The Truth About TV News: When Opinion Dominates, Everything Becomes Opinion
By David Westin
Columbia Journalism Review
T he anchor changes at NBC and CBS News, combined with the emergence of Fox News, have brought up, again, apocalyptic thoughts about traditional television news. Network news will never be the same. Viewers are turning away from the evening programs. Cable can cover the big events. The Internet is quicker and livelier. All three networks are going the way of the dinosaur.
It will surprise no one that, despite such doomsayers, I see a bright future ahead for network news, a future that can be even brighter than our past. There is a real and present danger, but it's not the changing technology and the increase in news outlets that everyone likes to talk about. To the contrary, I believe the new world offers us exciting opportunities to reach our audiences, as we find ways to deliver news that is available to people when and where they want it. For me, the real danger we face lies not in how we provide the news, but in what we are providing.
As we've watched an explosion in news outlets, we've seen a simultaneous explosion in the opinions being expressed every minute of every day over these "news" outlets. This rush to present opinion is beginning to drown out our reporting of facts. The clash of ideas is moving to center stage, while the search for truth is being pushed into the wings.
There are powerful business reasons for the embrace we're seeing of opinion journalism on TV. It's vivid, it's entertaining, and - let's face it - it's less expensive than reporting out a difficult story. Opinion offers a quick, efficient, and effective way to attract an audience in a cluttered world.
Seeking to report the factual truth of a matter, on the other hand, can be hard work, expensive, and inefficient. It requires developing or hiring reporters who truly know what they're reporting about. It requires following leads that may go nowhere. The emphasis on opinion is therefore understandable. But I have two concerns about where we are headed.
First, and perhaps most obvious, the more we fill up our reports with opinion, the less time we have for reporting facts. It's all well and good, for example, to have people who know what they're talking about give their views, for example, about whether we're doing what we should be doing to make our ports safer. But before we get to that discussion, shouldn't we spend some time finding out what security and risks already exist at U.S. ports? It may be interesting to hear a heated debate about health care in the United States, but shouldn't we know where we stand now, what the future is likely to hold, and what the options might be? Emphasizing opinion to the exclusion of factual reporting undermines the very value of the opinions being expressed. Opinion is interesting - and valuable - only if it is based on facts.
There's a second, far more disturbing, problem with the expansion of opinion in television news. It can create the impression among the audience that everything they're seeing is an expression of someone's opinion. Many outlets fail to do a good job of distinguishing between opinion and fact. As a result, audiences see people who look like one another on sets that look alike with similar graphics either expressing strong opinions or reporting the facts. Is it any wonder that the audience starts to believe that it's all the same?
Unless we're careful, we who are charged with reporting the news could lose sight of truth as our ultimate goal. We could end up in a world where, implicitly, none of us - not the audience and not the reporters - even believe any longer in the truth.
This may seem a radical - even a ridiculous - suggestion. How could it be that we would give up our belief in the truth? But look at some of the reporting we see on television today. Increasingly, some reporters don't even ask whether something is true or false. They jump over this basic question and go straight to an analysis of who's doing the talking and why. What is their affiliation? What hidden motive may they have for saying what they're saying? It's all about strategy and the political game rather than the facts underlying a debate.
Take, for example, the much-publicized Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. When their advertisements hit the airwaves last August, there was enormous media coverage of what they said, followed quickly by a thorough examination of who these people were and what motives they had, and then by comments from the Kerry campaign. But whether or not one agreed with the group's ultimate conclusions about Senator John Kerry, here was someone asserting claims of fact - claims that are susceptible to being proven right or wrong. Yet how much of the media attention was directed to the basic question: Were the accounts of what happened in Vietnam thirty-five years ago true or false?
The question of whether anyone can discern the "truth" about what happened thirty-five years ago - or even what is happening today - is one that has occupied philosophers for years. But as interesting as that academic question may be, those of us in network news don't have the luxury of giving up on our goal of truth-telling.
A different example comes from ABC News: one year after President Bush declared the end of major hostilities in Iraq, Nightline devoted an entire program to reading the names of American service personnel killed to that point. Here there was no dispute about the facts. These men and women had all given their lives in the continuing Iraq hostilities. The idea, while powerful, was not entirely original. Life magazine had done something similar in the 1960s when it published the pictures of American service people killed during a single week in Vietnam.
When we announced we would be doing this, we were immediately greeted with a chorus of skepticism and criticism from people who claimed we were motivated by antiwar sentiment. Sinclair Broadcast Group refused to air the Nightline program on its ABC affiliates. One TV critic even claimed we were doing it as a "craven ratings stunt for sweeps."
There was no monolithic antiwar sentiment underlying the Nightline broadcast. I do not know the sentiments of all the dozens of people who worked on the broadcast; I'd be surprised if some were not opposed to the war. A plurality of Americans were. But Ted Koppel said openly during the broadcast that he was not opposed to the war. And I can tell you that the reason I approved the broadcast was my belief that part of the truth we needed to report about Iraq was a complete accounting of the price the nation was paying.
But whatever our collective motives, the much more important question is why those motives really mattered in the first place. We heard from many viewers. Some found the reading of the names a fitting tribute to young men and women who gave their lives for their country. Others found it a needlessly painful reminder of the price being paid on our behalf - and objected that we did not include a recounting of events that led up to the Iraq invasion. But how people reacted to the broadcast seemed to depend more on the views of those watching than it did on the imputed motives of those putting the broadcast on the air.
I made this point at the time to a senior White House official. He disagreed. He felt that our airing the program became a statement against the war, not because of what we said but because many people assumed our attitude was antiwar. To make the point clear, I asked him whether he would have had a different view if Fox News had put on the very same broadcast. He said that would be an entirely different case.
This was a fascinating and powerful response. The imputing of motives, even where there is no conflict over the facts, tends to distract from the fundamental and essential question: What is the truth?
One of my favorite quotes comes from the late Harvard philosopher Willard Van Orman Quine: "Creatures inveterately wrong in their inductions have a pathetic but praiseworthy tendency to die before reproducing their kind." It's been abundantly clear, at least since September 11, 2001, that, if Americans get it wrong at this point in our country's history, our survival may be at risk. And when I talk about getting it "wrong," I don't mean only our policies or opinions. I mean the underlying truth of our situation in the world.
This requires real journalism, and it will not be easy. It will require that some of us in the news business put ourselves in harm's way, as my colleagues are doing in Iraq. It will require continued and increased investment in things such as investigative work, beat reporting, and documentaries - an investment that some of us make daily but that others have trouble with in a universe of increased competition and reduced audiences.
Note that I talk in terms of an "investment," which by definition requires some faith that our audiences really want a responsible, reliable news report. And that faith must come from our owners, from news management, and from our newsrooms and reporters. If our faith is well-placed, then our investment will pay off in the form of loyal attention from people who come to us, day in and day out, simply because we present the truth, not mere opinion.
If we are willing to redouble our commitment to finding the truth - no matter how difficult - and reporting it to the American people, then network news will remain an important part of the republic we serve. And no one will doubt our future.