Did CNN Have Duty To Be Responsible To American Democracy?

The fallout over the decision by CNN to place Donald Trump in a town hall session has continued to reverberate in media circles and among politicos.  It seems fair to ask why a major news network felt it was first newsworthy to air such a broadcast, and secondly wise to place on the national airwaves a person who created and led the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol and continues to stoke and to spew dangerous lies about the 2020 election.  Growing up in the era of news anchors such as Walter Cronkite and reporters such as David Brinkley I was aware when young the role of journalists in pursuing and broadcasting a story of national importance. But I also came to understand that standards meeting the needs of a democracy must also be observed and abided by.  

I recall in an interview decades ago Cronkite was asked if he and his brethren in the television broadcast world along with the editors of the major newspapers in the nation set the list of events and topics that then became the top stories of the day.  He said that the events of the day either in our nation or worldwide earned their own merit for attention by reporters and then the public. In other words, news is news.  It happens and it is reported.  The fact that CBS or The New York Times reports on a plane crash or a senator taking a bride does not make the story weightier or more important to people needing to know the safety concerns of airlines or the character of elected officials.

But what happens when a news operation creates an event and presents it as important knowing that in the mix of the broadcast, everything from ratings and ad buys to a tidal wave of competing frothy political sentiments and emotions will result from the self-generated mix?  Additionally, the center of attention to the created event is known to lie and use media outlets without regard for reason or common sense.  Even to the extreme of using media to further an insurrection and seditious intent.  At that point, would any news operation wish to be a conveyance—a national loudspeaker, if you will—to such a person who has proven to act in violation of the national trust?

For the record, I did not watch the CNN spectacle, knowing that news broadcasts and the morning papers would allow me the background on what transpired.  It was not shocking to learn that Trump made several outright lies and pressed down on them, allowing the viewing public another opportunity to be misled via the public airwaves.  I am reminded that a denial never has the newsworthiness of an accusation.  Trump is a master at the bald-faced lie, and news operations, by their very mission, should not allow themselves to be manipulated by such a demagogue. Worse, creating the event themselves!

The counterargument that has been expressed by those wishing to rationalize the CNN decision is that the viewing public is capable of watching such a manufactured broadcast and making up their own mind about what unfolded.  That is poppycock, as there is an entire ‘news’ network catering to conservatives which amply proves daily—hourly, in fact—that when people are provided red meat and heavy rhetoric in lieu of facts there is nothing to be gained but a foundation of biased views. 

Did CNN have a duty to be responsible to American democracy? Or should they be viewed as just another entity with a bottom line that needs to be fed and a bevy of personalities who need to be stroked?   As a staunch supporter of reporters and journalists, I ask these questions in a serious way. I contend there must be a national hard-nosed dialogue on this matter. Reporters and news operations need to confront in their board meetings and editorial gatherings what responsibility they must shoulder so a demagogue cannot undermine our democracy due to some in the press willfully cooperating to the damage.

I am most confident about what side of the divide Walter Cronkite would ask us to find ourselves on with this matter. He would argue reporting and democracy are linked tightly together.  The Fourth Estate is required so a strong democracy can continue.  Autocrats and demagogues who threaten democracy will also lead to a weakened place for reporters to do their jobs.  

The CNN town hall is worthy of a very robust national discourse. Both in the press and among the people.

Those Not Seated At Weekend’s White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner: Austin Tice, Evan Gershkovich

It was the annual event that this household looks forward to each spring. No, not the Mifflin Street Party, which was tempered by cool temperatures and at times drizzly weather on the Madison isthmus, but rather the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner in Washington. For decades, this event is one that has captured the attention of the nation as there are always memorable moments as the First Amendment is honored and the Fourth Estate recognizes superior journalism with a number of prestigious awards. While much political rancor shrouds this nation it was correctly noticed Saturday night that no free press in China or Russia holds a similar dinner with pointed humor while sitting alongside the national leadership.

