Blame the Watergate.
The final weeks of 2021 saw a wave of comments accusing the mainstream media of accentuating the Biden administration’s faux pas, while ignoring significant accomplishments.
But this is nothing new. It’s a hardened habit among the Washington press that dates back nearly half a century, with the notorious scandal that brought down Richard Nixon.
Few commentators recognize this. Instead, seasoned journalists and analysts today accuse readers and viewers of focusing on sadness and unhappiness – evidence of what is called “bad news bias.” In order to attract an audience, the media has to give people what they want – and what people want is bad news.
This dark inclination does exist. The need to look for bad news is ingrained in our DNA; we use negative information to protect us from life hazards. When natural disasters strike, reporters cover them nonstop – and, yes, clicks and ratings increase without stopping, too. Floods, fires and tornadoes put our brains on high alert. The video of a destructive sequel even prompts us to find ways to help, with the feeling that each of us could be a victim next time around.
Politics is not like that. The “bad news bias” doesn’t really apply here like it does with natural disasters. Few people have read the umpteenth story about Biden’s struggles to bring together various factions of his party and think, “There, but for the grace of God I am going.” Rather, Beltway’s pessimistic reporting appeals to something more superficial in human nature: cynicism.
Watergate didn’t create media cynicism, but it certainly helped it. In the years since Nixon’s resignation, Washington correspondents closely watched anything that looked like a successful sequel to Carl BernsteinCarl Bernstein Can the media regain credibility under Biden? The Hill 12:30 pm Report: A Busy Week Ahead in DC Carl Bernstein Calls Trump’s Georgia Call “Much Worse Than Watergate” MORE‘s and Bob Woodward’s investigation. Some of what they discovered was important and useful, including the FBI’s Operation Abscam in the late 1970s and the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s.
But too many minor events have been covered in the media by adding a trendy “-gate” suffix. Few people remember – and little notes of history – the alleged misconduct behind Billygate, Debategate, Filegate, Nannygate, Travelgate and Troopergate. (Actually three different Troopergates.)
Despite this, the journalistic mindset that emphasizes the scandal now permeates all reporting from Washington. Healthy skepticism towards those in power no longer seems sufficient; cynicism lives in its place. Journalists who want to appear smart and worldly must also appear jaded and sardonic. Few are criticized for being too pessimistic.
Instead, the worst sin is appearing to back a politician or administration by reporting the good points. These correspondents are quickly dismissed as being “in the tank” – brainwashed by the imaging specialists at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
There is a cumulative effect to all of this. Most Americans don’t pay close attention to every twist in Congress or the White House; most voters’ eyes are clouded when someone tries to put a “-gate” suffix on a Washington bruhaha. But, over time, they feel a loss of confidence in the government, of faith in basic institutions. Year after year, polls show that we care less and less about the institutions that move the country forward.
None of this is to say that journalists should somehow ignore government failures, mistakes or corruption. It’s more about what Washington correspondents, producers, and publishers see as important everyday news: what happens on the front page; what story makes it the first segment of a show? Where is the balance?
An example: in the middle of all the cover on President BidenShow preview Joe BidenSunday: Omicron soars and Harris sits down for in-depth interview Democrats like what they saw in Harris-Charlamagne God trades Biden policies are not very merry MOREstruggles with Congress or COVID last week, there was also news that the Senate had confirmed on the 40e Biden running for the federal bench. This equaled a record set by Ronald Reagan decades ago. The recent changes to the Supreme Court have made it very clear how important judicial appointments are. But news of that achievement appeared in the print edition of a national newspaper on page 22, below the waterline.
The story was easy to miss. It shouldn’t have been.
But to change that brand of news judgment, political journalists need to change their perspective on what really matters to their audiences – and the country as a whole. After half a century, it will take time.
But it would help viewers, readers, and voters if the media recognized that sometimes, even in Washington, good news is real news too.
Joe Ferullo is an award-winning media executive, producer and reporter, and former executive vice president of programming for CBS Television Distribution. He was news director for NBC, writer-producer for “Dateline NBC” and worked for ABC News. Follow him on twitter @ ironworker1.