About Our Guest
Wyatt Andrews received his BA in Government and Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia in 1974. He joined CBS News in 1981. From 1984 to ’86, Mr. Andrews was CBS News Tokyo Asia Correspondent. From 1986 to ’88, he was CBS News Moscow Correspondent and Bureau Chief covering Gorbachev’s Perestroika, Chernobyl and the summits in Moscow, Reykjavik and Washington. Between 1988 and ’89, Mr. Andrews became CBS News State Department Correspondent. His assignments included the Afghanistan Accords, NATO and Middle East negotiation, among many other things. From 1989 to ’91, he worked as CBS News White House Correspondent during the Bush Administration covering the First Gulf War and the Soviet Summit Meetings at Malta and Helsinki. Between 2003 and ’09 as CBS News Supreme Court Correspondent, Andrews covered such diverse areas as detainee rights, campaign finance, war powers and affirmative action. His noteworthy stint as CBS News National Correspondent spanned the period from April ’91 to the present. The breadth of his journalistic experience compasses, among many other things, politics, energy, foreign affairs, healthcare and veteran’s affairs. Mr. Andrews was principal reporter for the CBS Evening News Eye on America. During the 2008 presidential campaign Wyatt Andrews served as primary correspondent for the CBS reality segment on the Evening News which took as its focus political claims and distortion. Wyatt Andrews has won national Emmy awards for the Gandhi Assassination in 1984, the Reagan/Gorbachev Summit in Reykjavik, Iceland in 1986 and the Washington Sniper Case in 2002. In 2014 he garnered the DuPont Columbia Silver Baton Award for his coverage of Sandy Hook. Wyatt Andrews has been named Professor of Practice in the UVA Department of Media Studies where he teaches courses in multimedia reporting and the news media.
Jan Paynter: Hello. I’m Jan Paynter and I would like to welcome you once again to our program Politics Matters. Today we are honored to welcome back our guest veteran journalist and former CBS Correspondent Wyatt Andrews to explore the evolving role of journalism and media in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Welcome back, Wyatt.
Wyatt Andrews: Jan, thanks for having me.
Jan Paynter: After this election it’s been noted by the Pointer Institute and other media observers that journalists are often reluctant to characterize politician’s statements as lies or false for fear of being accused of journalistic bias. How, in your experience, Wyatt, might this be handled in a way that’s fair to all concerned?
Wyatt Andrews: Yeah. When I was in the business, we were…we struggled with at what point do we call something a lie and when I… If you go back eight years ago when I was doing our Reality Check. If you go back eight years ago, 2008 election, I was responsible at the CBS Evening News for a segment called Reality Check and our editors came hard on, ‘We’re not going to accuse anyone of lying. We will say fact, not factual, correct or incorrect but we’re not going to accuse anybody of lying.’ And I thought that was fine because the word lie is so loaded, it has the feel of you as the objective journalist putting your thumb on the scale. So at that time, 2008, the idea was correct/incorrect, factual/not factual and I would say something…I forget my exact script formulation and I would say something like, ‘This is wrong. What Mr. Obama just said is wrong. What Ms. Palin said is wrong. Or right. This one checks out,’ I would say, that kind of thing. Now, today I think it’s different. Today I think that the word lie is often more appropriate than correct or incorrect and that it needs to be an aspect of journal…it needs to be…that word needs to be leveraged very carefully but that it’s journalistic cowardess to not go there anymore because now it’s very clear when you have candidates who are repeatedly stretching the truth and are doing it as a function of their campaign, then the objective judgment, I think the objective judgment can be made that intentional deception is going on and it’s cowardess not to call it by its name.
Jan Paynter: Well, in that connection, how do journalists guard against overextending the principle of fairness, thus creating false equivalencies in reporting?
Wyatt Andrews: Well, yeah. That’s one of the problems. One of the clear problems the media faced in the 2016 campaign is…let’s call it math. Jan, it’s mathematically. Hillary Clinton clearly lied or failed to tell the truth, you tell me, on, by my count, maybe two or three really big things starting with classified documents, in the emails, where she should have been a lot more forthcoming and then…or more honest when she was asked about it the first two or three times. But Hillary Clinton’s fabrications or evasions to me always felt like big things that she didn’t want to look bad about. In other words, she didn’t want to look like she was anything other than this upright public servant when she decided to take all of her email off to her own private server. She’s busted, she didn’t think that she was going to be busted. She tried strategy X or Y and it didn’t work but at no point did it seem that her first default position would be the absolute honest truth and the public picked up on that. But the mathematics of this are…let’s say, in my opinion, Hillary Clinton two or three big ones where she evaded the truth, lied, if you want, but she created for herself certainly a perception if not the reality that once she was in power she might not always tell the truth. And I feel like if you were a voter and you wanted to judge Hillary Clinton on that basis, that’s your right as a voter to make that decision. But the math is that Donald Trump evaded the truth or lied several times a day to the point where he would… Donald Trump would deny things on one day that he said and were on tape from last week or even the day before.
