By Patricia A. Rouzer
Let us consider, shall we, why cable news is often absolute dreck? Case in point: yesterday’s tragedies in Charlottesville–both the unspeakable carnage downtown and the fatal crash of the State Police helicopter that killed two troopers.
Yesterday, in late afternoon I saw stories on my computer about what was going on in Charlottesville, so I switched on the TV to get more information. The only outlets covering the events just then were MSNBC and CNN. (I don’t watch Faux because, frankly, there’s no news to watch there–just vague approximations of events skewed to a right wing audience willing to believe pretty much anything their “commentators” say.)
After listening to “experts” and “analysts” on CNN opine based on few facts, I switched to MSNBC. They actually had a reporter on site and weren’t just continuously looping the jarring video of the grey car rolling through a sea of humans, replete with bodies flying and blood on the street.
The MSNBC coverage was anchored by Thomas Roberts, a handsome fellow of stern expression, furrowed brow, and penetrating blue eyes behind professorial-looking black-framed glasses– the perfect “news” face. But on the relatively rare occasions when I’ve seen him at the anchor desk, Roberts has consistently proven himself to be pretty dodgy–stretching facts and spewing opinions.
The reporter on the ground was Tom Costello, an old pro who reports information obtained from credible sources and is an astute observer of events. Costello was in Charlottesville where police investigators and forensic folks were working. He also reported some sketchy information about the downed helicopter–mainly that the State Police had deployed it to provide day-long aerial surveillance of the Charlottesville demonstrations, it had crashed somewhere between Charlottesville and its home base in Richmond, and the wreckage was still smoldering. That was it.
In the blink of an eye Roberts drew a remarkable conclusion from, as my attorney friends would say, a series of very important “facts not in evidence.” His “logic,” ran as follows. 1) Virginia is an open carry state. 2) Among demonstrators and those opposing them, there were people who were legally carrying firearms. 3) The helicopter had spent the day hovering over the scene of the demonstrations. CONCLUSION: Someone shot the helicopter down.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Clearly, neither could Costello. His immediate response was to look dumbfounded. He quickly recovered, telling Roberts that there was not one fact to support Roberts’ inappropriate and unwarranted speculation. I think he may have even told Roberts, “Wait…you can’t say that.” Unfortunately Roberts already had. Those who wanted to fire up their own juicy conspiracy theories had a basis because, they reason, a not very bright, not very responsible TV anchor had given them license. In our highly polarized and opinion-drenched environment, that’s all it takes to plant suspicion and further divide us.
What Roberts did is NOT journalism. It is NOT news. It is pure, irresponsible speculation based on nothing that a person with working critical faculties would buy into. But there are a lot of people around who have no critical faculties–or, if they possess them, are willing to suspend them in support of anything that supports their “beliefs.”
So here is my plea to you, gentle reader:
1) Be conscious of your own biases and those of the media you consume.
2) There is a difference between news and opinion–know which is which and read or listen with that difference in mind.
3) Consume news from outlets that have been around a while and whose writers, editors, producers and reporters have earned respect for accuracy and integrity.
4) The fact that a report doesn’t align with your “beliefs” has no bearing on its accuracy.
5) News outlets that acknowledge and correct their mistakes aren’t “fake news.” They are, in fact, honest purveyors of the news willing to admit when they’ve erred in service to accuracy. It is those that never acknowledge inaccuracies or misleading information from sources that you should be very wary of.
If we all use a little restraint, some common sense, and think critically about what we hear, we’ll all be better off. And so will our country.
Patricia A. Rouzer is a former reporter for The Baltimore Sun, worked in public relations for what is now Citigroup and is now a freelance writer working primarily with business clients in New York.