In an interview with broadcast journalist Ted Koppel that instantly went viral on Sunday, Fox News host Sean Hannity offered this reply to Koppel’s claim that opinionated programs such as Hannity’s have deepened political polarization: “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,” Hannity said.
The causes of America’s deepening political divide are many and much disputed, but the differences between an opinion show and a news show might be difficult for people to discern. The reason: Programs such as Hannity’s and others on cable news are often a mix of many things — news, commentary, analysis and pure, unadulterated opinion.
For years, cable-news networks have trafficked in this hybrid form. They regularly present panels of people from differing perspectives and different disciplines — a reporter, a commentator, a host, a political surrogate or former politician — to chew over some development. The discussion can jump quickly from news to commentary to partisan bickering, without clear distinctions.
The dangers of such blending were on display this month as two cable analysts seemed to be reporting breaking news. Or was it?
Former judge Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News legal analyst, repeatedly stated on the network that “three intelligence sources” had told Fox News that President Barack Obama had persuaded British agents to wiretap Trump Tower during the campaign. The claim appeared to validate President Trump’s assertions that Obama had done exactly that. (Trump, in turn, referred to Napolitano to support Trump’s own assertion.) But this came as a surprise to Fox’s journalists, who never corroborated Napolitano’s statements. And after British officials denied the story, Fox anchors Shep Smith and Bret Baier stepped in to say the network had no information to support it.
On Friday, CNN national security analyst Juliette Kayyem offered what sounded like another newsworthy development.
“It is starting to look like, from my sources and then also from open reporting, that Michael Flynn is the one who may have a deal with the FBI and that is why we haven’t heard from him,” she said on Don Lemon’s prime-time program. She was referring to Trump’s former national security adviser, who resigned last month after failing to disclose contacts with Russian officials and making misleading statements about it to Vice President Pence.
Like Fox, CNN offered no guidance to its viewers about the veracity of Kayyem’s statement. However, amid an explosive reaction on social media, Kayyem on Saturday clarified her comment that Flynn perhaps was cooperating with the FBI. She wrote on Facebook that her sources were merely “increasingly wondering” whether Flynn had agreed to speak to the FBI. “To be clear, I did not say on this segment that I have any confirmation that he is actually cooperating or that I have talked to anyone who does,” she wrote.
A CNN spokeswoman, Barbara Levin, said on Monday that the Fox and CNN episodes aren’t equivalent, given that Kayyem, unlike Napolitano, had hedged her original claim. “Any attempt to equate what Juliette Kayyem said to what Judge Napolitano said on Fox News is laughable and absurd,” Levin said.
Hannity, a longtime supporter of President Trump, has always asserted that he’s a talk-show host, not a journalist, and thus he should be held to a different standard. But his program typically includes journalistic elements, such as news clips and interviews with newsmakers (such as Trump) as well as with Fox reporters about developing stories.
Moreover, “Hannity,” and similar programs, are rarely labeled as commentary.
The blurring extends to other elements of cable news, too. MSNBC has often paired an opinion host, such as Rachel Maddow, with a news anchor, such as Brian Williams, on its election coverage. Asked if the mixing of news and commentary figures might confuse viewers about MSNBC’s approach, network spokesman Errol Cockfield offered a one-word response: “No.”
Just as on a panel-discussion show, some would argue with that.
“It is confusing,” said Frank Sesno, a former CNN reporter and anchor who now runs George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs. “One of the dangers is thinking that people know the difference between the editorial page and the front page, between a commentator or pundit commenting on something alongside a reporter who’s supposed to be providing facts. In this environment, when you have news, talking points and opinions all colliding, it can be really disorienting to the audience.”
The cable networks try to keep the lines clear with identifying graphics, he said, but these labels are often “overshadowed and overwhelmed” by the speed of debate. “It’s hard for the casual viewer to keep track of the scoreboard,” said Sesno.
The confusion about who’s who may fuel public perceptions that news reporters are biased, said Dave Statter, a former TV journalist who is now a blogger and consultant on media issues. Viewers and readers “just don’t know who is a reporter and who is a partisan commentator,” he said.
The modern era of journalists as TV opinion slingers may have started with the pundit-centric “McLaughlin Group” beginning in 1982. A few years later, CNN’s “Capital Gang” tweaked the format, putting liberal and conservative opinion journalists into a discussion with a public official, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.
Since then, opinion journalism — which Rosenstiel notes is rooted in factual reporting — has given way to outright political activism online and on the air, he said. “The fact that someone is publishing something, saying it out loud, doesn’t make it journalism, even opinion journalism.”
Who can blame viewers for being confused, he adds. “It took many hands to create this situation, and a lot of loose thinking on behalf of people in news.”