Learning the news: Panel discussions aren’t journalism

TV news entertainment is more akin to boxing than journalism, writes Roger Plothow.

One recent Sunday morning, Kathleen and I were discussing journalism.

Yes, we do have scintillating Sunday mornings.

I had mentioned to her that I recently added a slide to my PowerPoint presentation on media literacy showing CNN’s Anderson Cooper on a set with a group of “experts.” The title to my slide is: “This isn’t journalism; it’s pugilism.”

Kathleen, being a fan of Anderson Cooper, took exception, and this led us into an interesting conversation on the difference between information programs whose main accomplishment is to entertain versus journalism. There’s precious little journalism on cable TV.

Here’s one difference: Most of the people who appear with Cooper, unless they are current government officials, are paid either an appearance fee or are on retainer with the network. This breaks a cardinal rule of journalism – we don’t pay our news sources. Here’s the Associated Press rule on the topic: “… we don’t pay newsmakers for interviews, to take their photographs or to film or record them.”

Cooper’s fans point out that he often leaves his studio and treks to far-off places when a big story breaks, for which he should be congratulated. Before long, however, he’s back in the studio surrounded by people yelling over each other to spin the latest political crisis.

In the old days, even TV journalists often cut their teeth in the field. Dan Rather famously spent months traveling with troops in Vietnam. His was no drop-in visit – he stayed in the muck and blood with the people he covered for weeks at a time.

This isn’t to say that Cooper is a bad guy or that what he does has no value. If you can get something out of the cacophony of a “panel discussion” on CNN or other TV shows, enjoy. But don’t call it journalism. It’s entertainment, just as Wrestlemania isn’t legitimate sport. Cooper is smart and articulate, just as professional wrestlers are world-class athletes.

But, you might say, Cooper and his producers are careful to find people from all sides of an issue, so they are balanced. Isn’t that journalism?

Nope, at least not if that’s only as far as it goes. If your objective is to know where various people stand on various issues, such a program might be helpful to you (if you can sit through it without throwing something at the TV). But journalism demands an extra step, vetting information in the search of facts versus spin. Cooper, again, to his credit, often does a segment called “Keeping them honest,” which is essentially a fact-checking moment. But fact-checking isn’t a segment, it’s the whole thing.

For sure, we often publish stories that are incomplete. Getting at the truth is no simple process, so we often publish a story that we know requires follow-up. No single story answers all the questions. But we aspire to achieve the same goal articulated by Melville Stone, a former general manager of the Associated Press: ” … a truthful, unbiased report of the world’s happenings … ethical in the highest degree.”

This is part of a weekly yearlong series on news and media literacy by Post Register Editor and Publisher Roger Plothow.