Since the onset of Covid, trust in most institutions has increased, according to opinion polls conducted across the globe. In almost every institution, that is, apart from the media. Trust in that has plummeted.
This couldn’t come at a worse time. Newspapers and magazines that were already struggling are now facing an existential crisis. As the BBC’s Amol Rajan points out, the free-sheets that relied on advertising and distribution via public transport have seen their revenue streams not just cool, but freeze.
Media always was a matter of survival of the fittest. But it’s precisely the ‘fittest’ who are the problem. Regional papers with their numerous hardworking hacks are struggling for distribution and respect across the country. Meanwhile, the big guns, the frontmen and women on television, the show-boaters, the most prominent figures in the media landscape —are overseeing a massive decline in faith in an entire industry. It’s an industry vital to any democracy that wants to keep itself healthy.
The style of ‘gotcha’ journalism to which British journalism has increasingly stooped and relied upon in recent years is beyond inadequate. Of course, hacks pretending that they are experts in ventilator-acquisition will struggle to earn respect. Just as bad, though, are those journalists who, sensing the approaching tumbrils, succumb to a different temptation: the temptation to preach. For at the moment there are journalists — television presenters, in particular — who are assuming the mantel of moral arbiter. They are making their stance the story.
It is a temptation that the generally excellent interviewer and presenter Emily Maitlis gave into earlier this month, in an unprecedented edition of Newsnight. Sitting in the studio, and speaking directly to camera, Maitlis unleashed a monologue.
Her monologue took aim at people who had been describing the Prime Minister (in hospital at the time) as a “fighter”, while also addressing, on a wider level, the issue of inequality in the UK. So what were Maitlis and her producers up to? Did they honestly think that the nation seeks moral improvement from their late night news programme? Or, sensing a change in the weather, were they trying to get ahead of the storm and prove that they were on the side of the poor and dispossessed all along?
Whatever her motivation, Maitlis and her team, and journalists like her should know where this will lead. It’s not to greater trust in journalists. It takes you straight down to the show-boating sewer that is American political entertainment.
Anyone who harbours doubts about quite what a disgusting drain that is should consider just four examples from the last month, all from the ‘liberal’ side of the media in the States — precisely because that side now sees itself as some sort of ‘official opposition’. All these examples are all from the most powerful parts of an industry that is, by turns, obscenely self-congratulatory, sycophantic towards people of whom it approves, and visibly inadequate when trying to take on opponents in a fair fight.
Let’s take them in order.
British readers may be unfamiliar with Chris Cuomo. But it is worth watching this clip to observe the deep levels of delusion in which some US anchors can be encouraged to exist. It is surely one of the most fascinatingly boring segments ever aired on US television.
Earlier this week, CNN broadcast a video of Cuomo coming out of self-isolation in his own basement. The network dedicated precious time to this ‘news’ story. Ordinarily, ‘Journalist emerges from basement’ would need a certain heroic quality for it to be deemed newsworthy. Maybe a certain Terry Waite / John McCarthy vibe. But here is an auto-cue reader for one of the main networks having himself filmed coming out of quarantine from the car-park sized basement of his mansion and thinking that him emerging from his well-fed hell is a matter for national news.
It isn’t just the Marie Antoinette-ishness of it all. It is the fakery. The fact that the cameras just happen to be there. The fact that it now seems Cuomo did not in fact spend the whole period down in his basement. And the fact that this clearly isn’t the first time Cuomo has laid eyes on his wife and kids in weeks.
It is a sham: a glossily-produced, tin-eared, sprayed-on make-up, fake-tan sham. And one that no human being outside the Cuomo household could possibly have any interest in. Which isn’t to say that the rest of the Cuomo family looks particularly interested in said intrepid reporter’s re-emergence from their lower-ground floor.
Next: sycophancy. Parts of the media don’t bother to even pretend that they don’t have candidates who they favour and ones who they don’t. James Corden may not be a journalist in the normal sense, but he is the sort of television front-man whose boosting of, and pleasantness towards politicians can have a big impact. So, when Corden does one of his soft-ball interviews it can surely only help the person on the receiving end.
