Former CNN correspondent discusses ‘The Press & the People’

Date Published: 
Feb. 2, 2018

Coastal Point • Kerin Magill: Ralph Begleiter talks to the crowd at Dickens Parlour Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 25.Coastal Point • Kerin Magill: Ralph Begleiter talks to the crowd at Dickens Parlour Theatre on Thursday, Jan. 25.Former CNN world-affairs correspondent Ralph Begleiter didn’t think his talk on “The Press & the People” would draw much of an audience.

It has, however, been quite a year for the press… and the people.

The 60-seat Dickens Parlour Theatre in Millville was full when Begleiter, who also taught journalism at the University of Delaware until 2015, took the stage. According to organizers, 100 people were on a waiting list for the program.

During his talk — part of a lecture series titled “The Inside Story” — Begleiter outlined changes in all types of media, including the “newer” forms, such as social media and digital news.

“As a lifelong journalist, I think I have something to say about it,” he said.

Begleiter said that in 1980, when CNN — then a fledgling network with a never-before-tested format — called him about a job, his first reaction was, “Are you kidding? You’ve got to be nuts. Nobody is going to watch a 24-hour news channel.” So he passed on the offer.

However, he said, “About a year later, I changed my mind.” He would stay at the network as a world-affairs correspondent for 18 years. Although he covered foreign affairs, Begleiter lived in Washington, D.C., during those years, flying to more than 100 countries during his career in the process of covering global politics and diplomacy.

From Turner to Twitter

Begleiter said that, while President Donald Trump’s penchant for tweeting rather than holding briefings or press conferences has changed how information is dispersed to the public, it is only one aspect of an evolution in the media over the past several decades.

He said he believes the media “has begun to emerge from an era that was entertainment news,” even though the reality-television-star-turned-politician who is now president “is still the center of attention in the United States.”

Begleiter recalled that, when CNN had just begun, network owner Ted Turner cautioned his staff, “You guys are not the news. The news is the news, and you guys are secondary. There’s no stars at this network. The news is the star.”

Back in those days, Begleiter said, there was a rhythm and a system to covering the people who moved through the political spectrum, from the White House to Congress to foreign leaders.

“There were news conferences; there was ‘Meet the Press’; there were photo-ops.” World leaders, he said, “would engage in banter with reporters.”

“Today, it’s all about Twitter,” Begleiter said.

“In Washington today, all these briefings can go on, all these spokesmen can say everything, and then something pops out of the president’s head on his Twitter account and it’s all blown away. Whatever anybody else said doesn’t matter,” Begleiter said. “We are left to try and figure out what is going to pop out of the president’s head next.”

The Wall Street Journal, Begleiter said, actually charted the president’s tweets and concluded that there are two major time periods during the day when the president tweets the most, and that they follow a distinct pattern. Morning tweets tend to be attacks against “things that piss him off,” such as the media. In the afternoon, around rush hour, his tweets seem to focus more on policy matters.

“The only the thing that is important in Washington today is what the president says to his Twitterverse,” Begleiter said.

Even those who don’t personally have Twitter accounts will soon learn what the president is tweeting on a given day.

“All you have to do is pay attention to the rest of the media,” he said. “The media knows it’s not getting any news anywhere else. So all it has to do is rebroadcast the president’s tweets. So the rest of us are not left out. We’re part of the ‘Twitterverse,’ too — we just get it sort of secondhand.

“The bottom line on Twitter,” Begleiter said, is “It allows the president to bypass the news media. Presidents, for decades and decades have tried to do that.”

The effect of the president’s Twitter habit, he said, “has to do with the ability to skew public opinion almost instantaneously.”

As an example, Begleiter discussed the issue of NFL players kneeling during the national anthem at football games to bring attention to police brutality against African-Americans.

Before the election, he said, Trump had barely addressed the issue. A Marist College poll commissioned by HBO showed that a scant majority of Republican respondents thought players should be required to stand, while 71 percent of independent voters and 58 percent of Democrats thought players should be required to stand.

After Trump was elected president, he made a statement at a rally in Alabama that players should be required to stand, and, “Suddenly, 82 percent [of Republicans] agreed with the president. Of respondents who identified as independent voters, 54 percent now said, ‘No, I don’t think they should have to stand,’” Begleiter said. Democrats overwhelmingly responded that they believed players should not be required to stand for the anthem.

Clearly, Begleiter said, Trump’s tweets were having an impact on public opinion.

This new dynamic, he said, has drawbacks and has even proven to be dangerous. He cited the recent threat made by a Michigan man “to shoot up everyone” at CNN’s Atlanta headquarters after Trump called CNN an “enemy of the people.”

“So,” Begleiter said, people in the mainstream media fear the president’s hostility.

Another consequence of the president’s preferred mode of communication is its fluid nature, Begleiter said. People tend forget what he said a month ago, because the tweets just disappear into the past, and most people don’t bother to scroll back through their social media feeds to find something.

“That’s the kind of thing journalists do, but most people don’t do that,” Begleiter said.

Unfortunately for the citizens, he said, that makes it easy for Trump — or anyone — to say something, “then pretend it didn’t happen at all.”

“In some cases,” Begleiter said, “this president has gone back and deleted the tweets that he uttered previously because he changed his mind,” as he did during the recent U.S. Senate election in Alabama, when he first favored one candidate, then the other, and then a third ended up winning.

