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ON THE SCENE: Musings on the media with NCPR’s Brian Mann

March 2, 2017
By NAJ WIKOFF , Lake Placid News

The media has taken a lot of hits lately, most especially lead outlets such as The New York Times, Washington Post, CNN, WNBC and Fox News.

Recently, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer barred the Times, Post, CNN, Politico and others from attending a press briefing, plus chief White House strategist Stephen Bannon said the media should "Keep its mouth shut and listen for a while" and "the media here is the opposition party. They don't understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States."

A large percentage of Americans agree with those sentiments, according to a recent national poll as reported by OneNewsNow 10 days ago; results skewed along party lines. Nine out of 10 Republicans felt the news as being untrustworthy in the same poll. According to Gallup polling, trust in the media has been slowly but steadily slipping since 1997, and this erosion increased dramatically over the span of the recent presidential election, an erosion coupled with the dramatic rise in "fake" news.

Article Photos

North Country Public Radio Adirondack Bureau Chief Brian Mann, left, talks with John Bingham Feb. 27 at the Keene Valley Library.
(Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

In mid-November, Anthony Adornato, an assistant professor at Ithaca College specializing in teaching and researching mobile and social media journalism, released a study on local television stations across the U.S. that revealed that 30 percent of their news bulletins came from unverified information taken from social media that was later revealed to be false or inaccurate.

Part of the problem is that many reporters were not trained in how to spot fake news, and until recently, social media outlets like Facebook have done little if anything to block it. Of consequence, the general public has ample opportunity to pass on "news" that reinforces their worldview without knowing or knowing how to determine if it's based on fact or not.

Adding to the challenge was the media's total miss on the expanding base of support for Trump resulting in an election outcome that was a shock to themselves, Secretary Hillary Clinton, and recently elected President Trump and his team of advisers. Not shocked was the Los Angeles Times and the Investor's Business Daily/TIPP tracking poll; both predicted his win.

North Country Public Radio Adirondack Bureau Chief Brian Mann admitted he was as surprised as anyone, and faults himself for not doing a better job of listening to residents of the North Country. Mann came to the Keene Valley Library on Monday, Feb. 27 to talk about the media. The house was standing room only.

"From the moment the Election Day happened, our newsroom has been dialed up to 15," said Brian Mann in his opening remarks. "Even while we are thinking and trying to figure out what this all means, and having conversations like this one across our listening area, we're not waiting to get going. We have boots on the ground, and we are moving as hard and fast as we can."

Mann just returned from visiting the oil sands in northern Alberta for a story on energy and climate that's being developed with a station in Boston. He described several planned projects on prisons, undocumented workers in the North Country and a variety of other initiatives with National Public Radio to ensure they are part of the unfolding story about the political landscape and initiatives coming out of the White House and Congress.

"This election was one of the most fascinating, complex and difficult things that I have ever covered as a journalist," said Mann. "As somebody who has studied American politics and written and reported about it for a very long time, I got a lot of this totally wrong; most journalists did. Most of us didn't expect this result; Donald Trump didn't expect this result. His people and most of his voters didn't expect this result."

"One of the immediate takeaways for myself as a storyteller and journalist is that it reinforced in me the need to embrace humility as an observer," he said. "Over and over again like most human beings, I get to places where I feel that I know what I'm looking at and understand what I'm seeing. This election drove home to me that as a storyteller my primary job is to enter the world paying as close attention as I can and bring back the clearest, simplest narrative about what is happening that I possibly can. I feel that it's undeniable that my field failed to do that basic function in this election."

He didn't blame that failure on fake news, and he didn't feel this was the first time the media has failed the public. Mann felt the media failed to provide a clear narrative of the Gulf War and the circumstances that lead up to it. Indeed, at the time some who tried were sidelined, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Peter Arnett, then covering Gulf War for NBC from Baghdad, was fired for describing the war plan as a failure.

Mann felt many in the media tried their best, but radical new forces were at work that few understood or appreciated. The media could not keep up with the acceleration and intensity, and the outcome was voters were left confused and at times feeling as they were flying blind. Add to that, much of the profit-driven media could not resist sensational statements that gave Trump near blanket covered and little left for anyone else. Further, people knowingly creating news stories that were fake added to the clutter - an addition brought in by people willing to do or say anything to achieve their political and social goals.

Mann believes this shock to our system is healthy. He feels that the media had been coasting, and it's coasting no more. Reporters have gone back to the hard work of drilling into sources and are doing good reporting. He feels that many in the middle and left, as well as younger voters, took what we have for granted. They did not appreciate how such rapid and sweeping change as the legalization of gay marriage is by no means universally accepted, or even some of the New Deal and Great Society reforms put in under presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson. He reminded the audience that 4 million fewer people voted for Barack Obama in 2012 than in 2008, and even less for Clinton, while the Republicans expanded their control of both houses of Congress and 32 state legislatures. Thus, he is heartened that more people are now engaged as he feels that good for the democratic process.

Mann believes an open forum for dialogue is critical to the health of our nation. He said too many people are isolated in their silos (stovepipes, in his words), listening to only what reinforces their beliefs. For us to create a more just society and be able to address the economic inequalities, the impact of climate change, address the root causes of the millions of people being dislodged from their homes and seeking a better life elsewhere, we all need to open ourselves to hearing the concerns of others. He's optimistic but recognizes our society is at risk. He believes no one should sit back and assume challenges will go away. He, for one, will do all he can to create that safe forum for conversation.

"His presentation was fascinating," said Peter Slocum. "It was a good discussion, I didn't agree with everything, but he pointed out very clearly how cultural thinking influences our receptors when it comes to news, and that we have become so splintered in our society that many view news sources differently."

"He got us thinking," said Lorraine Duvall. "It's opened my mind to open my heart to what's going on."

"I thought it was a very informative discussion," said Henrietta Jordan. "I think Brian made some excellent points about how journalism works today and some very astute observations about politicians including our own Congresswoman Stefanik. I am very grateful he came."

The Keene Valley Library plans future presentations that address the big issues facing our society, and communities interested in having Brian Mann give a similar address should contact him or Ellen Rocco through NCPR.



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