The social media sharing of a Sunday morning talk show segment demonstrates how a lowbrow headline can serve a higher purpose

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop  

Listen to podcast version here

Journalism is perennially caught between two competing instincts: medicine and sugar. Tell the people what they need to know… or give the people what they want to know. “What tells” versus “what sells.” As reporters, our better angels usually favor the former. Our editors and publishers often lean into the latter.

A prominent cable news program recently blended medicine with sugar in a way uniquely suited to the digital age. And it’s a fair wager that not even CBS News correspondent Scott Pelley realized it was happening.

Pelley has been on tour recently to promote his new book, “Truth Worth Telling,” which is reviewed in the Library section of our Press Center. He was interviewed by Brian Stelter on CNN’s Reliable Sources. Pelley came prepared with strong medicine - directly related to the core theme of his book: media and truth.

“The American people,” said Pelley, “have to have reliable information to make reliable decisions about our country.” And as to how to get reliable information in the fake news era, he offered a very practical suggestion:

“If you see something on the Internet that you wonder about or that outrages you, then do what has never been possible before. Look at a variety of other sources. Spend 10 minutes figuring out whether that story is true. I wonder what CNN is saying about that. I wonder what the Chicago Tribune is saying about that. And triangulate your information…our viewers have never had to do that in history. And today it’s going to be mandatory. “

Mandatory - as in, “take your medicine.” But see what happens next. Before he wraps up, Stelter asks a question about the recent shakeup at CBS News, and Pelley takes the interview in a very different direction.

“We’ve been through a dark period in the last several years of incompetent management and sort of a hostile work environment within the news division,” Pelley said. “I lost my job at the Evening News because I wouldn’t stop complaining to management about the hostile work environment.”

Pelley went on to laud the recent positive changes at CBS. But the die had been cast. You could even argue that Scott Pelley just stepped on his own key message. So what now?

CNN posted the entire Pelley interview to its own site, and to Twitter, under the following headline: “Scott Pelley’s Biggest Worry about Media and Democracy.” In the ensuing month, it gathered 276 retweets and 744 likes. Not bad, but not overwhelming. Like all the Sunday morning talk shows, Reliable Sources has a relatively small but well educated audience - probably the kind of consumers who already take Pelley’s advice to keep your sources of news broad and diverse.

But when CNN posted the Pelley interview to YouTube, an online powerhouse second only to Facebook in the number of users worldwide, it gave the very same six minute segment a vastly different headline: “Scott Pelley: Why I lost My Evening News Job.”

Within a month, the YouTube posting garnered more than 544-thousand views. A huge accomplishment for a lecture about media literacy.

Did the “Why I Lost My Evening News Job” headline amount to clickbait? A crass attention getter? In this case, I’d call it smart marketing: clickbait for a cause.

Scott Pelley’s warnings about media and democracy were, admittedly, a bit of a sermon… but on Reliable Sources, he was preaching mainly to the converted. With a provocative tabloid headline, CNN packaged a message it believes the entire world needs to hear - in a way that played to what people want to hear. And because Stelter asked the evening news question last, it didn’t deliver until the very end. The audience had to sit through the sermon to get to the dessert.

No less a media figure than the legendary 60 Minutes creator Don Hewitt liked to say, before they’ll watch, you gotta get them into the tent. There’s a lesson here for communicators of all stripes who want to reach people beyond those who are already on board with them in our divided age.

Even Mary Poppins would agree… just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Listen to the podcast of this Press Center Commentary here.


An analysis of R. Kelly’s media meltdown, and becoming your own worst public enemy

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop  

Listen to podcast version here

R&B singer R. Kelly being interviewed by Gayle King. Image courtesy  CBS News .

R&B singer R. Kelly being interviewed by Gayle King. Image courtesy CBS News.