The tone of the night regarding the importance of reporters and journalists and the role they serve in our nation was perhaps best summed up when President Biden stated how he drew a sharp contrast with his predecessor, who had called the news media “the enemy of the people”. The president told the 2,000 people gathered that “The free press is a pillar, maybe the pillar of a free society — not the enemy.” While watching and listening I thought of one of the best newspaper editorials about this matter. The reason it came to mind was that it was quite starkly presented and directly to the point. Here then, from The Philadelphia Inquirer, is what they published in the summer of 2018.

The part of the evening that hit hardest was the recognition that two chairs that otherwise might be filled were empty as journalists remain as captives abroad. Freelancer Austin Tice has been held by the Assad regime in Syria for 11 years while the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich was arrested in Russia last month. I note for readers the latter action has not been seen in that nation since the Cold War. Everyone well understood the efforts underway to secure their freedom when Biden said “I’m working like hell to get them home”.

US President Joe Biden gestures as an image of US journalist Evan Gershkovich appears onscreen during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner at the Washington Hilton in Washington, DC, April 29, 2023. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Between the words of the Association’s leadership about the work required of professional news reporters and journalists and the perfectly toned words of Biden, who gets covered and also at times roasted by the press, is the awareness that process works best when both sides are robustly engaged with the issues of the day in governing and news gathering. No one should be surprised that reporters would take that same stance with them as they tuck their visas into travel bags and head to the airport to write about or photograph international events. With these highly laudable purposes, it underscores how egregious the attempts are by some autocratic or criminally driven governments to curtail this essential work by reporters. Reporters do the work in places like Syria and Moscow as they know it is a foundational fact that truth matters. Events and government officials need to be reported on so the world knows what is happening. For those like Tice and Gershkovich who work in places where rights are fewer and the dangers higher meant last night was a reminder to those governments that they must be aware that the rest of the world is watching. Last night was a very powerful demonstration that there is a universal truth–whether or not it is applied in practice in each nation–that there must be a commitment to press freedom.

We need to care about these people who are held captive and think of them as individuals. Also, we need to realize that too many leaders of dictatorial, authoritarian, or populist governments do all they can, day in and day out, to bend and break journalists. We witnessed that play out in our own nation when Trump stated the press was “the enemy” of the people. That was simply horrifying. The reason that is so true comes from history books. Under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, out-of-favor artists and politicians were designated enemies and many were sent to hard labor camps or killed. Others were stigmatized and denied access to education and employment. In China, Chairman Mao was also known to use the phrase enemies against anyone who opposed him, which then resulted in terrible consequences. So it was very troubling when Trump used the same words as Russia’s “Man of Steel” about members of the American press. The efforts to undermine reporters are clear for all the see, as it is the use of power to suppress information.

Therefore, it is vital we stand up for independent journalism and the fine women and men who undertake that most noble of professions. Our government must be tenacious in efforts to bring Austin Tice and Evan Gershkovich back to these shores and their jobs. We must keep them in our thoughts and press for their return.

Donald Trump Arrest Makes Historic Front Pages Of Newspapers

Once again, this blog places the front pages of newspapers in a post to showcase a major historic moment. Notice two of the selections use banner space to report the news.

Newspaper Woes Continue, Facts Matter For Democracy’s Sake

Long-form journalism is imperative for a well-informed citizenry. Consider what local television news allows for time spent on a story about city hall or a proposed development. Now consider how much more is gained with background and a fuller perspective on those same news events when reading about them in your local newspaper. There is no way to deny the importance of local journalism. Equally, there is no way not to feel a collective loss when a newspaper, even far away, shutters windows and turns off the presses.

I heard this week on the radio that The Salinas Californian is officially a newspaper without journalists, its last reporter having left the 152-year-old now Gannett-owned periodical.

When brown water overflowed the banks of the Salinas River in January, flooding thousands of acres and throwing an untold number of farmworkers out of jobs, the leading newspaper in this agricultural mecca did not cover the story.

