Dear American News Media: I’m Just Here To Help!

Dear American News Media:

I’ve had a change of heart about you and me and our relationship. After using this space to criticize you relentlessly, I’ve decided to “go positive” toward you instead. Pointing out your many flaws (like when you fawn over power instead of interrogating it or cynically insist that “both sides do it”) has gotten me nowhere with you. You still fawn over power when you should be skeptical of it (and that’s because you’ve mistaken cynicism for skepticism) same as you did during the George W. Bush presidency. It’s strange though how that cynicism gets applied the moment Democrats assume the mantle of power. But, there I go again, criticizing when I mean to be giving positive re-enforcement. I see now this is going to be a harder habit to break than I realized.

Most of my notes here apply to MSNBC because I spend so much more time with them than CNN. Actually, aside from Chuck Todd’s hour of over-rehearsed tics, random twitching and “I’m being thoughtful” eye rolling, I’m pretty exclusive to MSNBC where cable news is concerned. That’s not because I love most of their on air talent — I don’t. MSNBC has a few truly exceptional news broadcasters/communicators on their team. I have zero problem with advocate journalism so long as its open about its advocacy and consistent in its morality. Nicolle Wallace evolved into a super star whose past — as the basis for her crisis of conscience — gives her point of view gravitas. She is what a “Come To Jesus” moment looks like when given two hours of cable news five days a week.

Rachel Maddow’s integrity is rock solid. Stories that seem to meander suddenly cut to the bone when seemingly disparate dots connect and a real sense of “the bigger picture” flashes to the surface.

Ali Velshi is a rock. He’s gone from being the H-POD to being a beacon of logic and humanity. I don’t know how he keeps his (second) marriage together considering his work schedule. His family’s loss is our gain. Okay — I can be selfish that way.

I’m thrilled for Joy-Ann Reid (righteous indignation + receipts = what journalism should be) and all the talented people flowing from her “space”: Jonathan Capehart and Tiffany Cross both bring intelligence, cultural insight, wit and grace to their time slots, MSNBC and American journalism as a whole.

Lawrence O’Donnell puts a great bow on most days. My only note is one I’m not sure he could do anything about. I agree with most of what Lawrence says. But then, I’m the choir. Something in me always feels like that’s who Lawrence is preaching to — people as sensible as he is. Personally, I don’t have a problem with that but it does feel like a loop. Whereas Joy-Ann Reid can persuade with her passion, Lawrence reinforces with his warm reasonableness.

Chris Hayes epitomizes both advocate journalism’s strengths and its weaknesses. Hey — bring receipts like Chris does and you can flail away. But, sometimes that flailing feels like, well, flailing. The problem though is less Chris than the entire news industry’s aversion to including ALL possible explanations for Donald Trump’s presence in American politics and his behavior.

Ari Melber has the potential to be better than he is. He seems especially resistant to drawing conclusions and connecting dots minus ironclad evidence or a literal smoking gun. He sees the legal angles clearly but, at the moment of truth, when he could step forward and boldly connect the important dots, he gets lawyerly cold feet.

For the year and change of Trump’s candidacy (he declared on June 17, 2015), the four years of his presidency and the (almost a) year since he lost re-election, our news media has framed Trump as legitimate candidate, president and former-president. He’s been none of those things — from legitimacy’s point of view. Our news media however, having succumbed to access journalism’s lure during George W. Bush’s presidency, can’t bring themselves to call anyone what they are. Hell, our news media still regularly bleeps foul language from the news because they think 1) their audience “can’t handle the truth” and 2) language isn’t part of the news. Though “journalists”, they feel how a person expresses themselves — with all the significance their word choices imply — is less important if that expression might offend certain people. That’s not journalism, it’s misguided nannying.

To blunt language is to blunt news’ impact. It’s sugar-coating at a time when the more truth we get — all bitterness included — the better!

When our news media “pussy-footed” around “pussy-grabbing”, they deep-sixed the truth in favor of “being sensitive” — but to whom? Every woman in America deserved to know exactly how Donald Trump thinks about women. If that view of women includes his thinking he can do whatever he wants to whatever woman he wants — that’s material. Look, just because someone has a point of view (and we all have points of view), that doesn’t mean their point of view has a point. A rapist (like Trump) has a point of view as he commits rape (“I’m raping because I want to and can!) but that doesn’t mean his point of view is valid where fairness and the rule of law are concerned. Mexicans aren’t rapists as a culture. Trump’s candidacy should have ended the day it started because he said that.

