Cable news networks make it feel as if we’re looking at two different Americas

Your Wednesday Poynter Report

June 3, 2020
Category: Newsletters

The Poynter Report is our daily media newsletter. To have it delivered to your inbox Monday-Friday, click here.

It feels as if there are two different Americas right now. Just turn on your TV.

Watch CNN and see a very different country than the one you will see on Fox News. In fact, the network you turn to might say a lot about how you see the country.

Or go to their websites. On Tuesday night, I did just that. The headlines on CNN’s around 7 p.m.:

  • Massive protests in US largely peaceful now (though it warned of possible problems later in the night)
  • Thousands march in protest in Floyd’s hometown of Houston
  • Reverend: They turned holy ground into literal battle ground

At the exact same time, these headlines were on Fox News’ website:

  • Police may bust high-ranking Antifa members soon, amid concerns over riots hitting suburbia
  • Kellyanne Conway on ‘outrage’ over Trump’s St. John’s trip: ‘Anarchists won’t dissuade us’
  • Fleischer on Trump activating military: Governors are ‘fools’ not to call National Guard, ‘do your job”

While CNN’s primetime hosts such as Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo and their guests criticize President Donald Trump, Fox News hosts such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham and their guests vigorously defend him.

And while all hosts on all networks, from what I’ve seen, condemn the death of George Floyd, reactions to the president and the protests have been much different.

We are all looking at the same protests. We are all viewing the same events. We are all watching the same reactions of police and politicians and the president. Yet we are seeing two different countries.

Which leads me to the following item …

Falling on deaf ears?

Fox News’ primetime hosts Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity. (AP Photo)

The big boss at Fox Corporation — CEO Lachlan Murdoch — sent a memo to staff this week about the death of George Floyd and the protests going on around the country. He urged staff to “grieve with the Floyd family, closely listen to the voices of peaceful protest and fundamentally understand that black lives matter.”

Among his other comments, Murdoch said, “The events that have unfolded over the past week have left me shocked and saddened. Each of you has been in my thoughts as we watch the tragic death of George Floyd continue to cause immense pain and spark important discussions around the country. … The FOX culture embraces and fosters diversity and inclusion. Often we speak of the ‘FOX Family,’ and never has the need to depend on and care for that family been more important. We support our Black colleagues and the Black community, as we all unite to seek equality and understanding.”

He also said the mission “to provide the best in news is particularly vital at this time” and “this is a time for people to come together in their grief, work to heal and coalesce to address injustice and inequity in our country.”

But did that message get through to the on-air talent at Fox News? While Murdoch was asking for understanding, many of the Fox News personalities were saying troubling things — particularly in the morning on “Fox & Friends” and in primetime from hosts such as Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Again, everyone on Fox News has condemned the killing of Floyd, but many hosts have given divisive messages that certainly do not, as Murdoch suggests, “listen to the voices” of the protesters.

One commentator, Kennedy Montgomery, said on the air that some people should start making citizen arrests. About the violence, looting and arson at some protests, Ingraham said, “These … acts of violence are part of a coordinated effort to eventually overthrow the United States government. It’s well-funded and it’s well organized on social media.”

Hannity said on his show that Trump walking to a church on Monday “reassured Americans this will be solved” even though much of the country saw Trump’s behavior as a divisive photo-op. Ingraham called the protesters near the White House on Monday “violent” even though live news coverage showed the protesters were peaceful.

While it’s commendable that Murdoch sent out a message of unity and understanding, it means little when many of his on-air personalities ignore that message.

To cover, not to participate

On Tuesday afternoon, I saw the following tweet from Caitlin Johnston, a reporter for the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times, who was covering protests in downtown St. Petersburg, Florida:

“Protesters outside St. Pete PD are chanting at journalists and TV crews to ‘just go home’ because reporters won’t hold signs or answer the crowd’s questions about George Floyd and others.”

