On the latest episode of his StarTalk Radio Show, Neil DeGrasse Tyson spoke to former CNN science journalist Miles O’Brien about the failures of modern news reporting — particularly at CNN.
As the interview began, O’Brien joked that CNN fired the unit because they were ignorant of celebrity gossip. “After all, what do we know about the Kardashians?”
They then discussed the notion of “fair and balanced” reporting, with O’Brien recounting an occasion in which he brought his producers a story that 95 percent of the scientific community agreed on. “Is it fair in a story about climate change,” O’Brien said, “which is clearly what I’m talking about, to do this journalistic convention of equal time for both sides. This is a huge mistake for journalism.”
Tyson agreed, saying that the conventional solution means that you get “one person to represent that 5 percent, but then he gets 50 percent of your time.”
“Is that serving the truth?” O’Brien asked. “As a matter of fact, that is feeding obfuscation — perpetuating a myth, dare I say, a lie.”
Tyson expanded on that point, saying that “this idea that every story should be told 50/50 implies that there are only two sides to a story, when, in fact, there could be five or six. So it’s an odd ethos…and I think it’s because, historically, journalists would report on politics, where you always have warring factions, and they felt they needed to give everybody time.”
“We’re in the boutique age of journalism. CNN is just the department store — the Wal-Mart of journalism,” O’Brien replied, “and think about what that does to quality. There is room for a Madison Avenue boutique, then, for people who care about things that are specific to them, and they will seek you out.”
“They will find you,” Tyson agreed. “They’ll find you.”
O’Brien and Tyson then went on to discuss how technology has changed the field of journalism, particularly with regards to sending reporters on scene. Tyson takes particular pleasure in discussing CNN’s use of a Jessica Yellin hologram during the 2008 presidential election.
“Wolf Blitzer pipes in this Jessica Yellin hologram,” he said, “and we see her floating in the middle of the space. It wasn’t an actual physics hologram — because then he would have seen it — it was put in that space for we, the viewers, and she was a three-dimensional photographed image who was put here on our screen.”
“But why does anyone want to see all sides of a reporter?” he asked, barely able to contain his laughter. “Who needs a three-dimensional report in a two-dimensional medium?”
In all seriousness, Tyson added, “maybe we should applaud them that for the experiment, because you’ve got to see what works…and in these two interviews with Miles O’Brien, he says he wants to report back from Mars, and he’s going to need some technology there.”
They went on to discuss news sources that are just aggregators, “with no reporters, just people who pick and choose. What would happen if everyone was an aggregator?” he asked. “Then everybody would just be aggregating each other’s aggregations.”
O’Brien agreed, saying “somebody has got to go to the city council meeting, somebody has to go to the launch. We can aggregate all we want, but we’re running out of actual, primary news-gathering instruments.”
“And then it gets repeated,” Tyson added, “so many times, because there’s only that one source — and it gets repeated as if it were true.”
“We don’t need reporters,” O’Brien replied. “We can just read the tweets!” This, Tyson and O’Brien agreed, is the direction in which CNN is headed.
O’Brien hammered home this point by recounting a moment, late in his time at CNN, when he walked into his executive producers’ offices with a 2 minute and 30 second science piece and was told that the 24-hours a day, 7-days a week news channel “didn’t have the time” to air it.
“I’m sorry,” an astounded Tyson responded, “but you have all the time! You have all the time!”
Listen to the entire 45-minute-long podcast below.