By Carl Carter, APR
Fake news just created a brouhaha with our oldest and most loyal ally.
It started Tuesday on Fox, with opinion panelist Andrew Napolitano saying President Obama had used the British equivalent of the NSA to spy on Trump tower so there would be no record of it in American agencies.
The President and press secretary Sean Spicer soon quoted it to defend the claim that President Obama tapped Trump Tower. Great Britain was outraged, and Fox quickly disavowed the claim with this statement from anchor Anchor Shep Smith: “Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now-President of the United States was surveilled at any time in any way. Full stop.”
You’ve heard that part of the story. But let’s talk about why this sort of thing could happen. It’s about mixing news with unfiltered opinions and talking points from political hacks and surrogates. It became inevitable from the day Ted Turner started CNN in 1980. Once you commit to running news (or something that looks like news) all day long, you create a massive problem: How to fill the endless hours. One approach is to create an hour-long news show and run the same thing all day, changing out anchors to keep it fresh. Another is to have a steady stream of “analysts” and “experts” to elaborate, speculate and argue about the news.
News is the product of reporters gathering information in hundreds of ways, but most commonly by going to meetings, interviewing newsmakers and sources, and examining public documents. It’s a lot of work, and it can be expensive — especially when you’re committed to doing this kind of work all over the United States and across the planet.
Over time, the cable networks figured out they just couldn’t afford that, and they started closing bureaus. To fill the air time, they hired people like Judge Napolitano, and in the current politically charged environment, they shifted their focus exclusively to politics. Now, about half their time seems to be spent on actual news reporting, followed by long periods in which their talking heads sit at a long table and repeat talking points distributed by the political parties.
It also led to a new job title: Surrogate Manager. You doubt this? I located an old job listing in which the Democratic National Committee was searching for someone for precisely this job:
Director for Surrogate Operations – Democratic National Committee (Washington, DC)
Here are some of the duties as listed:
- Assist in writing and editing trip briefings for all surrogates
- Work closely with the Communications team to provide all media surrogates; this includes bookings for TV, radio, press conferences, coordinated event surrogate asks, and relationship maintenance
So here’s what happens. The political parties train these surrogates and get them booked on cable shows. Some are on long-term contracts and others are itinerant. But they’re all cheaper than reporters. When the camera shifts to a long table — or a bunch of head shots, the stage belongs to the surrogates, who have no editors checking what they’re about to say. They can float trial balloons, pass on conspiracy theories, and simply make stuff up.
Reporters generally can’t do this. If they’re using unnamed sources, they’ll be accountable to an editor who will have to know enough to decide whether these are credible enough to go on the air.
If you’re getting professionally reported news, that’s good. But when it’s mixed in with opinions, crackpot theories and political talking points, that’s a different thing entirely. Sadly, most who watch CNN, Fox and MSNBC rarely notice the difference.
This practice needs to change, and we desperately need to return to practices in which opinion is clearly labeled. Until then, the best idea I can come up with is a rule of thumb I’ve cited many times: If you see more than two people on the set, you’re watching opinion, not news.