Why the media needs a true reckoning about serving the public good
Donald Trump during HBO interview. (Screenshot)

Donald Trump — the most corrupt president in our history — is getting better press right now (and has for 6 years) than Joe Biden, who is working to restore democracy and sanity to our country. Where the hell did this come from?

The fact is that our media, particularly our broadcast media, is a business that profits when its viewership and listenership goes up. And Donald Trump, who NBC paid millions to train as a reality TV star, is walking, talking clickbait.

As the former head of CBS, Les Moonves, noted back in early 2016:

“I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going. … It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

The good news is that some in the media are waking up to how destructive the “if it bleeds, it leads,” and “eyeballs are all that matters” mentality driving this kind of cynical and profit-making-but-destructive coverage.

Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, Eric Boehlert who publishes his Press Run newsletter at PressRun.media, and Brian Stelter on CNN who does a must-watch Sunday show called Reliable Sources have all called out mainstream media for the way they’ve cut Trump slack while panning Biden. And keeping a close eye on the daily lies and misleading coverage over at Fox “News” is Media Matters for America.

But it’s just a beginning: our media industry needs a true reckoning about their role in serving the public good, instead of just exploiting and profiting from people’s need for news by goosing the coverage to make it more sensational and “sticky.”

When I first started in the news business as the morning anchor and State Capitol reporter for WITL in Lansing, Michigan back in the late 1960s the biggest lesson my then-boss Bob Brakeman taught me was to “stick to the facts.”

I was an antiwar and civil rights SDS activist who’d cut his hair and gotten a real job in radio while trying to build an herbal tea business during the rest of my day. I wanted to filter every story through my own lived experience.

Bob made it clear to me that if the day ever came when I had my very own radio show I’d be welcome to do that, but as long as I worked for him I was going to report on the actual facts and let listeners draw their own conclusions.

Of course, we were then operating under the Fairness Doctrine, so there was a certain imperative to actually inform people without prejudice or bias, but that’s still the way the media is supposed to work today.

Opinion columnists like the three mentioned above and opinion radio/TV shows like mine are expected to offer a perspective, but publications and networks that claim they report “news” have an obligation to tell a straight story without spin.

Instead, as Milbank, Boehlert and Stelter have all been at pains to point out, our mainstream media has often been reporting on President Biden and Vice President Harris through a “failure” filter, in marked contrast to how the same outlets treated “successful” Trump as recently as a year ago.

As Milbank notes in the Post:

“Trump got roughly twice as much coverage in 2020 as Biden has received in 2021. And the coverage of Biden is noticeably more negative than the tone of news coverage overall. Predictably, Breitbart and the New York Post are among the most negative outlets, but even liberal ones such as HuffPost and Salon have been negative.”

Boehlert sums it up brilliantly at PressRun:

“Despite the loud claims from journalists that news outlets were tough on Trump for four years, it’s not true. (See: Here, here, here, and here.) On the flip side, scribes reject the claim that they’ve been overly harsh covering Biden in recent months, but they have been. (See: Here, here, here, and here.) …
“Today, Trump and his followers are using lawsuits, legislation, and terroristic threats to curtail the right to vote. And Biden is getting worse treatment than Trump?”

And Brian Stelter regularly points out problematic press bias on his Sunday show and his articles published on the CNN website.

At any other time in American history, this would be a largely academic discussion.

But today, with Donald Trump and the Trump faction within the GOP (now nearly the entire party) openly working to subvert our democracy, Americans must have access to accurate news and information without spin.

Trash-talking Biden or wondering if Harris is afraid of bluetooth (she’s not: it’s a security risk) may increase the profits of news-reporting companies and websites, but they’re biasing the American electorate in ways that may well guarantee Republican victories in the next two elections and an autocratic takeover of our nation.

Joe Biden has, in less than a year, revived the economy, overseen the creation of millions more (and better) jobs than Trump and George W. Bush combined over 12 years, and saved hundreds of thousands of lives in the midst of the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu.

These are dangerous times, and news organizations putting profits over democracy is a sure path to America ending up like Hungary with a corrupt, strongman “conservative” running the country for his oligarch buddies while crushing dissent, targeting minorities, and shutting down anything resembling a free press.

On radio and TV we used to have pretty strict standards for the news because of the Fairness Doctrine’s requirement to “program in the public interest”: stations and networks that promoted clickbait and BS would lose their licenses.

The same FCC rules forbade media monopolies and required local ownership: every radio and TV station in Lansing that I worked at in the 1960s and early 1970s was locally owned, as was the Lansing newspaper; now none are.

Those requirements for “local ownership” and “programming in the public interest” for electronic media established a baseline or standard for journalism which print media usually followed as well, segregating out tabloids like The National Inquirer and The New York Post in a way everybody recognized as pseudo-news or entertainment.

Reagan ended FCC enforcement of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and Obama removed it from the FCC code altogether. The rules forbidding cross-ownership and corporate accumulation of radio, TV and newspapers were blown up when Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Within a year of that terrible legislation, giant corporations acquired thousands of radio and TV stations, and newspapers became just another commodity that corporate raiders could suck dry.

Congress needs to take a close look at today’s “news” situation and consider at least bringing back requirements for local ownership of over-the-air media and newspapers, and ownership disclosure for web-based “news” sites.