News is now mostly thematic. If Trump is for it, I am against it. Or, if Trump is for it, I am for it or at least will find the good.
Two of the nation’s most venerable newspaper are thematic. What journalism schools shaped their talent? And this disease of dogmatism has metastasized to affect most organs of news.
On March 6, 1981, Walter Cronkite, the venerable anchor of the CBS Evening News, signed off for the last time with “And that’s the way it is.” He had ended each newscast with that parting phrase for nineteen years. Much of the nation nodded in approval. Now approval is thematic. If the political or ideological theme is right, then the facts as reported and the news interpretation is right.
Frightfully, this credulous response by many news consumers to thematic offerings has spread to public policies in response to the threats posed by the coronavirus. Trump has so ineptly handled his role that news interpretation has become binary. Anything that Trump says is per force wrong even though he is at the top of the hierarchy that includes the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) among other health agencies. And if the news story is about the action of a red state Governor, it must be wrong. There was even a period of time when Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York was being promoted to be Joe Biden’s running mate because he made such an appealing TV narrator. Themes rely on good narratives and narrators.
Good journalism needs skeptics — gullibility not wanted. And when the prevailing opinion is running strong and group think is the addiction, good journalism is especially important. Skepticism needs oxygen.
President Trump is a divider. I believe democracy needs leadership that seeks to unite.
But binary journalism similarly divides. People not knowing which news outlet is rigorously seeking the truth fall back on their comfort zone. And, this is far from a comfortable moment in our nation’s history. We need diverse voices in finding our way through complexity.
Concurrently, we have a tidal surge called social media. While it allows for disparate voices, a good thing, it mostly yields to anger when politics is the subject. While anger can cut through the ambient noise it also depletes. We should turn down the screeching guitars on Twitter.
There is an underlying irony. I am not suggesting that the pre-Trump Press was a model of objectivity, but I will certainly argue that he has weakened what is the pivotal “fourth estate.” Anger always exacts a price and it is frequently objectivity.
For some time now, and certainly since the spread of the virus, unknown has been at the center of the news. What a gift to true journalists. They, using the power their audience gives them, can question, search, analyze and deduce all the while trying to verify or re-verify the facts and their interpretation. And let me add, Trump is a part of many of the stories, but infrequently is he the story. Of course, there is nothing that delights him more than to be the story.
Cronkite signed off 39 years ago. In case there are journalists who aspire to the standard, “And that’s the way it is,” find news organizations with similar aspirations. But we should all keep in mind that real news organizations will only exist if there is a demand for them.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.