Who The Hell Cares What YOU Think? The Metaphysics of Modern (Same-As-The-Old) Media
Modern news consumption is frustrating.
Newsrooms have been decimated. Media outlets continue to disappear. Opinion is pawned off as news. Polarized echo chambers may entertain certain factions, but they don’t serve to educate or inform.
Are we entering End Days for news?
I took that question to Point Loma Nazarene University professor Dean Nelson. An institution unto himself, he’s knowledgeable, thoughtful and blunt about the journalism industry.
He doesn’t think the industry is broken beyond repair.
“My feeling, though, is we have to be even more committed to factual, verifiable information where people can have a sense of what’s actually happening in our world,” he says.
Nelson is San Diego’s go-to expert commentator on regional media news. When local outlets want an insightful quote about new ownership at The San Diego Union-Tribune, or the temporary shutdown of San Diego Magazine, reporters call Nelson.
Over a 40-year career, he’s amassed an impressive personal resume. Nelson is the founder and director of the Journalism Program at PLNU. He’s also runs the school’s impressive Writer’s Symposium by the Sea.
As symposium director he’s taken the stage to interview a Who’s Who of writers discussing the craft, including Gay Talese, Ray Bradbury, George Plimpton, Bill Moyers, Jeanette Walls, Alice Walker and dozens of other luminaries.
Nelson breaks the axiom that purports “those who can do, those who can’t, teach.” He’s got a Ph.D. in journalism from Ohio University and a master’s degree in the field from the University of Missouri. An award-winning writer, he occasionally freelances for The New York Times, the Boston Globe and several other national publications.
He’s traveled the world on assignment. Nelson went to India to cover the slums of Bombay, flew to Haiti to report on the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake and traveled to Tibet to write about religious persecution.
Yes, that’s a lot of curriculum vitae. There’s a little more.
Somehow, he found time to write 14 books. Keeping in mind that PLNU is a private, Christian, liberal arts school, some of his books are non-secular, including "God Hides in Plain Sight: How to Find the Sacred in a Chaotic World."
Nelson’s most recent book is "Talk to Me: How to Ask Better Questions, Get Better Answers and Interview Anybody Like a Pro." It’s not just a how-to for journos, though one section of the book covers the ethical dilemmas of interviewing people you love as well as those you may loathe.
Disclosure: I edited stories Nelson freelanced while I was on staff at San Diego Magazine. And, he once hired me to teach a magazine production class at PLNU.
Let this lengthy introduction, and disclosures, reveal my bias and inform your opinion of my objectivity while presenting Nelson as an expert on the state of journalism.
Nelson gets on the telephone for an interview right after finishing teaching a PLNU class.
“Teaching a creative writing class via Zoom, there’s a challenge, baby,” he says. “Not the most satisfying thing I’ve ever done.”
Nelson is also teaching journalism classes and advising the school’s news staff, which used to print a newspaper but now produces a web-based product.
The lead question: In the era of fake news, social media-based feeds and left/right focused platforms, how do you teach Millennials to properly hone their craft and hopefully take their place in the workplace?
“On the one hand, yes, so much has changed as far as how we get information, how we deliver information, and how people want to receive information,” he says. “On the other hand, what has not changed—and this is what we are doubling down on at Point Loma—is that journalism is still essentially storytelling.”
He adds: “Yes, you can tweet out a lot of stuff and you can tell a story in a variety of media. For journalism, it still has to be about being verifiable, factual. We need storytelling that informs the public so that they can know what is happening in the world.”
Who Cares What You Think?
While discussing the trending creep of opinion being delivered as verifiable and factual news, I bring up the 1987 movie "Broadcast News."
This seminal film about network television news includes a memorable scene where the pretty-boy news anchor (William Hurt) is being told what to say via earpiece by his producer (Holly Hunter).
When Hunter tells Hurt to “fill for a second,” Hurt is momentarily perplexed. He improvs: “The latest message seems to indicate that the Libyan pilot was acting on his own, without authority from anybody else...In other words, I think we’re all OK.”
His boss, a veteran Washington Bureau Chief played by Robert Prosky, looks aghast. He shakes his head and mutters at the screen: “Who the hell cares what you think?”
“I don't find it useful to have these paid talking heads come in and interpret events, or interpret statements through a political lens. It’s not helpful and I don’t think it’s news.”
“Yes, so one of the early things we do in our classes is help students sort out the difference between news and commentary,” he says. “Information has to be fact-based. If not, it can be propaganda. News isn’t speculation and hypotheticals.”
In the lens of what we see on cable news today, Nelson says much of it is not particularly useful.
“I don't find it useful to have these paid talking heads come in and interpret events, or interpret statements through a political lens,” he says. “It’s not helpful and I don’t think it’s news.”
Nelson says he is known to harangue his students over the “nobody cares what you think,” guideline.
“I pound away at that in my Introduction to Journalism classes,” he says. “We lose some students over this. Then, they become psychology majors because they’d rather write about themselves.”
The Left vs. The Right
We dive into a comparison of CNN and Fox News. Nelson and I share the believe that both networks regularly pass off opinion as news. We differ in the degree of CNN’s flop toward the left.
My take: It’s become the anti-Trump network and nearly every anchor—from Don Lemon to once-estimable Anderson Cooper—presents the days’ events in a way that includes biased commentary that faults the President.