Candidates in the November race for mayor also went absent from the pages of the 152-year-old news outlet. Ditto non-coverage of a police staffing shortage so serious that the police chief said the department might not have enough cops to respond to all complaints of theft, fraud, vandalism, prowling and prostitution.

The Salinas Californian missed those stories, understandably, because it employed only one journalist until December. That’s when the paper’s last reporter quit to take a job in TV. The departure marked the latest and perhaps final step in a slow-motion unwinding of what used to be the principal local news source in this city of 163,000.

Owned by the largest newspaper publisher in the nation, Gannett, the venerable Californian now carries stories from the chain’s USA Today flagship and its other California papers. The only original content from Salinas comes in the form of paid obituaries, making death virtually the only sign of life at an institution once considered a must-read by many Salinans.

The lack of local reporting has drawn complaints from the mayor, a county supervisor and everyday citizens who say the public life of their community has been diminished by the lack of a dependable source of local news.

But in the midst of that news came a truly upbeat story about a source for long-form journalism getting a reprieve from ceasing operations. The Texas Democracy Foundation, the nonprofit parent of the Texas Observer, told its staff Monday that it was planning laying off employeesincluding journalists and editors—and ceasing publication on Friday, March 31, 2023. They organized a Go Fund Me site and yesterday it was reported Thanks to your incredible generosity and outpouring of support, the board of directors voted to reverse the closure and layoffs.

The publication noted earlier this week why the continuing work of their journalists matters to the public. What does the Observer mean to its journalists and to Texans? Editorial independence and journalistic freedom have been the hallmarks of the Observer since its founding in 1954. The publication has been freer—less encumbered by the demands of business, advertisers and grantmakers—than any other publication of its stature. As such, the institution has been a proving ground for countless journalists over the years and continuing to this day, and a vital watchdog to extremists, corporations and politicians who would harm Texas and Texans.

It does not require this blogger to point out at the same time that the Fox political talk show television network has conned viewers into accepting lies in the guise of news, actual newspaper reporters and journalists are working to do all they can to continue the mission of their profession. Our nation must have an educated citizenry but over the past six years, we have witnessed what happens when the weak-minded turn away from fact-based news sources. In our home, support for newspaper journalism is demonstrated locally with the Wisconsin State Journal landing on our front stoop but we also have three online subscriptions for news and OP-Ed pages from Washington, Boston, and Chicago. We gain tons of insight and background, but I also strongly feel it is a duty to add our assistance to the industry that is a foundation for our democracy.

We used to have Republicans who could stand up and speak about the need for strong journalism, and robust newspapers, such as when Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal stated in 2012 that ‘I think it’s important for democracy. We’ve got robust news gathering organizations. I think the daily newspaper, the printed newspaper, plays an important role in holding government accountable, uniting our people.

Walter Cronkite, the former CBS News anchor, known affectionately as ‘Uncle Walter’, stated a few decades ago that his news show only skimmed the headlines, and for the public to get a more complete view of the world they needed to read their morning newspaper.  His idea was sound when he first said it, and it is just as accurate today.  Newspapers should play an integral part in a citizen’s daily life.  

Too many Americans in the 21st century, however, gave up reading a newspaper and slipped further into intellectual decay by believing Fox is a newsgathering operation. It is not. We have the evidence and it is soon to be told in a courtroom. Real reporters and journalists have been replaced by echo chambers of far-right lingo and male resentments that further proves Fox is not in any way a legitimate news-gathering or reporting operation. What they have demonstrated is why newspapers and real journalists are important, now more than ever.

Informed Citizenry Vital To Democracy: Fox News Lied About Voter Fraud Rupert Murdoch Says Under Oath

Sean Hannity and the loser of the 2020 presidential election

This weekend President Joe Biden was interviewed by ABC News and a large portion of it aired on This Week Sunday morning.   While there was much interest in international affairs the part that struck me was the comments made about news coverage in the United States.  It is, after all, a topic that resonates at this desk as democracy and the dangers it faces have become a focal point since the summer of 2015. The continued repetition of lies from one television network and the lack of a fully factual accounting of national and world events is of great concern to those who hold tight to the ideals of liberal democracy.

