In a nation divided into opposing camps that seem to occupy separate realities, is there a role for thoughtful, fact-based journalism?
There is and such journalism is needed, concur Tom Hamburger and John Harris, but the path to retaining and growing outlets to nurture and provide it is far from clear.
Hamburger, winner of a 2018 Pulitzer Prize, is a veteran investigative journalist with the Washington Post and an MSNBC analyst. Harris, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is a co-founder of and columnist for Politico. Now Washington, D.C.-based, both men have Rochester roots.
On Tuesday, they conferred on topics including the current state and possible future of U.S. journalism and the upcoming presidential election as participants in a noontime Rochester Beacon virtual forum moderated by Beacon publisher Alex Zapesochny.
Armbruster Capital Management, the Burke Group and the Estate, Legacy and Long-Term Care Planning Center of Western NY were presenting sponsors of the event. Bond, Schoeneck & King was gold sponsor.
The speed with which earthshaking events routinely roll by with hardly a pause—racial tensions heating up after the death of George Floyd, wildfires consuming the West Coast, furor over the presidential debates, the spread of COVID-19 through the White House and more—has disconcertingly become a feature of modern life.
In the past week alone, Hamburger noted, revelations by the New York Times that President Donald Trump, a self-described multibillionaire, had for years paid little or no federal taxes previously would have dominated the news for weeks and perhaps sparked congressional investigations. Instead, they were almost immediately swept aside by succeeding events and are now virtually forgotten.
Said Harris: “It’s frustrating to all journalists.”
A polarized climate
Harris used to believe the political powers that be could duck out of the public glare and quietly arrive at compromises that would keep the nation on a forward path. Now, he laments that such comity does not seem possible. Instead, a polarizing tribalism precluding any hint of surrender to those perceived as one’s political opposite has become the order of the day.
Rather than being judged on merit, he said, discussion of problems like Trump’s taxes are viewed “through the prism of which side are you on.”
As an exploiter and exacerbator of existing political fault lines, Trump himself bears no small degree of responsibility for the current state of affairs, Harris believes.
“I do think President Trump has so divided the lines—are you with him or are you against him—that polarization isn’t just a feature of politics as it plays out in the media,” he said. “There’s something very fundamental there. Sometimes people use the word tribalism. That tribalism that marks our politics is actually a feature of the political actors themselves. The most influential people tend to view things in terms of which tribe do you belong to.”
Some news organizations have fed the divide.
Networks like Fox and MSNBC have increasingly relied on biased commentary to pull in viewers, Hamburger said. Meanwhile, political actors, most notably the president, routinely disparage the output of traditionally trusted and less biased organizations as “fake news.”
“It’s possible that there is a historic change in news media,” upending “the notion that news organizations can report the news in a fact-driven way,” Harris concurred. Still, though “you never can achieve perfect objectivity, you can be fair.”
To meet such goals, however, any news organization needs to succeed not just in the marketplace of ideas but in the actual marketplace.
Hamburger cautioned: “The first problem that we face in all news organizations is one of a financial model that will work in an internet era. The old advertiser-based subscription model for print publications is really a thing of the past. This is a dire, dire situation. The first question for all organization is finding a workable financial model.”
A onetime Washington Post national political editor, Harris and a Post colleague, Jim VandeHei, left the Post to start Politico in 2007, setting for themselves a mission of creating a new online model that would hew to core values. The online site has since taken its place alongside organs such as the Post and the New York Times while avoiding partisan bias.
“What we set out to do at Politico was to take the historic values of commitment to fairness and to facts, a sense of relevance and a commitment to hold people in public life accountable,” Harris says. “Those are core values we wanted to vindicate for a new age in which the platforms of journalism and the expectations of the audience were changing. We wanted to vindicate old values in a new age.
