Dryuary for TV news: Sober up and start doing your job

As we enter 2019, here are some of last year's habits we're hoping that TV news outlets will give up

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published January 2, 2019 7:30PM (EST)

Sarah Huckabee Sanders (AP/Andrew Harnik)
Sarah Huckabee Sanders (AP/Andrew Harnik)

We’ve officially entered “Dryuary,” according to the chorus of “hell no” echoing across the social media sphere. This is the unofficial post-holiday detox month, in which participants commit to a month-long sabbatical from booze and other intoxicants — a laudable effort that is very good for the body and brain.

“Dryuary” invites in new levels of clarity that can be illuminating and frightening in equal measure, making it an apt companion in this season of resolution and goals-setting. This is particularly true of a TV mediasphere in desperate need of sobriety after a year of binge intoxication. But the culprit isn’t Old Crow or Fireball. It’s this presidency.

Throughout the year that was, hundreds of articles and Twitter threads were devoted to illuminating the ways that Donald Trump has upended our concept of normalcy and the media’s inability to contend with that, let alone push back.

However, as we enter 2019 it is imperative that TV news journalists dump certain old habits down the drain for good. New Year’s tradition dictates commitment to change, it’s true. But we’re also entering the nascent phases of the 2020 presidential campaign. That makes it absolutely imperative that the organizations covering this administration and Congress adopt a strategy only a few journalists have been honoring on a regular and consistent basis, which is to act in the interest of the public and practice actual journalism.

In other words, as best as they possibly can, they should meaningfully and vigorously do their jobs.

It’s easy to imagine the scoffing and eye-rolling in reaction to this article. I get it. Many of these folks believe they are doing the best that they can. Some are. The average news consumer is not sitting in those White House press briefings, being treated with disdain live and in person by frequent liar MVP Sarah Huckabee Sanders. We’re not privy the experience of tangling with a president who dismisses questions he doesn’t like, or untangling the bewildering answers to the ones he tolerates.

Even on the quietest of days, of which there are precious few these days, the TV news game is a tough one — especially the cable news cycle, where the stream has sped up past rapid and dizzying to downright insane. But in 2019, consumers need news organizations to let go of old habits, not just for our own education but for the sake of democracy itself.

As is the case with any cleanse, “Dryuary” can evolve from a 31-day endeavor into a permanent shift. In that spirit, here’s hoping the main organizations actually striving to deliver the news — that is, NBC and MSNBC, ABC, CBS and CNN — make a least some of the following wishes into realities not just in “Dryuary,” but in the months and years that follow.

Stop letting Fox drive what issues are covered and how they’re covered.

Surely a few readers will take issue with not including Fox in the above list of TV news outfits, some of them within the Fox network itself. Similarly those readers probably don’t see the difference between Sean Hannity, whom Fox considers to be a personality, and Shepard Smith, an anchor who actually reports the news.

Neither does the network do much to draw a clear line between its news side and the nativist jamboree it hosts in prime time unless it is forced to, as when Hannity took the stage with Trump during a pre-midterm elections rally in Missouri last November.

Yet for decades under the late Roger Ailes, Fox News’ success in perpetuating right-wing bias steadily pushed other outlets’ coverage rightward as their organizations fought to compete. Even if you don’t watch Fox, even if you purposefully tune out the racist free-styling of Laura Ingraham or Tucker Carlson or Trump’s hype man, at some point in 2018 your news stream fought off a Megyn Kelly-related infection thanks to her disastrous and short stint on NBC.

But if one steps back and looks at the larger picture, the live prime time Fox news fan base — though loud, confrontational, and the bane of any holiday dinner — consists of an average of 2,434,000 total viewers in 2018, according to Nielsen. That’s  more than MSNBC’s 2018 average of 1.8 million and CNN’s 988,000. However, think of it this way: if MSNBC and CNN are lefty answer to Fox, their combined average audience total is slightly larger at 2,788,000.

MSNBC’s answer has been to veer leftward, yielding it some dividends. According to Nielsen, its prime time audience was up 10 percent in 2018, and it saw a 12 percent increase in in its total day ratings. Fox news increased by just one percentage point in prime time, and declined by five percent in total day. CNN hasn’t exactly been meeting viewers in the center, however; it took a 12 percent and 16 percent dive in those respective categories.

Meanwhile the three broadcast evening newscasts on NBC, ABC and CBS, drew a combined 23.51 million total viewers, according to recent sweeps numbers from November 2018 — about 10 times the cable news audience.

This is not to imply the broadcasters are somehow doing a better job; remember, NBC’s news department hired Kelly and gave her a Sunday news magazine platform in addition to ousting Tamron Hall to make room for her on "Today." But perhaps that larger number should put the weight partisan new outlets like Fox wields in perspective. Many more Americans get their daily TV headlines from broadcast than cling to Fox or other cable news. As such, perhaps non-Fox outlets can take the lead in 2019 and refuse to be steered by the whims of its competition — which is basically state-run TV at this point — and an erratic president. Speaking of which...

Stop congratulating this president for doing his job.

This has taken many forms since Trump took office, from the varied declarations in 2016 that, at last, he was acting presidential when all he did was read from a teleprompter, sometimes failing to do that with reasonable proficiency.

The latest came the day after Christmas when CNN anchor and workout addict Chris Cuomo reacted to Trump’s delayed visit to troops in Iraq — something every president is supposed to do — like so:

This reminded me of an old Chris Rock sketch where he chastised parents for bragging about taking care of their kids and expecting praise for it. In saying, “Keep it positive and abt them - potus will get warranted positive coverage,” this is Cuomo pre-emptively giving Trump a cookie.