His efforts to humanise Speaker Nancy Pelosi during lockdown, however, make one wonder if Corden isn’t a fervent Trump-supporter. When he went live to her house, where would Speaker Pelosi happen to be but in the kitchen. She was hanging out like any American mom, with a cashmere sweater delicately draped round her shoulders. The viewer was lucky enough to hear Corden ask what Pelosi keeps in the deep freeze.
How one hoped that there would be something embarrassing in there: class-A drugs, gin, the disembodied heads of her opponents. But, almost as though everyone knew this was the question he was going to ask, lo-and-behold Speaker Pelosi’s freezer — the size of the average starter home – was filled with ice cream. It turns out she likes ice-cream. She also likes chocolate. What can she say? She just likes the stuff, the crazy lady. If Corden had pressed further, he could probably have discovered that Pelosi also had a positive attitude towards new-born babies, puppy dogs and fluffy little kittens.
As I say, this soft-ball schtick is Corden’s ball of choice.
But Anderson Cooper of CNN? He is surely meant to be more than just an autocutie. He sometimes wears glasses. He has often been abroad. Earlier this week, Cooper and Doctor Sanjay Gupta had Joe Biden on their show as a guest. As with many other recent appearances by the Democrat Party’s nominee, Biden was all over the place. He had constantly to refer to his notes. He appeared on occasion to have got his notes muddled up. Without them he appeared able to wing it on occasion, but only by getting onto a talking point he has slipped into many times before.
Yet it wasn’t Biden’s performance that was so startling. It was the fact that his interviewers were so clearly willing him on. They didn’t interrupt him. They certainly didn’t shout over him. They sat there, and even when their eyes registered a flicker of concern about the answer he might be directing their way, it was swiftly replaced by the even clearer look in their eyes of them hoping he was going to pull it together and do well.
The fact that everyone is currently having to conduct interviews remotely could be blamed for some of this awkwardness. But it is in the final class – in which the interviewer turns out not to be so good without his supporting chorus — that Covid-19 makes its greatest exposure.
Most people have mixed feelings about Bill Maher — they like him when he agrees with them and dislike him when he doesn’t. Perhaps I should note that throughout his career I’ve always admired him. But there’s a problem with his show: the unnaturally close relationship between him and studio-audience. When Maher says something vaguely funny, the audience whoops and hollers. When a guest he disapproves of says something funny or wise that he doesn’t agree with, the guest is met with stony silence. It is made to seem as though it is very hard to get one over on Bill Maher.
It was only when someone who had been in the audience explained to me the warm-up procedures for the show and the fact that the audience is actually directed when to laugh, clap and applaud, that you realise how much power Maher has (far more than almost any other host) to be the one who decides which guests do well, and which points fly.
In lockdown, though, Maher has been deprived of this asset. And this past week he had Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw on his show. Crenshaw is a very impressive figure. A former Navy Seal, only in his mid-thirties, he is also a cerebral, restrained and very polite interviewee.
The ladies of The View among other programmes have already discovered how hard he is to isolate, denigrate and destroy in the way they ordinarily would with a figure of the political Right. But the Maher interview was fascinating. Not only because Crenshaw knew more about every issue raised than Maher did, but because it became clear that without the audience in the studio on his side, or the opportunity to turn to another guest when the wrong guest made the right impression, Maher was all at sea. When he wise-cracked it seemed inadequate to the task at hand. Crenshaw remained polite; Maher looked disrobed.
These are only a few examples — all from American media in the last few days — which exemplify a problem. A problem which — whatever its other faults — the British media has thus far avoided falling into.
The BBC matters for the same reason that CNN and other networks matter. These are the big beasts. They will almost certainly still be around once this is over, and for many years to come.
So when they go bad, the whole profession — the whole idea, purpose and justification of the trade — is threatened. When the British media apes its American equivalents, it may think it is ensuring its survival. It isn’t. It is hastening its decline in the only currency it should care about – the eyes of the viewing public.