We Cannot End Political Divisiveness Without First Changing Our Media.

Following the era of so-called “Yellow Journalism” from the early 1900s during which newspapers wrapped themselves in shame by focusing on sensationalism to the point of creating false stories, journalists found their better selves. After the Great Depression and World War II, journalists focused on exposing and reporting the truth. Not coincidentally, during that time period, our nation thrived. For the most part, our politicians and leaders served their constituents’ needs because the media held them accountable.

The truth was more important than readership, ratings and sensationalism.

More recently, especially following the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, our media chose a different path. They became obsessed with profits. That meant they intentionally sought out controversy and sensationalism. “If it bleeds, it leads” became their operating mantra. Real issues – those of politics and governance – were pushed to the background to be replaced by reports of crime and corruption, both real and perceived.

No longer interested in truth, the media instead focused on “balance.” Conflicting views were each handed a microphone and the “journalists” merely sat back to watch the ensuing arguments. This philosophy has now reached its zenith as demonstrated by NBC’s Matt Lauer’s performance at the “Commander-In-Chief” forum. During Hillary Clinton’s interview, he pushed her on already discredited accusations related to Benghazi, her private email server and the Clinton Foundation. Not because he thought he could find anything new of substance, but because they were sensational. On the other hand, when it was Donald Trump’s turn, Lauer asked softball questions refusing even to challenge or expose any of Trump’s many lies.

Lauer was offering viewers balance. What he was denying them was truth.

Such an approach does NOT qualify as journalism. It is mere entertainment, and not very good entertainment at that. It denies viewers the information they need to make informed decisions at the polls. It allows a liar and a bully who has done absolutely nothing to serve our nation to galvanize support. And Matt Lauer is certainly not alone. There are many other faux journalists who either hide behind “balance” or ignore the tenets of objectivity and real journalism to take sides. Worse, it encourages candidates and leaders to lie…to tell people what they want to hear without regard to reality or the facts.

To relate this to a sporting contest, it’s like a football or basketball team that has decided to commit as many fouls as possible in order to win knowing that the officials can’t, or won’t, call them all.

And things are only getting worse. Mainstream media ownership is in the hands of a very few. Thanks to Citizens United, the wealthy and powerful are able to spend virtually unlimited amounts of money to purchase elections. And on-line media has fragmented to such an extent, it is easy for voters to get one-sided “news” that panders to their ideologies.

All of this begs the question, “What can we do?”

The answer is for our citizens to exert some degree of control over the media. To demand that mainstream media replace pundits with journalists and to, once again, focus on the facts and the truth; to hold the media accountable; to demand that any organization that calls itself a news organization to operate in the public interest as judged by a bipartisan commission that includes real journalists; to acknowledge that falsehoods and partisanship do not help our nation. Indeed, they do it great harm. As was the case under the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, those media outlets that do not meet the standards of the commission should be denied their ability to operate and to collect advertising dollars.

This is not about censorship. It’s about truthfulness. We should teach our children that truth matters then demonstrate it to them.

Far From A Cancer On The Conservative Movement, Trump Represents It.

Contrary to Rick Perry’s assessment of Donald Trump, The Donald embodies everything that’s wrong with today’s Republican Party. He’s loud, arrogant, abusive, mean-spirited, greedy, narcissistic and an unapologetic bully. He’s a friend of soulless multinational corporations and an enemy of the environment. He’s opposed to immigration, yet he happily hires immigrants for menial, low-paying jobs.

Trump is the ultimate representative of the GOP’s “I’ve got mine, you can’t have yours” mentality.

He places corporate interests above those of consumers. He despises regulations – anything that may stand in the way of his insatiable greed. He demands a strong military, yet he refused to serve, receiving 5 student deferments and a medical disability (he had a bone spur in one of his feet – he can’t remember which). Of course, that bone spur never stopped him from participating in college athletics.

Despite his claims of having earned everything he owns, Trump was born on third base and brags that he hit a triple. He inherited most of his wealth, yet accuses anyone who is impoverished of not working hard enough. He complains of high tax rates and complicated tax codes, yet he pays none.

The only reason the other GOP candidates are upset with Trump is not because they disagree with his politics. It’s that he’s willing to say what they all believe.

Moreover, Trump’s popularity with Republicans has exposed the fallacy that the mainstream media are liberal. The faux journalists are fawning all over him. I’m not just referring to the loudmouths who fill airtime on the Faux News Channel. I’m talking about those who call themselves journalists at every level – from national and international networks all the way down to local TV stations and newspapers.

