Let’s play a game in which I present two takes on separate news stories and we endeavor to draw conclusions from their synthesis.
First: George Stephanopoulos, the ostensible face of ABC’s journalism division, is in hot water after revelations that he failed (or rather, didn’t even bother to) disclose hefty contributions to the Clinton Foundation, among other Clinton-associated organizations. Calls are raining down from all directions for ABC to hold Stephanopoulos accountable to basic journalistic standards. Over at The Week, Edward Morrissey cheekily suggests that ABC need not admonish Stephanopoulos because he’s “not a journalist. He just plays one on TV.”
Let that simmer in your mind for a second as we hop over to story number two.
Second: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is running for president and, as people who run for president are wont to do, he’s making television appearances with the usual suspects. In this particular instance, covered by ReverbPress’ Elisabeth Parker, Sanders appears on CNN’s State of the Union where host Brianna Keilar practically begs him to take shots at Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. Sanders refuses, instead questioning the journalistic integrity of a host who salivates for soundbites:
“I don’t believe in ugly 30-second ads. I believe in serious debates on serious issues. I’ve known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. Maybe I shouldn’t say this. I like Hillary Clinton. I respect Hillary Clinton. Will the media, among others, allow us to have a civil debate on civil issues? Or is the only way to get media attention by ripping apart someone else? I certainly hope that’s not the case…
“Are you in the media prepared to allow us to engage in that serious debate? Or do I have to get media attention by simply making reckless attacks on Hillary Clinton or anybody else? I don’t believe in that. I believe in serious debates on serious issues.”
So what’s the common denominator between these two stories? Politics, certainly. In particular, the marriage of politics with questionable journalistic ethics. But deep down, what connects these two stories is how they fit within a longer trend of once-trusted news organizations ceasing to behave like news organizations.
Stephanopoulos’ past life as a Democratic operative and Clinton strategist aren’t exactly state secrets. His political leanings aren’t of much consequence and his sins could easily have been forgiven if he just went, “Aw shucks, I screwed up.” What’s concerning about this saga is the underlying message behind Morrissey’s piece: Stephanopoulos’ unwillingness to hold himself to journalistic standards implies that not even he believes he’s a real journalist.
And he may very well be right. The man’s an entertainer. Most TV news has become journalistic theatre, and Stephanopoulos is just there to put fannies in seats. His closest comparison is probably a reality TV host.
The same can be said for Keilar. Just like a reality TV producer promotes artificial conflict between characters, our purported mainstream journalists are simply there to stoke the dramatic fires. Senator Sanders sits on a CNN set — a place where fake holograms curiously update us on election results and airliner-eating black holes get discussed — and wonders why no one wants to ask him about the issues. I’m sure if he had torn off his shirt and said he wanted to chokeslam Hillary through the Spanish announcers’ table, Sanders would be invited to return as a recurring guest.