“Everything is in the negative. We’re also finding out now that one of the outlets has decided that they would put things on that they know to be false in order to increase their ratings”, the president said. He is correct, as court documents prove.

I had, over the years, and thankfully so, several truly wonderful history teachers. They loved and understood the topics at hand; never the part-time football coach who needed more of an income so offered to teach what was not remotely understood in the textbook. My favorite and most consequential teacher was Marge Glad who left Europe in WWII and brought a worldview that resonated with me year after year.  I took every elective of hers I could fit into my schedule.

It was her repeated themes that were imprinted upon me about history, politics, and world matters that started me on a lifelong quest to know more.  She so admired Thomas Jefferson and spent one entire class lecturing about how his style of writing was to match the needs of the time with his intended audience. Both in the Founding Father family, more importantly to the colonies at large.  So, she would know the power of his meaning in relation to the threat to democracy from a segment of the populace that is adrift from facts about news events.

Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government.” Being well-informed is a vital component of a strong functioning democracy.  Or republic. But being misinformed for purely partisan reasons would be a complete repudiation of what Jefferson and his colleagues desired for this nation.

This memory of a grand educator–and why facts matter–came to mind as the news was reported Monday that Rupert Murdoch, chairman of the conservative media empire that owns Fox News, acknowledged in a deposition that several hosts for his networks promoted the false narrative that the election in 2020 was stolen from former President Donald Trump.

“They endorsed,” Mr. Murdoch said under oath in response to direct questions about the hosts Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, Lou Dobbs and Maria Bartiromo, a legal filing by Dominion Voting Systems said.  

Mr. Murdoch’s remarks, which he made last month as part of the $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox by Dominion, added to the evidence that Dominion has accumulated in an attempt to prove its central allegation: The people running the country’s most popular news network knew Trump’s claims of voter fraud during the 2020 election were false but broadcast them anyway.

Where conservatives lose further credibility can be proven by their close attachment to Trump, the one they were supposed to be covering with objective distance. I am old enough to recall the resentment registered by conservatives in the years following the Kennedy administration where it was stated reporters were chummy with JFK insiders, where even one reporter (Hugh Sidey) was able to swim in the White House pool with the president. Swim trunks, or no? But when it came to Fox News and Donald Trump all those journalistic ponderings about objectivity from right-wingers were tossed aside like a second marriage.

Stephanie Grisham, former press secretary to Donald Trump, remembers the challenges that came from so many Fox News hosts having the direct number to reach Trump in the White House residence.

“There were times the president would come down the next morning and say, ‘Well, Sean thinks we should do this,’ or, ‘Judge Jeanine thinks we should do this,’ said Grisham, referring to Sean Hannity and Jeanine Pirro, both of whom host prime-time Fox News shows.

Grisham said West Wing staffers would simply roll their eyes in frustration as they scrambled to respond to the influence of the network’s hosts, who weighed in on everything from personnel to messaging strategy.

Lies spread by Fox News could constitute each day of blogging if one were so inclined. A separate and lengthy post could be written about Fox News employees being vaccinated even though the fact-free on-air hosts continued to deny science and professional medically-driven data to their viewers. Why report on science when the base of nitwit viewers could be drooling over anti-vaccine Senator Ron Johnson, someone very chromosome-counting close to being an ear of corn?

Consider the following from our history, and frame it within the context of white men now slumped back into the sofa watching a continuous conservative loop of misinformation on Fox News. When did they last read a daily newspaper to be actually informed on the news of the day?

In 1791, Madison remarked that Congress had an obligation to improve the “circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people”. He helped champion the Post Office Act of 1792. The act included a provision for the delivery of newspapers by the Post Office at extremely low rates for delivery of newspapers. For the century following the passage of the Post Office Act, newspapers often accounted for more than 95% of the weight of mail transported by the post office, but never made up for more than 15% of the revenue. The result of this large indirect subsidy of the fledgling industry was enormous. In 1790, before the passage of the act there was less than one newspaper produced for every 5 citizens. By 1840 there were almost three papers printed per person.