When I’m asked to prepare a public figure for a high-stakes media interview, we typically schedule a conference call with some members of their team.  We go over the subject matter, the goals for the training, and the time and equipment needs.  And if it’s someone I’ve never worked with before, I always ask this two-part question:

Are they coming into the training willingly?  Or are they being dragged into the process kicking and screaming? 

It’s a critical question.  If you’re not inclined to listen to sound advice, if you have a proclivity for self-sabotage - or both - the last place you want to be is in front of a network television camera.  

Which brings us around to the strange case of R. Kelly, played out in all its oddity on a virtual national stage.  Kelly, an R&B singer dogged by sex allegations for years, sat down with CBS News correspondent Gayle King to defend himself following his indictment on 10 counts of aggravated sexual abuse.  

I doubt that anyone helped R. Kelly prepare for the fateful interview.  Gayle King herself expressed surprise that Kelly had even agreed to appear.  So she asked him why.   

“I’m very tired of all the lies,” Kelly said - thinking, perhaps, that this blanket statement would somehow settle the matter.  It didn’t, of course, because King asked the natural follow up question.   

“What are the lies you are hearing that disturb you most?”

Kelly, fresh out of a stint in jail, proceeded, in a media sense, to lock himself behind bars all over again.  In a litany of self hurt, he repeated the long list of the charges against him. 

“Got little girls trapped in the basement… handcuffing people, starving people… I have a harem…”

Kelly was attempting to dismiss these allegations as fantasy.  But he broke a fundamental rule about handling negative questions.  He repeated all the negatives – thereby succeeding only in reinforcing them in the listener’s mind.  He even offered up a new line of attack to his adversaries that no one had yet thought of. 

“They was describing Lucifer,” Kelly said, referring to his accusers.  “I’m not Lucifer.” 

Since Kelly’s answers were long on denials but short on evidence, Gayle King did what most reporters do on instinct: she pressed for specifics.  Unprepared to offer positive, exculpatory evidence, Kelly eventually recognized he was in a mess of his own making.  He finally exploded in rage - in a clip that has since gone viral.

Emotion on television is supposed to evoke what pioneering CBS News producer Fred Friendly once called “the little picture.”  There is a reason why photographers go for the closeup in spontaneous, genuine moments of tears, joy, or even controlled anger.  Those aspects of the human persona evoke a mirror-like human reaction in us all.  They draw us in.  

Rage, on the other hand, has the opposite effect.  It pushes us away.  We may stare in disbelief for a moment, as if we were slowing down to gawk at a bad car crash.  But soon, if the scene is too painful or too bloody, we speed up and drive off.  Our principal response is fight or flight. 

Kelly could have avoided making this bad situation worse by being ready to rebut his accusers, point for point - and focusing on whatever positive themes were relevant, instead of unspecific denials of the negatives.  But if clearing his name was the primary objective in this interview, Kelly failed miserably.  The real winner in this faceoff was Gayle King.  She displayed coolness, professionalism and focus in the face of her subject’s embarrassingly public media meltdown.

A CBS correspondent and anchor from another era - Dan Rather - once authored a book entitled, “The Camera Never Blinks.”   If you’re on TV often enough and long enough, Rather observed, there is no hiding.  You will eventually come across for who you are. 

From a legal standpoint, the court system will inevitably determine the guilt or innocence of R. Kelly.  But the court of public opinion may already be delivering the ultimate verdict of who he is.  Given how many eyeballs slowed down to gawk at this media car crash, all the kicking and screaming didn’t help.

Listen to the podcast of this Press Center Commentary here.    


As fed up as many reporters might be with President Trump, they do the public and their fellow journalists a disservice when they steal the spotlight at a press conference

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop 

(Listen to podcast version here) 

“Walk and talk!  Walk and talk!  That’s all you kids know how to do!”

I was in my 20’s, a radio news editor turned TV reporter, in the office of a New York news director who was looking to hire me.  He was watching a standup where my producer had urged me to walk about 10 paces from location A to location B, pause, point at B, then look earnestly back at the camera and ask a question of the audience.

