Americans are being materially damaged by a media that is stuck in a form of lazy pack journalism that runs on the thin fuel of a few superficial formulas.
There is very little issue and policy reporting from the pack out of Washington — and this goes for the liberal outlets as well as the conservative ones. Fox News topically on the evening news is not substantially different from CNN or the networks or the daily newspapers around the country.
This isn’t about bias. That’s a different issue. This is about journalists who, almost literally, run as a pack on story coverage — from press conferences to press release. If one of them breaks a story that fits in the formula, they all paddle as one pack over to that story.
So what we have almost every night is one of a couple of narratives.
1) Who is winning today, Republicans or Democrats? The day’s news events are played as how they will affect the parties right now going into the mid-term elections a year from now.
2)How does this affect President Trump? From North Korea and China to unemployment numbers or terrorism to who wins off-year elections, it is about Trump. In the two years leading up to the election, it was: How will this affect Obama’s legacy? Like Americans give two figs about a president’s personal legacy.
This is just a huge disservice to American consumers of news. The horse race between parties and the effects on the president should be the byproducts of reporting on the substance and relevance of the day’s news on Americans and the rest of the world. And believe it or not, that relevance is not first and foremost how it affects a president or the political parties.
But that is how it is done. Record the three networks and three cable news outlets on a night and you will see almost identical stories, often in similar order. And the stories will be framed on the above horse race formula, not on substance within the stories.
How else could journalism be done? I was a mainstream media reporter and editor for 25 years. There’s a better way. But it means breaking from the pack, taking some chances, and working harder on the actual reporting aspect.
A better model for American media
This might be called fair, professional, explanatory journalism. I know it sounds impossible in light of the current state of politicized, divisive journalism. But it doesn’t have to be.
Let’s take North Korea. When Trump talks about the horrible state of the North Korean people — worst living conditions in the world, and that’s saying something — it’s reported as dangerous rhetoric. Every missile fired, every statement from the dictator is pitched as a test for Trump. Sending carrier fleets is reported as a dangerous, saber-rattling move for Trump.
But how else could these issues be reported?
Trump’s tweets could be taken as the perfect opportunity to report on the actual living conditions of the North Korean people. The concentration camps, strategic starvations, torture chambers, militant atheism, public executions, forced labor and random incarceration that keeps the population terrified and in bare survival mode. Human Rights Watch calls North Korea the most or one of the most repressive regimes in the world.
What a plethora of opportunities for reporting on conditions that are about one step above Jews in Nazi Germany. Yet this context is almost never reported, except maybe one-time in-depth newspaper or magazine stories that get little readership — but might win some awards. Instead, it’s tit-for-tat reporting in each news cycle with no context.
Every missile fired is reported as a challenge to Trump. But it’s really an immediate threat to Japan and South Korea. How accurate are those missiles? What is their payload? What can the North Koreans develop in the next timeframe? What sort of destruction do they pose for South Korea, for Japan, and eventually for the United States? Well almost no American basic news consumer can answer those questions because the media focuses like a pack on the challenge to Trump. You can google search for them, but they are one-off stories and really never by the TV outlets.
Sending carrier groups into the region is reported as a Trump escalation and dangerous saber-rattling. But how did we get to this point? We explained this earlier. But there is so much more that media members could do to explain how multiple presidents from both parties have used appeasement as the primary tool — not learning well from history — that has delivered this disastrous situation on Trump’s — and everyone else’s — front porch. Stories with that context would explain much more effectively why, perhaps, a different strategy from kicking the can down the road is needed.
Or we can take the incessant horse-race reporting between Republicans and Democrats.
It’s almost depressing how each new piece of major legislation is immediately billed as dangerous or beneficial for Republicans or Democrats or Trump. A distant consideration — if one given at all — is how the legislation will affect all Americans, and then only in who it hurts and how it may affect their votes.
The Obamacare repeal attempts were heavily reported first on the Republicans’ success or failure to enact, second, its effects on the Obama legacy and third, the losers and winners. But rarely is there any real context on the impact of Obamacare on healthcare insurance and on Americans’ access to healthcare and why doing nothing is actually the most irresponsible route.
This is going on in spades on the current tax reform proposal by Republicans. “Republicans need a win!’ and “Trump needs a win!” has been the mantra across media coverage and talking heads. Americans largely just don’t give a rip which party gets a win. They’re more interested in Americans getting a win.
Trade with China has been a huge issue, in the election and during the past year. But are China trade deals bad? How are they bad and for whom? If they are bad, who gave them to us and why? What can be done to improve them? But a lot of what we get is Trump criticizes Chinese trade deals and how will that play for him in certain states.
During the Republican Primary, there were numerous accomplished governors and senators running, many of whom had developed policies based on conservative principles that had worked in their states. But the media all but ignored them, and totally ignored their plans, in favor of covering Trump incessantly. Leading up to the first primary, Trump had been donated $2 billion worth of free branding in the form of media coverage — twice as much as the entire rest of the Republican field, combined.
How might have Americans been served if the media had reported regularly on the others that had created substantive proposals on every major issue facing us. Instead, they went for the shiny object with ratings. A lazy, superficial formula.
Americans deserve a better media. The idea that is America requires a better media.
Rod Thomson is an author, TV talking head and former journalist, and is Founder of The Revolutionary Act.