Jan Paynter: Some of the percentages I saw, excuse me, were something in the neighborhood of 27 percent for Clinton versus the high 80s for Donald Trump.
Wyatt Andrews: So to get to your… So yes, the…it is not…I always thought when the Republicans would say, ‘The media are not being fair because you’re not covering Hillary Clinton’s emails,’ well, A, that’s just wrong. They were covering the emails. If I’m not mistaken, The New York Times broke the email server story, certainly in the beginning or led on the story certainly at the beginning and it would be dishonest to engage in this false equivalence if it’s Hillary Clinton one a week and Donald Trump 10 a day. That is the very concept of false equivalence. To just simply say glibly that, ‘Oh, both sides are doing it,’ isn’t accurate and that’s what you’re talking about where we are demanding or asking of journalists to engage in false equivalence, I think this election was a…it’s a laboratory in when that’s not right to do.
Jan Paynter: Well, at a time when media outlets and newspapers are struggling to survive financially, how do journalists resist the trap of increasing their coverage of a particular candidate, understanding that that candidate will increase the odds of his or her article being read and discussed.
Wyatt Andrews: Huh. Well, obviously in this last election you had the Chairman of CBS tell an audience of investors that Donald Trump was great for CBS and this used to be my…Les Moonves used to be my distant but West Coast boss because he was Chairman of CBS Corporation and CBS News worked for him. And I was shocked to hear him say this and what he said was, ‘Donald Trump is good for CBS because he says all these crazy things,’ and Moonves literally said, ‘It might not be good for the country but so far it’s great for CBS.’ And this is…and this was said for yucks, for laughs in front of a room full of people that he hopes talks up the CBS stock. Now there is a church and state firewall throughout most of the mainstream media in that the advertising side does not have direct control over what’s said on the editorial side but it would be silly to think that the executive producers running any broadcast, whether it be anybody doing online broadcasting or cable or broadcast broadcasting, silly for them to think that they didn’t realize that Donald Trump was good for the ratings and so I think that on the margins too many decisions to give him airtime were made with a profit motive, with the idea that the audience wants this, the polls reflect his popularity. There was also, I have to say, a legitimate reason to give Donald Trump all that airtime because one of the biases I think in the media was that at some point the people in the United States, his electorate or anybody shopping to vote for him, would figure him out and run the other way because of all the things that he said. But did Donald Trump inject a profit motive for the press to continue covering him? No question about it.
Jan Paynter: The Harvard Kennedy School Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy notes that what was consistently missing from the negative coverage of both candidates was context and that when news outlets failed to provide adequate background on an important issue, news consumers cannot make sense of the issue at hand. In a November post-election article in The New Yorker, John Cassidy reiterates, ‘this pressing need for context and analysis in election coverage knowing that it wasn’t the amount of coverage that failed but the degree of thoroughgoing journalistic analysis.’ Your thoughts about that.
Wyatt Andrews: Well, in general I agree. Again, I think we should delineate between newspapers which have the space to go into great context and television outlets which have a…on the broadcast news side where you’re talking about typically a 30 minute broadcast or the morning news broadcast which has two hours but it’s really four half hour segments, broadcasters generally don’t have time for a lot of context. The issue there is really that they made this choice, and I think it was wrong and has to be corrected, that the public was not interested in policy. I don’t think that the…that in the big picture you can question every single horse race story or every single conflict driven story because a lot of the times it’s their job to cover the news of the day and that is what it is. We have to cover the news of the day. We have to fault the broadcasters and the cable journalists for not using the rest of their time for the very context that you’re talking about. So Hillary Clinton’s emails, for example. Okay. So maybe…so the FBI Director points out and congressional committees point out that she has repeatedly said she never handled any classified information. Boom! Here’s the evidence that she did. All right? But the context of that story, which then gets lost in a short treatment, is that it had…it wasn’t anything that was stamped huge across there. If you see these government documents, some of them have big, bold letters that this is a classified document. I’m not sure that any of those crossed her email on purpose. What they were talking about, this was classified with a small c and that…yes, that’s a perfect example of where context was missing. It was a… Now, should she have known as Secretary of State that small c meant classified? Yeah. Yeah, she should have. Does that justify her saying in a public setting, ‘I never handled classified information,’ when she could have and maybe should have known that small c meant classified? You could make that judgment. But you’re absolutely right where there’s a perfect example of how this got blown up into dishonesty—horrendous, egregious lying on Hillary Clinton’s part when you could also make a judgment as a citizen that this wasn’t the headline classified information, this was small c classified information and from her point of view, if you’re inclined to see this in light most favorably to her, should have been in most stories.
