What Does Good TV News Look Like?

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I have been writing too much elsewhere lately, so the blog has suffered from a lack of attention. Fortunately, though, I think it is improving my writing.

Lately, I have been considering something from Hasan Minhaj’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner monologue.

A key bit for me:

Supporters of President Trump trust him, and I know journalists, you guys, are definitely trying to do good work. I just think a lot of people don’t trust you right now, and can you blame them? …you guys have been far from perfect.

Remember election night? I mean, that was your Steve Harvey Miss Universe moment. The look on your faces at 11 p.m. on election night. It was like walking into a Panera Bread and finding out your sixth-grade teacher has a part-time job there.

This is spot-on. Later he says this: “I don’t have a solution on how to win back trust. I don’t.” Well, I have an idea.

Minhaj sees what I think is the biggest problem: journalists are human and their biases are too obvious. He uses the example of election night to point this out, but forget the disaster that is cable news for a second: it happens all the time even among the best TV and radio reporters.

This recent segment on PBS NewsHour demonstrates the issue:

I’m picking on a great news program here to show just how pervasive the problem is; I could easily find evidence of this on CNN and MSNBC. The story in this segment encompasses what Trump has said lately and how it is affecting other events. The host and all of the correspondents are investigating and reporting on this as journalists; they are supposed to be doing their jobs impartially and not injecting opinions on whether or not they like or approve of what is happening. I cannot complain about the segment’s first half, but later the reporters start to lose their poker faces. At 6:40, Lisa Desjardins smirks as Judy Woodruff asks a question about how Congressional Republicans are reacting to Trump’s mixed signals on foreign policy. Then, at the 8 min mark, Julie Davis cannot quite contain her laughter while Woodruff questions her about Trump’s recent Civil War comments.

I have also noticed this on the radio during NPR’s All Things Considered, so one can betray these feelings even without being on camera; tone of voice is enough. At the very least, it demonstrates an unprofessional schadenfreude. At worst, it reveals a liberal bias that any conservative viewer (if there still are any) would easily register. Now, I get why this happens; as I said earlier, journalists are human. These are the same reactions I have when hearing about the president making a fool of himself.

There is a glimmer of hope, though. Journalists can avoid doing this today in some pretty tough situations, as John Dickerson demonstrates throughout his interview with Trump. [1] Trump is a rambling, ridiculous bullshitter and I’m sure that makes any interviewer’s job difficult, especially when he insults the interviewer. Dickerson here excellently fulfills the duty of the press’ reporting arm: gather and deliver the news, not make one’s own feelings and reactions part of it. Update: I watched more coverage of Dickerson’s interview at CBS Evening News [4], and noticed Scott Pelley demonstrate how not to react. This is yet another example of perceived bias.

Now, before continuing I must address a counterpoint, best summed up in this Vox video [2], that the Trump administration is behaving so ridiculously that journalists should not take their bullshit seriously and should instead act more like comedy show hosts. I agree with this, to a point. Comedy shows are demonstrating an excellent technique to make editorial programming. Carlos Maza’s idol Jake Tapper is also doing a good job—at being the host of an opinion-centric show. News reporters should do a better job of adding context to bullshit and, in the process, let the viewer see it for what it is. Still, Trump supporters hate Tapper, so how does this approach remove CNN’s “fake news” label? No comedy show host believes they are a running a news show, and I think they realize their approach is not the complete solution. It certainly will not fix the public’s trust issues.

Oddly enough, though, I do believe that we can find the key to fixing this in those comedy shows. The Daily Show has been using the technique for a long time, like in this old clip with Minhaj:

The entire interaction is funny because it is supposed to be. Aside from a few impromptu remarks, this segment was scripted and rehearsed in advance so everyone knows what’s coming, how to react to it, and what to say. Note that even though it’s all an act, it can still appear authentic thanks to good writing and comedic talent.

Television networks can reduce the visible bias if they first follow newspapers’ organizational model. Clearly delineate reporting and editorial staff. Some shows can stay purely editorial as cable “news” essentially is today, but networks must add news-centric programming with a host who stays impartial and does not engage in any editorial segments. One model for how to handle such segments in a news show is Andy Rooney’s bits on 60 Minutes; he got to say whatever he wanted and the hosts of the show were not involved with his opinion. The panel format used so much on cable news today runs the risk of audiences conflating panelists’ opinions and the host’s based on the questions the host asks and how they moderate; we saw this happen even in the presidential debates in 2015 and 2016.

The pure news programming is then put together in a scripted manner just like late-night shows, except the principle goal is to inform rather than entertain (CNN president Jeff Zucker disagrees with this [3], but that does not mean it is false; it means Zucker needs to go). For a simple example, consider the twice-hourly NPR News announcements. Although these are generally pretty dry, they contain the basics of how to report news. To liven it up, reporters and a host can interact just like they did in the NewsHour segment above, but if everyone rehearses the questions, the answers, and how to react, participants can better avoid the grins, laughs and surprises. Journalists are not comedians, but good ones clearly know how to interview someone without letting their attitude antagonize the subject. That’s the same part they must play on-air.

News programs do not have to avoid opinion entirely. Correspondents like NPR’s Cokie Roberts and Mara Liasson contribute valuable insight into what is happening because of their extensive experience covering a given topic. Their anecdotes and predictions belong in news reporting. Writers can even get creative just as The Daily Show did; for instance, have the host and correspondent engage in a discussion where the host is initially skeptical and offers counter evidence, then as the correspondent provides more evidence they come around. It does not have to be boring.

People could still entertain conspiracy theories that the media is selectively covering things and so on. I suspect, though, that discernible evidence of bias must exist to continue fueling those theories. Over time, carefully managed news programming should be able to gain the trust of Americans so it is seen differently than what exists today.

I know these changes may not align with cable networks’ business models and audience expectations. If people do not have a taste for real news, that’s another problem. I just do not see how the demonization of the press can end as long as its most visible members are tipping their hands, or worse, actively extolling their opinions while also covering the news.

Learn more:

  1. President Trump: An Interview on His First 100 Days In Office (CBS This Morning/YouTube)
  2. Comedians Have Figured Out the Trick to Covering Trump (Vox/YouTube)
  3. CNN Treat Politics Like Sports — and It’s Making Us All Dumber (Vox/YouTube)
  4. John Dickerson on what Trump Revealed in Interview (CBS Evening News/YouTube). Pelley’s chuckle is just after 3:30.

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