Earlier this year, I attended a breakfast event hosted Trinity University called “Policy Maker Breakfasts.” It’s a series of events that features speakers of note who have in the past or presently have a unique position or experience that gives them a special perspective on any number of interests or topics. Ann Compton, formerly of ABC News, spoke at the February event and offered some great personal stories as a network news White House correspondent as well as her own views of the state of news media today and how it has changed.
While the personal stories she told were interesting, it was some of the questions and answers that came out after her talk that had a lot of people raising their eyebrows. Like for instance, she was questioned about the Brian Williams memory lapse incidents. While she acknowledges knowing Brian fairly well through their competitive news gathering days and characterizes him as a nice and smart fellow, what he’s done does not do modern journalism any favors. She likens the six month hiatus without pay consequence for his faulty memory as essentially the death penalty to a network news anchor. Turns out she was partially right…Lester Holt was tapped for the NBC News anchor chair, while Williams was given a second chance as a breaking news anchor position on MSNBC. A far cry from Nightly News domination (10 million viewers).
Personally, the only thing I can remember that was as bad as that was Dan Rather’s live interview with George H.W. Bush in 1988 over the Iran-Contra issue. Check it out HERE. Especially at around 6:33 into the interview.
The other topic that was brought up through the audience questions was the perceived media bias in reporting. While she stopped short of blanketing all media outlets as bias in one way or the other, she did say that many of the broadcast/cable news operations do come to their news gathering mission with an established tone or slant which tends to color their coverage. MSNBC and FOX News were two examples of networks vying for niche news audiences in a culture that is increasingly going to the internet for their news. She even fielded a question about National Public Radio that was actually asked by someone who was an avid listener of NPR. Ms. Compton’s answer I thought was honest. She admitted that her perspective was as a competitor for many years (ABC Radio News), but said expanded or in-depth coverage of a news story, which is NPR’s format, does not necessarily mean objective or unbiased coverage. That answer probably didn’t please the questioner, but Compton characterized National Public Radio as left of center…generally not objective. But she says many news operations have evolved their color of coverage and have developed loyal audiences because those news programs fit their political or ethical comfort zone. As a result, while audiences may not be as big as they use to be, the audiences they do have are loyal and news producers are constantly looking for new twists, program formats and personalities to keep them coming back and maybe win a few converts now and then.