It was not the retractions, or apologies, made by the leaders of well-known organizations after big errors, that should make Americans shake their head most as we ponder the state of U.S. media as our new year begins.
Neither does it seem to be the stories we missed, or the fact that many in media failed to notice how many among us, and in other arenas of society that you expect us to monitor closely, continued to mistreat women for decades without anyone in our profession seeming to notice.
Those things were bad, and signs of things that need to change if 2018 will be any better than last year.
But I think that of all the things that went wrong in the media in 2017, perhaps the least consequential mess-up in my profession this year is the one that demonstrates most clearly what has gone wrong in the past few years.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then maybe the images of countless television reporters standing in the wind and rain of Hurricane Harvey, making the obvious observation that hurricanes are, indeed, quite windy and rainy, say all that needs to be said about modern media.
“Ouch! That hurt!” declared one TV anchor, as he demonstrated what all of us already know: You should not go outside in a hurricane.
“Duh. It hurts. Don’t do that,” thought most of his audience.
And yet, just about every TV station had at least one — usually more — people standing in the rain, hoping more Americans would watch their guy (or gal) standing in the rain, than someone else’s.
And the TV producers thought that was a good thing.
It’s not surprising then, that some of the first polls about the media of 2017 indicated that Americans don’t trust us like they used to. First an NPR/PBS poll indicated that nearly 2/3 of Americans define their trust of media as “not very much” or “not at all.”
An Emerson College (Boston, Ma.) poll was slightly less painful, with 53 percent telling pollsters that media is not “truthful.”
That’s not good, for us in the media, or for those who read/watch/listen to us.
We have spent much of the year pondering why.
One very possible explanation: A Trump supporter might say, “At least, our President is smart enough to come out of the rain.”
And they’d be right.
The fact that almost every TV station or network that covered the hurricane showed a reporter standing in the storm is just the latest reminder that we, your news providers have lost focus of what news is, and isn’t.
I have spent most of 2017 looking for a way to explain the phenomenon of a President who is widely known for saying things that are untrue still earning more trust than many major media.
It’s an uncomfortable, exasperating reality – but it’s one we in my profession have earned over many years of significant mess-ups.
Donald Trump didn’t cause Americans to distrust the media, although he clearly benefited from it.
Trump didn’t seduce or charm us away from trusting the media. We, the media, pushed you away with years of neglect — too many times we just were not there, or not reliable. And we lost the faith of many Americans.
It was not just 2017 that included head-shaking mess-ups. We’ve done that just about every year.
Maybe the end of 2017 is a good time to look back on some of those let-downs, with the hope of explaining why many Americans feel the way they do about media, and the hope that it will help those in my profession.
Here is one of the worst examples of 2017:
“JUST IN: @BrianRoss on @ABC News Special Report: Michael Flynn promised ‘full cooperation to the Mueller team’ and is prepared to testify that as a candidate, Donald Trump ‘directed him to make contact with the Russians.’ ”
The ironic and frustrating thing is that almost all epic errors like this would simply disappear if reporters, producers, editors and the rest would go back to these basics of journalism:
- Do not seek to be “first,” but to be the first to get it right.
- Be sure you have listened before you start talking (or writing).
- If you discover that things are not what you expected, report what you discovered without filtering it through what you expected.
- Focus on what people in power do, not what they say (or Tweet!).
- Be brave enough to stop following the crowd.
Since 2000, my profession has made some incredible blunders – we made some horrible choices that had significant consequences. These were not just typographical errors, or honest mistakes. We made deliberate choices that negatively affected the quality and accuracy of information you received.
Not only have we erred in what we told you, we have messed up in not doing more to make sure you know what is actually happening.
I have a relative who is taking a brand new oral chemotherapy drug, approved this year under new FDA director Scott Gotlieb’s new policies. Yet you probably have not heard much about him, or his new guidelines. HERE is one of many stories about his impact.
