What is happening in Washington this week? It is hard to get a clear answer to that from watching our national news media. Most of the news media reports have a bias from either a liberal/Democratic point of view or from a conservative/Republican point of view. There is very little reporting on moderate, centrist activities.
For example, on Tuesday, Feb. 27, I was at the gym on an elliptical machine for about 40 minutes watching four television screens. I switched back and forth from CNN to Fox News for the 4 p.m. news update. Fox News featured a press conference from the Republican governor of Florida on gun control issues. The 40 minutes I watched were almost entirely on his proposals, most of which would be acceptable to the NRA and Republicans. The governor proposed more guards in schools, some concealed carry volunteer teachers and expanded background checks. Most of what he proposed sounded like President Donald Trump’s proposals.
Simultaneously, on the next screen, CNN did not even carry the governor's press conference, nor did it reference it during the time frame. Instead, it was covering Jared Kushner’s security clearance. CNN’s story on Kushner was unfavorable to Trump and the Republicans.
Thus, as a busy news consumer trying to catch up on the latest, I have two entirely different prime-time news updates; I am presented with two different narratives.
As a voracious news consumer, I yearn for straight, old-fashioned facts. What is available to me all seems slanted. The days of Walter Cronkite and Edward Murrow are gone. I feel that CNN, The New York Times and public TV are slanted to the left, more favorable to the Democrats. Fox News and the Wall Street Journal are more slanted to the right and Republican thinking. Thus, as an independent news consumer, I have to struggle to sort out the real facts.
In the history of our democracy, getting the news reported accurately has frequently been a problem. Thomas Jefferson actually paid cash to some newspapers to write false things about John Adams. However, for most of our republic’s development, the journalistic profession has done a fairly good job of accurate, independent reporting.
I feel now that with the coming of Facebook, Twitter, other social media, cable stations and other sources, that we have entered a period when the average citizen has a hard time finding unbiased news.
Washington is perhaps the epicenter of fake news, spin control, liberal or conservative bias and other types of distortions of what should be a basic news story.
What can be done about this? I certainly do not advocate government regulation. I do think that under the old fairness doctrine approach we had a more balanced news reporting system. However, with today’s technology, anything like the old fairness doctrine would not work. The solution will have to be a spirit of goodness and decency in the publishing and broadcasting of social media on behalf of both journalists and readers. We must train our journalists to follow the highest sense of ethics in trying to be fair and balanced.
The biggest challenge we face as we come into the 2018 elections is to get the candidates and their views to the public. This is not happening. The public must demand better information, and somehow our country must rise as a nation and demand a more professional journalistic approach.
Trump is sometimes criticized for his tweets. I am just finishing reading a book on Franklin Roosevelt, who for the first time used radio broadcasts, even on Christmas Eve, to speak directly to the American people to put a “spin” on his New Deal. Some of the old-time newspapers criticized Roosevelt for going directly to the people, as they felt he was cheapening the office of the presidency. Analogously, Trump has skillfully found a way to communicate in an entirely new technological age. He has also been televising a lot of his policy meetings. In my judgment, his tweets and his television meetings are a very positive way to communicate what is going on to supplement the interpretation others might give them.15 comments on this story
Thus, my report from Washington is that we have a real problem here with getting an accurate picture of what is really happening out to the public. I know of no silver-bullet solution except for hard work and high standards by reporters. We must all do better as producers and consumers of the news.
Sen. Larry Pressler was a U.S. senator for 18 years and congressman for four years. He is a Rhodes Scholar, Harvard Law graduate, a Vietnam veteran and the author of “Neighbours in Arms: An American Senator’s Quest for Disarmament in a Nuclear Subcontinent.”