Frustrations are high, and that’s understandable. What’s not acceptable, however, is journalists being attacked by anyone — police or protesters. The protesters, hopefully, realize that journalists’ roles are not to hold signs or answer questions, but to chronicle the protesters holding signs and talking about issues.

Journalists cover everything from the protesters’ messages to the mistreatment of protesters by the authorities. Wanting the press to “just go home” is the last thing protesters should want.

Zuckerberg’s call with employees

(AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

This feels like a crossroads for Facebook. For quite some time, the social network giant has stiff-armed outsiders who criticized it for allowing politicians, especially President Trump, to post hateful or inflammatory comments. But now the complaining calls are coming from inside the house.

Facebook employees are upset with the hands-off approach and expressed those concerns in a conference call Q&A with founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday. And, apparently, Zuckerberg is sticking to his belief that Facebook is “not the arbiter of truth.” According to The New York Times, Zuckerberg told employees, “This was a tough decision. But I feel this was pretty thorough.”

The Times’ Mike Isaac, Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel were on top of the story all day Tuesday with Isaac, the Times’ tech reporter, tweeting at one point that the call “was not going over super well” with employees. One employee asked, “Why are the smartest people in the world focused on contorting and twisting our policies to avoid antagonizing Trump?”

The Times reported that several Facebook employees have resigned, with one saying the company is going to end up “on the wrong side of history.”

In the end, Zuckerberg continues to believe this is a First Amendment issue and that politicians’ words, even if they’re wrong or false, should be there for the world to see. According to Isaac, Zuckerberg told employees Tuesday that “the net impact of the different things we’re doing in the world is positive. I really believe it is.”

While this does feel like a big moment for Facebook, it may amount to nothing if advertisers and, especially, users continue to use Facebook.

Recode co-founder and New York Times opinion contributor Kara Swisher, who has covered Facebook closely over the years, told CNBC on Tuesday, “Right now they can be as despicable as they want because their stock is up.”

Swisher was particularly critical of Zuckerberg, saying, “He’s not thinking of anything like what is the right thing for history. He has a passing knowledge of the First Amendment from when I’ve seen him speak about it, and I find it disturbingly naive.”

And will the Facebook internal rebellion have any impact?

“I’m surprised even a few people complained and I hope it continues,” Swisher said. “I think it will have exactly zero effect. … They’re going to do exactly what they’re going to do and this decision by Mark should come as no surprise to anybody.”

Swisher then added his devastating line: “Mark Zuckerberg is going to continue to be … the Susan Collins of the internet. That’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to be ‘disappointed and concerned,’ but he’s going to do exactly nothing about it. He’s going to continue to let President Trump do what he wants.”

Missing the mark

The New York Times was heavily criticized for its main headline in Tuesday’s early print edition. Over stories about the protests near the White House as President Trump was getting ready to speak, the headline read, “As Chaos Spreads, Trump Vows to ‘End It Now.’”

Mediaite’s Reed Richardson compiled several media objections to the headline, including comments such as “just pathetic,” “they should just let Trump write the headlines,” “this is Fox-like,” and “did Donald Trump write this headline?” Northeastern University professor Dan Kennedy tweeted, “As I tell my students, beware of journalism that is accurate but not true. This is accurate yet profoundly not true.”

The headline was updated for later editions to say, “Trump Threatens to Send Troops Into States.”

Many media critics like to bash the Times, often because the Times doesn’t go far enough (in the opinion of certain critics) to condemn the actions of the president or to take a more political — and let’s face it, liberal or anti-Trump — stance.

I disagree with those critics. That is not the Times’ role. Their reporters are there to chronicle the news. And, I believe, if you read their stories, they do an excellent job putting the stories into context. They just simply don’t go far enough for those who want them to relay the anger and opinions that they are feeling. And, anyway, the Times has plenty of opinion columnists who take hard political stances.