And why wouldn’t a “reporter” more interested in personal advancement than real journalism cover Trump? Trump is good for ratings. He’s good for the infotainment masquerading as news.

So get used to seeing and hearing about Trump 24/7. He’ll be the focus of the Republican presidential race until real reporters (if any still exist) ask him to articulate real solutions for the nation’s problems. And until people begin to picture a clown in the White House and the impacts of his antics on the nation and the world.

How Our Media Are Failing Us.

The US news media were once the envy of the world. TV news gave us legendary journalists such as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley and Chet Huntley to name just a few. These were people who proudly informed Americans, exposed corruption and provided context for politics. So what happened? How did we go from Walter Cronkite to Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly. There is no single answer. Instead, a number of factors have led to the demise of journalism in the US. Here are the most prominent:

1- Media Have Chosen Sides: Newspapers have long leaned to one side or another. The Wall Street Journal was always conservative as The New York Times was always liberal. But despite their leanings, they at least tried to present both sides. That no longer is the case. Fox News Channel gets its daily talking points from the Republican National Committee and, since the end of the Fairness Doctrine, talk radio has become more than 90 percent right wing with almost no liberal counterparts.

2 – Infotainment And Ratings: Far too many so-called “news” shows have become infotainment – more devoted to creating high ratings than presenting actual news and information. They focus on the most bizarre, sensational and macabre stories rather than news that matters. As a result, we know more about the murder trial of the day than what Congress is doing.

3 – Equating Equal Time With Accuracy And Fairness: Fearful of backlash from the party faithful, the media tend to report both sides of a political story rather than dig for the truth. I call this the “We report, you decide” syndrome. This is no substitute for actual journalism. With no reporter focused on getting to the truth, the falsehoods from one side become accepted as fact.

4 – The Horse Race Syndrome: During the run-up to elections, the news media have refused to report the truth. They are more interested in reporting the results of polls with the idea of finding a winner. As a result, we hear two disparate views of issues with no context available to help us choose a candidate.

5 – Accepting Politically-Biased Nomenclature: Republican strategists are constantly trying to win a literal war of words. For example, Estate Taxes were once widely accepted as a way of preventing dynasties in the US – so that the extremely wealthy could not pass unimaginable wealth onto their heirs. But once the GOP labeled them Death Taxes, the media picked up the term and, as a result, public opinion began to change. The same thing happened when the abortion foes changed the description from anti-abortion to Pro-Life.

6 – Newsroom Cutbacks: In the late 1970’s, the owners of news organizations began seeking greater profits. They found them by eliminating foreign news bureaus and eliminating many reporters and staff photographers. As a result, they now rely on stock photos and wire services. Reporters no longer have the time to investigate corruption or to check facts.

7 – Laziness: Too many reporters are willing to accept what they are told by one source. It requires too much effort and too much time to seek other sources or to research the issue in order to provide context. It’s more convenient to go with the story half-finished. For example, business reporters often report that US corporate income taxes are the highest in the world. What they neglect to say is that is only the stated tax rate, not the effective tax rate which is often just one or two percent. And they never report the amount of subsidies and other forms of corporate welfare received by the very corporations that complain of high income taxes.

7 – Expediency: In the rush to be first, news media no longer take the time to verify the story through multiple sources. False stories are often repeated over and over before the mistake is uncovered and, if it is, the retraction (if there is one) is scarcely noticed. This was never more apparent than with Lara Logan’s false and misleading 60 Minutes report on Benghazi. The original story was nearly an hour. The retraction was only a minute or two.

8 – Economic Self-Interest: The vast majority of our media are now owned by just 6 conglomerates. (And if the Time-Warner/Comcast merger is completed, that number will drop to 5.) These corporations are less concerned with news than they are with profits. There are no longer firewalls between news departments and corporate operations. So if a story will harm the corporation, it is too often buried.

9 – Fear Of Retribution: Chuck Todd’s recent admission about treatment of Teapublicans on Meet the Press is exhibit A. When he said that he didn’t dare challenge a Republican lie or they would not appear on the show, he was, in effect, being a whistle-blower for the profession of journalism.

10 – Overwhelming Number Of Lies: As Politifact.com found, Teapublicans tell nearly 3 times as many lies as Democrats. They tell bigger whoppers, too. It’s hard for journalists to keep up. And with fewer journalists willing to challenge the lies, the politicians keep on telling them. Eventually the lies become accepted as fact. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of examples. One of the most popular lies is that the Keystone XL Pipeline will create thousands of jobs. Yet independent studies show that the number of jobs is grossly inflated and that they don’t justify the environmental risks.

