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Sunday Political Brunch: Is the Press Too Depressing? -- June 18, 2017

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(Charleston, West Virginia) – There was another flurry of news coverage this week over the Russian-U.S. election connection (Hey! That’s not a bad turn of phrase!) This time it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions before Congress. It got me thinking about news coverage of various political scandals and investigations over the years and how it has changed. Let’s “brunch” on that this week:

“Watergate Waterloo” – Watergate marked a new era in American journalism. The scandal was broken by The Washington Post, which was head and shoulders above other media coverage. A lot of the daily network television coverage was guided by what the Post did. Much of the other media mimicked the coverage. At key moments of the Watergate Congressional hearings, the networks would interrupt the daily game shows and soap operas, as they did these past two weeks. It was 1973, and there was no such thing as CNN or any 24-hour cable news outlet.

“Iran Contra Conundrum” – In 1986, the Iran-Contra investigation broke. Much like Watergate, so many questions focused on “Who knew what, and when?” But there were a couple of new players. Cable News Network carried a lot of the hearings live, as did another new face – CSPAN. The TV networks seemed to spend less time on this, and certainly less time breaking into paid programming and losing commercial revenue. CNN was finding its niche.

“Lewinsky Lamentations” – Fast forward 12 years to President Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Not only was CNN thriving, but Fox News Channel and MSNBC both launched in 1996 and were still trying to “find their sea legs.” The Clinton impeachment was a bonanza for all. CNN had clearly found during O.J. Simpson’s trial, that daytime legal coverage could be far better than any soap opera script. The salaciousness of the Clinton allegations, and the media’s willingness to chat about previously taboo television topics was groundbreaking.

“The Bias Battle” – On the heels of the Vietnam War coverage, many Americans felt there was a strong media bias against the military, conservatism, and Republicans (the last item odd, since most of that war had been overseen by Democratic Presidents and Democrats in Congress). Be that as it may, the accusations of media bias against Republicans was only exacerbated by Watergate. People argued that President Nixon had received the worst press coverage in U.S. history. I would disagree. Nixon was hit hard by the daily newspapers and the evening network news. But when CBS, ABC and NBC were done at 7 p.m., it was over. By contrast, Bill Clinton’s impeachment was covered 24/7 by CNN, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, CSPAN, and endless talk radio, day and night. In terms of raw coverage hours, Watergate was a mere shadow by comparison.

“Tweeting Trump’s Troubles” – In 1998-99, I covered the entirety of the Clinton-Lewinsky mess in Washington, D.C. I did not think it was possible for any human being to get worse news coverage. It was relentless. At the time, email and the Internet were in their relative infancy. There was no such thing as social media as we know it today. Yes, there were Internet discussion boards and chat rooms, but that’s just a light rain shower compared to this social media hurricane of Facebook and Twitter, that exploded by 2008.

“Trump ‘Trumps’ Clinton” – By the time this is all over, President Trump will surpass Bill Clinton (and way surpass Richard Nixon) in terms of negative press coverage. Just the mere mention of Trump and Russia by some obscure social media poster (whether the content is true or not) will prompt hundreds of thousands of likes, comments, objections, memes, and the list goes on. Imagine if “going viral” had been a phenomenon during Watergate and the Clinton-Monica mess.

“For Better; or for Worse?” – I raise these issues because as journalism has evolved and expanded with new technologies, I worry about the declining quality of the industry and its product. We can now reach more people and faster, and solicit their input in real time. I consider these potential advantages, but also worrisome liabilities. Average people and reputable reporters are suddenly on something of an even playing fiel
d. The temptation is to publish first and verify second - to opine first and fact check later. Trust me. The pressure to “tweet” a lot in the news business these days is a real concern. When CNN launched, the phase “breaking news” came into the lexicon. The pressure was to “be first” with the news, and often accuracy was the first casualty. The fact that the President is a prolific tweeter only exacerbates the problem although I get that he wants the ability to fight back.

“Why All of This Matters” – This is my 40th year in radio and television. I love what I do, and want many more years on the air. But I am concerned about the eroding quality of what we do. Mark Twain famously said, “A lie gets halfway around the word, before the truth gets its shoes on!” I worry that speed leads to more mistakes, and a lack of balance and objectivity. We feel more inclined to ‘tweet” because that’s what the new “cool kids” of journalism are doing. Make no mistake; I love social media as a tool to supplement and promote good journalism. But it’s damn hard to give real, detailed, comprehensive coverage when you are handcuffed by a system that gives you just 140 characters.

