Of Many Things
More than halfway through the general election, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is imploding. The Republican flagship resembles Jonah’s boat to Tarshish: the tempest-tossed and panic-stricken passengers are looking for someone to blame, someone they can sacrifice to their angry god.
Mr. Trump’s favorite scapegoat these days is the national media. "If the disgusting and corrupt media covered me honestly and didn't put false meaning into the words I say, I would be beating Hillary by 20 percent," he recently tweeted. That is highly unlikely, given the rock-solid polarization that characterizes most of the national electorate. And it’s just as likely that Mr. Trump bears at least some of the blame for his predicament.
But there is an element of truth in Mr. Trump’s comments. There is a fairly well documented left-leaning bias among national political reporters and commentators. But having personal opinions is a far cry from having an ideological agenda that masquerades as objective reporting. And the more troublesome bias in news reporting is not ideological but economic. If journalists and their editors are motivated by something other than the noble pursuit of the truth, then it’s more likely market share, not partisan advantage. The stories they tell are the stories that sell.
There are exceptions, of course, even on television—news organizations that, while still driven by profit motive, are acting foremost in the public interest. Among the more reputable and respected is CBS News, the birthplace of television journalism and the home of Edward R. Murrow, Walter Cronkite and “60 Minutes.” In a dangerously cynical television news environment, outfits like CBS News are still delivering consistently high-quality, thoughtful and sober coverage of news events. They are not without their biases—surely, none of us are—but the attempt to get the story that matters most rather than the story that simply sells is clearly evident in much of what they do.
Scott Pelley, the veteran anchor of the “CBS Evening News,” may not be the most exciting personality on television, but he is undoubtedly the best journalist, a worthy heir to the legacy of Paley, Murrow and Cronkite, something that Mr. Pelley takes seriously. He has avoided blurring the line between news and entertainment, saying that “there’s too much of a risk for the audience to think ‘Wait a minute—is it scripted? Is it not? Are you telling me the truth? Is it acting?’ That’s a big red line for me, and I never have crossed it.”
That same reputation for being a stickler with stick-to-itiveness characterizes the host of “Face the Nation,” CBS News’s Sunday public affairs program. John Dickerson, son of the late and great path-breaking CBS journalist Nancy Dickerson, has also established himself as one of the most respected figures in the news business. The key to good journalism, Mr. Dickerson recently told Politico, is delaying final judgment as long as possible. When you hear something from a politician or an interviewee that doesn’t make sense, rather than simply saying, “They’re dumb,” he says, ask: “Does that make sense to me? And if it doesn't make sense to me, why are they saying that? And what is it about what they're saying that tells me something about either the issue we're talking about or where they come from?’ That's a better way.”
Asking intelligent questions with an open mind and a courageous spirit is not only the better way; it’s the only way to do journalism that is worthy of the name. For more than 60 years, CBS News has led the way. It still does. Does it lead the ratings? No. Both Mr. Pelley and Mr. Dickerson, though they have dramatically increased their audiences, routinely finish third in the ratings race among the big three networks. But they are doing the best work in television journalism today; and, as Mr. Trump might say, that’s huge.