The fact that Trump did say it — and his candidacy didn’t end — that’s not on the Democrats, it had zero to do with them. It’s not on the Republicans either because the rest of the Republican field would have been just as happy if Trump and his campaign had imploded that day. It’s hard to say how many Republican contenders knew yet (as the Washington Post reported in 2017) that “there’s two people Putin pays — Rohrbacher and Trump”. The GOP still hadn’t embraced Trump the way they would eventually. Only the news media really “saw something” in Trump.

A cash cow.

I didn’t start out a news junkie; I’m just a humble storyteller and an occasionally successful screenwriter and film/TV producer. Something about Trump’s candidacy triggered my “Spidey-senses”. My storytelling senses, too. What stuck in my craw from the get-go was a growing perception that the news story I was living through was not the news story our news media was reporting. I started to think of it like icing and cake. The news media were all about the story’s icing when, really, they needed to be looking much more deeply at the cake. Take Trump’s relationship with Vlad Putin. To this day, our news media will scratch divots into their heads pondering why Trump is soooooo beta to Putin’s alpha.

Someone should write a saying about how pictures speak a thousand words — and then hand it to our news media. “Both sides do it” journalism however gives every piece of information equal weight — and they refuse to “judge” information or the people supplying it. That’s how liars spewing lies about climate science can be the same as climate scientists presenting conclusive data. Before being shamed into cutting the shit, our news media regularly presented climate science and climate denial as if both points of view had equal merit. Even if they didn’t mean to do that, our news media presented both points of view on screen as a fifty-fifty proposition. That’s what it says visually when two people argue, both with 50% of the screen — both points of view could be true.

This still happens every time our news media presents a Democrat’s point of view and then — for balance — a Republican’s. If the Democrat says “we need to these programs to help these people and we calculate it will cost this much, the Republican replying “That costs too much” isn’t an actual reply to the question. The people the Democrats are trying to help still need that help. That’s empirically true regardless. If it will cost x dollars to help them then the proper framing is “We need this amount of money to help this amount of Americans accomplish equity — a thing we know America needs to deal with”. “Costs too much” means “I’m choosing NOT to help all the people who need help”. The question is “why?” Where should that money go instead?

Our news media loves a horse race because races are easy to call. You just sit there and watch the horses run. But, America’s in a very strange place right now. There are horse races being run — and our news media is reporting on them (the “Will Joe Biden get his agenda passed by Congress” story is nothing but a horse race in our news media’s hands). But these races are happening while the race track is burning down around us. And the Republican Party set the fire.

I know for a fact that I’m not the only member of the cable news audience baffled by cable news’ inability to aggregate the story we’re all living through. Example: the news media itself kept track of the number of lies they believe Trump told in public. 30, 573 was the “official” tab according to the Washington Post on January 24, 2021. Those were lies told while Trump was POTUS. The WaPo, as far as I know, stopped keeping track; we have no idea how many lies Trump has lied while being former-POTUS. Whatever that number is, it’s a record. Yet, few in the news media framed Trump as a liar first — though, considering the amount of lying and Trump’s willingness to lie about everything no matter how small and demonstrably false — that, too, is baffling. You’d think that, after even just 10 percent of those lies — thirty-five hundred or so — you’d stop assuming Trump was ever telling the truth since there’s clearly no evidence of it while there’s ample and growing evidence that he lies.

Our news media still publishes Trump’s lies without framing them as such even while knowing that that’s what they are. Oh, sure — they do tell us they’re lies — but, if we see it from Trump’s point of view (knowing he’s lying), the point of the exercise isn’t to prove you’re not lying, it’s to blanket the world with the lie so as to turn the lie into “the truth”. Even when acknowledging Trump’s dishonesty, our news media continues to work to his dishonesty’s advantage.

Geez! I wanted to be positive here and, instead, I’ve criticized again. Did I mention yet what a hard habit this is to break?

