BALTIMORE – In the fiery aftermath of last week’s Mueller report release, we see every gaping canyon in the American political divide. You want to see conflict of analysis? Start flipping between our three major cable news channels.
On CNN, they’re saying the Mueller report calls the Trump White House “a corrupt, dangerously criminal presidency.”
On MSNBC, they’re comparing the hacking of Democratic emails to the Watergate scandal, “except this one’s a high-tech burglary.”
On Fox, they’re saying, “The president has been totally vindicated. He’s done nothing wrong.”
And that’s just for openers.
On CNN, they’re saying, “The report lays out 10 different episodes of lies, and Trump’s attempts to thwart the investigation.”
On MSNBC, they’re saying, “We now know Trump attempted to obstruct justice.”
On Fox, they’re saying, “It feels like Election Day…Remember how good you felt then? This is vindication for the president.”
Are these stations looking at the same report?
On CNN, they’re saying, “This administration has snapped the truth in half.”
On MSNBC, they’re lining up calls for the impeachment of President Trump, knowing there are roadblocks ahead in the U.S. Senate but declaring, “At least it puts every Republican senator on record for the remainder of history.”
On Fox, they’re saying, “People are disgusted by the corrosive media coverage…If they could just for a second be impartial.”
Well, good luck with that.
Even Fox has given up its old “Fair and Balanced” slogan, since the phrase had long since become a comic punch line. The three big cable news stations originally saw their mission as covering the news, but it’s years now since they morphed so heavily into the talking-head analysis.
You want an example? On Easter Sunday morning, when we had hundreds killed and hundreds more badly wounded in attacks on churches in Sri Lanka, the three cable outlets gave cursory coverage – a minute here, a minute there, mainly video of stunned survivors – but couldn’t wait to fill the hours with analysis of the Mueller report.
You want another example? We’ve been at war now for nearly two decades. How often do you see coverage of that war on the cable news channels? It’s far easier – and far cheaper – to sit barking heads in a studio in New York, or Washington, D.C., than it is to send reporters and technical crews to Afghanistan.
As for the cable outlets bending their political coverage one way or the other, the old notion of “objective” reporting has become a relic of the past. There were always caveats to such a notion anyway. After all, subjective decisions are made all along the way to final “objective” coverage.
But the philosophical goal was: present the facts to the public as clearly as possible, and let people figure out the nuances themselves.
But we live in a different time now. This president has gone out of his way, so consistently and so stridently, to turn CNN and MSNBC into his enemies that he’s locked them into adversarial positions.
And he and Fox have so closely linked their fortunes that, if one happens to drown, the other ones at least gasping for air.
In the midst of the Mueller mania, for example, Trump tweeted that viewers should “watch Fox” to see the president’s designated mouthpiece, Attorney General William Barr, attempt to whitewash the Mueller findings and the Fox commentators then support Barr.
And millions of us turn to these three “news” outlets each day, hoping to get some semblance of that slippery notion of objectivity, and have to wonder, Who’s getting us closest to the truth?
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of several books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.