Commentary On Commentary
Like so many people, the events of January 6th commanded my attention. I was working at home that day and connected to JPR’s News & Information Service webstream, which provided regular newscasts throughout the day.
As I listened, I started to become aware that the “rally” taking place in Washington D.C. was turning into a dangerous and consequential event for our country. No longer satisfied with audio only, I wanted to see what was happening and so I turned on my television. Since this was a breaking news story, I went to CNN and watched as the violent mob overwhelmed the police guarding the U.S. Capitol, invaded the building, and attempted to overthrow our government and harm our democratically elected representatives as they performed their Constitutional duty to count the state-certified results of the November election.
The network’s lack of discipline separating opinions from reporting and allowing journalists to freely offer their judgements and conclusions created a real trust gap for me as a consumer.
As the events of that day unfolded, I became more aware of the news sources that were available to me, the content being broadcast and the sources I chose to rely on in that moment. I have written frequently in this space about the need for citizens to be savvy, intentional consumers of news, and I was trying to walk the walk.
After flipping through several channels that I had access to, I landed back on CNN since it seemed to have the most current information about developments on the ground and was conveying timely statements made by public officials about what would take place next.
But, as the day evolved, CNN’s coverage gradually shifted to include an increasing amount of commentary and opinion from its stable of personalities. After a while, it felt like the amount of commentary exceeded the amount of news coverage. Also noteworthy was the fact that many CNN news hosts easily pivoted to offering commentary, perhaps to fill the air time that existed when “special coverage” continued even though no new developments were able to be reported.
In reflecting about my experience as a news consumer on that memorable news day, I empathized with the challenge of everyday citizens of every political stripe trying to get a straight take on what’s going on in the world from credible sources they can trust. For me, CNN’s reporting was polluted by so much commentary, even by its bona fide journalists. The network’s lack of discipline separating opinions from reporting and allowing journalists to freely offer their judgements and conclusions created a real trust gap for me as a consumer. I was willing to hear opinions by a diverse range of people with different perspectives, but I wanted them clearly distinguished from news and the journalists who report it.
The advent of the 24/7 cable news network created news outlets based primarily on commentary and opinion. With more time to fill than there was news to report, these networks filled the airwaves with pundits rendering their opinions because it was easier and cheaper than hiring reporters to conduct real journalism. And, that’s where we stand today. Most Americans get their news from these cable “news” outlets, which seamlessly blend some reporting with a heavy dose of commentary and political opinion -- letting the consumer figure out which is which.
That evening I grew weary of the images on TV and tuned in All Things Considered on JPR. I didn’t hear Ari Shapiro or Mary Louise Kelly offer me a single opinion of what they thought about the events that took place in D.C. that day. Instead, I heard facts about exactly what happened, first-hand accounts from people who were there, informed interviews with law enforcement officials and elected representatives from different political parties, context from academics and historians, and information about statements released by former and current political and civic leaders. It was good to be home.