There was a time when news reporters prided themselves on reporting only confirmed facts...never just opinions. Their focus on facts may have been an outgrowth of war-reporting during World War II, when an erroneous report could create a false sense of loss or a false sense of security for millions of readers and listeners back home. That “focus on facts” persisted through the early years of television news and became a litmus test for network news.
In the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow, a kind of “granddaddy of news reporting,” grew his reputation by focusing on facts. His legendary rebuke of Senator Eugene McCarthy was based on facts, often citing McCarthy’s own words; when McCarthy defended himself by accusing Murrow of being “a Communist sympathizer,” Murrow’s response was simple: McCarthy “made no reference to any statements of fact that we made.” Facts carried the day, McCarthy was exposed, and the value of network news—and sticking to the facts—was clear.
In the 1960s, Walter Cronkite ushered in CBS’s Evening News and became “the most trusted man in America.” When Cronkite hosted a CBS News Special, Report from Vietnam: Who, What, When, Where, Why?, he began to question the “facts” that he had been reporting about the Vietnam conflict. He publicly offered his opinion, but made it clear that it was his opinion: “…an analysis that must be speculative, personal, subjective.” He went on to comment, “…it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out [of the Vietnam conflict] then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” He maintained the difference between the facts and his opinions. Cronkite’s opinion carried weight—President Johnson recognized how he had “lost America”—but his reputation was built on his respect for facts.
In 1981, ABC News’s Frank Reynolds struggled to focus on facts as he reported the assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. Even as he narrates the video of the attempt, he measures his words to be factual. On live TV, he insists on “confirmation” of information coming to him over the phone. “Wait a minute…I’m on the air and I’m trying to get some more information. You say the president has gone to the hospital. But can you confirm that he has not been taken to a hospital?” Later, Reynolds is clearly shaken that he has misreported information; he says, “He was wounded…” [grabbing his head] “...God. …All this that we’ve been telling you is incorrect. We now must redraw this entire tragedy in different terms.” To Frank Reynolds, his responsibility was to the facts…and reporting the facts to the American public.
Even on September 11, 2001 as tragic events unfolded, Peter Jennings of ABC News was careful to segregate his opinion (at 10:24 in the video) from his factual reporting. “We do not very often make recommendations for people's behavior from this chair but ...I checked in with my children who are deeply stressed, as I think young people are across the United States. So if you're a parent, you've got a kid in some other part of the country, call them up. Exchange observations.” He was in his twelfth hour of reporting, but he maintained the difference of being in “this chair” as a news reporter and maintained the difference between fact and opinion.
In contrast, today's pop-star media feast on delivering opinions and generating controversy. “Facts” are couched within agendas—right- and left-wing—and lost within sarcasm, self-righteousness, and opinion. Rachel Maddow is no more a news reporter than is Rush Limbaugh; Chris Matthews is no different from Sean Hannity…they are commentators and opinionators who unapologetically bring an agenda to anything they present.
I struggle every day to find facts…to ignore the overflow of founded and unfounded opinion on television, the internet, and overwhelmingly on Facebook; to ignore the paranoia and exaggeration and aggression that everyone seems to feel entitled to express. Ironically, “facts" seem to be casualties of our information age.