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How Do We Hold Our Cable News Organizations Accountable?

It hasn’t been a banner week for 24-hour TV news. We’re four days out from the election, but the three cable news networks appear more compromised, in terms of their journalistic integrity and responsibility to their viewership, than ever. As I wrote Saturday, ambiguity and limited information brought out the worst tendencies of the 24-hour news networks, which all fell to worrying over FBI director James Comey’s vague letter to Congress without putting it in reasonable context or perspective.

In addition to worrying episodes of false equivalency — such as when Fox News’ Megyn Kelly describing both Donald Trump’s caught-on-tape remarks about women and Hillary Clinton’s private email server as comparable character issues — watchdog Media Matters observed that the emails non-event distracted from both Hillary Clinton’s actual policy platform and Donald Trump’s “75 ongoing legal battles.”

Then, on Monday, CNN contributor Donna Brazile resigned from the network, after an email where she appeared to tip off Hillary Clinton’s campaign to a debate question surfaced in the WikiLeaks hack. The CNN spokeswoman said that the network was “completely uncomfortable” with Brazile’s actions.

But CNN has employed former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, an operative who both manhandled a journalist at a rally and, it is widely understood, signed a “non-disparagement” or nondisclosure clause that prevents him from publicly criticizing his former employer. (Lewandowski has described it as a “strict confidentiality agreement.”) The difference for CNN appears to be that while Brazile had to be caught looking politically compromised, Lewandowski’s biases and ethical deficiencies were known quantities when he was hired.

And just today, Fox News’ Bret Baier apologized on-air for suggesting that the FBI was prepared to make indictments with relation to the Clinton Foundation, making a statement on “Happening Now Friday” where he described his comments as “inartful.”

Every news organization will make mistakes at some point or another. The bigger issue, for an organization that claims journalistic integrity, is how they handle those missteps. And the last week has made abundantly clear that despite wave after wave of frustration from viewers, politicians, FBI advisors, and fellow journalists, cable news is ill-equipped to accept and address those critiques. Cable news by its nature is prone to missteps because of the 24/7 cycle of news coverage and commentary that it serves up.

On cable news, there is often no clear distinction between fact and opinion, especially in panels full of talking heads. There is also no fixed spot, in the fluid motion of an always-live feed, to display corrections, clarifications, or editors’ notes. There is no space for the televisual equivalent of letters to the editor, which constitutes the bare minimum of at least appearing to take the audience’s concerns seriously.

It is, unfortunately, poetically apt; in the cacophony of competing voices, the viewer’s voice or viewpoint is nowhere to be heard. The always-on format of cable news promotes noise and stimulates conversation, but does not encourage viewer engagement. In fact, it does almost the opposite; watching cable news is allowing rhetoric to wash over you, news cycle to news cycle, with stultifying volume and repetition. Perhaps this is why the online comments of these organizations seem to be exploding with outrage, at the farthest corners of the comment section. It is the only obvious place to respond to cable news, but there is no guarantee or even expectation that anyone from the news organization in question will respond, acknowledge, or even look at your comments.

But constructive engagement around coverage, PBS ombudsman Michael Getler tells me, is both how media organizations improve and how audiences grow to trust their news sources. “Viewers and readers like to know that there’s somebody on the other end who has listened to them — who has taken their observations seriously, who has looked into, and who has published about it, given an assessment of it. And that assessment appears in a prominent place.” Of course, he added, “You get a lot of stuff that’s useless — that’s political, or ideological ranting, or just unsubstantiated claims. But you also get a fair number of substantive observations from the public. There are a lot of smart people out there.”

There are only three ombudsmen left in American media — at PBS, NPR, and the New York Times — and Getler is the only one working for a television network. He is, as he describes it, the “in-house pain-in-the-a–” for PBS’ televised news coverage, a completely independent observer who responds directly to readers and brings their concerns to the producers and reporters. Getler has complete independence to publish his perspective in his online columns. As in-house critic, he sees the news at the same time as the audience, and serves as an advocate and quality-control measure for the public and the practice of journalism. Getler points out to me that PBS’ standards, which are easily locatable online, are lengthy and detailed, spanning 11 pages. (“Frontline” has separate standards that encompass 83 separate bullet points.) “I try to hold them to that,” he said, referring to the documents.

I asked Getler if questions about the time spent covering certain topics over others, such as Clinton’s emails, would fall under an ombudsman’s jurisdiction. “I don’t know,” he said. “I would think the standards editor would raise it internally. If it were me, I’d be able to write about it. But I don’t know what goes on internally at some of these operations.”

I also asked Getler if the issue of hiring, such as with Brazile and Lewandowski, could be discussed by an ombudsman. “You bet. Absolutely. I would write about that in a micro-second,” he said.

In lieu of ombudsmen or public editors, TV news organizations have internal standards and practices editors and executives, who are situated at various points in each institution’s workflow and bureaucratic structure. I attempted to reach out to CNN’s exec VP of news standards and practices, Richard Davis, to ask about the process by which the network managed its internal ethics. He declined to answer any questions on the topic. Of the three major cable news organizations, CNN at least has public journalistic standards. They are scant, compared to PBS’ — start to finish, 431 words, including subheadings — but they are searchable and viewable.