Too many Americans in the 21st century gave up reading a newspaper and slipped further into intellectual decay by believing Fox is a newsgathering operation. It is not. Real reporters and journalists have been replaced by echo chambers of far-right lingo that further prove Fox is not in any way a legitimate news-gathering and reporting operation.

Rupert Murdock confirmed that fact under oath.

A fact that has been dangerous to our democracy.

House Cameras Should Have Full Rein, Democracy On Parade Good For Nation

Politicos had the week of their lives as the House of Representatives slogged through a 15-ballot process to determine a Speaker, an epic-sized drama with a cast of characters and plot twists that famed author Allen Drury (Advise and Consent series) would have had a hard time creating. It was an adrenaline rush, that once concluded very late Friday night, allowing for the nation of television watchers and social media followers to lean back deep in their sofas and truly exclaim “Wow!”

There was no way for even casual viewers or the most lackadaisical of citizens not to have been aware history was being made.  The nation soon was talking about the fact it had been nearly a century that a Speaker election at the Capitol required more than a single ballot.  Tension mounted so that reporters spoke openly and even somewhat thrillingly that no one knew how the events would play out.  This was after all, why they wished to join the journalism profession. Soon those in the land who thought they were not interested in history started talking about Nathaniel Prentice Banks, who in 1855 required 133 ballots over two months to secure the gavel. It was that type of week.

As the politics were playing out with spirited nominating speeches on the chaotic House floor, while the ratings for all news channels increased, Americans realized something truly quite fascinating was occurring in front of their eyes. Gone were the stale and formalized offerings from the C-SPAN cameras that only allowed for the House member speaking to be viewed, or the chair of the Speaker to be focused upon.  Rather there was a freewheeling display for the citizens to watch, as the cameras caught every angle of the story and made sure the main players and the supporting roles in the drama had plenty of air-time. On the first day, there was lonely George Santos, who got a break in his highly troubling running narrative due to a much larger headline overshadowing him. There were animated discussions where Matt Gaetz was the focal point for viewers. Friday night there was nearly a brawl that was captured by the cameras.  Though this was not legislative sausage being made, the nation was better understanding what was happening so as to elect the main meat grinder.

Congressman Mike Rogers was physically restrained by another member while going after Matt Gaetz Friday night.

Needless to say, there are news stories to be seen and told regarding the working coalitions of House members via the interactions on the floor.  Accounts that can only be presented fully to the nation if House cameras are allowed to record such moments. But all that was lost again once the House passed its rules and again abides by the most outdated and self-protecting rules in Washington.  (Other than at the Supreme Court.)

Brain Stelter, former anchor of CNN’s Reliable Sources is a fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. He made a very compelling argument for the cameras to operate in an open and transparent fashion in a must-read column in the Boston Globe.

But consider what the public is usually unable to see: The joint session of Congress on Jan. 6, 2021, was not deemed deserving of independent TV coverage. So when the proceedings were adjourned due to the mob at the doors, the cameras were immediately turned off. Viewers should have been able to see the attack as it happened on the House floor — and the imagery would have made it harder for hard-right media personalities to deny the reality of that day.

But the desire to treat the House as a private workspace is superseded by the very public nature of the job. As a compromise of sorts, congressional leaders should allow a pool of journalists’ cameras for major news events and legislative debates — and the news media should determine what counts as major, not the government.

Sound journalism demands that the cameras operate for the benefit of the public’s right to know and better understand how their government functions. Or fails.  There really is no better or more sound argument to be made.  What politicos and everyone else were able to see and react to, be it with a partisan tinge, a historic perspective, or just from a ‘can not take my eyes off the crash scene’ mentality’ is that having more information is always a better route to take.

The fortunate lack of rules at the start of the year in the House allowed the cameras to give our nation insight into how a legislative body actually looks, feels, and reacts to the minute-by-minute tumult. It may not be pretty, but it is our government ‘working’. It is, for better or worse, democracy on full parade.

