This is an essay on the collapse of trust in television news, especially cable news. Certainly a percent or two of the 330 million Americans “trust” a handful of broadcasters with whom they agree. Rush Limbaugh probably has the highest raw number of devoted listeners in the land who really trust him, and he has no one even remotely his equal on television. (Radio gifts its proprietors with great dollops of time over decades with which to build trust.) But there are far fewer Americans across the vast political spectrum who “trust” anyone on television anymore — anchors, “analysts” or reporters, regardless of whether they purport to “report” or transparently “opine.”
And that’s a problem. We need a free and fair television press that can be trusted. We will perish as a free republic without it. And we don’t have one now.
The crisis of American television journalism is not that the left trusts journalists who are obviously from the left, or that the right trusts journalists who are from the right, though that is a problem. The crisis is that the vast majority of Americans believe, with good reason, that all talking heads on television are somewhere on the political spectrum and that all the journalists, producers and executives standing behind them bend the news to fit their politics.
“Trust” in media has plummeted, because most people think of television news when you say “media.” Journalists of all shapes, sizes, platforms and personalities are presumed to be advancing an agenda because almost everyone on television is doing so. There are so few “neutrals” left on TV. For every Lester Holt, I can name 10 who are un-Holt-like.
What made early television’s broadcasters so trustworthy? Most of them had been to war, of course. Andy Rooney flew in a B-17 mission and reported from the front. Edward R. Murrow reported from rooftops during the Blitz. The 8 million members of the U.S. military who returned from the war to civilian life knew that the newsmen had been in harm’s way. There was an earned respect. It endured for a time and was passed on to the next generation — Chancellor among that group — and honored by the third. It was Brokaw after all who coined the term “the Greatest Generation,” and who had earned the respect of those he obviously respected. There were others.
But then it broke. It simply broke. Shattered, actually. Today, there is little to almost no trust in journalism generally because of the descent of television into infotainment. That the byline became the brand in journalism is true, but it is particularly true for television. It is the host now, or the author, not the network or the paper or the station, that triggers our trust or distrust. Some bylines evoke confidence. Others evince ridicule. Many invoke both. Very few Chancellors remain.
I don’t want to cast stones from my glass house. But I wonder how our collective house might be rebuilt? Since none of us can go to war, how do we get back to trust? From the convulsions of the past two decades, beginning with Bill Clinton’s impeachment and followed by the Florida recount, 9/11 and war, and successive shocks of technological innovation, and now the events of 2020, can trust ever be reclaimed, especially for televised “news”?
Yes, but starting only from the recognition that a new birth has to occur, with new faces and production teams, new mission statements and, yes, new executives who are not themselves casualties of the combat of the past three decades. Rome is in ruins, but it can be rebuilt.
Go and find the young men and women who have fought wars across the globe for the past 20 years. They are in their 30s and 40s now, as Cronkite, Murrow and Rooney were when they began their on-air careers. Give them new teams of producers, writers and editors trained in the not-very-difficult techniques of television from places far away from Manhattan and the Beltway, Hollywood and Silicon Valley — the huge power centers of America — and charge them with reporting just the news: No opinions whatsoever mixed in, and instant discharge for intermingling with politics. A steel door reinforced with concrete and rebar should forbid the passage from politics to television screen. No more former congressional or White House staffers moving seamlessly to anchor chairs or analyst positions. Just the news, please, from people trained in the hard realities of the world.
The infotainment complexes don’t have to be dissolved. They make a lot of money for many people and provide comfort food for the extremes of the country. But the hunger for trustworthy news is deep and vast. Someone is going to figure that out, and a new brand is going to rise, a new cable news outlet with new faces and of no known politics.
This isn’t hard to do. It would work. The country needs it. It would be expensive to start, but if begun well and fairly — genuinely objective and ruthless in its extirpation of political bias whenever it appeared — it would flourish and would eventually turn a profit. No one from the current cable planets of left or right need apply. No one with a degree from journalism school should even bother. The new William Paley will do what the first one did: Find fearless men and women who have been at the front lines of real life and death struggles. Character required.
In the near-term, President Trump and former vice president Joe Biden can help begin the restoration of television news by handing all of their debates in the fall to C-SPAN, along with a list of acceptable moderators. I’ve written elsewhere that the model of an arbitration panel can be employed —Trump names one journalist of any sort and Biden another, and those two agree on a third — but that’s only necessary if they can’t agree on moderators of known fairness, stature and experience: Holt, John Dickerson of CBS, Dana Bash of CNN, and there are others on whom the two candidates might agree.
A closing aside: I moderated a panel last summer of three conservative personalities before an audience of many hundreds of under-40 “influencers” among the center-right. There were people from all over the country in the audience. Families are invited to this gathering. The room was full, and like a Catholic Mass, the crying and chattering of babies and toddlers filled the background noise with a pleasant cacophony of normalcy vs. think-tank-panel aridity.
I asked the panel whom they would trust to moderate the debates, and told them they could not pick a Fox News “personality” because the Democratic National Committee had banned Fox News from participating in its debates so reality would have to be a check on their preferences. Not one of the three could name a single member of the “news” business outside of Fox News they would trust. Not one. I expect a parallel gathering of the Left’s under-40 “influencers” would have no problem coming up with a dozen names. Thus the divide in the country’s politics. Television news, both network and cable, is viewed by activists as occupied territory in the partisan wars.
But C-SPAN is not, and as the producer of this fall’s debates, it could perhaps find the hosts, and maybe some panelists of the background detailed above. It would be a first step to ending the absurd circus of cable infotainment that strikes political life with wrecking balls, 24/7. The whole shooting match needs to be supplemented — and eventually supplanted — by going back to the future.
And soon — before we taunt ourselves to death.
Go find the next John Chancellors. Start now. He and she are out there. Give them a television network worthy of the modifier “news.”