Few in the media told you about Betsy DeVos and her incredibly successful charter schools, like this one. I contacted several people who have attended a DeVos charter school and the response is overwhelmingly positive. And yet you probably heard little or nothing about those when the Senate confirmed her as Secretary of Education.
And in an era of climate change debate, you probably have not read, or heard on TV, about how Al Gore’s companies have received $2.5 billion in grants, loans tax breaks and other benefits from the federal government, or how his personal wealth has multiplied 50 times since 200o.
Trump has been playing the media all year, determining what stories we write by what he tweets, making us forget that what matters is not what he says but what government is doing. And we keep letting him.
But 2017 is just the most recent of many years in which we, the media, have been out of touch with much of America.
Here are a few examples from previous years:
2016: The election
You are as tired of hearing about 2016 as I am of writing about it. But we can’t address media mess-ups without mentioning it. Virtually everyone declared Trump’s defeat to be all but certain, even if they did include the caveat “Trump could win.”
“Total Meltdown,” read the cover of Time Magazine, two weeks before Trump won. Inside that issue, the story corresponding to that cover declared that Trump was planning post-election excuses, and that Hillary’s biggest danger was “premature gloating.”
Among the quotes about Trump and his campaign in this time story: “…the last gasp of an angry white man,” and “the final act of the tragedy.”
And how was Time rewarded for this most-wrong story? They earned a Magazine Cover of the Year Award. Really. From the American Society of Magazine Editors.
It’s not a good day in media when we report that one of the most-wrong stories of 2016 earns “Best of the Year” award.
But Time was not alone in its wrongness. Just about everyone else in the media (including me) was sure Trump would lose, and lose “bigly.”
We simply missed the signs — literally.
While driving through rural Iowa in the summer of 2016, I noticed nothing but Trump signs. I knew he was winning “out here,” although none of us in the media knew how big “out here” was, or how “bigly” Trump was winning.
We didn’t pay enough attention to those signs, or the people who placed them.
In an uncomfortable interview, “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd acknowledged that we, the media, failed to comprehend how much anti-Hillary support we saw “out there.” Also, he told Ari Fleischer, those of us who saw how Americans did prefer Trump to Hillary were reluctant to say so, or discuss why.
“If we sort of were straight-up honest and blunt …we certainly would have at least made the viewer know, hey, you know, she’s not well-liked in some places in this country in ways that’s times 10 when it comes to Trump,” said Todd. “What do I think we did wrong in this election? The biggest thing is we didn’t tell the stories of all Americans. We told the stories of coastal Americans. And ultimately, that’s like the larger trust issue…”
The media did not tell stories well, he said, adding that it’s an “out of touch issue.”
Hear Todd’s words yourself HERE.
And we can’t mention 2016 without mentioning Huffington Post’s Election Eve article entitled “What’s Wrong with 538?”
This long, strongly worded column castigated Nate Silver for predicting that Clinton had just a 65 percent chance of becoming President, when all of the polls that Huffington Post had reviewed indicated that Hillary’s chances were at least 98 percent in one poll and more than 99 percent in another.
“Tragically wrong,” declared writer/pollster Evan Cohen about Nate Silver and his 538 predictions, inadvertently giving the media a new theme.
It took about 24 hours for the nation to see who owns the tragic wrongness: It belongs to us, the media.
But enough, already, about 2016. Let’s go back to previous years, and how in recent history, we in the media have earned your distrust.
2015: Brian Williams
For years, the NBC anchor told us more and more dramatic tales of his exploits while covering the war in Iraq, and eventually he was bragging about being on a helicopter that got shot. It wasn’t until several soldiers who were on that aircraft with him called him publicly out that the network suspended him. He told this false story several times over several years, and nobody in his network tried to stop him.
2014: Ferguson, Mo.
“Hands up! Don’t Shoot.”
Many in the media quoted “witnesses” to the Michael Brown shooting in the St. Louis suburb on Aug. 9, 2014, telling us that before he was killed, the unarmed black teen had his hands innocently in the air.
But he didn’t.
That false narrative spread in many newspaper and TV reports helped inspire riots in Ferguson, Mo.
