Ted Koppel is the author of “Lights Out” and senior contributor to “CBS Sunday Morning.”
Once upon a time, long, long ago, during his second campaign for the presidency of the United States, Richard M. Nixon made sporadic appearances before live audiences, during which he would take questions from selected citizen panels. Several of us covering that 1968 campaign were convinced that the panels had been stacked in Nixon’s favor. Much as we poked and prodded into their makeup, however, we never found anyone particularly partisan. The panelists were just ordinary people with mixed political pedigrees. What they were not, which gave the former vice president a significant advantage, was experienced in the cross-examination of a seasoned politician.
The organizer of this arrangement, a fellow by the name of Roger Ailes (yes, that Roger Ailes), provided additional insurance of these events’ success by a deceptively simple sleight of hand: He stacked not the panels, but the audiences, with Nixon supporters. Whatever the question, whatever the answer, each audience responded with unbridled enthusiasm. The impression was of a candidate knocking questions out of the park.
Some years later, but still long before the advent of the Internet and social media, the Nixon administration invited radio talk show hosts from around the country to set up their remote broadcasts directly outside the White House. They were given access to high-ranking officials. Some were even granted interviews with the president himself. All were told that they didn’t need network correspondents and anchors as intermediaries. They were assured of their own high qualifications to report on the White House. There is no record that any of the local radio hosts disagreed. They were flattered and probably a little more compliant in the interviews granted them than their more jaundiced, Washington-based counterparts might have been.
Memories of these simpler times have come rushing back since the election of Donald Trump. First was his post-election news conference, with the unfamiliar sound of cheering and applause in the background. While members of his staff are always on hand during a president’s news conference, there is no occasion I can recall when they gave vent to their vocal support of the home team. Stacking the audience still works.
Perhaps Ailes has gone into retirement, but I sense his invisible hand in the plan, floated but as yet not implemented, to move the White House press room across the street to the Old Executive Office Building in the interest, we are told, of greater space. My instinct tells me that the motivation had less to do with geography than with flooding the zone. To the degree that a more commodious media space would permit multiplying White House reporters to several times their current number, and with the Trump administration controlling accreditation, the relevance and clout of the mainstream media would be even further diminished.
But why resort to 20th-century tactics and practice when 21st-century technology lies so close at hand? At his second White House briefing — recall that he took no questions during his first — press secretary Sean Spicer dispensed with the tradition of calling first on the senior wire service reporter and broadcast network correspondents, choosing instead to take his maiden questions from the New York Post, the Christian Broadcasting Network and Fox News.
More recently, Spicer has bestowed the honor of first question on LifeZette, a website founded by conservative commentator Laura Ingraham. The press secretary has also begun taking questions via Skype; and, through the magic of the Internet, the restraints of a cramped White House press room disappear altogether. How Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson would have envied the tools available to Team Trump.
It sounds dangerously undemocratic to argue against broadening the scope of the White House press corps. But we are already knee-deep in an environment that permits, indeed encourages, the viral distribution of pure nonsense. It does not help that so many in the media establishment have allowed themselves to be goaded into an uninterrupted torrent of quivering outrage. Roughly half the country already questions the motives, intentions and goodwill of the other half. We are increasingly inclined to consume only the product of those news outlets that resonate with our own biases. Whatever is put forward by one side is instinctively rejected by the other.
The only appropriate response is an even greater emphasis on professional standards; factual reporting, multiple sourcing and careful editing. Our system of government depends on nothing so much as the widespread availability of credible, reliable reporting of important events. Rarely in the nation’s history has there been a greater need for objective journalism that voters and legislators alike can use to form judgments and make decisions.
The process is routinely undermined, these days, by nothing more than the casual attachment of a “fake news” label, or Kellyanne Conway’s more recent suggestion that we live in an era of “alternative facts.” There may be temporary political advantage to be gained by tearing down public confidence in critical, nonpartisan journalism, but it is only temporary. At some point or another, everyone needs professional finders of facts.
As John Adams noted: “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” That has been a guiding principle for most of us who have spent our lives in journalism.
There are no alternative facts.