Jan Paynter: Wyatt, how might good journalism challenge the proliferation of the so-called fake news sites that have been metastasizing on social media? To speak with Mark Twain by way of Bill Moyers in a recent quote, ‘A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth is putting on its shoes.’
Wyatt Andrews: This is trouble. This whole era of fake news and the public’s willingness to consume it and share it is a major problem and I am not yet convinced that just saying that we can solve this with good journalism is an answer. I am very afraid of this. One of the things that troubles me in the post-election time in which you and I are taping this is that most recently Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook has said that he didn’t see…he doesn’t see this as altering the election. Okay, maybe not but that’s not…whether you can prove that now, that’s not the issue. We all know anecdotally people who were at their computers, probably friends of yours on Facebook, who were sharing all this nonsense. Some of it anti-Donald Trump but I think most of it anti-Hillary Clinton. I was looking at people’s Facebook posts, including my own relatives, and here they are…Hillary Clinton killed a couple of people in the last two weeks of the campaign, she was…the Anthony Weiner emails were connected to sex crimes against children, the Pope endorses Donald Trump. That got I think well over a million shares in the first 24 hours. I’m sorry, I am not convinced that that, if it didn’t alter the election, it certainly hardened people’s ideologies and made for an extra reason to be against Hillary Clinton for the most part but also in some cases against Donald Trump. And I think for someone like Zuckerberg to say this made no difference and Facebook doesn’t need to react is flat out wrong. Facebook has said, Twitter is the same way, that they’re mere technology companies and they’re not news organizations. That’s no longer accurate. They have more of a moral responsibility to own the fact that they are now the greatest news distribution agencies in the world by a lot. So let’s talk about scale one second. This concept’s very important. Lester Holt who’s the leading national broadcaster and which is the leading single…the NBC Nightly News is the single largest one spot media outlet in the country with nine million viewers a night. It’s bigger than The New York Times, it’s bigger than Bill O’Reilly, bigger than any newspaper, bigger than any online site a day—nine million. Facebook has 140 million subscribers just in the United States, most of which, according to Pugh, and that’s in the tens of millions, rely on Facebook for their news and what if they share news on Facebook several times a day. So you’ve got Lester Holt’s one time nine million and he used to be the biggest dog in all of the news firmament, Brian Williams before him, versus Facebook’s tens of millions of exposures, multiples, the scale of how people now share news on Facebook and take it as gospel, take it as reality is mind blowing and it’s unprecedented. And for Facebook to say that they have no responsibility at all to curate whether some of that is absolutely false I think needs drastic reform right now.
Jan Paynter: Oh, I agree. Upwards of 60, 61 percent of all people get their news from Facebook which really shocks me being an old time newspaper reader.
Wyatt Andrews: But also, if you take The Wall Street Journal, for example, which is the nation’s leading newspaper, they would be lucky to get 60 million views on their website every month and what they’re trying to do is leverage just a tiny piece of that 60 million visits and turn that into subscription, a paid subscription and that way that’s the business model for staying in business. But, here’s Facebook with tens of millions, maybe even up to 100 million news shares a day by 140 million Americans. Facebook has taken over news distribution and it’s not close. And what I think is, if I could be so bold, what seems to be necessary now is a recognition that they…whether or not Facebook creates news, they certain distribute it in a way never imagined and they distribute everything from absolutely vital, watchdog, investigative, substantive policy based news, everything from that side, to the stuff that’s completely made up. I don’t see any… In an era where Facebook can take down a nude picture in a second because of the community standards, algorithms and reporting process, there is no reason in the world why they can’t label something as demonstrably false. That’s not censoring it. We still have the freedom of the social media and we still have the vibrancy and the creativity of social media and the ability to get news from social media at will but there’d be nothing wrong with labeling something as demonstrably false, have it at the bottom with a click for why Facebook’s curators found it that way. They certainly have the revenue and now I’m arguing they have the responsibility.
Jan Paynter: We have a tradition of how many Pinnochios a statement gets. That’s been for a long time. There’s a need to reactivate the electorate that’s become jaded and bored with the surfeit of news and information. How can budding journalists find ways of reactivating and interesting the public in real news and content?
