It’s a sinking feeling I remember well. As an NBC News executive in charge of live television news, first in the early 2000s and again from 2009 to 2017, I often presided over a network control room when news was breaking. It was my job to advise the broadcast network when we needed to interrupt regular programming: to literally “break in” to millions of American homes watching sports or entertainment for vital information.
And every once in a while, my judgment was wrong. Occasionally, a newsmaker inadvertently, or even intentionally, tricked us into making that break-in decision—flipping a switch that would allow them to commandeer the public airwaves for a purpose that was political, not informational.
It was a particularly vexing mistake because once a live event was underway, once the news anchor’s microphone was on mute, our journalistic control was largely gone. We were reduced to being a live conduit for the newsmaker’s words.
Barack Obama’s White House was no stranger to this technique; word of a hastily arranged presidential appearance would cause us to scramble onto the air with no time to suss out the expected content—leading us to broadcast an uninterrupted opening statement that would be more political than newsmaking before a single question could be asked.
In recent years, “live” and “breaking” have become even more dominant, and somewhat devalued, buzzwords of the business. And that has marked a substantial further surrender of journalism and journalistic values in television news.
As of the end of March, CNN and MSNBC were still airing Donald Trump’s White House briefings on the pandemic live, giving the president ample opportunity for unfiltered spin and misinformation.
A generation ago, television news was dominated by taped and edited reporting. TV journalism was mostly “curated.” On the major evening newscasts and on magazine programs such as 60 Minutes, journalists’ work largely followed a sequence: investigate the facts, track down and interview key sources, prepare a report on what you find, give the principal players an opportunity to respond, put your story on the air. Presidential appearances on live television—even press conferences—were exceedingly rare, and often carefully scripted.
On the few programs that specialized in live interviews, care was taken to safeguard the facts. Ted Koppel’s Nightline, for instance, typically began with a reporter-driven set-up piece to lay out a basis for Koppel’s interviews; on Meet The Press, Tim Russert had an obsession with research that left little room for dissembling.
But in the age of cable news, live TV has become riddled with—and even revels in—the gladiatorial combat of opposing truths and “alternative facts.” Even in the dwindling parts of the cable news schedule ostensibly devoted to hard news, the traditional sequence of work has evolved into something entirely different: invite a newsmaker or pundit to be your “live” guest; challenge the guest with reporting or facts that are usually not your own; give the guest a respectable period of time to lie, obfuscate, or distract; invite others to join the fray; bring things to an inconclusive end by saying something like “we have to leave it there.” Lather, rinse, repeat.
As the world has become fully focused on COVID-19, cable news’ eagerness to go live has tilted the balance even more dramatically towards falsity. Nowhere has this been more evident than the daily briefings from the lectern of the White House.
With a massive, all-network audience watching, Trump has declared these sessions “a ratings hit.” And why not? The viewership is enormous, and he has free rein (with barely a word of journalistic intervention) to spread what Daniel Dale, CNN’s expert but exasperated Trump fact-checker, has called “a litany of inaccuracy, dishonesty.”
Even Trump’s address from the Oval Office, the most sober format available to any president, was so riddled with falsehoods that the administration had to issue three separate corrections within an hour of its delivery.
Months ago, in brief bursts, the cable networks made attempts to mitigate the lying. CNN tried putting a “Facts First” box on screen when President Trump’s rhetoric veered into fact-free fantasy. At one coronavirus briefing, CNN ecut away when Trump suddenly introduced the CEO of MyPillow to deliver a paean to the president. On MSNBC, Nicolle Wallace once gamely cut away from a live Trump-a-thon for a few minutes. All of it, sadly, is somewhat akin to holding back the tide with a teaspoon.
Even if the cable news networks change their policies on the briefings, there is no chance that live coverage will disappear from TV journalism. Nor should it. But the status quo does the public a disservice, and journalists who work in live coverage need to take back some control and confront the problem head-on.
- Try covering more of what they do, and less of what they say. What President Trump says he has done, or will do, about ventilator shortages is likely untrue and largely irrelevant. What he says someone told him about the situation in New York is equally irrelevant. What is actually happening in New York, what Trump has actually done … these are facts—knowable facts—and these are what matter.
- Let truth-telling be a prerequisite for appearing on live TV. Repeat offenders who lie or obfuscate with abandon, no matter their position, should not be put on live again.
- Adjust the balance between “being first” and “being right.” Journalists have always wanted both. But now, more than ever, being right is more important. The Oscars air on a 7-second delay so that unexpected expletives can be bleeped out. Why not put the White House briefing on a 30-minute delay so that the lies and inaccuracies and political rants can be removed? If a 30-minute wait results in a 90% improvement in accuracy, surely that’s a trade-off worth making.
Ted Koppel, who practically invented the art of live television news interviews with Nightline, recently said it best to The New York Times: “Training a camera on a live event, and just letting it play out, is technology, not journalism; journalism requires editing and context.”