Op-ed: Cover the story, don’t be it

  • By Bob Franken
  • Tuesday, November 3, 2015 5:35pm
  • Opinion

This will not endear me to the television industry’s high muckety-mucks, because their news divisions make huge, almighty buckety-buck profits thanks to the astronomical ratings that come when they present the primary elections’ presidential debates. So they’re not going to be thrilled with my advocating that we end our Faustian deals with the parties and stop producing their candidate cattle calls … or perhaps stampedes. I’m already not particularly the fair-haired boy right now with certain CNBC moderators. I’ve criticized them for embarrassing us all with their vacuous and blatantly hostile questions and discrediting the entire idea that journalists are supposed to confront politicians with skepticism. The moderators violated what used to be a cardinal rule, which is that it’s not really about us, it’s about those we are covering. It’s not about our questions, but their answers.

Unfortunately that’s become sacrilege in our ego-addled business. What we’ve accomplished, as a result, is to give those in the political community too much power over us. They can channel their hatred of anyone daring to inquire about their carefully crafted propaganda into claims that they’re victims of scumbag troublemakers in the press who have an agenda.

GOP National Chairman Reince Priebus knows this all too well, and he’s been very open about exercising control over the debates to the point of choosing which networks get to produce them and make lots of money in the process. CNBC may have suffered a ton of ridicule, but it also drew 14 million viewers — its largest audience ever. So when Priebus publicly states that he wants to protect the Republican brand, the media clamor to deal with him.

Now, to tighten the screws, he’s punishing the owners of CNBC for all their “gotcha questions.” He’s sent a letter to NBC News, another division in the conglomerate, terminating the arrangement for the network to sponsor a debate down the road. And now, the campaigns of most of the GOP candidates are making their own demands.

NBC has responded to Priebus very timidly, saying the decision was “disappointing” and that there should be discussions. I need to point out here that I appear on MSNBC, or at least I have up until now. That’s because what I find to be disappointing is that the network executives don’t respond with emails like:

Dear Politicians,

Kiss my (bleep).

Nasty letter to follow.

All the best, Etc., Etc.

In fact, as I said at the beginning, no media organization should be putting on any of the debates, for either party. In my perfect universe, the Democrats and Republicans could offer their own, choosing the format and moderators if they want. Then the networks could decide how they report them or even whether. If, as a result, they became boring lovefests, then we could make the editorial judgment that they are or are not worth the attention. As it stands now, we’re allowing those we are supposed to be covering independently to co-opt that independence. Because so much revenue is at stake, the networks can be intimidated and whipped into line. How sad is that?

As for the complaint about “gotcha” questions, those are precisely what we should be asking, day in and day out. And if the candidates and parties don’t like it, and they don’t by the way, well, I refer you to the letter above.

Back in my CNN phase, I had landed a high-profile live interview. Shortly before it was scheduled, a producer called to say that my “get” had just demanded that certain questions were off-limits. That was easy: I said, “Tell him he’s disinvited. He’s not welcome.” He backed down, and we did the no-holds-barred interview. We and he did the right thing. Now, the networks should do right with the political entities we are supposed to challenge, by ending our deals with them. The money may be good, but the price is too high.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years ay CNN.

More in Opinion

Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo
Lt. Gov. Nancy Dahlstrom addresses the crowd during an inaugural celebration for her and Gov. Mike Dunleavy at Elizabeth Peratrovich Hall on Jan. 20, 2023.
Opinion: The many truths Dahlstrom will deny

Real conservatives wouldn’t be trashing the rule of law

Gov. Mike Dunleavy discusses his veto of a wide-ranging education bill during a press conference March 16 at the Alaska State Capitol. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)
Governor, please pay more attention to Alaskans

Our governor has been a busy guy on big issues.

A roll of “I voted” stickers sit at the Alaska Division of Elections office in Juneau in 2022. (Ben Hohenstatt / Juneau Empire File)
Strengthening democracy: Native vote partners to boost voter registration

GOTNV and VPC are partnering to send over 4,000 voter registration applications this month to addresses and P.O. boxes all over Alaska

Priya Helweg is the acting regional director and executive officer for the Region 10 Office of Intergovernmental and External Affairs, Office of the Secretary, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)
Happy Pride Month

This month is dedicated to acknowledging and uplifting the voices and experiences of the LGBTQI+ community

Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times
Former President Donald Trump arrives at Trump Tower after he was found guilty of all counts in his criminal trial in New York on May 30.
Opinion: Trump’s new fixers

Fixers from Alaska and elsewhere step in after guilty verdict

Ballot booths are set up inside Kenai City Hall on Thursday, Sept. 29, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Perspective from an election worker

Here is what I know about our Kenai Peninsula Borough election system

Apayauq Reitan, the first transgender woman to participate in the Iditarod, tells the House Education Committee on March 30, 2023, why she opposes a bill restricting transgender rights. (Mark Sabbatini/Juneau Empire file photo)
Opinion: The imaginary transgender sports crisis

House Bill 183 is a right-wing solution to a problem that doesn’t exist now and never will.

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Session ends with budget, dividend and bills passed

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau

The Alaska State Capitol. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)
Listen to PAs; support Senate Bill 115: Modernizing PA Practice in Alaska

Health care is rapidly evolving, demanding a more flexible and responsive system

Mount Redoubt can be seen across Cook Inlet from North Kenai Beach on Thursday, July 2, 2022. (Erin Thompson/Peninsula Clarion file photo)
Opinion: Hilcorp Alaska: Powering Southcentral Alaska — past, present and future

Hilcorp Alaska has and will continue to fully develop our Cook Inlet basin leasehold

Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, a Nikiski Republican, speaks in favor of overriding a veto of Senate Bill 140 during floor debate of a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature on Monday, March 18, 2024 (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)
Sen. Jesse Bjorkman: Collegiality matters

Capitol Corner: Legislators report back from Juneau