Opinion: The imperative of reforming national news media

Pandemic coverage is just a springboard to my main subject — the dysfunctional national news media.

  • Friday, November 6, 2020 11:56am
  • Opinion

It’s “clear that Alaska has entered an acceleration phase” of COVID-19 infections. That’s what Gov. Mike Dunleavy wrote on Facebook after last weekend’s record number of confirmed cases, adding “it wasn’t unexpected as Alaskans moved indoors with the changing seasons.”

Compare that assessment to what President Donald Trump told supporters in Wisconsin two days later. “It’s perfect” he said, despite the fact that northern state has been setting new records almost every day for a month. “We’re rounding the curve. We will vanquish the virus.”

This story isn’t about our governor shaming Trump by being honest. And although I’m starting it by discussing the pandemic, that’s just a springboard to my main subject — the dysfunctional national news media.

Long before Trump entered the presidential race in 2015, more than a third of the American public already had low opinions the mass news media. But small newspapers and radio stations remained reasonably well-trusted to deliver local and regional news.

The problem is they’ve been devasted by loss of advertising revenue. Classifieds were wiped out by Craigslist. And businesses moved much of theirs to social media platforms.

That hasn’t impacted local public radio stations the same way. But they’re constantly being challenged by state and federal budget cuts.

For our part, we’ve essentially expected honest, quality news reporting to cost less than a cup of coffee. But it’s never been that cheap. The advertising revenue that sustained the industry was always passed back to us by way of higher prices for goods and services. It’s no different now that most of the ad money is going to Facebook and Twitter billionaires.

Despite their small and underpaid staffs though, state and local news organizations have done exactly what Trump’s Office of Science and Technology stated in a document published this week — ensure the public has “urgently need[ed] access to data and information, often in near real-time.”

[State reports new deaths, sheds light on those previously reported]

But where local news reporters served as the check that ensured Dunleavy gave us the facts, Fox News personalities like Sean Hannity helped Trump fail miserably.

To understand why the mass media problem is bigger than Fox though, consider the parallel journeys of two nationally recognized journalists.

Charlie Sykes had solid liberal credentials when he became a news reporter. In his book, “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” he explains that the “bias and double standard of the mainstream media” helped him migrate to the right. For more than 20 years, he hosted a radio talk show where he would frequently “call out the many failures of the liberal media.” Now he admits the “cumulative effect of the attacks was to delegitimize those outlets and essentially destroy much of the right’s immunity to false information.”

In other words, the conservative solution to media bias, although financially successful, was the wrong formula for ensuring the public was getting true information.

Matt Taibbi regrets contributing to what he calls the news media’s “Ten Rules of Hate.” It includes keeping the left and right in permanent conflict and encouraging the focus on opposition party politicians instead of their ideas. But the contributing editor of Rolling Stone played the game from the other side.

In his book titled “Hate Inc.,” he argues Rachel Maddow “transformed from a sharp-minded, gregarious, small-time radio host … to a desperately exact mirror of Hannity.” Maddow’s MSNBC show first aired 2008, 12 years after Fox News was launched. Now, she’s competing with Hannity for the title of the television’s most-watched cable news show.

In other words, the left countered the right by copying its divisive formula.

Although conveniently blind to the bias at Fox, Trump wasn’t wrong to call out the liberal media for that sin.

But an honest leader wouldn’t have labeled the side that criticizes him “the enemy of the people.” He would have recognized the problem is destroying the fabric of America and worked with the institutions themselves, Congress, and the business community to make the “fourth branch” of government better serve the nation.

But reforming it doesn’t have to come entirely from the top down. Local news organizations that gave us solid pandemic reporting can serve as models of integrity.

But they won’t be around if we don’t help pay the cost of keeping them in business.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a letter to the editor or My Turn.

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