Randi Kreiss

News reporting: the ultimate reality TV


We are living in a binary world now. We must be, because the word “binary” has become the “it” word. And it does seem to be the defining concept of the new normal, that Americans see the world in absolutes: black or white, right or wrong, up or down. Need I say war or peace? People are heroes or deplorables.

Nuance asks too much of us; it is so complex and tiresome. You have to use judgment. Nuance requires thinking, for heaven’s sake.

One of the binary choices is real or fake, especially as it applies to the news. And so it follows that playing a newsperson on TV or in the movies is a very risky business. Once you’re caught in the act of acting, how can we believe your “real news” broadcasts?

For decades, Woody Allen played with real and fake news and authenticity versus embellishment. Famous historical figures slipped in and out of his movie “Zelig.” The audiences got it, and we loved the ambiguity; the lack of clarity was fun. The more complex the fact/fiction dynamic, the richer the experience. But that was in the good old days. We have misplaced the ability to calibrate and compromise — to accept that all truth is relative.

It just doesn’t play that way in Trumpworld. Did it start when W. said you’re either with us or you’re against us? What happened to the big-tent theory of politics? Seems that inside the Trump tent, the table is set for one. You’re loyal to the Donald, or you become a target of his tweets.

As a newsperson, I find the pounding repetition of “fake news” taunts from the president deeply disturbing. I grew up on news explained by the giants of the industry: Cronkite, Rather, Walters, Safer, Ifill. Then I turn on the TV series “House of Cards” and I see Morley Safer playing himself, interviewing Kevin Spacey, playing the president. Morley, how could you sell out like that?

He isn’t alone. Other journalists, including Rachel Maddow, Candy Crowley, John King, Christiane Amanpour, Brian Williams, Soledad O’Brian and Kelly O’Donnell, have played newscasters on TV shows and in films.

Then there’s another whole category of fictional TV reporters played by actors. They include Ted Baxter, on “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” Murphy Brown, Kermit the Frog, Lois Lane, Lou Grant and Stephen Colbert, on “The Colbert Report.” There are among us enough gullible consumers of television that if the fictional Ted Baxter had reported a run on milk, folks would have lined up at Dairy Barn. And Colbert inflicted permanent head buzz on many viewers by portraying a fake news anchor with sensibilities and political views antithetical to his own, yet his character and he shared the same name, the same show and the same body. We should be able to get the joke, but apparently some viewers can’t hold two opposing thoughts in their head at the same time.

Why would Safer or Maddow or Williams take a cameo on a show, playing a newsperson, when, in fact, all they have, all their capital, is invested in their reputations as reliable reporters of real news? Williams suffered a nearly fatal career setback when he exaggerated events that took place while he was reporting from a war zone; he was censured and taken off the air for some time. And even he accepted a cameo as a newsman on TV’s “30 Rock.”

I want to make a rule. If you’re a real reporter in any medium, TV or print or internet, don’t cheapen yourself by playing a fictional newsperson. No matter how much fun, no matter how flattering, please, just say no.

Especially when we’re under direct attack by the president, especially when the right to free speech and a free press are being challenged, journalists need to be scrupulous about our standards. Appearing in a sitcom or a movie trivializes what real reporters do. Anchors who report the news need to be beyond reproach in their ethics and professional standards.

As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation digs deeper and news stories uncover troubling and potentially illegal activities in and around the 2016 campaign and the Trump White House, it’s important that we conduct ourselves in ways that build trust with the reading and viewing public.

We are reporting and writing opinion pieces on war and peace, America’s viability as a constitutional democracy and the integrity of our president. This is not a dress rehearsal.

Copyright © 2017 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.