- - Thursday, November 15, 2018


Reporting the news is difficult and expensive. Grandstanding is more fun and everyone has an opinion. That’s why reporters were once taught, often by a stern taskmaster, to leave opining to the columnists and the editorial page, and save their opinions for after work in the bar across the street. This particular affliction — grandstanding rather than reporting, advocacy rather than observing and distilling those observations before passing them on to press and tube, is the affliction of the modern media. And why not? Talking is cheaper than reporting.

The symptoms have exacted a considerable long-term cost. The Pew Research Center finds that a mere 21 percent of Americans have “a lot of trust” in the national newspapers and television networks, 49 percent have only “some trust” and 29 have “not too much” or “none at all.” A startling 68 percent say the national media reports the news with a bias.

This has been a complaint of conservatives for a long time, a complaint usually dismissed by the mainstream media, so called, as the lament of cranks and churls. This enables President Trump to lay out a persuasive case that the mainstream media is obsessed with destroying his presidency and are using opinion disguised as news. “Fake news,” he calls it. Things have turned so grim in the news trade that some old gray heads who are no particular friends of Donald Trump are beginning to speak up about it.

Ted Koppel, who made ABC News’ “Nightline” a must-watch late-night program an eon ago, mocked CNN’s obsession with President Trump at a panel at the National Press Club, telling a CNN panelist that his network “would be in the toilet without Donald Trump. You can’t do without Donald Trump. You would be lost without Donald Trump.” Ted Turner, who invented CNN, said not long ago that “I think they’re sticking with politics a little too much. They’d do better to have a more balanced agenda.” Bob Woodward of The Washington Post says emotion drives the news coverage. “In the news media there has been an emotional reaction to Trump,” he says. “Too many people for Trump, or against Trump, have become emotionally unhinged about this.” Larry King, who hosted a late-night talk show on CNN for years, says “CNN stopped doing news a long time ago. They do Trump.”

Jim Acosta, CNN’s chief White House correspondent, has become hardly a reporter at all. He is a fiercely partisan advocate who has become the public center of the story, badgering and debating Sarah Sanders, the president’s press secretary and sometimes the president himself. It’s all the better for Mr. Acosta when these confrontations, which once would have occurred off-camera, are televised. Given his taste for the spotlight, he hit the jackpot when the president barred him from the White House, perhaps unwisely, but now he is not merely part of the story, he is the story.

In revoking his press pass, the White House invited the CNN lawsuit arguing that Mr. Acosta’s First Amendment rights were violated when he was told he couldn’t come into the president’s house. The White House says Mr. Acosta “disrupted the fair and orderly administration of a press conference” with his lecture to the president, refusing to yield the microphone so the president could take a question from another reporter. The president makes a valid point that Mr. Acosta’s rude behavior interfered with the rights of other journalists to do their work.

Whether CNN succeeds with its lawsuit to retrieve Mr. Acosta’s press pass — an early ruling is promised Friday — the problem of declining public confidence in the media will remain. Lawsuits are not the answer. Publishers, editors and network chiefs hold the only answer to restoring public trust. The only way to do it is to put grown-ups in charge. Restoring that trust is more important than restoring one man’s press pass.

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