Social media, so far, is devoid of the same kinds of standards that govern mainstream media, Begleiter said.

“There isn’t any rule, any regulation, any standard of any kind… no ethics code, nothing that directs the social media to behave responsibly, or ethically, or within some standard… to even get their spelling correct. There’s nothing,” he said.

Begleiter willingly points a finger at his own industry for not taking candidate Trump seriously.

“We treated Trump as a joke, OK? We assumed, through the entire year and a half of the pre-election campaign, that Trump would collapse,” he said.

Meanwhile, mainstream media “gave Mr. Trump enormous amounts of free time… much more than other candidates,” Begleiter said. However, he said, those same media outlets failed to do their homework on the candidate’s background. “The mainstream media, because they thought he was going to collapse, did not bother to expose his history. Nobody was asking those questions for a very long time.”

Trump’s characterization of coverage he doesn’t like as “fake news,” Begleiter said, “is being adopted by authoritarian leaders all around the world. This has become a worldwide phenomenon,” he said.

That is alarming, Begleiter said, because the American press has always played the role of watchdog over the government, as it was imagined by the Founding Fathers. That, he said, is “a pretty unusual thing around the world,” adding that government-operated media is more the norm across the globe.

Even more alarming, he said, are recent polls that indicate growing distrust in the media by American citizens.

“Seventy-two percent of the people in this country say the news media tend to favor one side,” Begleiter said. “In my opinion, that’s a terrible, terrible sign for democracy.”

“If we don’t trust the media… to put on a semblance of fairness, then we have lost our ability to make sound public-policy decisions,” he said.

Ch-ch-changes

Holding up his own iPhone, Begleiter asked the audience to guess when that ubiquitous piece of mobile technology came into being. The answer: 2007. And along with the iPhone and the smartphone revolution, there has been a massive change in the way Americans receive their news.

“We’ve gone from print to palm in just 10 years,” he said, “and by anybody’s definition, that’s a revolution. Paper subscriptions to newspapers and magazines are dropping, while digital subscriptions are growing. We’ve gone through a media earthquake in just the last 10 years, and it’s more than just the social media, I promise you,” Begleiter said.

Today, there are far fewer journalists covering the types of news that was Begleiter’s own stock in trade — the deeper dives into complicated subjects that affect the way nations relate to each other, and into national affairs as well. TV networks and newspapers are slashing their staffs, leaning more and more on pundits sitting around a table in Washington, D.C., discussing a subject, and less on reporters out in the field, gathering facts.

In Begleiter’s opinion, this type of news “reporting” does a disservice to viewers because they are less informed than they should be.

“We’ve set ourselves up to make decisions on the basis of uninformed voters in this country,” he said.

The new frontier of online journalism is not unlike the lawlessness of the Wild West, according to Begleiter, who said that a rise in “non-media players,” such as Breitbart News, is not conducive to an informed electorate.

“It’s not news,” he said, “…and what we’ve done is we’ve replaced journalism on the web with whatever anybody wants to say. I’m all in favor of free speech, but it’s not journalism. It’s not the kind of media you need to make the right kinds of decisions,” he said.

Begleiter said he believes “The press in the United States has become disengaged and minimized, and it might surprise you to know that I think that occurred long before Donald Trump became the president of the United States. This is not a new problem.”

Regardless of Trump’s attacks on mainstream media, his rise to power has actually benefited many of its outlets, Begleiter said, citing increases particularly in digital newspaper readership. In 2017, he said, the New York Times’ digital subscribers outnumbered its print subscribers for the first time.

While digital news offers a glimmer of hope to an industry struggling to find its footing in the ever-changing digital age, social media holds pitfalls, Begleiter said.

“There’s a dark side to the social media,” he said, citing, in particular, Russian intervention in the 2016 election. “It happened in so many ways that we didn’t notice happening in 2015, and we now are beginning to pick it apart. What are we doing about it? Honestly, I hope we’re doing something about it, but it’s not something you read about in the news media much.

He wondered aloud whether Delaware officials are checking the state’s election system to ensure that it can’t be hacked in ways that 21 other states experienced in 2016.

Wrapping up his 90-minute talk, Begleiter offered some thoughts on how the media might proceed in the coming years to bring some order to the current state of things on the information highway.

“I think the news media are vital to a successful democracy in the United States,” he said. “The Founding Fathers thought so, and we have thought so for 200 or 300 years, and I think it’s still the case. So, in my view, fixing the problems with the media in this country should be a high priority.”

One thought Begleiter had regarding social media involves tweaking its current system where users can “like” certain posts.

“Instead of liking,” he said, “why not click whether you trust it or you don’t trust it? And then… if it’s more trusted, it would get wider distribution,” he said.

Another thought: “Maybe require social media journalists to behave like journalists — with editors, with ethics, with standards,” he said. “We know how to do this stuff. It exists; we can just adopt it.”

Begleiter, ever the newsman, then suggested that social media adopt more of a journalistic attitude. Among the steps he suggested: “Get rid of anonymity on social posting.” Also, “Get rid of people who are just venting… That’s not helpful. We need information, we don’t need emotion.”

Finally, Begleiter called for more delineation between opinion and news.

“Stop calling things that aren’t news news,” he said. “If we’re going to devalue the importance and significance of news, one way to do it is to call everything that anyone blurts out news.”