Yesterday, two prominent news figures on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum were exited from prominent news networks. Both figures – Tucker Carlson at Fox and Don Lemon at CNN – were ideological TV personalities who found audiences on the poles of the American political spectrum. The fact that we knew Tucker Carlson’s and Don Lemon’s ideology is, in and of itself, the very problem that these changes can help to solve. A conspiracy theorist might wonder about the timing of both stories breaking on the same day. But regardless of the coincidence, this news identity crisis could signal a return to news anchors as honest brokers of facts, leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions.
As a student and voracious consumer of news, I believe that the notion of a free (and dare I say honest) press is as foundational to democracy as anything outlined in the Constitution. Indeed, the emergence of news deserts is showing signs of negatively impacting elections and the democratic process. The American news identity crisis has arrived; Don Lemon and Tucker Carlson are epitomizing examples.
As a media crisis management leader, I’ve helped clients navigate the decisions to pull their advertising from programs where the talent has gone beyond the conventions of journalistic integrity – reporting facts of the news of the day – into territories that conflict with their values, and in some cases, could (and perhaps) should be classified as hate speech (particularly against women). These decisions always came with calls for boycotts on Twitter and some negative social conversation, but ultimately had no negative impact on the brand. This sends a signal of its own: despite the ratings and profits, Americans overall really don’t seem to buy into this type of media as “news”, but rather as politically charged entertainment. Yesterday’s exits indicate that the leadership of CNN and Fox are finally figuring that out.
The news business was built on icons who were trustworthy messengers. For generations, we’ve turned to our televisions to make sense of moments in history. We were glued to our televisions when Peter Jennings educated the nation during the first Gulf War. When Walter Cronkite told the nation that President Kennedy had been shot. When Barbara Walters showed us the humanity of countless famous and prominent people. This is what the news is supposed to be – trustworthy. The antithesis of fake news.
And for those of us in the PR business, let’s also hope that a return to real, trustworthy news signals a return to opportunities for true experts and thought leaders to be featured on television programming, rather than partisan fear mongers from both extremes. And maybe, just maybe, we can return to our televisions and enjoy watching the news again.