What are your thoughts on the quality of news coverage given the pressures of social media? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

© 2017, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

Photo courtesy: Getty Images

Sunday Political Brunch: How Critical is Comey? -- June 11 2017

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(Charleston, West Virginia) – Like many people, I was fascinated this week with the testimony from former FBI Director James Comey. It gave some clarity about Russian meddling in our election, yet it needs to provide more clarity about Comey’s interactions with President Trump. I had a chance to interview one of the Senators from the Intelligence Committee after the fact, and found his perspective interesting. Let’s “brunch” on that and on other aspects of Comey's appearance this week:

“From Russia with Interference” – Despite a lot of teeth-gnashing in the electorate over the past six months about whether there was interference from Russia during the election, Comey put that question to rest. “The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts. It was an active-measures campaign driven from the top of that government,” Comey said.

“Manchin Reaction” – Friday I interviewed Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV). Before he was ever Senator or Governor of West Virginia, Manchin served as Secretary of State, which is the chief elections officer in West Virginia. He knows a lot about running elections. "Well, first of all, I hope the American public walked away understanding how important this investigation is of the Russians; how determined the Russians have been in changing our way of life; how dogmatic they were, getting involved, trying to be involved in our process; to basically destroy the confidence level, we have in our democracy," Manchin said. Yes, this investigation is about what Trump and Comey said to each other, but it is much larger than that.

“Manchin on Meddling” – Senator Manchin is not a lawyer, but he does know something about being a political chief executive, especially in terms of what you can and can’t do. Assuming Comey is being truthful in saying Trump asked him to drop the investigation into fired National Security Advisor Michel Flynn, Manchin believes President Trump may have crossed an ethical line, but maybe not a legal line. "It's very concerning that anybody [Trump] at that level, whether when I [Manchin] was Governor, or as the President, that you're intervening with law enforcement, your investigations. That's something we were told never to do, and not be involved. Let the professionals do their job,” Manchin said.

“To Impeach; or, Not Impeach” – Last week, when I asked people whether Trump should be impeached, I received thousands of responses both for and against. But, this investigation is in its very early stages, and talk of removing the President may be premature. Senator Manchin said, "Anybody saying 'impeachment,' or using 'obstruction of justice' right now, let's just get the facts. Let's get the intelligence community to give us the facts. Let the facts take you to where the truth is. I think they're way ahead of their skis on that.”

“140 Characters or Less” – If the TV broadcast of the Comey testimony was the “air war,” then the social media response is the “ground war.” On Friday, President Trump tweeted, "Despite so many false statements and lies, total and complete vindication...and WOW, Comey is a leaker!" You can look all over Twitter and Facebook to find millions of opinions for and against the President. It’s a pitched battle to sway public opinion. To those who have called on President Trump to stop tweeting (including me), he’s not going to. It’s the new normal.

“Outside Forces” – During the impeachment of President Clinton, we nearly went to war with Iraq. By coincidence, there was a movie at the time about a President who tries to knock a personal scandal off the front pages by going to war. It was called “Wag the Dog!” A lot of people scoffed that the Clinton White House was life imitating art. It was an amusing analogy, but international incidents should not be treated so lightly. Given the terrorism in Europe and the missile launches from North Korea, you know Trump will be accused of creating a distraction if he retaliates. But those threats are very real, and how the President responds is critical, even if the public takes a cynical view.

“Tale of the Tape” – Were conversations between President Trump and then-FBI Director Comey recorded? During Watergate, the Oval Office tape recorder became the smoking gun. The House Intelligence Committee has now set June 23 as a deadline for the White House to produce any audio recordings, if they even exist.

“Why All of This Matters” – As we witnessed during the Nixon and Clinton scandals, Washington, D.C., came to a grinding halt, and nothing significant got done. While I believe these current investigations need to move forward in a bipartisan manner, they should not turn into a wild goose chase that paralyzes the country.

What are your takeaways from the Comey testimony and the President’s response? Just click the comment button at www.MarkCurtisMedia.com.

Mark Curtis, Ed.D., is a nationally known political reporter, analyst, and author based in West Virginia.

© 2017, Mark Curtis Media, LLC.

Photo courtesy: CBSnews.com/Getty Images

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