Then, a few months later, on Nov. 25, 2014, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch said in a press conference that many of those witnesses (who had been quoted without challenge in the media) had “amended their testimonies.”
At that same press conference, McCulloch said that other witnesses “stood by original statements, even though those statements were totally discredited by the physical evidence.”
You probably don’t remember hearing that.
That’s because on Nov. 25, 2014, with cameras from virtually every news network present, McCulloch announced that the officer who shot Brown would not face charges.
But before letting McCulloch finish his explanation, the media (I was watching ABC and George Stephanopoulos, but the others did the same thing), turned off their microphones and started commentating. We stopped listening and started talking.
So, if you wanted to hear what McCulloch said about witnesses giving false accounts of the Brown shooting, you had to watch it on Youtube. I did. See that video HERE.
And yet, our media legacy of letting you down on the issues of race and inner cities began long before Ferguson. For years we ignored the plight of inner cities. We only show up for riots, then go home and forget about all of issues that led to them: Racism and crime. Housing and opportunity. Education and family life. Drugs and gangs.
Those issues are complicated and time-consuming. And in an era when we can’t even let a public official finish his press conference before telling you what he said, how can we, the media, stay focused long enough to bring to light the facts behind the story?
We could easily look back on the rest of the years between now and Y2K (remember that?), and see some big stories each year that left you, the audience, less likely to trust us, the media:
Dan Rather and the Killian documents (2oo4).
How ABC News devoted five minutes to Paul Harvey after his death, and hours to reciting the latest “Bachelor” finale (2009).
Our failure as the media to find the truth about Weapons of Mass Destruction (2002).
How TV news settled its case with Richard Jewell (2011) after falsely turning the guy who saved many in the 1996 Atlanta bombings into a “suspect,” and relentlessly hounding him.
News reports of a cancer drug “shortage” which could cause thousands of children to die, although a closer review of the situation indicated that not one child even missed a one dose of medicine (2o12).
What bothers me most about the mess-ups of 2017, and the earlier ones mentioned above, is the fact that we, the media, seem to be very slow learners. The mistakes we made in 2017 are painfully similar to those we made years ago.
There are three stories from the first year of this millennium that highlight just how wrong we the media can be. And although these stories now seem like ancient history, the lessons we didn’t learn at the turn of the century clearly remain unlearned.
March 1, 2001, is a day that should life in infamy among U.S. media, although almost nobody in the media knows why.
On March 1, 2001, Ambassador Prudence Bushnell sat in the witness chair in the U.S. vs. Bin Laden trial, and shared her story of how she barely survived the al-qaeda attack on the U.S. Embassy in Kenya.
During that trial, which lasted until May, prosecutors carefully described how Bin Laden and his fellow terrorists had planned for years to kill as many Americans as possible, and how they were planning to attack the U.S. with airplanes.
Day after day, in a courtroom open to the public and the media — in a building less than one mile away from where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center stood — prosecutors warned us of Bin Laden’s hopes and plans to attack us again.
But we, the media, weren’t there.
Oh, we were in the courthouse. But we were not at THAT trial. Instead, we send countless reporters to the very same building to cover the trial of the singer who then called himself “Puffy” Combs. He was on trial for a weapons charge in a shooting case in which nobody was killed, but three people were injured. On March 1, Puffy testified on his own behalf.
The eyes of the media were focused on Puffy, but not on Ambassador Bushnell. A few writers covered the Bin Laden trial and the more than 200 people who died in the embassy bombings in Africa, for very short stories that ended up in the back pages. But in another part of the building, the courtroom was packed with reporters eager to be the first to write about how nobody got killed.
As anyone who remembers 2001 can tell you, the jury found Combs not guilty.
But do you remember the Bin Laden verdict?
Those suspects were also found guilty. Sentencing was set for mid-September, within sight of the World Trade Centers. That sentencing hearing was delayed after 9/11.