“In doing so,” he added, “we wanted to make a distinction between things that are values you can’t compromise on and things that are habits—this is how we’ve always written it; this is how we organize our day. Those aren’t values. They’re just habits and you have to be really ready to discard them, if you’re going to be responding to the audience from an editorial point of view, responding to the marketplace from a commercial point of view.”
Harris distinguishes between two types of journalism: premium and commodity. In the former, news organizations put out a product that draws readers because it offers quality content such as in-depth reporting and analysis they won’t find elsewhere, content that’s compelling enough to move advertisers or readers to pay for it.
In the latter, organizations only need to worry about attracting eyeballs, so popularity alone can bring success. Quality is not needed, and, says Harris, selling commodity journalism grows ever tougher.
“The web and the internet are ruthless in driving down the price of commodity news,” he observed.
The Washington Post has prospered largely because Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who bought the paper from its previous owners, the Graham family, has largely left the paper’s journalistic standards intact, allowing the Post to continue practices that enabled it to break stories like Watergate while bringing it into the digital age and relentlessly expanding its national readership.
“What Bezos did in his few occasional and somewhat secretive visits to the Post was come in and ask about things like download speed,” Hamburger said. “He was obsessed with it. How quickly after someone clicked on an article or a video would it appear on their screen?”
At the same time, Bezos “did adopt a traditional news owner’s distance from the news-gathering process. We did not feel the hand of Jeff Bezos on the news side.”
Boon for news
An irony of the accelerated news cycle and hyper-partisan political culture, the newsmen agreed, is that those developments have been a boon for national news organizations of all stripes. Sadly, that has largely not been the case for local journalism.
If high-quality local reporting has a future, Harris said, it will follow a path similar to Politico’s financial model, which largely relies on payments from readers. People already are willingly pay for cable and streaming services. There is also a market for premium local journalism, he believes.
“Big events happen, and responsible citizens want to know what’s going on in their communities with professional and enlightened journalism,” Harris said. “To me, the model has got to have a greater reliance on subscriptions. Advertising might continue to be a part of it. Unless you can capture that premium with sponsorships and whatnot, then you’re chasing clicks, which isn’t the way to produce great journalism.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.
Thoughtful comments by Harris and Hamburger. I appreciate their values-based approach to their work. We need more of that!
Most of the news reporting these days is “tribal” and predictable. The real world NEVER really USED TO look so “binary.” The discourse was more nuanced, more contemplative and more open-minded, even if neither side ultimately changed their position or stance. Sadly, that’s virtually impossible to find today.
I’d hope that Independent-leaning voters would, over time, become a distinct ‘other voice,’ less ideological and large enough (in numbers) so that they could not be ignored. I’d hoped that – over time – Independents would articulate a reasoned, values-driven set of ideas that would attract more, and would put the two main political parties on notice. Unfortunately, Independents haven’t really coalesced around a distinctly different set of ideals and ideas. Independent-minded voters have become “tie-breakers,” pivoting between the two political parties depending on the “season.” And those parties are doing a great job luring Independents to their (main parties’) ends, rather than the other way ’round.
It’s disconcerting that we could remain a country where at least 40% of Americans will “lose” the upcoming elections, regardless of which party wins in November. That’s a large number of people who might remain ‘on the outside.’ There’s little strategic benefit for the “winners” or the country in that setup. Whatever sense of “victory” one feels after the November winner is announced could be personally satisfying but unlikely to make us more United in the near-term.
I believe that good journalism is balanced and open-minded, and a force for bringing us together. When a particular journalism outlet’s stance becomes entirely predictable, that outlet can no longer consider itself balanced or open-minded.
A quote attributed to Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche goes like this: “You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, the only way, THAT does not exist.” I submit that Nietzsche’s attitude is worth adopting by our media … and ourselves.
The events of the past few months in our country have, stirred in me a need to share my opinion that may or may not impact someone reading my comments in a negative way. Let me say, at the outset, that, if what I say here is offensive to you, please forgive me.
