zaslav also labelled competitor Fox News “much more of an advocacy network than a news network.”
All of this is a tacit acknowledgement that journalism — and cable news especially — lost its way during the Trump years, when blatant calls to tribal instincts became the easiest pathway to ratings success.
But, just like the politics that placed Donald Trump in the White House, that media development didn’t appear out of thin air. It began slowly during George W. Bush’s administration, when figures like MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann and FOX’s Bill O’Reilly came to dominate their networks and appeal to distinct political factions. The Tea Party revolt during the Obama years raised the stakes — elevating additional star commentators like Glenn Beck and Rachel Maddow.
Still, the opinion gloves truly came off during the Trump administration. Even CNN felt compelled to join the fray or suffer the ratings consequences. Bare-knuckled competition for tribal loyalty led to deep extremes, places in mass media where authoritarians are praised and a discredited dossier stays in the headlines far longer than it should.
The shift now underway includes a reassessment from top business leaders. Former Disney chief Bob Iger last week asserted there’s a “problem of profiting from, I call it inaccuracy, from opinion and from presenting things in an inaccurate fashion.” Too many viewers, he said think of news in the wrong way, not how “we knew it when we were growing up and we were taught news should be.” Cable chieftain John Malone has talked about returning the industry to “actual journalism.”
That’s important. It could signal that certain titans of television may be willing to sit through some softening of revenue as key parts of the news environment readjust.
The most crucial unknown in this incipient shift is, as always in media, the audience. Too often, viewers tell researchers they want news sources they can trust, they want balance — but don’t follow through with their content choices. For these viewers, “trust” means “loud voices I agree with,” and “balance” means “just the facts that bolster my views.”
But some evidence does point to the existence of an exhausted majority. They will need to get off the sidelines — and seek out news posts and programming that deliver what they say they want. Media leaders and investors are starting to make big bets on those viewers and readers. It’s up to them to respond.
Just-the-facts journalism is important to a functioning democracy. People tired of where we’ve been are now being given an opportunity to vote with their time and attention — and maybe help change where we’re going.
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.
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