A Fourth Es­tate fail­ure

Pres­i­den­tial cam­paign cov­er­age by ma­jor me­dia out­lets has un­der­gone a sad de­cline

Baltimore Sun - - COMMENTARY - By Jules Wit­cover Jules Wit­cover is a syn­di­cated colum­nist and for­mer long­time writer for The Bal­ti­more Sun. His lat­est book is “The Amer­i­can Vice Pres­i­dency: From Ir­rel­e­vance to Power” (Smith­so­nian Books). His email is juleswit­cover@com­cast.net.

Civil po­lit­i­cal dis­course has not been the only ca­su­alty of the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign fi­nally ap­proach­ing its end. The rep­u­ta­tion of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ism has taken a telling hit as well, un­der the on­slaught of par­ti­san ad­vo­cates of the ma­jor party nom­i­nees and an army of free­wheel­ing so­cial-me­dia pon­tif­i­ca­tors.

As the late New York Sen. Daniel Pa­trick Moyni­han mem­o­rably put it, “Ev­ery­one is en­ti­tled to his own opin­ions, but not his own facts.” Thus there has emerged a val­ued jour­nal­is­tic tool in the fact-checker, com­mis­sioned to sep­a­rate fact from fic­tion and ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

Em­ployed by prom­i­nent news­pa­pers and tele­vi­sion net­works, they are armed with a range of re­search ma­te­ri­als from dic­tio­nar­ies and au­thor­i­ta­tive his­to­ries to end­less printed and elec­tronic records. At their dis­posal as well are pro­fes­sional his­to­ri­ans and li­brar­i­ans trained in sep­a­rat­ing ac­cu­racy from fan­tasy.

But along with them has come an­other army of self-styled ex­perts who as a whole are far from im­par­tial, gath­ered by the ma­jor tele­vi­sion net­works and ca­ble out­lets to an­a­lyze the pres­i­den­tial cam­paigns and elec­tions.

With the in­tro­duc­tion in 1945 of ra­dio’s “Meet the Press,” cre­ated by the old Mu­tual Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem, work­ing re­porters cov­er­ing the cam­paigns would pose knowl­edge­able ques­tions to the can­di­dates. Long since then, a much broader and no­tably par­ti­san gag­gle of al­leged ex­perts has seized the scene.

Com­monly in­cluded now on such pan­els are party of­fi­cials and other cheer­lead­ers and even cur­rent or for­mer cam­paign of­fi­cials. They pro­vide their can­di­dates’ views along­side work­ing-press stiffs hold­ing or pro­fess­ing to of­fer un­bi­ased anal­y­sis.

In the cur­rent cam­paign, CNN has of­fered two re­veal­ing ex­am­ples. Ear­lier this year, when Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign man­ager, Corey Le­wandowski, was fired, CNN scooped him up as a paid com­men­ta­tor. He es­sen­tially served as ex­plainer and de­fender of his old can­di­date, while re­port­edly re­ceiv­ing “sev­er­ance” pay from the Trump cam­paign.

More re­cently, CNNre­vealed that Donna Brazile, now the in­terim Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee chair, was fired as a CNN com­men­ta­tor for al­legedly leak­ing pro­posed de­bate ques­tions to the Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign.

Th­ese are only the most con­spic­u­ous ex­am­ples of po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tives in­fest­ing pan­els of what view­ers should be able to ac­cept as non­par­ti­san an­a­lysts of­fer­ing their opin­ions.

From the ear­li­est days of such po­lit­i­cal cam­paign broad­casts on ra­dio and tele­vi­sion, com­men­tary was sup­plied by the net­works’ own po­lit­i­cal re­porters and an­a­lysts who cov­ered the can­di­dates and cam­paigns and drew on their own ob­ser­va­tions.

The se­lected news­men and oc­ca­sional news­women did, of course, have their own opin­ions and ques­tions. But they were more likely to be based on what they were see­ing and hear­ing on the cam­paign trail they were cov­er­ing.

In ear­lier years, well-re­garded and trusted work­ing re­porters served as ques­tion­ers for the party nom­i­nees’ de­bates, with mod­er­a­tors cho­sen from ex­pe­ri­enced tele­vi­sion an­chors such as Jim Lehrer of PBS and Bob Schi­ef­fer of CBS. This year, four other es­tab­lished net­work re­porters were in­volved in the three pres­i­den­tial de­bates and re­ceived com­mend­able rat­ings in post-de­bate analy­ses.

In ad­di­tion, how­ever, the net­work and ca­ble out­lets also nightly served up an end­less bab­ble, and Ba­bel, of opin­ion­ated and of­ten trans­par­ently par­ti­san ar­gu­ments for or against the can­di­dates. In all, it did not con­trib­ute very much of great value to vot­ers seek­ing to de­cide who de­serves their sup­port.

The ma­jor com­mer­cial tele­vi­sion giants play a huge role to­day in de­ter­min­ing the knowl­edge level of vot­ers in our pres­i­den­tial elec­tions. In the fu­ture, one can hope they will es­chew turn­ing over such pan­els to pro­fes­sional par­ti­sans openly shilling for their fa­vorite can­di­dates.

The bet­ter op­tion would be to once again limit dis­cus­sions to ex­pe­ri­enced print and elec­tronic re­porters and an­a­lysts of proven im­par­tial­ity, who may as­sess the strengths and va­lid­ity of the can­di­dates’ po­si­tions of­fered on the cam­paign trail.

Mix­ing work­ing jour­nal­ists and pro­fes­sional po­lit­i­cal apol­o­gists on such sup­pos­edly an­a­lyt­i­cal pan­els of­ten sheds more heat than light on the is­sues in­volved in the cam­paigns. The two cur­rent cam­paign man­agers, Mr. Trump’s Kellyanne Con­way and Ms. Clin­ton’s Robby Mook, should be in­ter­viewed by the re­porters for their views, not in­vited to share the com­men­ta­tors’ stage as er­satz en­ter­tain­ers. Enough al­ready.


Donna Brazile, now the in­terim chair of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee, was fired as a CNN com­men­ta­tor for al­legedly leak­ing pro­posed de­bate ques­tions to the Hil­lary Clin­ton cam­paign.

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