My first thought is that we have permitted the news media to contribute to the overall divisiveness between peoples by the way they report the events of the day. Those in the media who are charged with reporting the news have, in my opinion, allowed their own corporate or personal biases and agendas to color their reporting. The reporting, in my opinion, is not balanced and does not, in many cases report the whole story. In many cases the reporting uses inflammatory words to describe the events or actions in the news with the seeming intention to make a person or organization appear badly. This type of reporting does not enhance healing but increasingly fuels disagreement and bias. I am increasingly disinclined to watch, listen to, or read, what is provided under the caption of “News”.
My second thought is that those who we choose to represent us at all levels of government have increasingly contributed to the divisiveness in the country by their actions, lack of action and their rhetoric. I cringe every time I hear someone who wants to represent me, tell me that they will “fight” for me or that they are “fighting” for me. I didn’t elect them to “fight”! I elected them to “work”! I expect them to “work” with others, including those of opposite view points, at all levels of government to make progress on issues that affect me and others. I realize when I say this that the outcomes of “working together” will not always be to my liking but they will represent a pooling of minds and a recognition of each other’s views that should, in the long run, produce a better outcome than an outcome which aids one side to the other’s detriment or results in no outcome at all.
I also feel that many of our elected representatives shirk their responsibilities to consider, negotiate and pass legislation that would be beneficial, in order to enhance their own political advantage in the next election. A larger, more intrusive government that adds to regulatory burdens on individuals and organizations and hands out money to advance a particular party or individual’s agenda is not the answer to every problem and, in my opinion, is not the answer to most problems, that divide us. Government’s responsibility in this country, in my view, is to create and preserve an environment within which individuals and organizations can progress and thrive based upon their own initiative, endeavor and ability as long as they do so without impeding the efforts of other individuals and organizations in an illegal manner.
My last thought is that many of the actions taken in response to the events of the past months are like placing a band-aid on a cancer. We can change names, use different words, take down monuments and paint slogans on walls or streets, but I do not believe that these actions will, in themselves, cure what I perceive to be an issue of the heart. In the movie “Cool Hand Luke”, Luke, played by Paul Newman, is continually told by the “Boss” to get his “Mind right”. I submit to you that the “Boss” got it wrong. We need to get our hearts right if we are to find the “right” solutions to the issues that plague and divide us. The Bible is chock full of admonitions that the heart is the source of all things good and bad. Painting a sign on a street or building will not change the situation it seeks to address unless the hearts of those who paint it and those who read it are changed. Removing a statue or changing a name on a building or organization will only remove a symbol of what is, to some, a bad thing and to some, a historical truth. It likely will not necessarily change the hearts of all those on either side. Chanting slogans as part of a peaceful protest is the right of anyone and is a natural reaction to the concerns and pains felt by those who march and chant. It offers an outlet for a need to make others aware of those concerns and pains. Those who hijack peaceful protest and use it as an excuse to vandalize, assault others and foment riot are not seeking to change the hearts of those they supposedly are protesting against. Protest will not necessarily lead to changes in the hearts of either those who protest and those who watch and listen. Without changes of heart by those who march and those who watch, the situation that led to the activity will not change. We must get our hearts right if we want to see real change for the better take place.
I am an 82-year-old man with limited education and a lot of life experiences, good and bad, that have shaped me and my thinking. I am desperately trying to make sense of what is happening in a country that I love and that I truly believe offers opportunity to all to achieve all that they desire, are willing to work for, and are capable of. I’m trying to “get my heart right”. I ask my elected representatives to quit “fighting” for me and “fighting” with those of opposite political persuasion and to start “working” for me and “working” with those whose political agenda may not be the same. I’m asking the media to report what’s going on totally and factually. Don’t tell me the part of the story that enhances your political viewpoint and makes that of your opposition weaker. Don’t slant it to support the party, organization or candidate that you support. Tell me the entire story of what, where, who, when and how things happened. I don’t really need your views on “why” they happened as much as I need the total story…not your opinion on it. And, I especially don’t need your views if they are aimed not a reporting but supporting a particular political ideology. I’m trying to get my heart right and if you give me the all of the facts without your “slant” perhaps I will be able to do that more successfully. Finally, I’m asking that each of us “get our hearts right” before we act, speak or engage on the issues before us in our country. I appreciate the opportunity to express my thoughts and hope that they will be helpful to someone who reads them.