Wyatt Andrews: One of the issues that all of journalism faces right now is how are we going to pay for it? The overwhelming majority of news content in the United States right now is paid for in the end by advertising and when you pay for news by advertising, there are tremendous advantages to it because when news is based on advertising, there’s a lot of money there and news based on advertising can fund a lot of investigative journalism. The question is, how many of these news outlets, like my own, CBS, are using all those tens of millions, hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to actually produce investigative journalism? And one of the reasons the bosses will tell you that they don’t is that it costs too much money. The people who run mainstream media in the United States say that they can make a fact-based case that when they put on substantive news, when they put on foreign news, when they put on news related to policy, they can measure as the audience runs screaming from the room. That’s true. And so they feel dis-incentivized from putting on substance. On the other hand, they have an obligation to do that and the case for…the case for putting on horse race or nonsense or infotainment as opposed to policy I’ve never thought was as iron clad as the bosses always made it and I also think that they have a civic and moral obligation to at least attempt it. At least alter the balance so that infotainment is less, conflict is less and policy is more. Too many news media outlets are not treating the audience as smart. They feel like the audience is rewarding the weather. That’s true. You put a weather story on and your ratings go up by hundreds of thousands and then the same public that flees if you don’t have the weather on, will then tell a pollster, ‘Well, I’m not watching the news because there isn’t enough policy.’ So that’s why my old bosses, especially on the business side at a mainstream outlet like CBS, feel like they’re never rewarded if they put on policy, even though these are the same news people who will tell you it’s their job to put on policy. So that’s what’s going on. They don’t…they have not figured out, the mainstream media right now, they have not figured out right now exactly how to put on hard substantive stuff without driving too much of the audience away, more importantly without driving away a measurable number of the audience that will reduce their billables. That’s what’s happening. Someone… On the other hand, look at what’s happened to The New York Times since the election. As we tape this, I checked just before I sat for this interview, The New York Times has 40,000 new paid subscribers. You’d have to interpret that as a rush of that small slice of the public rewarding The New York Times for its substantive coverage and wanting to support it and wanting more. There is…there is a…there is an appetite for hard news, for investigative news, for deep policy news but I don’t think anyone has figured out the precise line between how much infotainment you need to leave in there and how much policy turns the lights off and gets everyone fired.
Jan Paynter: It would be interesting to see the demograph of the age of the people who are rushing to make these subscriptions. I suspect they’re older.
Wyatt Andrews: PBS’s Frontline, and I realize that you’re doing this for a PBS station so it’s…your audience will know this. PBS’s Frontline did a fabulous hour or maybe it was two hours, maybe I missed one, on all of the deep policy but also the personal backgrounds of Trump and Clinton comparing where they were in their careers in various decades. Do you know what the audience for that was? Very little.
Jan Paynter: Oh, very little. But context, goes to context.
Wyatt Andrews: It goes to context. But what I’m saying is, okay, so Jan, you’re a broadcast executive and you see that Frontline has spent a bazillion dollars doing arguably the best hour long documentary of the season and you see that it gets a million or two million, and I’m being generous here, views. All right, do you then give up an hour of CBS or ABC primetime where your audience for an entertainment show is 14 million? Like you and I can sit here and argue and I am, I am arguing, yes, they should have made that choice. Where were the broadcast news hours on the election? It is disgraceful that there were none. They did debates but they didn’t do hour long deep dives into the election and they didn’t do that because they felt like they would not be rewarded by the public.
Jan Paynter: Oh I think a lot of us yearn for a time back in the day when it was accepted by corporations that the news division would perhaps lose money and they would make it up in other ways. Of course now news and entertainment has morphed.
Wyatt Andrews: Not to mention that the broadcasters, including PBS, get the airways for free, they get the spectrum for free. This is an issue. John McCain was always this great advocate of saying, ‘You know what, AT&T and Verizon would pay good money for that spectrum.’ And so ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, we all still enjoy the public airwaves absolutely for free and I think someone’s recently calculated the value of that…it amounts to a subsidy of about $1, $1.2 trillion so it’s time to point to the broadcasters not doing deep substance and remind them that in the public, if they want to earn that subsidy, they should step it up the next time.
Jan Paynter: Wyatt, we’re going to stop there for now and we’ll look forward to you coming back for the conclusion of our conversation.
Wyatt Andrews: Thank you.
Jan Paynter: Thank you at home for joining our conversation. If you would like more information concerning the topic under discussion today, we invite you to take a look at our website at politicsmatters.org. We will be posting a number of books, articles and relevant links on many of the issues under discussion today there for you. You will also find a complete archive of prior Politics Matters programs that you may watch in their entirety anytime. We will be posting extended versions of interviews online on our site as well and will continue to add more content. As always, we are very interested in hearing from you with any ideas, questions and concerns for future programs. We encourage you to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are on PBS-WVPT on the second and last Sunday of every month at 11:30 am. Thank you again and until next we meet, I’m Jan Paynter and this is Politics Matters.