Ken: Trump is Journalism’s Click Bait
The Society of the Silurians, an organization of veteran journalists, honored Ken with their Lifetime Achievement Award on November 19th, 2018. Here are the remarks he made accepting the award.
BY KEN AULETTA
I became a journalist because I failed in politics! I was the campaign manager for Howard Samuels for Governor in 1974, and with my help we went from a 20-point lead in the polls to a 20-point defeat.
These days I worry about another failure: journalisms.
Bear with me as I take a few moments to discuss what Donald Trump has done to our profession. I confess: I struggle with two opposite thoughts, one sunny, one bleak.
On the one hand, I mostly agree with CNN President Jeff Zucker who has said, “The one thing I know for sure is that Donald Trump has made American journalism great again.”
I marvel at the investigative reporting done by the New York Times and Washington Post, in particular. I still can’t comprehend why the full year the Times spent brilliantly reporting how Trump manipulated his money and didn’t pay his taxes has not had a more atomic impact.
I marvel at David Remnick’s eloquent insistence that we not normalize Trump’s abnormal presidential behavior.
I marvel at the probing questions posed by Jake Tapper, Chris Cuomo, or Brian Stelter of CNN, or MSNBC’s Nicole Wallace.
If you gave trump a truth serum, too often he wouldn’t tell the truth. But he speaks the truth when he says, “I’ve been good for the business of journalism.”
The digital edition of the New York Times is a rocket ship, due in some measure to the drama of its Trump coverage. The 60 Minutes interview in March 2018 of adult film star Stormy Daniels was the most watched 60 minutes in a decade. CNN, Fox, and MSNBC are reveling in ratings glory.
But here’s the bleak news: Trump is our click bait.
For decades a debate has raged whether the press is burdened by a liberal bias that distorts press coverage. I believe the central press bias that draws too little attention is our bias for conflict. As was true in the 2016 primary and election, and as is true in his presidency, a blustery showman like Trump excites coverage.
Fox gets more clicks by serving as a Trump cheerleader, by bashing his rivals, by mostly ignoring the outrageous things he says or does.
CNN and MSNBC make the opposite mistake: they are fixated on Trump, crowding out other news. In the words of one CNN correspondent, “We are the Trump News Network.”
I, too, suffer from a Trump addiction. I find myself in late afternoon drawn online or to a tv to learn: what did our seemingly mad president do today?
Jeff Zucker inadvertently revealed why there is too little reporting on non-Trump subjects when he told Joe Pompeo of Vanity Fair: “People say all the time, ‘Oh I don’t want to talk about Trump. I’ve had too much Trump.’ and yet at the end of the day, all they want to do is talk about Trump. We’ve seen that anytime you break away from the Trump story and cover other events... the audience goes away.”
I wish Zucker had said: “My job as a journalist is to sometimes say to our audience: eat your spinach. Because I’m a professional, part of my job is to determine what’s important. What belongs as the lede. What stories matter.”
I admire Jeff Zucker for having the guts to confront Donald Trump’s falsehoods and to defend his troops. But too often, like MSNBC, he has his talented evening anchors participate in a gladitorial battle with Trump. Instead of coverage, we get conflict and punditry. We get inexpensive to produce segments featuring loud voices pounding a table.
Too often, we behave like Donald Trump. We talk too much, and listen too little.
No news institution barks and grovels more than Fox News. In prime time, they serve as an armed Trump cop, ready to punish those who stray. Why do almost 90 % of Republicans support Trump? Blame Fox News.
Our business — journalism — is a frightened profession. We’ve lost jobs and advertising and circulation. So we shout louder to get attention. We promote conflict. We smirk. We tweet. We opine on cable news channels. Inevitably, we grant ammunition to Trump voters who believe we are out to get him.
Consider this front page headline in the November 10 New York Times: “Trump finds attack dog in fight against Mueller.” The story referred to Trump’s choice of Matthew Whitaker as acting Attorney General. There were no quote marks around attack dog. No one was cited accusing Whittaker of serving as an attack dog. Based on what Whittaker has said in the past about Mueller, I share the opinion that he is an attack dog. But that’s an opinion, and the Times should not be placing editor or reporter opinions in their headlines.
Which ignites my biggest fear: Much of the public doesn’t believe our facts. They ignore Pat Moynihan’s wise adage, “You’re entitled to your own opinions, not your own facts.” We have lost much of our authority, and we can’t just blame Trump’s outrageous and menacing attacks on us as “enemies of the people” or as “evil.”
A president who sometimes seems to be mad — off his rocker — is driving us mad. What to do?
I don’t have a 14 point plan. But i’d start with these seven:
We must criticize Fox News, which has more impact on Trump supporters than anyone else, and deserves to be shamed.
Unlike Trump, we need be judicious.
Unlike Trump, we need be open to criticism.
We need to report more and talk less.
We can’t succumb to pessimism. For three decades I’ve been a national judge of the Livingston Journalism Awards for journalists under 35. Every year we judges after reading and watching and listening to the submissions come away filled with optimism that gifted young people are still doing great journalism.
We need act like the professionals we claim to be and choose what we think is important, and not just what excites an audience.
Finally, let’s have another drink.
Thank you for this honor.