One of the main casualties of the Trump presidency has been the damage that the news media has inflicted on itself. And frankly, the worst offenders have been the anti-Trump cable news networks, CNN and MSNBC. We say that because Fox was always Fox. If we can believe the fictionalized series The Loudest Voice about Roger Ailes, who created Fox News, he made no bones about using the network’s power to create the Trump presidency. With its appeal to conspiracy theorists, gun-toters and xenophobes, Fox news editorially wasn’t that much different during the Trump era than the pre-Trump Fox news. Yes, it was vulgar and lacking credibility, but everyone knew it and could choose to watch or not and to believe or not.
The big change came with CNN and MSNBC who went into a panicked overdrive in 2016 after they had been humiliated for their failure to see that there was a path to the White House for Trump. Where previously both networks had provided a reasonably good balance of news and opinion pre-Trump; now, they both swung into a menu of almost all opinion and very little hard news reporting.
They castigated Trump for despoiling the office of the presidency, and he has; but to some degree those two cable news outlets have damaged journalism as we knew it. The old phrase in TV news “we report…you decide,” is a dim memory. In the Johnson and Nixon era, with a much-less (formally) educated population, the media were much more nuanced, more sophisticated in their messaging. In the case of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, when Water Cronkite of CBS News aired a commentary saying the war in Viet Nam was un-winnable, it was a cataclysmic event, because such commentary was so rare. Journalists in those days would never use the word “liar” to refer to a politician; it wasn’t necessary. They would present facts that contradicted what the person in question had said, and leave it there for the public to decide what they may. There is no longer that bond of respect and trust between the media and its consumers. It has become mostly heavy-handed propaganda.
Elsewhere on this site we paid tribute to Gerry McAuliffe, one of the best investigative reporters that ever worked in Ontario. He started the investigative side of his career at the Hamilton Spectator at a time when news budgets were large enough to allow a team to work on a story for months if necessary. McAuliffe dug up all sorts of scandals, and as his career advanced through the Globe and Mail and CBC, he wrote stories that got OPP Commissioners in hot water, got a Chair of the Workman’s Compensation Board fired, exposed scandalous conditions in Ontario courthouses and embarrassed many a cabinet minister. He also wrote a series of stories about ties between the mob and construction unions in Ontario. He was threatened both physically and with lawsuits. One story says he papered a bathroom in his home with lawsuits he had accumulated. The point here is that McAuliffe’s brand of journalism got the job done with facts, not opinions. Journalism is at its best when it is digging up facts and presenting them respectfully to an audience, trusting that the audience will get the message.
Maybe these news outlets think that now that Trump is gone, they can revert back to some kind of “balance,” that the Trump era was an extreme time that called for extreme measures. But these kind of careless work habits can be hard to break. The public has now been conditioned to select news that echoes their own beliefs, rather than sometimes challenging them. It is much easier and cheaper for a show producer to line up three or four talking heads and air them on Zoom than it is to deploy an investigative crew. It’s easy to fill 10 minutes of air time with opinions—it is hard work and resource-intensive to fill 10 minutes with hard facts.