I wonder what would have happened if we had covered that trial as thoroughly as we did the singers. Would it have raised enough attention to maybe alert someone that perhaps the terror organization about to be sentenced in NYC for attacking the U.S. was planning something more?
We will never know, because we didn’t show up.
I used to think that part of the blame lies with American citizens. And yes, too many Americans spend way too much time worrying about celebrities and not nearly enough about serious news. But this failure is totally on us, the media. We have to blame the editors and producers and reporters who decided that it was more important to tell you about the trial of a celebrity for an incident that killed nobody than a trial involving terrorism and hundreds of deaths, and a group that had been targeting the U.S. and NYC for years.
If you want to know more about the 2001 NYC terrorism trial we didn’t cover, you can read daily transcripts HERE.
It’s up to us, the media, to bring you important stories, and to tell you why those stories are important. We didn’t do that then. I wonder if we are doing that any better now.
2000 presidential election
The 2001 Bin Laden trials came just 4 months after we, the media, messed up again in big ways that matter.
December, 2000. The very close Bush-Gore election was winding through the court system. The focus was on Florida, where some in the media had projected Gore to be the winner before the polls actually closed. Yeah, really, they did.
But during the court case, we the media, let you down again — this time, by one very astonishing fact we did not report: Al Gore did not just ask for a recount; he told the court to declare him the winner.
Gore’s brief instructed the court to do nine things including: “G. Order that the Election Canvassing Commission certify that the true results of the 2000 Presidential Election in Florida as that the Electors of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman received the majority of votes cast in the election; and H. Order that the Elections Canvassing Commission, Secretary of State and Division of Elections certify as elected the presidential electors of Al Gore and Joe Lieberman.”
Really. Read it all, for yourself, HERE.
I read this brief in the fall of 200o, and wrote about it. I watched the news, waiting for the discussion that was sure to follow this bombshell: That a U.S. candidate for President took the unprecedented step of asking a court to declare him the winner — something way beyond anyone has ever asked a court to do. I was sure this would lead to a very interesting discussion about this case and the role of the courts.
But I watched, very carefully, the major network and big-city newspaper reports the court challenges revolving around the 2000 election and I heard: Nothing. Not one media report mentioned this. Not one. Even now, looking this case up is a huge challenge, because virtually nobody in the media covered it.
Everyone reported that Gore asked for a recount. Nobody reported that he asked the court to declare him the winner.
And still, 17 years and one month later, I wonder: Why?
Just as the year 2000 ended with a media mess-up of significance, it began the same way.
Do you remember Y2K?
“The End is Near” declared Time magazine, on its cover, in December of 1999. (Yes, the same cover that predicted the “total meltdown” and defeat of the Trump campaign.) In the story accompanying the cover, the magazine even bragged that it deserved credit for naming 2000 as Y2k.
“The end of the world as we know it,” was the title of the story, in which Time warned that because of a computer date glitch that made computers unable to tell the difference between 1900 and 2000, all kinds of horror could happen.
Later, Time writers would recall how the magazine set up a generator-powered bunker in its basement, just in case all of the dire predictions it had made came true.
They did not.
The premise of that article was that the computer world was not ready for the new millennium.
Turns out, however, that the computer world was quite prepared for years beginning in “2o.” It was we, the media, who were utterly un-ready for the challenges of new technology and changes in society that the new millennium brough.
So, now what? Where do, we the media, go from here? And will we — can we — learn from past mistakes?
It was a rotten year for the media, wrote Pulitzer Prize-winner Nicholas Kristof.
“The last year has not been the news media’s finest….too often we followed what glittered, yapped uselessly at everything in sight and didn’t dig hard enough or hold politicians accountable for lies……we were mindless mutts that barked at everything… We should also try harder to debunk fake stories.”
But Mr. Kristof was not referring 2017, the year in which media mess-ups made headlines and one news anchor got suspended and three CNN employees resigned after publishing stories that were not true.
He was referring to 2016.
We didn’t learn from the mess-ups 2016; I just hope we learn much more from what we did wrong in 2017.