Despite the media’s many failings, all is not lost. There are still numerous, credible news outlets. But the best way to be informed is to actually work at it. After all, that’s what our Founding Fathers expected of us. It’s not even all that daunting. The Web can be a very convenient and useful tool. The basic rule is to never accept anything from a biased source, or even a single source, as fact. Seek out information from independent sources, as well as conservative-leaning and liberal-leaning sources. Then check the information through Websites such as FactCheck.org, Politifact.com and Snopes.com.

The very future of our nation depends on it.

Further Evidence That Television News Is A Joke.

It was recently revealed that, before NBC News selected Chuck Todd to host Meet The Press, it tried to convince Jon Stewart to be the host. Yes, that Jon Stewart…the comedian. The same Jon Stewart who currently hosts The Daily Show.

That speaks volumes about the quality of television journalism today.

Stewart is one of the best interviewers on the planet…unafraid to ask tough questions; unwilling to settle for canned statements; determined to get at the truth. And Stewart isn’t the only example. Stephen Colbert and John Oliver are just as good. Unlike most TV “journalists” who have become lazy and partisan, these TV hosts are seeking the facts about government and politics in addition to laughs. After all, these things are often one in the same.

Like the legendary journalists of yesteryear…Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Chet Huntley, David Brinkley…these are people who ask insightful questions; who demand real answers; who continue to press until the interview subject reveals something of consequence. Stewart, Colbert and Oliver are intelligent, informed and curious. They can use humor to draw information from their interview subjects. They are entertaining. More important, they are credible.

In other words, they represent everything that television journalism used to be and should be again.

The Supreme Court is, at least, partly responsible for the decline. Its decisions to equate free speech with money and corporations with people have unleashed a multi-billion dollar bonanza of political advertising for TV networks and broadcast stations. To make matters worse, most of the media are now owned by a few corporations. There are no longer impenetrable firewalls between programming, advertising and the newsrooms. For example, Fox “News” president, Roger Ailes, was a media consultant for Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush. To make certain that his Fox “News” hosts stay on message, he supplies them with a memo of GOP talking points at the beginning of each day.

In order to continue their financial windfall from political advertising, media owners are not inclined to rock the boat. They will not permit their news operations to report on the evils of dark money in politics or the buying of political favors for fear that they will lose their share of the money. And it’s not just television journalism that is failing.

A similar phenomenon has taken place in radio and print. More than 90 percent of the hosts of radio talk shows are right wing hacks who are peddling hate. Newspapers have long delivered a partisan slant to the news (often the newspapers’ leanings are indicated in their mastheads, i.e. The Republic, The Democrat, The Independent, etc.) and news magazines are struggling financially. As a result, some of the best investigative journalism today is being done by freelance reporters and what were formerly entertainment magazines…Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Vanity Fair, etc.

It’s ironic that, in the so-called “Information Age,” we are facing a crisis of knowledge.

A Sad Episode Of “60 Minutes.”

When I was in journalism school a long time ago, CBS was rightfully used as an example of great journalism. Such industry giants as Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Robert Trout, Harry Reasoner, Eric Sevareid, Roger Mudd, Charles Kuralt, Mike Wallace, Robert Pierpoint, Howard K. Smith, Douglas Edwards, Ed Bradley, and Daniel Schorr were part of the world’s premier news organization. They were idolized for their impartiality and determination to get at the truth.

Since those halcyon days, CBS News has sunk to such lows that journalism schools may now use its 60 Minutes report on Benghazi as an example of what not to do.

Lara Logan’s story was fraught with holes, inconsistencies and outright lies. Apparently Logan and the 60 Minutes crew were determined to break a sensational story that would expose some sort of cover-up by the Obama administration. Certainly, the story was sensational. It was also false.

In filing the report, CBS News broke some of the most basic rules that are taught to would-be reporters in Journalism 101. There were so many red flags, it’s astounding that an editor, any editor, would agree to air the report, let alone make it the lead story on the telecast. First, the “source” (independent contractor Dylan Davies) asked to be given an asumed name (Morgan Jones) for protection, yet he agreed to appear on camera making it easy to identify him. Second, Davies admitted to the reporter(s) that he had lied to his employers when asked if he had reached the US consulate during the attack. Third, it was known that Davies had also shopped a manuscript of his tale to a book publisher.

