Journalism in Crisis

Appeared in Pantsuit Politics, April 30, 2017

Interview by Dante Lima

Editor’s note: Dr. William McKeen is an American author and educator. He is a professor and chairman of the Department of Journalism at  Boston University , and was formerly a professor and head of the Department of Journalism at the University of Florida, where I served as his student and teaching assistant. Dr. McKeen is also a noted biographer of Hunter S. Thompson, the journalist that broke all the rules. There’s nobody I know better qualified to speak about the current state of the media, so I called him. We spoke for about an hour on Trump, journalism, why reporters are having trouble understanding America, and Hunter. Here is part of our conversation. 


McKeen’s office in University of Florida days

On a scale of 1-10, how would you rate the media’s overall coverage of the Trump administration through 100 days? Does it meet your journalistic standards? Who is doing the best job, in your opinion?

It’s so inconsistent, I’d probably say 5. Some publications have done a wonderful and fierce job and those are the usual suspects – The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, etc. I was glad to see The New York Times broke its practice of never using the L word (lie). They finally said it’s not a euphemism, it’s a fuckin’ lie.

One of the more exciting things to watch these days is the Washington Post. It’s really been reinvigorated. I have some friends that are working there that are over the moon excited by what The Post is doing. The morale is high. What is really worrying me is that he’s being covered these days by, mostly television, as a normal president.

Donald Trump

He’s not a normal president. He’s an aberration. He is dangerous. He is a demagogue. He is proof that you don’t need to be very smart to make money. I don’t think he has any real depth of understanding about our political system or our foreign relations.

We had some of that kind of coverage, at the beginning, and directly after the election. Now it’s been 3-4 months and now the press is kind of covering it as if it’s normal. I get the Times at home every day and the Boston Globe.

The Globe has been doing a great job of covering the nuts and bolts of government. It reported that Trump has only actually nominated people for something like 1/6 of the positions in the cabinet, and we’re at the 100 day mark.

Why is this happening? I see that in the Times and the Post and the Globe, and I don’t see that across the board. That ought to be the lead story across the nightly news. I see I think what we are seeing is when normalizing, they are doing their regular agenda based coverage. The ‘what is happening” instead of the overall story, which is the incompetence of the government.

If it’s not along the usual lines, then the press kind of falls flat and doesn’t know how to behave.

One of the main criticisms leveled at journalists in the current era is bias, favoritism, pushing a clear agenda. Can you describe for our community exactly what lengths journalism academia goes to to ensure that stuff isn’t the case.

Well the adage has always been that we train people or reinforce the idea of getting both sides, but more and more we have to realize there are many sides. One of the news values that draws people to storytelling and journalism is conflict.

The political conflict now is between the president pushing a certain agenda and the opposition pushing back. At a certain level you have to cover that. But traditional news values aren’t working with this administration, because it’s such an aberration. People think the press is out to get him. I do know that’s not the case.

What I do believe is that he’s his own worst enemy, with his disregard and arrogance and such. And I think that needs to be shown. If people who voted for Trump don’t like the way he’s being treated, they should look at what is upsetting them, and that’s that journalists are reporting what they’re seeing and observing. I understand how people feel about that, if I was on the outside of it maybe I couldn’t see the truth.

Speaking of truth, what is your take on the truth? How do we know a good source anymore? How do we recognize the truth?

We’ve been dealing with that this whole semester. I doubt we’ve gone a period of two weeks without some kind of major convocation out-of-class to focus on helping people recognize truth, vs untruth.

We flew in the editor of Politifact to describe their fact checking process. We had Sopan Deb, a reporter, come in and talk about being arrested at a Trump rally. We had women reporters talking about the danger they feel in covering Trump. It’s energized journalists but now we’re also painted as the enemy. So a lot of it comes down to skepticism.

Being online if you see this particular statement, don’t believe it, don’t accept it as fact. Finding out fact vs. fiction is going to involve research which people are really not willing to do. I have done it too. I have passed along information that was untrue. I’ve been fooled. And when it has happened I immediately delete the post and tell people I’m sorry. I think there will be more and more fact checking sites. If you can’t verify a statement, you can approach a site like Politifact and ask them to check it out – that’s what they do and they have a transparent process.

What I’m advising is we have to use much more caution, but are people really going to do that? When an untruth is discovered we have to do our best as journalists to quickly either lay claim one way or another whether it’s true or not. I don’t really understand the motive behind sites posting deliberate untruth, possibly because I believe that people are good.

Do you think news outlets, especially print outlets have a greater responsibility to educate their readers on the firewall between the newsroom and the editorial board? When I see people use the bias or fake news attack, they typically point out opinion pieces. But there seems like there’s a disconnect between the two sides of the media coin?

That’s long been a problem. People would refer to a column I wrote and call it an editorial. We take for granted that the audience understands our jargon and what we do as journalists. To somebody who has no background in journalism they have no clue what an op-ed piece is. News outlets need to keep people informed on what we as journalists do. The New York Times has changed the 2nd and 3rd page of its A section to be not only an index of what is in the paper, but there is a piece in there and a blog that goes with it, a podcast, that explains the reporting of this particular story or the background and the decisions that were made.

I wish more people would notice that. I don’t want us to become only this inward looking, self-centered institution. But we do need more explanation. This goes into the press’ inability to see what was happening before the election. I went on a trip this summer to the Midwest with my sons. I am one of those people who just starts talking to strangers, and the whole way I felt that I was reporting. I came back and said to my friends, Trump is going to win. And to the outside world he was imploding.

A mock front page of the Boston Globe published months before Trump’s election

In the liberal fortress of Massachusetts, the thinking was “no way in hell.” I think part of the problem is journalists only talk to each other. They’ll get the quote they want, but they won’t understand the person they’re talking to. And they only interview the usual suspects, people that hold office, people that have status, people in positions of power.

