From Scandal to Politics, TV News Is Feeling the Heat

President Donald Trump regularly brands journalists as “enemies of the people.” The #MeToo phenomenon has taken a heavy toll on the news divisions of Fox, NBC and CBS. Public trust in the veracity of established media outlets has plunged, particularly for those who identify as Republicans. And the scrutiny of TV news reporting has never been higher or harsher, now that virtually everyone can be a critic through the megaphone of social media.

Veteran journalists describe the climate as being in the eye of a hurricane. And it’s hardly conducive to producing what would qualify as the traditional definition of strong, objective news coverage.

“On an average day, when things are up and running, there are four or five big stories coming out of this White House,” John Roberts, chief White House correspondent for Fox News, told Variety in a recent interview. “In previous White Houses that I have covered, if we had four or five [stories] a week, that would be a lot. We are getting that every day.”

What’s more, the harsh, relentless spotlight has expanded to include the news organizations themselves. The management of NBC News has been under fire, accused of shutting down reporting by Ronan Farrow on explosive allegations of rape against Harvey Weinstein.

Farrow wound up winning a Pulitzer Prize (shared with The New York Times) for the Weinstein story, which ran in The New Yorker. Nearly a year later, a former NBC News producer who worked with Farrow, Rich McHugh, reignited the controversy in a report by The New York Times, calling the situation “a massive breach of journalistic integrity” by NBC.

NBC News has denied doing anything improper and maintains that Farrow’s story was not ready for publication at the time he asked for the right to take it elsewhere.

But NBC isn’t the only network forced to confront its own news: CBS News and Fox News have been the subject of extensive reports on sexual harassment allegations and questionable aspects of workplace culture within their operations by The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and Variety.

Holding journalistic practices up to the light should be beneficial to the public’s understanding of the reporting process. But much of what passes for criticism is delivered through a partisan lens — such as Trump’s worldview — which only makes it harder to separate fact from fiction. President Trump last week sent a tweet bashing CNN and NBC News, even accusing “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt of “fudging [his] tape on Russia,” referring to Holt’s May 2017 interview in which Trump cited the investigation into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia as a reason for his firing of FBI director James Comey. NBC News sources said they were baffled by Trump’s charge against the news org and pointed to the fact that the entire 13-minute interview is available for viewing online.

Marty Kaplan, professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, says this pitched climate raises serious questions about the definition of news in an age when consumers are awash with information at the touch of their fingertips on a smartphone.

“It used to be the job of a news editor was to figure out what was important and cover it,” Kaplan says. “Now what’s important is what just happened, and what people are clicking on and what outrages people are talking about. … At a time when the amount of information readily available to us keeps growing exponentially, the scarcest commodity is the ability to get people’s attention.”

With so much of the media business in flux, Trump’s incessant berating of news outlets adds a level of real danger for those on the front lines of news-gathering. Five journalists were slain in June when a gunman opened fire at the offices of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Md. Last week a 68-year-old Los Angeles man was arrested for calling in repeated death threats to reporters at The Boston Globe.

Trump’s criticisms inspire more than just violence. His well-rehearsed habit of encouraging supporters at rallies to jeer the media section is a means of “maiming civilization’s greatest achievement — the ability to understand the world based on reason and evidence,” Kaplan says. “He’s telling people that all they need to do is embrace your team’s chant. You don’t have to be thoughtful; you just have to know what side you’re on. In that context, the notion of journalism as important to maintaining an educated citizenry goes right out the window.”

Ted Johnson contributed to this report.