Thursday Thought: COVID-19 and the Media

Since our programs have been postponed to the Fall, we are bringing you Tower Center Thursday Thought. Every other Thursday, we will post a Q&A with one of our Fellows on the current pandemic and their thoughts on how it might affect the economy.

This week, we interviewed Tower Center Fellow Lee Cullum, reporter and host of KERA’s CEO on the implications of this pandemic and the role of the media.

From the perspective of one of America’s top journalists, how do you think your profession and the media in general have handled the COVID-19 crisis?

Some media have handled it extraordinarily well. The New York Times has been truly the newspaper of record it always has said it seeks to be, with an almost daily update on the virus in the U.S. and around the world. In a long, double-column space, usually on page 4, the Times offers a succinct rundown of the day before, accompanied by a map of America with case numbers for each state. With clarity, brevity and accuracy, this is the basic situation report from which all else flows.

Analysis and opinion can be found in podcasts, on blogs and Facebook and other postings, some more reliable than others, but for those who want to know exactly what happened, Main Street is the place to be, with mainstream publications, print or digital, that understand the importance of editing as well as reporting. For me that means, in addition to the New York Times, the Washington Post, whose reach and depth have only been enhanced by relatively new owner Jeff Bezos, the Financial Times –to my mind the best of all, overall, especially in analysis–the always respected Wall Street Journal, plus PBS, NPR, CNN and MSNBC, which is opinionated but works hard to ground those views in facts.

I wish I could add Fox News since conservative voices need to be heard in a way that is far more responsible than some offered on talk radio, but accuracy too seldom seems to be the order of the hour there. It’s quite different from the WSJ, owned, like Fox, by Rupert Murdoch, where journalistic standards are very high. However, the stormy history of Murdoch in British media tells a similar story. We don’t have the notorious Sun in the U.S., and Fox is several cuts above that. But given its enormous influence, I wish Robert Thomson, CEO of Murdoch’s News Corp—whose Times of London and Sky News in the U.K., are certainly presentable—would rethink his approach. Not his views necessarily, but the professional reporting that should underpin those views. What I’m asking is that Fox give up high-tone tabloid television for accurate journalism accompanied by serious conservative commentary.

Has the importance of the ‘fourth estate’ increased as a result of the COVID-19 crisis?

The importance of the fourth estate has skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic. In April, according to press reports, Fox and MSNBC had some of their highest ratings ever, and CNN soared as well. Even ABC, CBS and NBC, considered by some as relics of yesteryear, have done far better than usual. Viewership is easing off a bit, but still it testifies to the newly realized need of Americans for real news.

How have the media served the ‘public interest’ during the crisis?

Many have served the public interest during the crisis, working hard to bring the latest calamities home to their readers and viewers. Some have not. The decision of Fox News’ Laura Ingraham to practice medicine without a license, much less a medical degree, was shabby journalism at its most irresponsible. Touting the malaria drug hydroxychloroquine as “pretty much of a game changer” in the fight against COVID-19 and those who have taken it as having had “a miracle turnaround—like Lazarus up from the grave,” she urged the White House to push it and doctors to prescribe it. Some did, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York noted that there had been positive results but no confirmation as yet by reliable data. More recent studies have shown that hydroxychloroquine, when misused, can cause heart problems and even death. Fox News is the highest rated cable network in the country. It owes its viewers, who number in the millions and believe in Fox, better, more thorough reporting than this, especially when stakes are so high.

Accusations of ‘fake news’ are common today, not only in the U.S. but around the world. How can the media be held accountable for its reporting and how can the public distinguish between accurate reporting, misinformation, and propaganda?

The media are so dispersed and heavily diluted that it’s impossible to hold them accountable, except in cases egregious enough to prompt congressional investigations and perhaps punitive actions, brought about by lawsuits. This is dicey, however, given the first-amendment promise and utter necessity of a free press. The public can distinguish between fact and fiction, truth and lies, professional journalism and propaganda only by paying close attention, questioning sources, comparing accounts of the same story and identifying reporters they can trust. It’s a tall order for busy people. It’s also the only way they can avoid being bamboozled by the false and the fraudulent.

Will COVID-19 transform the media business, and if so how?

COVID-19 will transform almost every business including the media. Already it has accelerated the decline of local journalism, in metropolitan areas where newspapers are hanging on and, in the case of the Dallas Morning News, functioning remarkably well, but also in smaller communities where they are disappearing altogether, with grievous results. Small-town papers are falling apart in the U.K. as well. David Leonhardt in New York Times has noted research showing a direct correlation between access to local news and civic engagement in the community. So, the potential—soon to be actual–losses are drastic.

The villains, to a considerable extent, are Facebook and Google, which siphon off stories generated and paid for by established media at no cost to themselves. That may be about to change. According to Ben Smith in the New York Times, government officials in Australia and France are demanding compensation for originating publishers. Changes in European copyright law, soon to come into effect, will add to the pressure. Mark Zuckerberg has already responded to scathing criticism of Facebook’s performance with political disinformation and carelessness with customer data in the 2016 election by offering lucrative licensing agreements to news organizations. Google has taken a tepid shot at the problem, offering only grants, Smith wrote, “for experimental journalism projects built around Google’s technology.” Smith cited a Wall Street Journal report that Google may be about to go farther in the U.S. and France, paying directly to “feature full articles” on Google itself without having to go through a link. However, French publishers prefer to be “paid for use of their content on Google’s main search pages.” Will this lead to salvation for struggling newspapers? Maybe not entirely, but it will help to have the hangman loosen the rope.

Another trend energized by the economic fallout in shutdown cities is likely to be unions among the media. Buffeted by the crash of 2008 and now the second Great Recession of their working lives, young journalists are demanding more, faster than before. Who can blame them? Every day brings more layoffs, furloughs, cuts in salary. It’s a bitter battle in a war of more than words. Let’s hope it doesn’t turn out to be a conflict in which nobody wins.

Joanne Lipman, a former editor now at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, summed up the unhappy story in a quote for the New York Times: “News organizations have never done a better job than they’re doing right now. Their news has never been more in demand. They’ve been doing everything right from a news perspective. And yet here we are with these layoffs.”