I would make the reporters work out of little store front offices, and live in the community. Journalists only talking to other journalists is a big problem we have right now. They talk to the same people who reinforce their own beliefs. Part of journalism is providing an account of living.

Name one quality you think is necessary for the survival of journalism? What is the biggest problem you see in the industry?

There is more to journalism than just covering speeches and meetings. One of the overlooked components is observation, but we are too much in this stenographic mode. We need more interviewing, getting different points of view. The press needs to become more reflective in terms of diversity, gender diversity, minority diversity. We’re not really reflective right now of our society.

That’s a fundamental change that needs to happen no matter what. As a consequence of that change we’ll have better reporting about “real people.” That sounds like a Trump thing to say, but there were people in this election who voted for change no matter what the cost. I heard so many times on the road ‘We need to shake things up in Washington.’ I think Hillary had the intellectual capabilities and was much better prepared, but we never got a pulse on that fear.

That’s not what all those people out there wanted. They wanted a bull in a china shop. They wanted to destroy the status quo. There are certain elements of the status quo that are working, and if they are going to be changed they need to be changed in a more fluid and gradual manner. The press needs to be better prepared to cover society. One of the tenants we try to teach is not to ignore people. Irritate, infuriate, and inform. That’s our motto as journalists.

Will we ever get back to a place where the media is trusted again? Were we ever there?

Just this week I did a lecture about CBS News and Walter Cronkite and while he was on the air he was the most trusted person in America, even more than the president. Journalists are never going to win a popularity contest because by our nature we are always going to bring the bad news. We’re interested in aberration, and we’re interested in things that are odd or different. T

here is a natural tendency for the public to figuratively kill the messenger or blame the messenger. We can’t counter this by just replacing bad news with happy news. Our job is to look at the problems and what a reporter ought to do is point out a problem. What an editorial writer ought to do is point out a problem and propose a solution and point a finger at the person who can affect that change.

A columnist like Thomas Freidman, every mover and shaker reads his column, so journalists do have a function in the opinion side of the equation. One of the most ferocious journalists right now is Charles Blow of the New York Times. He’s just been eviscerating the president. We don’t want to be beloved, but we do want to be trusted. If we can show that it was done with care, and precision, and that it’s verifiably true – people will accept it. We can be respected for that ability.

People say, ‘These must be terrible times for you?’ I see in students, the ones that are really serious about it, they have an almost ministerial view of journalism, like this is “my calling.” There’s almost a fervor to it. I sense that in my favorite news sources and it makes me very proud to be part of the tribe.

The current political battle, to me anyway, seems to be less conservative vs. liberal, Republican vs. Democrat, and more establishment vs. anti-establishment. Are the legacy journalism outlets by default elitist? Is legacy more of a hindrance than a help in this era?

That’s a very good question. I do think that doing what I do, we’ve “academ-icized” journalism. When I started reporting early in my career in the 70s, there was only one person in our newsroom who had actually taken a journalism class. But post Watergate everyone wanted to be like Bernstein and Woodward and topple governments. But before that people came from all sorts of backgrounds.

We have produced generations of journalists who are kind of out of touch with the typical average American in the Midwest or the Southwest or what have you. We’ve produced people who are extremely well educated and adept, but they go out on the streets and don’t know how to talk to people. I would never want to slam a generation because if anything the generation that needs to be slammed is mine. B

ut if there was one knock on this generation it’s they’re afraid to talk to people. There is too much of a fraternization between journalists and the government when their allegiance is really toward the governed.

A medium is a way of conveyance. What we are talking about are institutions who have decided the they are going to pass on information. The internet has leveled the playing field. To be a voice in the marketplace of ideas even 20 years ago went like this: Do you have something to say? Ok now, do you have 30 million dollars? It got to be such an expensive enterprise. The internet was a leveling of the informational playing field, and the bad thing was that it leveled the playing field. Consuming information, especially today, It requires a savvy.

But to the unsophisticated Internet consumer sources like Breitbart and the New York Times have the same level of legitimacy. When you have legacy media, you know the process. I know that someone researched it, wrote it, passed it to an editor, people fact checked it, made decisions on whether to publish it, so when it reaches me I can reasonably believe it’s accurate. I don’t know how to do this, but somehow we have to educate consumers on what is trustworthy. I don’t understand why people want to believe things they know are wrong.

If Hunter S. Thompson were alive today, what would his role be in the Trump era? I believe you’re one of the few people uniquely qualified to give this answer.

First of all if Hunter S. Thompson were alive today he would kill himself. One of the things that drove him to commit suicide, among other things, was that he was so depressed following the election of president George W. Bush, he chose an irresponsible way to alleviate that misery. I

would want to know what he had to say. His muse in his lifetime was Richard Nixon, and his greatest writing was his revulsion for Nixon. It didn’t have to do with his personality which is what some people believe, you know, despite his image Hunter was extremely patriotic. He loved the documents that preserved freedom and any time he saw someone insulting those documents it infuriated him. Nixon violated the law but it was behind closed doors, but Trump does it in public.

Hunter would have despised this president. You can tell by the way Trump treats people in his life. When he is somewhere with Melania, he doesn’t have any regard for her, walks in front of her, he has no courtesy, no manners, no couth. And when it comes to his political ignorance there are so many things Hunter would be compelled to comment on.

People always ask me what Hunter would say and my answer is ‘Who knows?’ Deep down he was a good ol’ Southern boy. He wasn’t as enlightened as some of his followers would expect, but if he chose not to kill himself I think you’d see the journalistic equivalent of Nero setting fire to Rome. He’d untangle a wire clothes hanger, take some weenies, put them on a stick and enjoy the barbecue and the fall from grace that is  happening.