To most experienced reporters any one of these issues would place the source’s credibility in question.

Finally, and more important, Davies’ testimony was in direct contradiction with what was already known about the events in Benghazi. It not only contradicted accounts by the State Department, the Department of Defense and the Obama administration. It contradicted reports from independent groups empaneled to investigate the matter. This should have caused CBS News to seek further corraboration. At very least, it should have caused the network to do much more investigation before running with the story. But it seems, CBS News and 60 Minutes were more intent on exposing or, more accurately, creating a scandal.

The only scandal they created centered on their failure to accurately present the news.

Yet the most astonishing aspect of this sorry mess is that CBS News chairman, Jeff Fager, stood by the story after serious questions were raised. Indeed, he used the fact that Davies had previously lied (not once, but twice) as evidence of his credibility!

Not until CBS News became aware that Davies had told a different story during his testimony to the FBI, did Fager and CBS News start to question Davies’ credibility. Seriously, CBS? No one in your news organization thought to check out your source? No one thought to read the volumes of testimony on the events at Benghazi? No one thought to ask the administration, the State Department or others for a rebuttal? The editor of my college newspaper would have fired me for less.

Of course, CBS News did pull the story from its website several days after it aired. And it apparently arranged for Lara Logan to apologize for the story during her appearance on CBS This Morning. It also has stated that it will correct the story on an upcoming 60 Minutes. That may undo some of the political damage from the story. But it won’t undo the damage done to the proud reputation of CBS News.

All of this is painfully ironic when you consider the network’s actions following Dan Rather’s report on the favoritism shown to George W. Bush during his service in the Air National Guard. If you remember, Rather presented documents showing that Bush had gone AWOL and never served the remainder of his enlistment. When the veracity of those documents was questioned, CBS News hung Rather out to dry. Three producers were fired and Rather left the network shortly afterward with his career in tatters. Yet, since that time, it has been determined that the documents could have been authentic, and that Bush likely was AWOL.

Maybe this time, instead of punishing the reporter(s), the network should fire Fager and the editor(s) who failed to question the Benghazi story. Maybe it should commit to raising its news standards. Maybe it should ask itself, “What would Edward R. Murrow do?”

UPDATE: Lara Logan gave a “correction” at the end of a “60 Minutes” telecast in which she admitted to errors. Given the fact, that her apology was at the very end of the program and lasted only 90 seconds, there’s only one word that adequately characterizes the “correction”: LAME!

Logan did not explain why the network chose to give so much credibility and air time to an admitted liar who was looking to cash in by selling his story to a book publisher. She failed to explain why CBS did so little investigation. And she did not explain why CBS chose to give the “correction” so little time and attention.

A Failure Of Journalism.

The impasse in Congress that has shut down our federal government is not only the result of a political failure. It’s the result of a journalistic failure. As evidenced by statements from NBC’s Chuck Todd, too many reporters believe that their job is simply to report the positions of both sides and let the public decide which side is telling the truth.

Few make any attempt to bring perspective to the debate by fully explaining the issues or determining which side is telling the truth. As a result, politicians are able to lie with impunity.

This so-called journalism is completely counter to what I was taught in journalism school. Moreover, it’s a disservice to the great newsmen of the past. The great Edward R. Murrow exposed the excesses and cruelty of Senator Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt. Murrow exposed the plight of migrant workers. And Walter Cronkite effectively brought an end to the Vietnam War by reporting the reality of the war from the combat zone.

Indeed, Cronkite once said, “My job is not merely to report the facts. My job is to report the truth.”

Of course, there are a few writers who have reported the reality of our dysfunctional Congress. In their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks, Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein explain how the issues are very much one-sided, caused by a growing extremism of the right. Fareed Zakaria, Bill Moyers and Charlie Rose have done an excellent job of thorough and unbiased reporting. Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone and others have also reported in depth. But their audiences pale in comparison to the national mass media. And their articles require a willingness to read with an inquisitive and open mind.

That’s probably expecting far too much of today’s Twitter-fed millennials and older generations fueled by Faux News Channel and Rush Limbaugh who refuse to let facts get in the way of a good political fight. They tend to view politics as a blood sport and they have already chosen sides. Cronkite and Murrow combined probably couldn’t change their minds!

In reality, the only way out of this mess is for the news media to realize what their predecessors did. That being a reporter and a journalist is a privilege. And that the position comes with a responsibility. Not just to report the news…but to give it context so that the audience can readily understand the truth. The whole truth.