Journalist Credibility and the Fourth Estate
I’m all for forgiving someone and restoring that person to a forgiven status so that the person might be grateful and able to successfully move forward. Yet, admittedly, after having seriously forgiven someone, at times, I have moved forward with some distrust, slightly wary, unable to truly forget. Again, only at times. Rarely. As in outlier.
This is not necessarily a problem. And it does not mean true forgiveness did not take place. But people aren’t doormats, and an abuse of welcome can quickly turn to STAY AWAY. When others abuse our good graces it does no good to them to abet any destructive habits, and no good to ourselves to pretend we are fine with someone doing an extra offense. While forgiveness has taken place, unless trapped by commitment, or occupation, or whatever circumstance, most of us would decide to not pursue further interests with the offender.
We would just naturally seek to protect ourselves from recurring discomfort. When trust has been broken, nobody wants it broken any additional time thereafter. While our forgiveness may, and perhaps should be, waiting in the wings for additional violations of trust, the critical matter of credibility comes into play.
It’s a simple dictum: The more I must forgive, the less credible the repeat offender becomes in my ongoing estimation of that person. I like you. I don’t trust you.
I am referring only to a personal situation. Business and professional settings require another approach. It is not possible for forgiveness to occur multiple times in a business setting unless it is some family business, or, perhaps a mentor situation. But, profit-driven businesses do not have the luxury of repeated offenses warranting repeated forgiveness.
I am writing this piece the day after Reza Aslan’s show Believer was cancelled by CNN. According to CNN, Aslan’s offense consisted of “profane anti-Trump tweets.” Aslan claimed to have “lost [his] cool” and “he recognized that CNN ‘needed to protect its brand.'” This came on the heels of comedian Kathy Griffin being fired from CNN‘s annual New Year’s Eve bash for holding a bloody mask of President Trump’s head in a video.
These were swift, same-day, corporate responses by CNN.
These examples, including the recent arrest of the NSA’s Reality Leigh Winner, warrant a fascinating study in a new level of American socio-political discourse as American citizens have begun to ‘lose their cool’ due to the current toxic political climate. Occupational responsibility and accountability, and what we can easily attribute to the vast sea of controversies arising with resistance to Donald Trump being raised to presidential power, help to stress the comparison drawn here between personal and professional distinctions required when forgiving offenses.
People make mistakes. Comedian Bill Maher had to apologize for recently using the N-word in an interview on his HBO show. We apologize or not, we lose jobs or job perks or not, we move forward. Despite the Judaeo-Christian ethic, our human civility and dignity expect that any and all persons who are truly repentant be granted forgiveness; and, when possible, restoration. While Maher at this point has barely squeezed by and remains restored, that will not happen for Aslan, Griffin, or Winner. At least, not restored to the comfort of their previous roles.
On the other hand, MSNBC has been doing something peculiar this past year as Trump was elected and assumed his new presidential role. While the ratings are higher than average for the network, largely due to The Rachel Maddow Show and her excellent journalistic prowess working to expose misinformation coming from the White House, they’ve been taking an odd risk.
Let me preface where we are about to go by saying that I have no argument with their evident forgiveness, and water under the bridge, for sure, when it comes to Brian Williams and Dan Rather. Without question, these are two of the finest men in the news industry. They’re both personable, affable, well-seasoned broadcasters.
But Rather and Williams are not two of the finest journalists, in my opinion. While they may have spent their lengthy careers in the news industry, and worked hard, no doubt, to get to their initially high levels of prestige, they are, in essence, a business risk. A hidden risk.
Sure, a shockjock like Howard Stern can push the wrong buttons and move up to gain his own channel. Another loudmouth like Bill O’Reilly can settle a sexual harassment suit, be dropped from his network, and find or create a new home for himself; he has all the money, power, and connections. And a Roger Ailes can pinpoint extreme societal malaise, its strongest adherents, identify them as loyalists, and build an empire around the unseen profit-driven supposition that the wrongly marginalized denizens of the culture are finally being given a needed voice in the marketplace.
But what we don’t talk about today in the instantaneity of global news activity and the rapid trend of fake news accusations, is the critical role of untarnished credibility required for professional sustainment of a requisite reputation inherent to the Fourth Estate. Rather, mainstream media is our ‘enemy’ we are told – their news is fake. How do millions of people arrive to this conclusion?
The airwaves are poisoned ad nauseum by angry, vitriolic talking heads cashing in on societal angst. Their diatribes are against their competition, of course, which is MSM; and Fox News is MSM despite their rhetoric to the contrary. That they have made attacks on the credibility of their competition valid arguments to their viewers is troubling because they are far less credible, with many of these personalities not even formally qualified for journalism.
While there is no time here to discuss the proclivities and questionably profitable choices of media monopolies in their persistent media wars, we must consider this matter of credibility. Conservative news followers believe their side of the issues is not properly represented in mainstream media, and many believe it is deliberately distorted.
These are legitimate concerns, and we must wonder if MSM consider them so; and if so, what are they doing about it?
For one, there is no conceivable shortage of qualified, fresh new journalistic talent out there, yet MSNBC recently brought conservative Greta Susteren into its lineup. That stirs up their follower base like a hornet’s nest since Susteren spent her media career with the ilk of media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s political arm operating as the Republican news network, Fox News.
Whatever one thinks, MSNBC‘s risk to bring in a strongly conservative voice to a highly reputable liberal network appears to still be fleshing itself out, as, undoubtedly, the network wants to woo viewers through this action. Only they know the real numbers, and value, of their decision at this point.