Steve Dunlop reporting from Central Park in 1984, about a year after he was told to give up the walking talking standup.

Steve Dunlop reporting from Central Park in 1984, about a year after he was told to give up the walking talking standup.

The walk and talk thing did strike me as a bit theatrical.  But hey, I thought.  I’m not in radio anymore.  This is television. 

The news director ejected my videotape from the screening machine and looked me in the eye. 

“Dunlop, always remember,” he said.  “YOU are NOT the story.” 

It was a lesson I never forgot, but apparently a few members of today’s White House press corps never learned it at all. 

At bottom, “you are not the story” is the rule that CNN’s Jim Acosta has been violating at White House press conferences. Asking tough questions is his job.  Dominating the floor is not.  Wrestling a White House intern for control of a wireless microphone crossed a line.  Interrupting another reporter in the middle of a question crossed another line.  So did interrupting the president.  The White House Press Office was right to suspend his credentials. 

Television is a medium that thrives on drama, and we all crave a dollop of electronic confrontation.  People of a certain age will remember ABC’s Sam Donaldson shouting questions to President Ronald Reagan over the din of a helicopter on the South Lawn.  Reagan would smile, wave, and motion that he could not hear.

Then there was Dan Rather’s Watergate-era TV exchange with President Richard Nixon, who, when the CBS correspondent was greeted with applause from a supportive audience, asked him, “Are you running for something?”

“No, sir, Mr. President,” Rather replied. “Are you?”

But those exchanges were as civilized as high tea at the Savoy, compared to Acosta’s actions in the East Room.  

President Trump deserves his share of the blame for goading the media with his “CNN is fake news” mantra and all that’s surrounded it.  But his dismissive tactics are not unprecedented.  In fact, they are reminiscent of the more freewheeling press conferences I covered in New York’s City Hall when Ed Koch was mayor in the 1980’s.

Former New York mayor Ed Koch handling the media, as only he could, in the 1980’s. From an article in  New York Magazine .

Former New York mayor Ed Koch handling the media, as only he could, in the 1980’s. From an article in New York Magazine.

We would routinely ask pointed questions that Koch called out of bounds.  If we were fortunate, we might get one follow up question.  But then another reporter had another question, so Koch would move on.  We all got that.  After all, you’re not the only journalist in the room. 

But today’s wireless hand-held mics have changed that dynamic.  Similar devices of 30 years ago had too limited a range and were subject to too much interference, so they were useless to capture reporters’ questions at a press conference.  We simply had to wait to be acknowledged - and then speak loudly enough for everyone to hear. 

But just as the iPhone changed the way we communicate, the wireless mic has changed the press briefing.  It has become a holy grail of control – in this case, between Donald Trump and Jim Acosta.  (Or, to be more precise, between Acosta and the intern transporting the mic around the room.)   

Recall the objective of a White House press conference.  It is to ask the president tough questions and hear candid answers.  The story is Donald Trump.  The story is not Jim Acosta. 

CNN called the lifting of Acosta’s White House credentials “unprecedented” and a “threat to our democracy.”  But the network does the journalistic community a disservice when it positions reportorial grandstanding as defending the people’s right to know.  There were some 50 other journalists in the East Room, many with hands raised, waiting patiently and politely to be recognized.  Presumably they all have brains. 

And presumably they all recognize - as combative and hostile as Washington politics has become - that they serve the public the best when they are not the story.




We find it difficult to define one of the most popular hashtags of our time - because we are part of the problem

Media commentary by Steve Dunlop

Listen to podcast version here

"Real Fake" street art installation at Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue, Chicago. Image courtesy  Wikimedia Commons .

"Real Fake" street art installation at Wacker Drive and Wabash Avenue, Chicago. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” - Big Brother
Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell


Big Brother may have routinely turned truth on its head in George Orwell’s landmark novel.  But he did have one thing right:  If you control the language, he said, you control the argument.  

