In Fox News We Trust — Should Walter Cronkite be rolling over in his grave?

The bad news for liberals and progressives arrived via a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University: Fox News was the news source among broadcast and cable networks Americans trusted most.

Fox beat all networks handily, garnering 29 percent as “most trustworthy” among the 1,286 registered voters called between February 26 and March 2. CNN took second place with 22 percent, CBS and NBC tied at distant third with 10 percent each, ABC followed with 8 percent and forward-leaning MSNBC was at the back of the pack with 7 percent.

The Washington Post was aghast that “for millions of Americans Fox News is the mainstream media.” Liberal blogs found the poll results “terrifying” and bemoaned the fact that the conservative network, a “Murdoch-owned scream machine” to one blogspot, had become a “ratings juggernaut.”

Should Walter Cronkite, icon of liberal or mainstream broadcast news during the 1960 and ’70s, be turning over in his grave?

Not too often. A Gallup poll conducted in late 2014 revealed that 60 percent of Americans don’t trust all news media; other recent polls have told us that “America’s confidence in news media remains low.”

But follow-up questions are rarely asked in these polls. We don’t discover if confidence was ever high, when that was, and why confidence diminished or disappeared.

The Quinnipiac poll takes a perfunctory shot at asking and gives the following results: 48 percent of voters interviewed say that the information presented on television news is “less newsworthy” than in the heyday of broadcast news, only 7 percent consider it “more trustworthy” and 35 percent consider it “about the same.”

Almost the same percentage (42 percent) is saying that the news presented on Cronkite at CBS or Huntley-Brinkley on NBC was more than or as “newsworthy” as the 48 percent who consider the news on television today “less newsworthy.”

That could be because the half hour Cronkite and others had available then rarely featured celebrity scandals or tales of crime the full hour allotted to Bill O’Reilly or Rachel Maddow permits to titillate viewers. Cronkite did not compete with the National Enquirer or PEOPLE Magazine.

But we do not learn whether or not the respondents in the poll speak from experience, from having watched nightly news on the three networks when they dominated television news, and compare what they remember to the fare on the cable channels today.

Moreover, how much do they know about stories, from political to economic or foreign news, to judge them more or less accurate, as worthy or unworthy of their trust? And, where do they get the information to shape such judgments?

Newspapers and magazines, alas, are not mentioned in these polls, nor are the young people who tend to, as they often inform pollsters, “seek out personal venues for getting information.” A Facebook message from a friend, citing a passage from a blog or comment by another friend, is such a venue, as are late night TV jokes or news as seen by stars of Comedy Central. Entertaining while sneaking in facts works.

Fox News gloated when, on March 9, the Quinnipiac poll crowned it King of Newscasts. Soon after, reports of a major shake-up and realignment at MSNBC were published. Liberals and progressives, after all, still have NPR and three biggies of daily print journalism—the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times—to carry the banner for the Democrats’ agenda and for social reforms.

Yet, they ought to take a look at what Fox News did well to perform so well on the latest poll, and how MSNBC screwed up. Personalities on the screen matter, in a way they of course never did in print or in the old broadcast news business. Edward R. Murrow was not a laugh every three minutes and reported without chatting or shouting. Hectoring, the boys and girls at MSNBC might discover, does not make a conversation.

But there is solace in the really big picture. Another poll revealed that “Americans don’t trust each other.” Only one third of respondents in an Associated Press poll believed that “most people can be trusted.”  As 27-year-old Bart Murawski of Albany, NY, put it: “I’m leery of everybody.”

Including the hosts and talking heads on the news.


When bullets fly: Hillary Clinton’s and Brian Williams’ tales of war

“The first casualty when war comes is truth.” – Hiram W. Johnson, U.S. Senator

The former FLOTUS, Secretary of State and U.S. Senator and leading candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2016 Hillary Clinton and Brian Williams, intrepid reporter and anchor for NBC’s Nightly News, ignored Johnson’s timeless admonition when it came to telling brief encounters with warfare. When caught, as Clinton was back in 1996 and Williams for his rendition of a 2003 experience in the war with Iraq this week, both resorted to “mis”-words to explain: Clinton “misspoke” and Williams “misremembered.”

The American public may not buy into their explanations. But why should it matter that the potential next president was tripped up by her tongue and a national media figure betrayed by his memory? Because perhaps they weren’t, and their use of euphemisms for telling tall tales, aka lying, have by now become the norm in much of our political life and in journalism.  We may expect from figures in these two areas what we used to expect primarily from used car salesmen: a playful “misspeaking” or “misremembering” about the products or services they’re convincing us to buy.