This, in reference to a man who has constructed a network of enablers around him who do everything they can to manage his moods. We have more or less made him the king of an emotional cookie factory. He does not need or deserve any more cookies from CNN or any other entity. Besides, it’s not as if that’ll help him to like reporters more, if at all.

Stop treating all of Trump’s Oval Office live media “opportunities” as equal.

Admittedly his is a tough one. On the one hand, no TV news producer wants to miss the chance to feature a president giving his remarks on important policy and strategy matters live. On the other hand, with this president one never knows if we’re getting his official commentary on, say, why he decided to withdraw troops from Syria or if he’s decided to make the nation sit through a pointless phone call with the Mexican president, or invite Kanye West to hold us hostage.

Kanye’s nutty ramblings are ratings gold, and ratings drive revenue. But instead of devoting large chunks of time to a strange sad man on a slow news day, why not cut away and feature, I don’t know, in-depth analysis on policy decisions announced at a previous version of these debacles that lets viewers know what if any progress has been made? Or deeper reporting on topics that directly impact viewers? Or even — and I know this is crazy — broader dives into international news?

Do more in-depth reporting on developments outside of the United States.

World news did not used to be as siloed and underrepresented in mainstream news headlines as it is today. As Trump crows about our status in the world, kicking off trade tensions purely because he can, it might help to more regularly and closely examine what’s going on around the globe.

I’m not just talking about Brexit or the surge of nativism in Western Europe, although all of that is certainly concerning. Right now scores of journalists are doing their jobs in dangerous and under-examined corners of the world and doing them well, striving to shine a light on injustice and hold the powerful to account. They are dying for their efforts.

But in large part, the extraordinary effort they’re expending is not being adequately amplified within the 24-hour news cycle, even though at this moment in time, it’s just as important for Americans to understand the rippling ramifications of the worrisome state of affairs not just in Yemen, Syria or China, but in Venezuela, the Ukraine, throughout the continent of Africa and other places most Americans don’t care about. That is, until political turmoil in those places somehow affects their wallets or sense of safety.

Instead the news is inordinately focused on domestic concerns, and even in that arena, most stories  outside of Washington, D.C. receive short shrift as well.

Granted, we should be kept apprised of developments in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of connections between the Russian government and Trump. However, the only people served by consistently airing various hosts’ battles of wits with Rudy Giuliani weighing in on the matter are comedians, and Rudy Giuliani.

Stop bending over backwards in the name of “both sides.”

As I and many others have reported before, sometimes an issue doesn’t have two sides. Sometimes there’s just data-driven fact, backed by concrete evidence, and strategies about what can be done. Sometimes that fact is important for humankind to seriously address but inconvenient to the narrative of a particular industry or party. It's the news' job to champion humankind, not corporations.

Yet another lasting detrimental impact of the overall media’s reaction to Fox’s claim of “fair and balanced” is its need to feature the opinions of bought-and-paid-for wingnuts with no discernible expertise in discussions of, say,  topics such as climate change instead of scientists. Rick Santorum has nothing to offer when it comes to discussing the impact of rising global temperatures. But Katharine Hayhoe, someone who is respected in her field and has spent years monitoring and studying global warming could shed some light on the subject. And yet, who did CNN call upon to weigh in on the alarming findings from the congressionally mandated report on climate change? Hint: it was not the person with a Ph.D.

In the matter of policy, instead of spending time monitoring the progress of a migrant caravan, news organizations might devote time to examine the political and social conditions of the places from which these migrants originate. Or what politics the U.S. and other countries may or may not be enacting to mitigate those circumstances.

Instead, major news outlets place unqualified wonks or in some cases,  straight-up bigots in front of cameras to yell at other contributors in faux debates designed to ensure no one really wins.

Stop tolerating and featuring liars. Start referring to lies as lies.

How strange it is in a business that prizes word economy that so few journalists are willing to use the word lie when referring to the majority of what comes out of Trump's mouth. Short, and simple, lie is the best word to describe dishonest statements presented as truth. A lie is not a misstatement; the person or people foisting the lie mean to sell that lie. The purpose of that sale is to intentionally deceive.

Various news outlets have given reasons as to the hesitation to call a lie what it is — it’s a matter of not knowing the intent in someone’s heart, you see. But if a liar lies consistently after being presented with verifiable proof that what they’re saying isn’t true, the intent is clear.

Therefore it was encouraging, for example, to see MSNBC refuse to air Sanders mid-December briefing live and in its fullness. Sanders’ job is to lie, distract and misdirect at the behest of her boss.

During the press conference Sanders downplayed Trump’s concern about Flynn and attempted to misdirect by calling Trump a better presidential candidate than Hillary Clinton, giving that as the reason he won the election. Thus MSNBC aired a taped segment, just a short one, of a pertinent answer about whether Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn may have lied to the FBI. That’s all we require, and it's questionable if we even require that.

Maybe this is asking too much right now, given that successfully meeting one’s New Year's resolutions is a process of baby steps, not leaps. But there’s wisdom in Mika Brzezinski’s recent assertion that reporters should refuse to broadcast the false information coming out of a White House communications department that, among other things, attempted to discredit a CNN reporter by circulating an amateurishly doctored video as alleged proof that he put his hands on an aide.

Broadcasting lies live and unfiltered is more damaging than presenting them in context, and next to verifiable facts.

There are so many more wishes I’d like to go into here, especially with the 2020 campaign on our doorstep and a new Congress hours away from starting its session. But drying out in just these regards will take some amount of courage. The main challenge, as is the case with all resolutions, is to start at some point. How about right now?

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abc All Salon Cbs Cnn Culture Editor's Picks Fox Msnbc Nbc Tv