Interesting discussion for the future of “search for the truth ” journalism and will an end to “both side-ism” in reporting be financially sustainable . I hope so . I think using Trump’s taxes as an example of biased reporting from the left and the right is not accurate . I am old enough to remember the stories as I left college of “Nixon paying less taxes than his mailman ” . They were true , Nixon claimed an administrative error must have been made and paid his taxes . His party did not defend it and was ashamed , only going so far as to claim it might have been an error and now he has paid . Trump’s federal income tax payments for 2016 and 2017 were literally less than a full time single worker making $10 an hour . With some things there is Truth and there is a Lie , end of story . There is also fairness and right and wrong . It seems the mess we are in began with an end to the Fairness Doctrine during the Reagan administration . Reporting factually on the who , what , where , when , and how of a story did not require alternative facts , but only differing good faith opinions on the affect of those facts . Opinions were on the editorial page and on TV , a Walter Cronkite reported facts and then clearly labeled his or the Networks opinion as an opinion . Of course , an unregulated social media has become toxic , just as reducing regulations to keep air and water clean is toxic . At a minimum libel and slander laws must apply and maybe strengthened . I have been published many times as well as appearing on radio and TV interviews . I could not spew lies without being sued, and the media outlet was also subject to lawsuit . The Internet potential of the exchange of ideas and the acquiring of new knowledge has been sabotaged by profiting off misinformation and hate . A Zuckerberg thinks he never has enough billions of dollars and believes he has the right to profit , with a business model based on an internet , whose primary purpose is connecting every moron and bigot on the planet . Paraphrasing Chief Justice Holmes , free speech does not mean one may cry fire in a crowded theater , should be a reasonable standard to start . In Germany one cannot wear or show a Nazi swastika . Over 60 million dead , millions from slave labor and genocide , including six million Jews , is well beyond yelling “fire” . By the way , the Neo-Nazis in Germany now march with Confederate and Trump flags . Make America Great Again indeed . I believe FCC regulations must be examined , debated , and in my view , strengthened . New reasonable standards should be enacted across all media . We might also act like The Sherman-antitrust Act is still law (it is ) in Tech and media , and for all corporations .
There are two additional drivers for getting “eyeballs” to your news. The most important driver is trust. There are many components to trust and I can’t list them all, but transparency is a key factor as is accuracy and no speculation. Just the facts is what people who read or watch news need. Another issue is editorial selection. I’m fascinated that when I record and watch at least 4 different news outlets on cable and at least one news feed from local TV, I think I get a fair cross section of what’s going on, but each outlet features something different. Often BBC, NBC and CBS cover different things in depth. Here is where on-line content could have a real advantage, they could distill essential news and provide both on-going and current “breaking news” stories as well as follow-up on older stories and maintaining links to historic content. Also, writers, reporters and editors must realign their expectations about how big the market actually is. I don’t know the answer, but I speculate that only a small fraction of citizens are interested in being informed based on poll responses and answers given to interviewers. A big goal is to maybe form a coalition of news organizations to get young people to care about the news. When I was a kid in the ’50s, public schools in NYC had low or no cost subscriptions for students where we could have discussions in Social Studies class on current events. Using on-line news resources teachers could have a cheap and easy way to get kids into a lifelong habit of caring about what’s happening in their world. In the U.S. news and reporting is so vital to democracy that its freedom is enshrined in the constitution. Citizens NEED to know what their government is doing. Whatever the medium, keep citizens informed.