Recently, several listeners of my syndicated Catholic radio show e-mailed me to express how disappointed they were because I was not taking allegations against Donald Trump seriously. They were referring to salacious claims about shenanigans that supposedly took place in Russia and are contained in a 35-page document that was never verified as anything but nasty rumors. Alas, thanks to a number of reporters whose professionalism is below even a run-of-the-mill tabloid contributor, some people take as fact what is, at this point, just fiction.
But that’s exactly why some in the press have posted and printed these unfounded rumors and allegations: to see what sticks. And that’s why I think it’s time for a media “time out”.
The lack of professionalism being displayed by many in the press is appalling. Last week, for example, at Donald Trump’s first press conference since winning the White House, a CNN reporter—outraged that the President-elect would not take his question—took it upon himself to repeatedly badger President-elect Trump by yelling at him and trying to drown out the other members of the press. What many viewers and listeners didn’t know (unless they had been following earlier news reports that day), is that this same CNN reporter was one of the news people who decided to run with the totally unverified document making a mountain out of a proverbial mole hill.
Just about everybody and their brother in the news world had in their hands on this “dossier” for months prior to the election. We’re not talking about in-depth and time-intensive reporting; this is not Woodward, Bernstein, and “Deep Throat”. (Speaking of Watergate, Bob Woodward, in the days following the press conference, called the papers “garbage”.) And even James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, said the document was not “a U.S. intelligence community product.” A man mentioned in the unverified report has the same name—Michael Cohen—as of one of Mr. Trump’s attorneys. Some reporters sought to connect the dots, making it sound as if the attorney had meetings with Kremlin officials in Prague as recently as last year. The problem is that the real Michael Cohen says he has never been to Prague and was actually in California at the time he was supposedly overseas.
Does anyone doubt that if any outlet could have verified even a single claim among the document’s 35 pages it would have been front page news? Some news outlets, to their credit, chose not to run with it for the simple reason that none of it could be confirmed, sourced, or verified. At least some in the media had at least one lucid and credible moment; unfortunately, many others have been far too willing to run with rumors and worse.
CNN didn’t actually go as far as the website Buzzfeed in publishing the entire document online. But they didn’t have to. They are well aware that in today’s society, in which attention spans are short and an interest in learning the rest of the story (as Paul Harvey used to say) is hardly commonplace, plenty of damage would be done. Those radio listeners of mine are a perfect example. Why report fake news unless there is some other motive? I agree with Vice President-elect Pence who commented at the news conference; the obvious goal was to discredit the Trump presidency, no matter what the cost—even at the detriment of their integrity. One need not be a supporter of the President-elect to recognize the need to be fair and honest when it comes to such matters; it’s simple decency.
I recall my days as a news reporter in Detroit, where feisty politicians often seemed to enjoy sparring with the press as a way to divert from the issues at hand. Reporters who lost their cool ended up being the center of the story. This was also the case with the President-elect’s first news conference—and as a result the news suffered. Remarkably, the CNN reporter believed he was justified in rudely criticizing the President-elect for not taking his question.
As someone who has spent 36 years in the trenches as a reporter, anchor, media consultant, and now a talk-show host, I think there is no time like the present to take the media to task for any behavior that would be unbecoming even of high school journalism students. Which brings me to our “time out.” Coaches and parents call “time outs”, with a purpose of reflecting upon what just happened, why it happened, and how things can or should change. If I were White House Media Queen for a day, I would make the following suggestions:
1) Give Them a Real Time Out: You act like a child and you’ll be treated as a child. Continuing to yell louder didn’t get the CNN reporter his way. Did he really think that President-elect Trump was going to allow him to ask his question if he kept raising his voice even louder? Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich suggested the reporter and his network be given a six-month suspension from White House briefings. Booting them from the briefings is not a bad idea. Rude, unprofessional media grandstanding should not be tolerated.
2) Break up the Old Boys and Girls Club: Who says it has to be the same old song and dance? Why not mix it up a bit? Give other hard-working journalists a chance—those who actually report real news and aren’t taken in by sloppy or baseless accusations.
3) Change the Venue of Press Briefings: I agree with incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s decision to examine moving the location of the White House briefings to the White House Conference Center, one block away from the current location, allowing different and additional media to cover the new administration. There are, at present, only about 49 seats in the White House press room. The more media given the chance to cover the White House, the better the chance of a bit of fresh air in the coverage. Believe it or not, the head of the White House Correspondents Association says moving the briefings would be“unacceptable” How so? Here we go again. First a CNN reporter last week yells at the President-elect and now another reporter tells an official how things are going to be. Just one more reason things should be shaken up a bit.
4) Initiate a Code of Conduct for Press Briefings: Given the unprofessional decorum that’s been displayed, the incoming administration needs to set some clear, firm standards. The President-elect can take questions from whomever he likes. It’s his news conference. Let’s not forget, he is, in fact, about to become the most powerful person on the planet. It’s sad, really, that the new White House Press Secretary needed to remind reporters of basic common courtesies and that they’ll be shown the door if they don’t abide.
5) Increase the Social Media Presence: If the recent election proved anything, it’s that social media is one of the most effective ways to bypass the mainstream or old school media and reach the American people directly. If the mainstream media realize they’re not the only information game in town, then maybe they’ll up their reporting game and actually do their job, as opposed to constantly promoting their specific agendas and ideologies.
While time outs and etiquette lessons for the media may sound extreme, given the current and often embarrassing condition of American journalism, the bar needs to be raised. In order for Catholics, and all Americans, to be active in the public square, we need solid information to help inform and guide the American people, who should desire—and who deserve—the truth. Without an honest press and without truth, we all suffer greatly—the media included.