June 27, 2023

Stephen Colbert could not have predicted how much his idea of “truthiness” would come to define American politics — or how much it would affect how journalists do their jobs.

The term, coined for the premiere of Colbert’s Comedy Central show in 2005, means to believe something is true because you want to believe it’s true. It’s truth by gut, rather than fact.

“Donald Trump took that to the extremes and challenged how journalists cover someone,” NPR TV critic Eric Deggans said Tuesday morning to a group gathered at Poynter for a breakfast with media insiders that also included an announcement of this year’s Bowtie Ball honoree. “Typically when someone is lying, journalists report that they’re lying and then they get embarrassed and stop doing it. That stopped happening.”

Deggans cited the challenges to fact-based truth as the No. 1 problem that journalists face today. Solutions are sparse.

CNN anchor Kaitlan Collins attempted to fact-check Trump live during the network’s infamous town hall in May, only for Trump to steamroll her, leveraging the audience of supporters for momentum. Plus, Deggans said, “People think it’s a magic act, where you can fact-check someone the minute they say something.” That’s not true.

In another instance, Trump gave a speech after he was arraigned in Miami. CNN and MSNBC decided not to carry the speech live. Deggans said that was the right move. “You watch it, and if he says anything newsworthy you tell your audience about it later,” he said. Still, CNN and MSNBC “took a lot of flak,” he said, “particularly from Republicans, who said it was not fair.”

As the 2024 presidential election cycle ramps up, news media aren’t doing themselves any favors by covering politics in the same broken ways they have in the past, Poynter senior media writer and event co-speaker Tom Jones said.

“We’ve already started with the horse race coverage,” he said. “You can’t get through a DeSantis story without polling compared to Trump or Biden. We’re not talking about, ‘What are your views on China? What are your views on Ukraine?’ ”

National polling “isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on,” Deggans said. “Why are we quoting these things? I know why. The reason is to keep people interested is to portray it as a horse race. … Nobody has cast a vote yet. Nobody is ahead.

“How many elections do we need to have where the polls lead us astray before we stop?”

Jones said from his point of view dwindling resources in local news is the most pernicious issue in news media.

“What’s going on at school boards? City councils? There are fewer and fewer reporters to cover them,” Jones said. “We’re trying to do the same things with a lot less. … These are hard-working journalists, but we can’t cover everything. And it affects each and every one of us.”

The New York Times and The Washington Post are among the bright spots in a blighted news ecosystem, Jones said.

“I don’t know that we’ve ever had two more powerful institutions at such a high level right now,” he said. “What they do is amazing.”

Network news — ABC, CBS and NBC — are doing “fabulous reporting,” too, Jones said, citing a recent report that “Face the Nation” moderator and CBS News chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Brennan filed from China during a trip with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. “I dare you to find any bias: liberal, conservative, whatever.”

The cable networks like Fox News, CNN and MSNBC often dominate conversations about TV news, but the network news outlets have the biggest news audience on television — a viewership that “absolutely dwarfs cable news,” Deggans said.

“That’s the thing people leave out about Fox News,” he said. “They get good numbers for cable, but all of the network shows get higher ratings than Tucker Carlson. But it’s not cool to talk about them. So we spend a lot of time talking about Tucker Carlson.”

Fox News’ focus on commentary was built purposefully by Roger Ailes, the political consultant who founded Fox News, Deggans said. The network didn’t have the resources to compete with CNN, which had reporters all over the world, so Fox made its key prime-time programming all about its personalities.

CNN has had high-profile issues with its personalities — namely recently fired hosts Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo who Deggans said “were supposed to be more objective reporters but become opinionators, too. But CNN still shines during major breaking news events.

“CNN had an outstanding weekend covering Russia,” Jones said. “It reminded me of CNN at its best. What was CNN’s greatest moment? It was covering the start of the Gulf War.”

“That’s when cable news is at its best — when they don’t have time to fill,” Jones said. “When they’re just trying to tell you, ‘here’s what’s going on and here’s what it means.”

Poynter president Neil Brown concluded the event by announcing the 2023 honoree of the Poynter Medal for Lifetime Achievement in Journalism. CNN’s Anderson Cooper will join the list of prestigious recipients that also includes Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Lesley Stahl, Chris Wallace, Katie Couric, Lester Holt, Judy Woodruff and Bob Schieffer.

“He brings such a great humanity to his coverage,” Brown said, citing examples of Cooper’s harrowing international reporting, in addition to a new podcast about grief and a book Cooper wrote about his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt.

“We think he represents the values of the Poynter Institute in trying to reach people in many different ways in many different forms and often through difficult circumstances,” Brown said.

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Ren LaForme is the Managing Editor of Poynter.org. He was previously Poynter's digital tools reporter, chronicling tools and technology for journalists, and a producer for…
Ren LaForme

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