Last Sunday night, the most prominent (fictional) media figure on television held forth in vividly profane terms on how he planned to mobilize his news network, his newspapers, his “payroll commentators,” and sundry “global cable and print outlets” to save his hide, legally speaking.
Now, no one would mistake Logan Roy, the scrofulous press baron at the center of HBO’s hit drama “Succession,” as a standard-bearer of quality journalism, much less morality. (In an earlier episode, Logan’s own brother, speaking incredulously about a college he was funding, said: “The Logan Roy School of Journalism? What’s next, the Jack the Ripper Women’s Health Clinic?”)
But if Logan views the media as an instrument of narrow self-interest, existing primarily to deliver a version of the news that fits his purposes, well, so do an awful lot of Americans these days.
We’re living in an era when everyone has their own network. Maybe it’s Fox News or OAN. Maybe it’s MSNBC or NPR. Maybe it’s just a conspiracy-spreading cohort on Facebook.
It adds up to a populace that is ready, nay, eager, to believe that the Fourth Estate is filled with Logan Roys, incapable of operating in the public interest. Those invidious assumptions are reflected these days all over TV and in the movies. Granted, depictions of sketchy journalists go all the way back to “Citizen Kane” (1941) and earlier, but now such portrayals are landing in an environment when many Americans are predisposed to believe the worst of any outlet that doesn’t fit their politics or their worldview.
To many conservatives, the mainstream media are essentially an arm of the Democratic Party. To many progressives (who see Fox News as an arm of the GOP), reporters adhere to a misguided notion of “objectivity” whose on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand approach often obscures the truth about issues. So the news business is leaking support from both sides of the vessel, as it were.
There’s no way to know how much any of that factors into the findings of a new Gallup poll on media credibility, but the numbers are dispiriting for anyone who understands that journalism is vital to the functioning of democracy. Gallup found that Americans’ trust in the media to “report the news fully, accurately and fairly” has dropped to 36 percent, the second-lowest on record. Breaking down that number, only 7 percent of respondents told Gallup they have “a great deal” of faith in the reporting done by newspapers, TV, and radio. The other 29 percent said they have “a fair amount” of trust.
That less-than-ringing endorsement has coincided with controversies engulfing high-profile journalists that are not likely to restore faith in the media. Veteran network anchor Katie Couric and star ESPN reporter Adam Schefter have been fiercely criticized recently for failing to adhere to basic journalistic standards — the same issue that earlier put CNN host Chris Cuomo on the hot seat.
Meanwhile, in feature films and on long-form TV, journalists are frequently portrayed as bottom-feeders who’d sell their own grandmothers for a scoop and wouldn’t know a code of ethics if it were printed in 72-point type on the front page. A standard trope in legal dramas is the scene where the beleaguered protagonist struggles to make his or her way up courthouse steps while hounded by a baying pack of journalistic jackals.
And when portraits of reporters (and editors, producers, photographers, publishers, news directors) aren’t unflattering, they’re unrealistic. Remarkable how many ink-stained wretches conduct interviews while never using an actual pen, or a notebook, or a tape recorder.
The overall message is pretty clear: The people who bring us the news cannot be trusted with the power they wield, and, moreover, they lack an intellectual or moral depth commensurate with that power.
Consider the following examples of unprofessional or downright sleazy journalistic behavior:
- In an episode this month on Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show” that was set in the very early days of the pandemic, a reporter for the “Today Show”-like news and talk program exhorts the show’s producer to stop bumping his stories about the emergence of a lethal virus in China. “This is a big deal,” he says. “People need to know what’s coming.” But the producer, insisting she needs “a home run” to reverse the show’s lagging ratings, dismisses his plea. “It is not impacting everyday life here,” she says. Journalism is at best a secondary consideration at the news operation depicted in “The Morning Show.” Behind the program’s smiley-face, we’re-all-family-here façade lies a network culture of sexual predation, swollen egos, hypocrisy, and cover-up. Small wonder the producer is too distracted to devote resources to covering a looming worldwide crisis.
- On an episode this month of “Ted Lasso,” an Apple TV+ series about the American coach of a British soccer team, it’s nearly midnight when a sportswriter sends Ted a link to the online version of a story that will damage the coach’s reputation, telling Ted it will be in print the next morning. Then, without any prompting, the reporter reveals the name of his anonymous source — a major journalistic no-no, something many actual reporters have gone to jail for refusing to do. And then the sportswriter asks, in an oh-by-the-way fashion, “Would you care to comment?”
- In Netflix’s recent “Clickbait,” a reporter poses as a food delivery worker to gain entrance into a home, then begins photographing the interior on his cellphone. In the acclaimed Danish political drama “Borgen,” a leading TV journalist has an affair with the prime minister’s chief of staff, who dies of a heart attack while in bed with the journalist. In the film “Nightcrawler” (2014), a TV news photographer played by Jake Gyllenhaal goes so far as to manipulate crime scenes — and cause death — in order to get better footage for the nightly broadcast.
- In “Birdman” (2014), a malevolent (fictional) theater critic for The New York Times tells washed-up film star Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton), who’s starring in a show on Broadway: “I’m going to kill your play.” On Showtime’s “Billions,” when a print journalist obtains a video of hedge-fund titan Bobby Axelrod punching an acquaintance in the face, Axelrod bribes the reporter by dangling the possibility of a TV job, complete with flying him to Aspen “to meet with a certain network chairman about a show of your own.”
- In Netflix’s “House of Cards,” a young political reporter is so eager to harvest career-making scoops that she willingly serves as an instrument of ruthless congressman Frank Underwood, publishing the information he feeds her that is designed to topple Underwood’s foes and accelerate his climb to power.
As for Logan Roy of “Succession,” he’s already plenty powerful, and he intends to keep it that way, even though he’s facing possible criminal charges after his son Kendall turned on him.
So in last Sunday’s episode the mogul talked not just about finding the best possible defense lawyer, but also about manipulating media coverage of his misdeeds. “We pressure-point other [news] operations,” Logan told his underlings. “The line is ‘Don’t lean on this … Play it smart today, you won’t look [like] a [expletive] tomorrow.’”
What’s telling, and more than a little depressing, is Logan’s apparent confidence that he can get other news organizations to play along.