Entertainment or journalism?

Essay By
Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

A tension has existed within American journalism going back to the earliest days of our republic:  Should journalists primarily focus on facts and information? Or are they performers of some kind who are selling a product to their audiences? 

Here’s a quick summary of what I mean:  

In our early days, partisans owned presses that catered to the like-minded. Then, in the late 1800s, “yellow journalism” took hold as publishers used the sensational and titillating to sell newspapers.  

Not long after that, a counterrevolution rose up in response to partisan papers and yellow journalism. The focus became “objective journalism,” where, in short, facts and information became the centerpiece. The growth of wire services such as the Associated Press and United Press International reflected this movement. 

The tension continued, though, as television evolved in the 1950s. Journalism wrestled with whether broadcast reporters, anchors, and commentators were primarily “stars” who must know how to perform on camera and hold the viewers’ attention. Or were they called to be journalists who know how to unearth and report information and facts that matter to viewers, readers, or listeners? In the early days of television, the medium was so new that some broadcasters worried that wearing makeup would make them look like entertainers.  

Performative journalism 

That hesitancy has changed. Literally and figuratively, some journalists – but by no means all – do not hesitate to put on makeup and return to those days when entertaining or grabbing consumers of news with the provocative held sway.  

Just look at modern cable news shows. An ability to perform on camera, stick to talking points, and confront other panelists often seems the norm. 

The McLaughlin Group pioneered this style of performative journalism back in the 1980s. The half-hour public affairs show featured columnists and reporters who were known for their talk-over-each-other debates. (CNN’s Crossfire was not far behind in its influence.) 

The jousting provided entertaining viewing. It certainly made PBS’ once-popular Agronsky & Co. look staid and old school. But was the verbal combat show business, or was journalism being practiced?  

It often was hard to tell, just like it can be difficult today when watching talking head shows. Is the purpose to entertain us or perform one of journalism’s primary functions: helping citizens learn about and understand their world?  

Presidential news conferences and White House press room briefings have their own dichotomy. Some reporters shout over each other to ask questions, often tossing out gotcha-style inquiries and knowing how to perform for the camera.  

“Through the TV era and especially since the mid-1990s, when daily White House press briefings first began to be televised, reporters could make names for themselves by turning queries into performances,” James Fallows wrote recently in his Breaking the News Substack column.   

Social media has created a new wrinkle in the performative nature of journalism. Journalists are encouraged to share their work on any number of platforms. In so doing, they brand themselves as individual reporters with their own following. 

At one level, I get this. It’s a way of reaching new audiences. (Confession: I post essays, reports, and columns on social media.) What’s more, journalists can use social media to find and develop sources of information.  

But at what point do journalists on social media become “the show” and the news they convey and/or interpret a secondary focus? Similarly, are journalists the centerpiece or the institutions for whom they work? 

These questions are relevant for at least two reasons. 

First, there’s the explosive nature of today’s world. The Israel-Hamas war. Campus protests. A changing climate. Black Lives Matter. #MeToo. Journalists have opinions about these and other controversial topics. Some take to social media to share them. (I am distinguishing here between reporters covering a beat and opinion journalists, whose job is to comment on the news and a tribe to which I belong.) 

Martin Baron, former editor of the Washington Post, writes about this phenomenon in his recent memoir, Collision of Power: Trump, Bezos, and The Washington Post. His institution, like other news organizations, has had reporters speak out about a story for which they have strong feelings but are not covering. Baron eventually reached this conclusion about the performative nature of journalism in the social media age:  

“One person’s desire for self-expression should not take priority over the institution’s right to protect its reputation by setting limits. Journalists in the news department should not use Twitter [now X] accounts associated with The Post to advocate for causes close to their heart, no matter how meritorious.” 

In other words, the institution’s role in society prevails.  

That’s not always a widely appreciated view. We live in an age of hyper-individualism, where anyone can present themselves as an expert, especially on a social media platform. Yuval Levin, director of social, cultural, and constitutional studies at the American Enterprise Institute, told National Public Radio back in 2020: “We now think of institutions less as formative and more as performative, less as molds of our character and behavior, and more as platforms for us to stand on and be seen.” 

What the public says 

The second reason we should be concerned about show business mixing with journalism is that polling data shows that trust in the media is at alarmingly low levels. Gallup reported in October that only 32% of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the traditional media of TV, radio, and print to “accurately, fully, and fairly” report the news. That woeful number ties the lowest Gallup finding about trust in the media. 

I am not saying the desire to stand up and be seen is the only reason for the public’s distrust. But using reporters as performers does contrast with what the public says it wants from journalism. The Pew Research Center reported in May that 71% of all U.S. adults surveyed wanted local journalists to focus on accuracy. That priority was first across all demographic categories.  

Pew also asked respondents whether local journalists should remain neutral on community issues or advocate for change. A majority of Americans, Pew reported, replied that journalists should remain neutral and reflect “more traditional journalistic norms.” 

The preference for accuracy holds forth nationally, too. A 2021 American Press Institute/Associated Press survey found that “factualism” was the top preference for news consumers. Just get the facts right. 

For the record, I am not for boring television or boring journalism. There’s a way for journalists to engage as well as inform the public. Meet the Press, for one, has found a way to do that for decades.  

Engaging as well as informing the public, however, requires adhering to journalism’s essentials of searching for the truth and presenting information to the public. Given the public’s preferences, this should be one way to bolster the low trust that Gallup found.