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Soledad O'Brien Paints Damning Portrait of Media 'Disguised' as Journalism

Soledad O'Brien
Soledad O'Brien (Image credit: N/A)

Veteran journalist Soledad O’Brien paints a damning portrait of the current media landscape in prepared testimony for a Wednesday (Feb. 24) hearing in the House Energy & Commerce Committee Communications Subcommittee on the role of traditional media in promoting disinformation and extremism.

Saying she has her feet planted "firmly" on that media landscape, the view from her vantage is that "Media disguised as journalism has been spreading lies for years, elevating liars, and using the ensuing slugfest to chase ratings, hits, subscriptions and advertisers. Period. Fullstop.

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O'Brien pointed out that she has been an anchor and reporter for more than three decades, and for local TV, national broadcast network TV and cable, for NBC, CNN, HBO. and currently hosts a weekly syndicated political magazine show for Hearst, Matter of Fact, and heads her own production company.

But there was nothing matter of fact about her scathing assessment. 

She said the elevation of liars has accelerated on radio, broadcast and especially cable TV, "repeating and reenergizing lies that harm all of us," including by setting the stage for "an alarmingly xenophobic and racist narrative."

She said that was the result of what Michael Rich, CEO of Rand Corp., had called "truth decay," or the "diminishing role of facts and analysis in public life."

She ascribed the beginning of that decay to the wounding, perhaps mortally, of local newspapers by emerging free social media and the decline of advertising support for traditional media.

She said one big problem is that TV has not filled the resulting void in in-depth reporting on communities and policies that affect "regular people," instead, "it’s become a place where facts go to die. TV, cable news in particular, relies on the cheap and easy booking of talking heads who exchange colorful barbs, entertaining outbursts and sometimes peddle outright fiction."

Then there is the migration from reporter to entertainer on cable news with "conventional reporters and anchors, the so-called professionals, start[ing] to behave like conspiracy theorists."

Her criticism was aimed at both right and left leaning media.

"When news organizations make decisions based on ratings rather than responsible reporting, disinformation flourishes," she wrote.

She also said the talking heads on the broadcast Sunday public affairs shows are not "in the least" representative of the public, nor are the media, "isolated in coastal cities, disconnected from poor and working class people of all colors, hosting newsrooms with scant diversity of anything -- race,

ethnicity, socioeconomic status, anything.... It’s no wonder the media expressed shock when videos unveiled police brutality, a phenomenon that is well known to communities of color."

O'Brien said she did not thing the answer was government regulation. "Let me be clear. Congress can’t, and shouldn’t, regulate journalism in defiance of the First Amendment," she said, adding: "It’s enough that Congress underfunds and politicizes public media even as it strives to bring basic news to scores of communities big and small."

But she said Congress can shed some light on how irresponsible media leads to disinformation to the detriment of democracy, and speak up as she was doing.

Her advice to the media: 

1. Don't book liars 

2. Get out of the office and interview people all over the country.

3. Stop suggesting each story has two sides when it might hav many sides, and give history and context

4. But don't give every perspective a platform, i.e.: "Balance does not mean giving voice to liars, bigots and kooks."

5. Stop talking diversity and start hiring 

6. Keep the opinion out of the "reportorial voice"

7. Objectivity is an open mind, not a lack of judgment

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Her closing thought: "America trusts us to deliver accurate, unbiased information, the grist of democracy, the stuff that enables us to have intelligent and accurate conversations with our neighbors, to cast an informed vote, and to make thoughtful decisions about everything, from the products we buy to whether we should vaccinate our children against a deadly plague. Bad information, wrong information, racist and crazy and cruel information hurts and even kills. But only if we let it."

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.