Here — I’ll try to be positive. Kelly O’Donnell is someone I’ve been unkind toward in the past. And she epitomizes exactly what I’m talking about. Kelly (can I call you that?), I want to make amends because — hey, we’re both in show biz, right? The news biz IS show biz and the same principles that make my storytelling work also make yours work.

I mean this from the bottom of my heart (for what that’s worth): I want to help YOU, Kelly O, be the best storyteller you can be! Here’s a clip of Kelly O from August 17, 2017 after a terrorist attack in Barcelona. It’s early in the Trump presidency; his lying as POTUS is still newish (compared to his lying as candidate). But — context — Sean Spicer didn’t get up in front of the White House Press Corps and lie about the size of Trump’s crowd size for his health or because he really wanted to. Journalists like Kelly O’ had personally witnessed not just that Trump lied but that he lied about stupid things. And,, remember, this is well after “Mexicans are rapists” (a lie) and “pussy-grabbing” (another lie — his denial).

A storyteller adding information builds a platform from which to base the next part of the story. The goal is to tell the whole story, of course, by connecting dots as they become reasonably connectable. Once you’ve established that a person is a liar (inside your own head), how can you tell that person’s story as if they aren’t a liar? The fact is they could be and an honest telling of their story starts there — not after you’ve presented the lie. Context IS everything.

https://www.msnbc.com/deadline-white-house/watch/o-donnell-appears-it-is-incorrect-information-being-tweeted-by-trump-1027064387879

At the 1:07 mark, Kelly O’ reads a tweet Trump put out.

She then qualifies the tweet: “Especially in that last sentence,” says Kelly O, “That seems to be the voice of the president more than a staffer on his behalf”. “That seems to be” is Kelly O’ inserting herself into the story — putting herself into Donald Trump’s head because, I guess, she has such insight into how Trump thinks. Though Trump to that point had showed zero capacity for empathy, Kelly O’ makes him empathetic regardless as if he must be empathetic just because he’s POTUS and Kelly O’s reporting on him. But Kelly O senses there’s more to it. Good for her!

“But, then a curious follow up tweet,” Kelly O’ continues, “…where the President says” (and she reads the tweet) —

Kelly O reminds the audience that this echoes a story Trump told on the campaign trail (a place where he lied repeatedly of course and said outrageous, offensive things) even though, as president, Trump had access to copious information that proved the story wrong. Historians have found no basis in fact for this, Kelly O says, spinning a blatant lie into “it appears this is incorrect information being tweeted by the President at this time”.

Think about the difference between these two presentations of the same thing — a lie. One presents the lie as a lie. The other is Kelly O’ dancing around until the word “lie” can’t really be discerned anymore. No one lies by accident. They’re deliberate by definition and Trump deliberately lies as readily as he breathes. Yet Kelly O editorialized a Trumpian lie down into something Trump could have done accidentally. That’s really dishonest. And, when you consider what Trump did subsequently?

That makes Kelly O an enabler.

Ah, hell — I did it again! I’m so sorry, Kelly O — I really didn’t mean to criticize. You’re a nice person — anyone can get that just from watching you. From everything I’ve read, your colleagues like you. From your industry’s point of view, you’re at the top of your game. That doesn’t mean you’re AT the top of your game. Or maybe it does and the thing we’re comparing it to — the news industry’s game — has a “top” most industries wouldn’t brag about. What it means is that from mediocrity’s point of view, you fit right in.

You are tasked with covering the biggest, most compelling, most consequential story of our collective lifetimes. Our democracy’s survival hinges on you getting your job right. So far, you’ve let us and democracy down hard. But the game ain’t over yet! Hell, MSNBC itself has news assets that both see and perfectly articulate what’s happening to us. For my money, Jason Johnson and Elie Mystal are both Jeremiah’s we should be listening to religiously.

In my dreams, a day will come when I can step back from being a news junkie. Fascinating as it is, it’s exhausting. But, I know this: if the day comes when I can stop obsessing on the news, it will be because Progressives (the only adults in the room now) have finally cleared out all the dead wood — the stale, regressive, repressiveness of our racist right wing. When the day comes that we’re no longer under threat, I will relax. Finally.

I’ll miss a few of my regulars when that day comes: Nicolle and Rachel especially. But, as for the rest of you? I’ll assume you’ve gone off to greener pastures — and jobs you might actually be good at.

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