Hillary Clinton’s story about coming under sniper fire while, as First Lady, she deplaned in Tuzla in 1996 was exposed as fiction by television cameras at the scene and accounts from members of her entourage and American military personnel stationed in the area when the event came up during her 2008 campaign in the Democratic primaries. (“Hillary Clinton calls Bosnia sniper story a mistake,” Reuters, March 25, 2008) Clinton admitted quickly that “I did misspeak the other day,” but to some her original story remained a “tall tale” (Christopher Hitchens, for one).

What did she suggest, or pretend, that “misspeaking” means? She hoped that the public would see her “misspeaking” as speaking unclearly or misleadingly, but without intent to do so. Instead, her “mistake” was viewed as the failure to tell the whole truth. She flew to Tuzla and got off the plane, that was the truthful part of her story, the rest (the dash across the tarmac to the car as bullets whizzed by overhead) was invention.

Her husband’s predecessor in the White House invented and misspoke. When George W. Bush said, in 2004, that “They (our enemies) never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people –and neither do we,” most listeners and readers immediately recognized it as “misspeaking.” He lied about the war in Iraq, and eventually those lies could not be explained as “mistakes” or “misinterpretations.” Journalists and their audiences eventually figured that out, although a tad too late for the harm he spoke of to be prevented.

Why Brian Williams, covering that war the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld team running the country sold successfully, is not so evident. He was close to the shooting war, but the Chinook helicopter he rode in was not hit, as he insisted as late as March 20, 2013 to David Letterman, that “two of the four helicopters were hit by ground fire, including the one I was in.” The helicopter he was in was 30 to 60 minutes behind the ones that were hit, and the details of William’s invention are detailed in the excellent story that revealed the “misremembered” event: “NBC’s Brian Williams recants Iraq story after soldiers protest,” by Travis J. Tritten in Stars and Stripes on February 4.

When Williams told his tale to Letterman, the late night host could muster a “No kidding!” and gave Williams a chance to come clean and refresh his faulty memory. We don’t know why he made up the tale, and his explanation – it was a “bungled attempt” to honor the soldiers who helped protect him – is unlikely to convince even the TV-personality struck.

Cormac McKeown, an editor of the Collins English Dictionary, summed up what the tales woven by Clinton and Williams tell us. Both tried to redefine telling the truth because “misspeaking” and “misremembering” are euphemisms “for not telling the truth. It’s the language of bamboozling, which US politicians and the US military love and get away with.”

US journalism, you too?  Or, can it return to its old tradition of exposing that language for what it is and does?

With a Clinton vs. Bush contests in the making for 2016, journalists should take to heart the observation of one of their greats, of H. L. Mencken:

“The men (and women) the American people admire most extravagantly are the most daring liars; the men (and women) they detest most violently are those who try to tell them the truth.”

Bree Smith a hit on national TV

On Tuesday, January 20, Channel 5 (KSDK) meteorologist Bree Smith appeared on the Today Show and made the people of the area proud.

Smith was invited to do the weather with Al Roker in the 8 am segment after St. Louisians contributed more than any other city to a Today Show fund raiser (for food).  The winning city’s NBC affiliate got their weathercaster on the Today Show to present the weather with Al Roker.

Her performance?  Just about perfect. She made everyone look good, including herself.  During the segment, nearly a minute and 45 seconds, she was complimentary to the people of St. Louis and others around the country for their giving as well as the Today Show for making the effort.  When she actually did the weather segment, the center of attention was on St. Louis…sort of.   The map showed the seven cities across the U.S. named “St. Louis,” one named “St. Louis Park,” an “Archville” and a couple of cities named “Arch.”  She gave the temperatures for a few of them, of course focusing on St. Louis, MO.  To top it off, she had Roker try a piece of traditional St. Louis gooey butter cake which he seemed to truly enjoy.

Smith came across as relaxed, competent and genuinely nice. She even did a great job “pitching” to the local stations’ forecasts expertly delivering the line, “That’s what’s going on around the country, here’s what’s happening in your neck of the woods.” Roker followed that with an emphatic (indicating success on her part) “Boom!” which she humorously echoed. As co-meteorologist Mike Roberts would later say, while also admitting he was jealous of her trip, she was “smooth as glass.”

The downside of this appearance for Channel 5?  If TV execs around the country were paying any attention, this might have been a very successful audition for Smith.  She could end up, just because her performance was so good, getting an offer for more money in a larger city.

Meantime, she, along with Chester Lampkin, the two youngest members of the Channel 5 weather team, offer great hope for attracting viewers.  That is not to criticize the other members of the station’s weathercasters who are all excellent in their own ways.  But these two have great talent and a tremendous future ahead of them if they so choose.  In the end, if they leave, St. Louis viewers will be the losers.

Watch her appearance: http://www.ksdk.com/story/entertainment/television/today-in-st-louis/2015/01/20/bree-smith-today-show-piper/22036537/