Fox News confirmed for me that they do not currently have an ombudsman. My request for who heads their internal standards and practices was not answered. In response to my question about public journalistic standards, the spokeswoman wrote in an email: “Not sure what you’re referring to in terms of a ‘public statement’ about journalistic standards that we follow daily as a news organization. … Do you mean the journalistic standards CNN clearly doesn’t have based on the Donna Brazile debacle this month and throughout the election season. … Have you contacted them as well?”

An MSNBC spokesperson did not respond to my questions, but said that MSNBC follows the policies and guidelines of NBC News. NBC News does not have a published set of journalistic guidelines that I could find. However, the organization does have an executive director of standards and practices that also has the title of ombudsman — David McCormick, who was hired in 1993 directly after an embarrassing “Dateline NBC” segment that proved to be fraudulent. McCormick does not appear to have a regular column or segment where he comments on NBC News’ coverage to the public.

Internal standards and practices at these organizations are difficult to evaluate given that it all happens privately. And ultimately, even though these editors and directors could be upholding every tenet of ethical journalism, that interiority puts it at odds with the engagement and assessment with viewers that bolsters and legitimizes news media. As qualified as these individuals may be, they can be prioritized or deprioritized in each individual news organization’s structure, and do not communicate directly with the public about coverage. Coupled with the fact that cable news has demonstrably thin or nonexistent published journalistic standards, it is nearly impossible to evaluate, critique, or engage in conversation on whether or not these media organizations are serving their audiences.

To be sure, CNN airs Brian Stelter’s “Reliable Sources,” which every Sunday morning takes on the headlines of the week with an eye toward media bias and unbalanced coverage. Stelter can’t quite act as ombudsman for CNN; typically, his panelists opine, while he chooses the topics of discussion. But when he and his panelists say “the media,” CNN is included in that assessment, and indeed, some of the smartest and sanest TV analysis of Comey’s letter was on “Reliable Sources,” even though the two panelists disagreed. Whether or not the rest of the network is interested in or obliged to take “Reliable Sources” conclusions to heart is another, more salient question.

The problem with holding TV news to a higher standard may be just a question of whether or not self-critique makes good television. Getler told me that although he acts as ombudsman for television news, he doesn’t offer his critique on TV. “The monologue would get difficult. You’d have to give others a chance to respond. And some of these issues are very complicated. Some of my columns get very long, because I try to include different points of view.”

Across the Pond, there is an entrenched tradition of readers responding to their newsmakers. The BBC hosts two such shows, “Points of View” and “Newswatch,” that are dedicated to bringing thoughtful audience critique to the relevant writers, editors, and producers — albeit with varying degrees of humor. And the now-cancelled “Right to Reply,” from Channel 4, offered a venue of critique for programming across networks.

There are also lower-impact options right here at home. CBS’ “60 Minutes” features viewer commentary of its segments in online posts — often colorful, engaging responses pulled from Twitter, from verified accounts and Twitter eggs alike. It’s not exactly the sacred exchange of ideas it could be, but “60 Minutes” provides a space for viewers to engage with, critique, and most importantly, be heard by its newsmakers. Perhaps this contributes to the news program’s longstanding popularity; it is the most-watched network news magazine show, and certainly the most prestigious.

And of course, as Baier demonstrated today, enough social media fervor or competing reports from other networks can force the hand of media organizations that do not have formal ombudsmen or codified standards for engaging with viewer critique. In Baier’s case, both the Clinton campaign and a report from NBC News contradicted his claims, leading him to issue the apology. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News do feature comments and tweets from viewers via social media in some segments, too, though it is not typically about the networks’ coverage so much as it is about a current talking point or headline. A CNN spokeswoman told me that the network anchors encourage viewer feedback, via social media, on-air, and they have a social media team that monitors feedback.

Maybe that’s enough. At this point, with the election just a few days away, it might be too late for me to be raising these questions about journalistic standards. Big organizations do not change overnight. But if this last week (and, indeed, this entire election) have showed us anything, it is that we must hold our loudest mouthpieces to a higher standard of journalistic integrity. Our most ubiquitous news outlets have tremendous capacity to fail — and tremendous capacity to affect voters. In just the last few days, the Comey letter’s effect on polling has been substantial and tangible. Cable news has struggled to find a balance between covering Donald Trump and letting Donald Trump occupy their airtime with his rhetoric and platform. And polling data indicates that the media’s false equivalence of Clinton and Trump lead to real equivalence; conversely, following debates and the conventions, where the candidates addressed the public directly, Trump’s numbers plummeted while Clinton’s soared.

Cable news acts as if viewership is passive. What I know from covering television as a critic is that viewership — of scripted shows and unscripted programming and sports and the news — is an active, vociferous, engaging endeavor. If the enthusiasm around “Supernatural” and “Nashville” is any indication, TV viewers talk back to their programming, with comments and questions and demands and critiques. We are not an audience sitting and waiting for rhetoric to wash over us — or at least, we don’t have to be. Even privately owned media organizations can and do choose to serve their audiences with transparency. The question is whether cable news, so enamored of sound and fury signifying nothing, will hold itself to a higher standard.

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