“I hear this argument and I don't agree with it,” Nelson says. “I don’t think CNN is the opposite of Fox. I think MSNBC is. I think CNN plays it more down the middle. I don't think you see the Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham kind of voices all spouting from the same direction.”
According to the website AllSides, which ranks hundreds of media outlets for bias, CNN (Opinion) is ranked “Left,” while CNN (Web News) “Leans Left.” AllSides says Fox News (Opinion) is ranked “Right,” and Fox News (Online News) “Leans Right.”
Nelson asks if we’re going to talk about One America News Network. San Diego-based OANN swings further right than Fox and often receives Twitter blessings from President Donald Trump.
PLNU students regularly intern at OANN.
“On one hand, it’s shameful the way the One American Network covers some things,” Nelson says. “Yet, on the other hand, they are so upfront about their bias that I respect them. They aren't even trying to be a mainstream or neutral news organization.”
Before Nelson sends student over to OANN’s Morena Boulevard news studio, he has a quick chat with them.
“Past interns tell me that in their very first meetings with OANN those folks are very upfront about their point of view,” he says. “They don't even mask it. Now, when I say I respect OANN it doesn’t mean I agree with them. I think what they do is sometimes harmful. But I respect the fact that they own their bias much more than most news organizations do.”
Nelson reports that OANN doesn’t just take on right-leaning interns; they simply want young people who can help them get the baseline work done. And he believes a college student can learn about TV news business—like loading teleprompters or getting a story on the website—without necessarily agreeing with the company slant.
Few Have Ever Loved the Media
Trump uses the term “fake news” as a pejorative label for stories that don’t support, or contradict, his statements and policies. He’s not, however, the first president to openly attack the press.
In the 1970s, Richard Nixon referred to The New York Times as “the enemy of the people.” Back in 1801, President Thomas Jefferson was often targeted by the press. He once suggested newspapers be divided into four sections labeled “truth,” “probabilities,” “possibilities” and “lies.”
Jefferson was convinced the former section would be the smallest and the latter section would be the biggest.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” Nelson says. “And this is going to sound counterintuitive, so hear me out. I think things are actually better than we’re willing to admit when it comes to the news media.”
Nelson says starting back in the 1950s, the media generally began attempting to present an illusion of objectivity.
“The word objectivity by definition is a myth,” he says. “When we try to pass ourselves off in the journalism industry as being objective, I think we are being delusional.”
There were never any “good old days” when news organizations were objective, Nelson argues.
"I’m just saying that our industry is rife with bias. Just only now, we’re being held accountable for the bias that has always been there. And that’s probably a good thing.”
“Think about it,” he says. “Out of all of the events that happen in San Diego, we're going to decide to cover these events over these other events. Well, based on what? You’ve got some criteria, but those criteria are a little bit subjective. Right there, you don't have objectivity.”
Nelson forces me to look inward.
“When you write this column, Ron, you’re going to use some quotes over other quotes,” he says. “Because you think they’re more provocative, or have more power or they reveal something.”
When you pick one quote over another, Nelson asks, are you choosing them objectively?
“You’ve got some criteria you’re basing this on,” he says. “Everybody does. So, now look around at newsrooms and see how many of them have been run by white men over the years. Do you think that might’ve played into coverage?”
Nelson believes any increase in attention paid to bias could lead to a positive outcome.
“We’re saying we want to go back to the good old days of objectivity?” he asks. “The good old days of Walter Cronkite telling us ‘That’s the way it is?’ There was bias in the stories they selected and the way they told those stories. I'm not saying it was political bias, or promotion of a left- or right-wing agenda. I’m just saying that our industry is rife with bias. Just only now, we’re being held accountable for the bias that has always been there. And that’s probably a good thing.”
Talk To Me
The practice of reportage will never be perfect and the industry seems far from eager, or prepared, to be fixed. But let’s go back to the notion of storytelling, which Nelson digs into on the pages of his recent book, "Talk To Me."
“When we interview other people, like what you and I are doing today, you aren’t just looking for information from that person, you're looking for some sense of shared humanity,” Nelson says. “You want to get the human voice into stories so we can see these aren’t just role players or stereotypes. These are human beings who have stories to tell.”
Good storytelling also has to mesh with, as legendary Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward says, “getting the best possible version of the truth out.”
In the age of online and cable TV news, Nelson points to the tendency to oversimplify. That lessens the ability to tell a story and present verifiable facts.
“In my opinion, journalism at its best complicates your thinking,” he says. “To build on Woodward’s quote, you’re constantly trying to get more versions of the truth, which means you're just going to keep complicating somebody’s thinking.”
And that’s the goal.
“The best journalism doesn’t perpetuate what you already think,” Nelson says. "The responsibility we have in a free society is to be open to having somebody challenge our biases, preconceptions, assumptions and stereotypes. And that's what good journalism can do.”
After an hour of Media Metaphysics with the professor there’s one more, intentionally ironic, question for him: Do you think we’re all going to be OK?
Nelson chuckles at the "Broadcast News" callback.
“Honestly, I feel like history repeats itself,” he says. “I’ve seen this movie. I don’t know that we’re going to be OK. What I’m confident saying is nothing that’s going on now is new.”