Orwell died 58 years ago, but in today’s media landscape he would recognize the increasingly indiscriminate descriptors that we attach to the facts around us.  Our choice of language seems motivated not by what the facts actually are, but by what we wish they were.   

To you, it’s healthcare reform; to me, it’s socialized medicine.   One person’s “fetid swamp” is another’s “sensitive wetland.”  Is that individual crossing the border an “illegal alien” or an “undocumented immigrant”?    Words have always been missiles, but increasingly in social media, they carry no payload.  Our subjective passions outflank objective reality.

our factless society logo.jpg

Take the term “fake news,” which in a previous post I noted is really nothing new.  That should be obvious to anyone who’s ever tucked a supermarket tabloid between the green beans and the paper towels.    

But what is new - and Orwellian - is the conflating of very different phenomena under that single, volatile banner.  Add in the proclivity of some public figures (no need to name names) to attach the “fake news” moniker to news they simply don’t happen to like, and further down the rabbit hole we go.  

The Newseum Institute recently took a stab at a desperately-needed elaboration on the term.  “Fake news IS deliberately misleading or false information,” the Institute wrote on Twitter. “Fake news IS NOT a biased news story, or a news story that contains errors.  We all have a responsibility to understand the difference, and help prevent the spread of fake news on social media.”

All of that is true - as far as it goes.  But it doesn’t go far enough.  Here are four reasons why:  

“Fake news is NOT a biased news story.”  True - but bias is real.  Good journalists may do their best to stamp it out, but bias, deliberate or unconscious, has always been a fact of media life.  “In the nineteenth century, overtly partisan newspapers were the norm,” writes Niskanen Institute senior fellow Matt Grossman.  The Washington Post recently wrote about the reality of media bias on both the left and the right, citing a study concluding nevertheless that the net effect is close to zero.     But within individual newsrooms, bias can and does impact coverage - especially when it comes to what stories get covered in the first place.  A former NPR News executive noted that liberals significantly outnumber conservatives in that network’s newsroom, and “when you are liberal, and everyone else is as well, it is easy to fall into groupthink."

“Fake news IS deliberately misleading or false information.” True - but as any detective can tell you, understanding the motive is critical.  History has shown that disinformation is most often motivated not by bias, but by financial gain.  One of the most notorious “clickbait” episodes of 2017 was “Morgue Worker Arrested After Giving Birth to a Dead Man’s Baby” (I dare you not to click on that link).   No political motive on display - and the item itself was a total fabrication  - but it made for an irresistible, and highly profitable, headline.  

Established outlets aren’t immune to fake news.  In rare cases - and this is fake news in the purest sense of the term - so-called journalists have disgraced themselves and their craft by simply making things up.  Intercept reporter Juan Thompson was fired in 2016 for fabricating quotes in his articles, creating bogus email accounts pretending to be sources, and then lying to his editor about what he was doing.   The New York Times’s reputation was similarly tarnished by the Jayson Blair episode in 2003. 

There is reality, and there is interpretation.   Take the “fetid swamp” versus “sensitive wetland” example above.  Both describe a stagnant body of water, but in ideologically loaded ways.  Hyperbolic adjectives do not themselves make for “fake news.”   But they do help to build a more receptive audience, as people self-select to media outlets that reflect their own world views.  

You could argue that all of this should be self-evident.  But we have trouble seeing it today, precisely because our impulsive, reflexive social media culture thrives on the kind of doublespeak Orwell warned about.  It rewards sensational claims without facts.  Separate claims from facts, and you’ve created precisely the kind of environment Orwell presaged.   

Pogo, a comic strip character from the heyday of newspapers, is remembered today mostly for saying, “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”   A smartphone and some Twitter followers may give us the basic trappings of a journalist.  But we fail to do the actual work of journalism. 

Which means we’ll probably continue to get all the fake news we deserve.