Last Sunday evening, the most prominent (fictional) media figure on television spoke in keenly lay terms about how he plans to mobilize his news network, newspapers, “payroll commentators” and miscellaneous ” cables and global newspapers “to save his skin, legally speaking.
Now, no one would mistake Logan Roy, the scrofulous press lord at the center of HBO’s hit drama “Succession,” as a standard-bearer of quality journalism, let alone morality. (In a previous episode, Logan’s own brother, speaking in disbelief about a college he was funding, said, “Logan Roy School of Journalism? What’s next, Jack’s Women’s Health Clinic? ‘Ripper?’)
But if Logan views the media as an instrument of narrow self-interest, existing primarily to provide a version of information that fits his purposes, well, so do a lot of Americans these days.
We live in an age where everyone has their own network. Maybe it’s Fox News or OAN. Maybe it’s MSNBC or NPR. Maybe it’s just a Facebook conspiracy cohort.
This adds to a population ready, if not impatient, to believe that the Fourth Estate is filled with Logan Roys, unable to operate in the Public interest. These odious assumptions are reflected everywhere on television and in movies today. True, depictions of sketchy journalists date back to “Citizen Kane” (1941) and earlier, but now such depictions land in an environment where many Americans are predisposed to believe the worst of any media that does not fit their policies. or their worldview.
For many conservatives, the mainstream media is essentially a branch of the Democratic Party. To many progressives (who see Fox News as a branch of the GOP), journalists adhere to a flawed notion of “objectivity” whose “one hand over the other” approach often obscures the truth about the issues. So the news industry is losing support on both sides of the ship, so to speak.
There’s no way to know how much of this is factored into the findings of a new Gallup Media Credibility Poll, but the numbers are daunting for anyone who understands that journalism is vital to the functioning of the media. democracy. Gallup found that Americans’ confidence in the media to “report the news completely, accurately and fairly” fell to 36%, the second lowest on record. Breaking that number down, only 7 percent of those polled told Gallup they had “a lot” of faith in newspaper, TV and radio reporting. The remaining 29 percent said they had “a fair amount” of confidence.
This less than resounding endorsement has coincided with controversies engulfing top journalists who are unlikely to restore confidence in the media. Veteran network anchor Katie Couric and ESPN star reporter Adam Schefter have come under fierce criticism recently for failing to meet basic journalistic standards – the same issue that previously put CNN host Chris Cuomo on the spot. .
Meanwhile, in feature films and on long-form television, journalists are often portrayed as bottom eaters who would sell their own grandmothers for a scoop and not know a code of ethics if it were printed. in 72 point characters on the cover page. A standard trope in legal dramas is the scene where the beleaguered protagonist struggles to climb the courthouse steps while being hunted down by a pack of barking journalistic jackals.
And when the portraits of reporters (and editors, producers, photographers, editors, press directors) are not unflattering, they are unrealistic. Remarkable how many ink-stained wretches conduct interviews without ever using a real pen, notebook or tape recorder.
The overall message is pretty clear: the people who bring us the news with the power they wield cannot be trusted, and, moreover, they lack an intellectual or moral depth commensurate with that power.
Consider the following examples of unprofessional or downright shady journalistic behavior:
- In an episode this month on Apple TV + ‘s “The Morning Show” which took place at the very start of the pandemic, a reporter from the “Today Show” type of news and talk show urges the show’s producer to stop bumping into his stories about the emergence of a deadly virus in China. “It’s a big deal,” he said. “People need to know what’s coming. But the producer, insisting she needs a “home run” to reverse the show’s late ratings, rejects her plea. “It doesn’t impact everyday life here,” she says. Journalism is at best a secondary consideration in the news operation depicted in “The Morning Show”. Behind the smiling face of the program, the “we are all family here” facade, hides a network culture of sexual predation, inflated ego, hypocrisy and cover-up. No wonder the producer is too distracted to devote resources to covering an impending global crisis.
- In an episode this month of “Ted Lasso,” an Apple TV + series about the American coach of a British football team, it is near midnight when a sports reporter sends Ted a link to the online version. of a story that will damage the reputation of the coach, telling Ted this will be printed the next morning. Then, without any prompting, the reporter reveals the name of his anonymous source – a major journalistic no-no, which many real-life journalists have gone to jail for refusing to do. And then the sports reporter asks, in a way, “Would you like to comment?”
- In Netflix’s recent “Clickbait,” a reporter poses as a food delivery guy to enter a house, then begins to photograph the interior on his cell phone. In the acclaimed Danish political drama “Borgen”, a prominent television journalist has an affair with the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, who dies of a heart attack while in bed with the journalist. In the film “Nightcrawler” (2014), a television press photographer played by Jake Gyllenhaal goes so far as to manipulate crime scenes – and cause death – in order to obtain better images for nighttime broadcast.
- In “Birdman” (2014), a malicious (fictional) New York Times theater critic tells failed movie star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who stars in a Broadway show, “I’m going to kill your play. In Showtime’s ‘Billions’, when a print journalist gets a video of hedge fund titan Bobby Axelrod punching an acquaintance in the face, Axelrod bribes the reporter by dangling the possibility of a television job, sending it to Aspen “to meet with a certain network president about your own show.”
- In Netflix’s House of Cards, a young political reporter is so eager to collect career scoops that she willingly serves as a tool for ruthless Congressman Frank Underwood, posting the information he provides. and designed to overthrow Underwood’s enemies and accelerate its rise to power.
As for Logan Roy from “Estate”, he is already very powerful, and he intends to keep him, even if he faces possible criminal charges after his son Kendall turns on him.
So, in last Sunday’s episode, the mogul spoke not only of finding the best defense attorney possible, but also of manipulating media coverage of his wrongdoing. “We put pressure on others [news] operations, ”Logan told his subordinates. “The line is” Don’t lean on that… Play smart today, you won’t watch [like] a [expletive] tomorrow.'”
What’s telling, and more than a little depressing, is Logan’s apparent confidence that he can get other news outlets to play along.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter @GlobeAucoin.