Judy Woodruff To Depart PBS’ NewsHour, Diversity And Generational Change in 2023

Judy Woodruff is soon to depart from the PBS NewsHour and another chapter in this decade’s long news show mainstay on public television will unfold.  It has been my pleasure to tune in Woodruff over the many years, first on CNN’s Inside Politics with cohost Bernie Shaw, a reporter I simply could never say enough good things about in his career. Woodruff proved repeatedly with interviews and her professional grinding down of a story to the essential ingredients why she was ideally suited for the NewsHour. I so respect her work and will miss her being a part of the ones we invited into our home via television.

Bernie Shaw

What the public knows now as the best one hour in broadcast news on television started when I was just a year away from entering my freshman year in high school.  In 1975, The Robert MacNeil Report, a week-night half-hour news program provided in-depth coverage of a different single issue each evening.  When I was a teenager dinner would be over in our Hancock home and the evening network news and the local news would have come to an end.   It would be 6:30 P.M. and time to change the channel (by walking to the set and manually turning the dial!) to Wisconsin Public Television for the half-hour program which devoted itself to one news story each night.  It might be the reason for a major jet crash or diving into the religious turmoil in the Middle East.  The show was informative and so well done with insight and professionalism.  And I learned so much.  It piqued my interest to want to know even more.  I suspect some of my wonkiness about details and policy was formed by this show and its reporters.

Now that iconic nightly news program has alerted us that Judy Woodruff will sign off from the anchor desk on Friday, December 30. And with equal interest, we want to know what follows. 

Taking Woodruff’s place at the anchor desk will be Amna Nawaz and Geoff Bennett. It goes without saying that this change is more than a new anchor and managing editor taking charge, but also a true generational shift and more diversity for a large tumultuous nation that is growing more multicultural. Bennett, 42, is Black and Nawaz, 43, is the first-generation American daughter of Pakistani parents.

Geoff Bennett and Amna Nawaz

The solid center of viewers to this program really demands continuity with a deep dive into hard news and serious analysis. The background of new anchors will add a fresh layer of understanding and questions about the topics of the day, and that is to be applauded.  We gain much by listening to others and having fresh perspectives.  It is reported that one change to the show which will begin at the top of the new year will be avenues opened to allow younger viewers to access the news in ways that mesh with their daily use of social media.  For decades-long viewers such as myself, we are promised to have the same journalistic professionalism that was the reason we started our journey with the program back when President Carter was in the White House.   

A Weekend Read Of History And News Reporters, Harold Holzer Delights (Again)

Looking for a weekend read that is timely, filled with history and press relations galore? Governing on the one hand is very important while understanding at the same time the absolute necessity of having a Fourth Estate as the ultimate “guarantor of freedom”.

President George Washington had the nation’s longest honeymoon in the White House, but with his second term the press, in part, turned their ink towards him in ways that stunned and scarred. He mostly stayed above the fray, above the articles, as opposed to how later presidents, who were even more thin-skinned would rebuke reporters and snarl on camera at them, such as with President Richard Nixon. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

The press was rash and fresh in 1792 and just as the executive branch took root and gained power and federal reckoning over the decades, so too did the journalism profession mature and strengthen into what can only be correctly termed, as the British do, the Fourth Estate. I am finding the book perfect as I have a long and deep interest in the dual rise of the American presidency and the media that shaped it. As I am reading it I just know that Bill Safire, the wordsmith and media-oriented writer, would thrill to the book. There is no way not to feel drawn back into the time when Abraham Lincoln made use of the new “instant communication” technology of telegraphy. No way not to smile and read on and just warm to the narrative.

If you know Harold Holzer from his Abe Lincoln and Civil War books you are most aware of his keen intellect, a research knack that shows in his works, and a narrative style that draws a reader into the pages. I very much think for the history and media types who are readers of this page The Presidents vs. The Press will be a real delight.