A Fourth Estate failure
Presidential campaign coverage by major media outlets has undergone a sad decline
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.