Within minutes of the announcement that President Trump had agreed to meet North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the cable news networks had their panels of talking heads assembled and ready, like SWAT teams preparing to storm a barricaded house.
On CNN, Erin Burnett queried the network’s White House and foreign affairs correspondents as well as a series of non-journalists: a former Army general, a Korea specialist, and a counterterrorism analyst. The latter, Philip Mudd, bluntly voiced his doubts. “It doesn’t sound to me like de-nuke,” he said. “It sounds to me like freeze. And number two, what happens if [Trump] fails?”
MSNBC’s “Hardball” also mixed reporters and non-reporters, including a former Obama Defense Department official and a think-tank guy who specializes in nuclear weapons. Few facts were available, but host Chris Matthews demanded to know where the summit would be held. “I wish I could give you more information on that, Chris,” said reporter Hallie Jackson.
Fox News went straight to a Texas congressman, a former military officer running for Congress and an editorial writer from the conservative Washington Examiner. The congressman, Republican Will Hurd, offered that “this is a positive development, but we have to continue to move our forces to be prepared for a ground war.”
Once again, it was time for the panelization of breaking news.
From early in its history, cable news found the panel format — featuring people from different perspectives and disciplines — to be a lively (and cost-efficient) way to deliver opinions on current events. The discussions can be enervating, enlightening or infuriating, depending on who is on which side of the food fight.
But, as the Korean news demonstrated, it’s often hard to tell the reporters from the opinion slingers, especially when the panels bleed into the delivery of the news itself.
News reporters bristle when critics tar them as liberal or conservative. They’re quick to insist that they have nothing to do with the opinion side of their organizations. (“We serve different masters,” Fox News anchorman Shepard Smith told Time magazine this month. “We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules.”)
And yet panels with multiple talking heads arguably make the situation more fraught for them by lumping them with former politicians, think-tank scholars and opinionated party hacks — a blending of news reporting and commentary that’s bound to leave some viewers confused.
Philip Mudd and Will Hurd aren’t reporters. Yet from their perches on CNN or Fox or MSNBC, in the mix of a developing news story, they both certainly look like part of “the news media.”
Back in the rapidly receding past, the lines were much clearer: Just as newspapers physically separate the opinion columns from the news sections, any TV newscast that offered commentary (and many didn’t) would typically schedule it for the end of the broadcast. The goal was to give the public one clean shot at the facts, as a wise editor once put it, by keeping the opinions separate from the news columns.
But the business model of 24-hour cable news may have made the coexistence and commingling of reporting and opinion a near certainty. Covering the news requires sending reporters, producers, editors and video journalists to wherever the news is happening. It’s expensive and inconvenient. Talk, on the other hand, is literally cheap. Round up a few semi-knowledgeable and telegenic types, array them around the desk, and off you go.
Such blabfests have the additional benefit of drawing predictable audiences, which in turn establishes predictable advertising rates, which in turn produces reliable cash flows. All-out coverage of a big news story — with reporters in key locales — can still spike the ratings. But big news stories don’t keep regular hours. Panels do.
The hybrid news-commentary format is on regular display in cable’s evening hours. In a “breaking news”discussion about the latest twist in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation last week, for example, CNN’s Anderson Cooper opened the floor to multiple talking heads: New York Times reporter Maggie Haberman, investigative reporter and political analyst Carl Bernstein, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin and a former federal prosecutor, Anne Milgram. Opinions flew. So did the occasional news nugget.
On Fox News the same night, host Sean Hannity — whom no one would mistake for a down-the-middle guy — stirred opinion, political spin and journalism about Mueller with a panel that included former Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz, reporter Sara Carter, Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett and journalist John Solomon. MSNBC’s Brian Williams tackled the same topic that night with BBC anchor Katty Kay, former FBI official Frank Figliuzzi and Rick Stengel, a journalist and former State Department official with the administration of President Barack Obama.
The panel model has trained viewers to expect news to be served with a side of opinion, and often the other way around. In a briefly viral interview with Hannity last year, broadcast-news legend Ted Koppel despaired of cable’s increasing partisanship and opinion peddling. Hannity retorted that “we have to give some credit to the American people that they are somewhat intelligent and that they know the difference between an opinion show and a news show.”
But what about when the news show is also an opinion show?
“If they can provide context, they can help a viewer understand the story,” he said. It’s the moderator’s job, he said, to identify who’s trafficking in facts, and who’s there to opine. At their worst, he acknowledges, they can become “cheap-shot yelling matches that are just showbiz.”
Jeffrey Lord, a veteran of many news-commentary hybrid panels, defended the format. Opinions have always infected news stories, he argues, so the notion that they should remain separate on cable news is dubious at best.
“Yes, news and opinion should stay in their respective places,” said Lord, who spoke in behalf of candidate Donald Trump as a CNN contributor during the 2016 campaign. “I used to believe this. Now? I am not convinced that they ever did and that news consumers like my younger self were not hornswoggled in some fashion to think that was true.” He calls the panel format “the 21st century way of hashing out issues.”
Representatives of CNN, Fox and MSNBC declined to comment.
Cable is hardly the only medium to blur the lines between news and commentary these days. Newspapers lace their front pages and home pages with the occasional editorial or critic’s review; a burgeoning subgenre of reporting that promises “analysis” of the news, rather than the news itself, can often seem like a blend of the two forms.
Even when news organizations take pains to draw distinctions, in the digital age, it can often be hard to discern whether the headline that drifted through your Twitter or Facebook feed was an actual news report or just someone’s “take” on the matter.
As is, old-school news reporting is in steep decline. Roughly half as many journalists work in newspapers compared with a decade ago. As the volume of available facts declines, the void has been filled with an explosion of commentary.
Meanwhile, news organizations fret over the surveys showing that people in ever increasing numbers distrust “the news media.” But cable’s free-for-all panels, and the many other ways opinions cohabit with reporting, suggest another question: Does anyone even know what “the news media” is any more?