But there’s no question this headline was a big swing-and-miss. The online headline for the story was much better in its description of what happened: “As Trump Calls Protesters ‘Terrorists,’ Tear Gas Clears a Path for His Walk to a Church.”

I’ll briefly stick up for print headline writers. Writing interesting and accurate headlines on tight deadlines using only a certain number of characters is not easy.

But the Times is among the best news organizations in the world with some of the best journalists in the world. This isn’t a small newspaper with limited staff and impossible deadlines. The bar is very high for the Times, and in this instance, they failed to clear it. But let’s not let one headline give the impression that the Times is less than what it is — a truly great newspaper.

A conflict of interest

Back on May 19, Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds wrote how Gannett was planning a “combined ad sales and news initiative for the end of the month on the theme of how businesses and individuals are preparing for a broad reopening of the economy.” It was called “Rebuilding America” and it was planned for the May 30 and 31st editions. That was this past weekend.

But this past weekend, the death of George Floyd and the massive protests across the nation overtook the news. It became even bigger than the coronavirus story that has dominated the news for the past several months. Still, for most Gannett papers over the weekend, the “Rebuilding America” project remained the focus in print editions.

There were several factors why, including earlier-than-normal deadlines and the fact that the “Rebuilding America” project had been planned for some time and couldn’t be changed. Still, it was a bad look when readers of many Gannett newspapers picked up their weekend editions and saw the protest stories downplayed.

The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan wrote, “Anyone who surveyed the front pages of the chain’s Sunday papers would be greeted by a sea of bright blue graphics with words like ‘We’re in this together’ — but, in many cases, with precious little indication that the nation has been roiled by protests on a scale we haven’t seen in decades.”

To be fair, as Sullivan notes, many of the chain’s biggest papers — such as the Detroit Free Press, Des Moines Register and Columbus Dispatch — did lead with protest coverage. But many other papers played up the “Rebuilding America” project — including in Naples, Florida, and Fayetteville, North Carolina, where the entire front page was set aside for the “Rebuilding America” project.

The Gannett papers did have protest coverage on their websites. But it does show that in certain situations, the print product is much different than the online one, especially when it comes to breaking news.

Amalie Nash, vice president of local news and audience development for Gannett’s USA Today Network, told Sullivan, “Our coverage was comprehensive and timely. Given deadlines and readership habits, we aren’t able to, and don’t believe it makes sense to, rely on our printed newspaper as a breaking-news vehicle.”

Nash is correct in her explanation, but that probably doesn’t sit well with readers who favor the print product.

Media tidbits

Joe Biden speaks in Philadelphia on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • MSNBC had planned a town hall with Joe Biden for Thursday night, but that has been postponed until further notice due to “the ongoing breaking news situation.”
  • Fox News’ Brian Kilmeade will interview President Trump this morning on his radio show at 9:30 a.m. Eastern. Meantime, Fox News’ Bill Hemmer will interview George Floyd’s family attorney, Benjamin Crump, today at 3 p.m. on Fox News’ “Bill Hemmer Reports.”
  • Jason Whitlock is out at Fox Sports after the two sides couldn’t reach a new contract, according to New York Post sports media columnist Andrew Marchand. Sources told Marchand that Whitlock is looking into starting his own direct-to-consumer business.
  • Sacramento Kings play-by-play announcer and Sports 1140 KHTK Radio host Grant Napear has resigned after tweeting “All Lives Matter” on Sunday. When asked by former Kings player DeMarcus Cousins for his “take on BLM,” Napear tweeted, “Hey!!!! How are you? Thought you forgot about me. Haven’t heard from you in years. ALL LIVES MATTER…EVERY SINGLE ONE!!!” Napear later said he was “not as educated on BLM as I thought. I had no idea that when I said ‘All Lives Matter’ that it was counter to what BLM is trying to get across.” Napear once was criticized for defending former Clippers owner Donald Sterling, saying Sterling couldn’t be racist because he employed black people.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

More resources for journalists

Want to get this briefing in your inbox? Sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.