Does the addition of Susteren add credibility to MSNBC? Its audience base most likely thinks it takes credibility away; that the conservative voice, although invited there, once in action, reveals itself to be apart from the ethos of its host. And politically speaking, that is why these two networks exist and are in strict opposition. While the addition of Susteren oddly suggests we can all peaceably get along in this profession, we all know all corporate media decisions are profit-driven.
So, MSNBC seems to be experimenting with risking its credibility for audience gain, at least in the case of Susteren. But the network is also risking its credibility with Rather and Williams. Each of these personalities, I believe, is stronger than Susteren in media savviness, on-air presence, and overall balance on the issues. But that’s it.
That’s without even getting into any dour cultural receptivity stereotypically being ascribed to older, white males, or ‘suits’ here.
Dan Rather lacks credibility. Rathergate was his downfall; and, while he is certainly forgiven as we all do stupid things, he simply has no credibility that warrants his presence as a trustworthy newscaster. He lost it. And rightly so.
Now when a reputable journalist or network brings him on, because all is forgiven, an act that should be applauded, he doesn’t just affect that entity’s credibility. He destroys it. Off goes the channel, no matter how well-liked or beloved the host. Not out of emotion; but, rather, due to logic. And, the host must be extremely solid in his or her credibility status to remain unaffected.
It’s a dodgy affair.
Brian Williams can steadily joke as the powerful lead for his show, or on the panel, and everyone around can join in. But the audience isn’t laughing. They’re watching a man they once trusted who reportedly misled them. They’re skeptical now, and rightly so. Joking doesn’t take distrust away. It actually intensifies it. People see the joke as on them. And those people do get angry.
But should professional broadcasters such as Rather and Williams ‘pay for their sins’ their entire lives? This seems to be the issue, and so far, MSNBC has decided no. They will take that risk and do the admirable thing: let friends be friends, let bygones be bygones. All is forgiven.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Perhaps we like our tainted newscasters like we like our ‘bad boys?’ In the disturbing German tale directed by Margarethe von Trotte, The Lost Honour of Katarina Blum, an added punch comes when the viewer is made aware at the end that – despite the evident fabrication of the salacious terrorism story just watched, and disclaimer that the film itself is fictitious and bears no identification with the German Bild-Zeitung tabloid, the offending media source ratings were remarkably attractive.
The outgoing premise there is that, when our media lie to us, and innocent people get hurt or lose their lives as consequence, our overall attitude is to still loyally maintain that medium’s support.
Perhaps we are media masochists. Perhaps we are grossly apathetic. Perhaps xenophobic. Perhaps because it isn’t happening in our small world it isn’t really happening.
Deposed journalists should be permitted to recover. They should be given back their dignity and opportunity to start over. A clean slate. They should not, however, be restored to their professional positions without a keen understanding that they may no longer have credibility and are a threat to institutional credibility. Both to the branded corporate image, and to the once-high profession of journalism.
In a time when fake news is epidemic, and even famously neutral broadcast networks such as the BBC are being called out for showing obvious bias, sticking with the old guard and trusting that their credibility will quietly return while no one takes notice is a pipe dream. It’s a calculated risk where all the ratings variables may even suggest a viable working relationship, but who’s zoomin’ who?
We lament how once-respected and legitimate MSM get increasingly attacked as fake news; yet, we perpetually find, of all the thousands of available, qualified professional voices clamoring to be honestly heard amid a cacophony of phony media representations, the honorable Dan Rather and Brian Williams, again, on MSNBC.
Despite all their incessant ranting and raving for the President of the United States and his administration to be more honest with the citizenry and the media, to then think that those objections are somehow validated by a respectable host interviewing a fallen journalist, or by a fallen journalist interviewing a respected host, isn’t just risky business. It’s unrealistic.
It just isn’t true. And there’s hypocrisy evident there: the President of the United States must be permanently removed from his occupation but news anchors who often share White House dinner perks and the like, when they make a moral or ethical judgment failure, they get their jobs back?
Yet, while I have been writing this, Twitter is all aglow in congratulating Rachel Maddow on her success; according to a Tweet today by Maddow’s fellow anchor, Lawrence O’Donnell, “Rachel @maddow was #1 in cable last night not just cable news. She’s hitting ratings highs no one in cable news ever has.Including O’Reilly”. Rachel should be commended, hands down and should bask in the delight of her accomplishment. And, Dan Rather was a guest on that episode, prompting this tome in response.
Maybe Rather and Williams act as ‘happier days’ memory anchors for their fans in these tumultuous times, that would not be implausible. Maybe their fan bases were consistent even after they disappeared from the media radar. Regardless, my argument here is that last night’s ratings would have been even higher without Rather, as I see it. I turned off the broadcast once he opened his mouth.
And, peculiar and idiosyncratic as I may be as a person, America can be, also. Rather was, however, positioned towards the end of the show, so, that may be noteworthy.
Still, my goal is the big picture beyond now-elevated, previously disgraced anchors to the crucial matter of journalism credibility as a tenet to the Fourth Estate with overall journalist credibility swirling ceaselessly in the rhetorical toilet today.
Life is a complex experiment for each and every one of us. We will all make terrible choices and suffer the consequences. There are no pat, easy answers that apply to please everyone involved in a tragic situation.
And some of us are powerfully privileged enough to gain important colleague support and vast audience admiration for time and energy we dedicate to our extensive careers. We must be grateful. Sad, cold, and disheartening as it may seem to a forgiven offender not fully capable of being ethically restored to a responsible position of journalistic power and prestige, there is a reservoir of healing and restorative truth, dignity, and grace to be found in the adage, “You had a good run.”