Dear cable news: Knock it off with the dramatic language

December 20, 2017

Fox News host Jesse Watters recently provided a textbook lesson in the perils of mixing opinion, innuendo, and newsgathering. He began his newscast on Saturday night with a verified piece of news (a veteran FBI agent was fired by Mueller after an investigation revealed that he had sent messages critical of Trump and supportive of Hillary Clinton), then he worked it rhetorically for maximum political gain, using a bland out-word (“may”) to cloud the details even more.

“We may now have proof the investigation was weaponized to destroy [Trump’s] presidency for partisan political purposes and to disenfranchise millions of American voters,” Watters said on his Saturday show, concluding, “Now if that is true, we have a coup on our hands in America.”

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Moments later, Watters interviewed White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, above a chyron that read, “A coup in America?”

A coup. Breathtakingly irresponsible. Dangerous, even.

We have no proof that an investigation has been “weaponized”—and not a scintilla of evidence that the Mueller investigation is plotting to disenfranchise voters. But that sort of overheated language is a staple of cable news these days.

How did we reach the point where what should be journalism is, instead, a woefully predictable formula?

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And it’s not a partisan problem, either. MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, hours later, led Morning with this nugget: “When you’re spreading a message that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and that a Vietnam War hero … [is] launching a coup against the president of the United States, that will … attach to somebody like Timothy McVeigh, and they will take action, and yes, we will know who put those diseased thoughts in their heads.”

This is a shameless, extreme response—claiming that using the term “coup,” however unsuited to anything actually occurring in the United States, will necessarily resurrect Timothy McVeigh.

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How did we get here? How did we reach the point where what should be journalism is, instead, a woefully predictable formula that misleads or excites viewers, the public enlightenment be damned?

The simple answer: money.

The slugfest of cable news makes for cheap, endlessly repeatable content. Put two or more people on set and have them yell at one another for a bit, and you feed the 24/7 beast in a cost-efficient way. Real news costs money, demands effort, and requires that newsgatherers distance themselves from faction.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, in the timeless work The Elements of Journalism, make the case clearly. If journalism’s first obligation is to truth, and its first loyalty is to citizens, then to fulfill its mission journalism must operate with the goal of verification above all else. Being neutral is not a core principle of journalism, whose practitioners cannot possibly be objective. But their methods should be.

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And here we arrive at how a cable news channel could so recklessly throw around a word like “coup” to describe a legal investigation. A cornerstone of journalism is independence from those we cover. But cable news, the staple of so many Americans’ news diets, seldom practices journalism anymore, having sacrificed any semblance of distance from faction in favor of bread and circuses.

Yes, Fox and MSNBC and CNN, all have journalists doing journalism. Yet each one employs shills who spew unverified garbage and do the bidding of political masters. It’s too much to ask of the viewing public to parse it all, to decide what the news is amid innuendo and opinion. Today, the most significant cable-news deliverable is confusion, which disserves the public and violates the profession’s mission.  

That’s too high a price to pay, no matter how cheap or endless the content.

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Charles N. Davis is dean of the Grady College of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, home of the Peabody Awards.