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News vs. Commentary: A Nice Mess

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert Brescia
October 19, 2017

comedyAs Oliver Hardy used to say to Stan Laurel, “Well, here’s another nice mess you’ve gotten me into!” That’s exactly what we have in the media today – a nice mess.

Even in the turbulent 1960s, viewers could tune in to the likes of Walter Cronkite for the evening news. Typically, Mr. Cronkite would then deliver the straight news about what happened in the Vietnam War that day – how many U.S. and Viet Cong were killed, which engagements or fights were undertaken, and what prominent politicians had to say about them. We generally knew that what took place on the program “60 Minutes” was all commentary and designed to either reinforce or change your personal perspective on the news.

Problem

I teach leadership to students of all ages in Texas. There is a consistent conversation thread among the students about how hard it is getting to tell news from commentary.

It also seems many of the more youthful media journalists, commentators and “talking heads” on radio and television have forgotten the necessary distinction between straight news and commentary. Most networks insist on inserting ideology wherever they can into the day’s programming so as to attract and maintain their core viewing audience. Many viewers, especially baby boomers like me, long for the “Sergeant Friday” approach to news broadcasts: “Just the facts, Ma’am.” In our times of mile-a-minute, pervasive reporting, we need a way to quickly determine, even in the middle of a media broadcast, what is news and what is commentary.

Solution

When my students express their angst about “fake news” and commentary substituted for news, I respond with a shameless plug from my book, “Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism” that “you didn’t break it… and it’s not your fault… but we will fix it together!” Therefore, I am proposing today the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) adopt a new procedure which forces media broadcast networks to label news as news and commentary as commentary. This can easily be done by the insertion of a standard banner somewhere on the screen that informs the viewer that the broadcast is either news or commentary. The news could be green color and commentary in amber, i.e. caution:

news commentary

A single letter would do. Such a banner could be placed in a standard screen location so as not to interfere with what’s known as the “lower third” (the bottom-most part of the broadcast screen). It could be placed on the top-right corner and should be a standard size and color. Here’s how that might look:

infowars

Most broadcasts that involved interviews with new contributors, one or several screen insets at a time, are general commentary and should be labeled as such. Program introductory statements by commentary show hosts are usually commentary as well. The problem is especially evident when these shows intersperse news segment between the commentary segments. I believe no matter how short, these different segments should be labeled as news or commentary as they are broadcast. This proposal would not cost a lot of money and would be relatively easy to implement.

Arguments against this proposal could be that regardless of placing a news or commentary banner on the screen, networks will do what they want to do anyway and just disregard the constraint. Although there could be times that trespasses may occur, using the standard banners will greatly cut down on such disregard and improve the overall quality of the news. Every network would effectively gain more interested viewers because they would learn to trust and rely on the straight news – then they could linger on those particular networks because they enjoy commentary emphasizing one ideology or another. Also – it is admitted in advance that occasionally, some networks do label segments as commentary – although not consistently and not in a standard way.

Internet-based media outlets could then follow suit as applicable. For example, HuffPost is very interested in finding out how to restore trust in media. They have embarked on a “Listen to America” tour throughout the heartland areas of our great country to listen to regular Americans’ ideas concerning what makes America great and how do folks feel about restoring faith and confidence in media. My opinion is that this proposal, the clear labeling of news vs. commentary, would be a huge step forward in accomplishing the goal of restoring trust in media.

Summary

Sometimes, the simple and obvious fixes to problems are the ones that will work – and will last. That’s what this is – a straightforward, clear solution to a difficult problem. When really young children watch television and wind up confused about what the truth is, we would be able to ask them, “What color was the upper right label? If it’s amber, that’s just someone’s opinion – if green, it’s something that really happened.”

Truth in broadcasting is a hallmark of a free society. We owe it to ourselves, our children and future generations to adopt this proposal. It would level the playing field among all of the networks and restore many Americans’ faith in media. Let’s get on with it!


Author: Bob Brescia serves as the Executive Director of the John Ben Shepperd Public Leadership Institute, Odessa, TX. His latest book is Destination Greatness – Creating a New Americanism. Bob has a doctoral degree with distinction in Executive Leadership from The George Washington University. He also serves as Chairman of the Board at Basin PBS – West Texas public television. Please contact him at [email protected] or Twitter: @Robert_Brescia.

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2 Responses to News vs. Commentary: A Nice Mess

  1. Robert Brescia Reply

    October 25, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    Thanks – Alan Colmes was one of the greats and we were happy to have him as a friend. Bob

  2. Chris Stanley Reply

    October 20, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    I miss Alan Colmes!
    Thanks for the insightful commentary. I agree that a notification system would be good. Further, I think just providing balance to the discussion for all media outlets would be a great idea. Too often we are exposed to only one side of the issue. The market place of ideas must not only focus on the marketplace;-) It’s not always about profits….Sometimes it’s about prophets!!!

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