Fox News and Why Some in Media Lie to Us (with Dylan Byers)
Fox News owner Rupert Murdoch admitted under oath that hosts promoted election fraud claims while privately criticizing Trump officials. That’s just one revelation in the $1.6 billion lawsuit against Fox by Dominion Voting Systems. Puck News correspondent Dylan Byers joins Andy to discuss why people still watch Fox News, plus what’s happening with CNN, and how news executives can capture a wider audience and better serve our democracy.
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Andy Slavitt, Dylan Byers
Andy Slavitt 00:46
This is IN THE BUBBLE with Andy Slavitt. Thanks for tuning in. I want to talk today about this lawsuit between Dominion voting systems and Fox News. And mostly I want to focus on some of the larger implications for what it tells us about journalism and media and the stories we read and see every day and how they’re composed and put together and get to us. And it’s not entirely about Fox News. I think the Fox News situation is instructive. But I don’t necessarily think Fox News are singularly motivated by the things they’re motivated by I think probably all media companies are and putting aside whether I agree or disagree with their politics, or agree or disagree with their tactics. I don’t agree with them on most of how they operate. Still, my point is that I want us to get into today, because really a much, much larger issue that Fox happens to illustrate. The quick review for those who haven’t been following the story closely. Is Dominion Voting Systems is suing Fox for falsehoods that they claim were put on air that essentially said that Dominion voting systems were rigged. And that Fox put that information out uncritically. And, you know, the sort of the key question in the lawsuit was, did they know they were lying? Or are they just sort of reporting the news? And it’s been revealed? And if you haven’t seen them, they’re pretty interesting. Well, we’ll play a couple of the clips, what they said on air, but what’s really interesting are the text messages that happen behind the scenes. Were some of the Fox personalities. You know, I think that’s Ingram, Carlson and Hannity were very critical of the big lie. And the case is being made and said that they know it’s a lie, and it’s a joke and so forth. But the interesting thing that happened is not that they said one thing behind the scenes, and another thing on there. That’s pretty disgusting if you asked me, but what the most interesting thing was why, and the panic that went through them, when they started losing viewers to LA and, and the fact that they said, We cannot lose these viewers, so we have to tell them what they already believe. To me that was a really telling and breakthrough moment of clarity, about having the apparatus and we don’t like to admit this, but the media doesn’t. All the media at least doesn’t necessarily view their job is to tell you the information that you need to hear and help you figure it out. In fact, they are increasingly of the view that, hey, we need to tell you what you want to hear. And that realization as you pick up a newspaper, or watch cable TV or get a news feed on the internet, that you are being spoon fed increasingly through algorithms, the stories that they believe you want to believe and hear them the way you want to hear them is a really interesting perspective. In fact, it spills over to many news outlets and it spills over to many of the items that you’ll see even subtle things about the way they talk about it. Ukraine, if I pull up an article about Ukraine, it may tell me all the way to they’re fighting a mighty battle. If a Fox News viewer picks up an article, or gets sent an article on Ukraine, they’re likely to be fed about how much there is corruption in Ukraine and how the money is being wasted. Because the news is, seems to be less and less about reporting on facts, and more and more reporting on things that will attract you, so that they can have higher ratings and get paid more. And there’s a pretty direct line. The Trump presidency was a bonanza for the network’s, for CNN, it was jumping on the bandwagon of all of the things that Trump was doing, that were hurting the country for Fox, it was defending the president. But because people felt strongly people watched, and they want you to feel strongly. I mean, they want you to feel strongly. What’s sort of interesting about in the Bible show is we’re not trying to play an outrage. We’re not trying to make you feel strongly about something you don’t feel strongly about. We’re trying to inform you. And if it is consistent with what you already believe, gives you more information. And if it is inconsistent with what you believe, maybe it gives you more information to cause you to think about the topic differently. Really interesting, our episode on homelessness, I don’t know if you’ve listened to it. But if you haven’t made one, go back and listen to it. I’ve had more people tell me that it changed their perspective on homelessness, then anything they’d heard, which I thought was fascinating. That’s the job of the show. That’s the job of long form journalism. That’s the job of what I thought media was supposed to do. And so when you see media behaving in a way, which says, Let me think about what is Andy thick. And then let me tell him information in ways that appeal to that. It leads to a pretty bad place. And this is an extreme example. So gives us a perfect opportunity to have a conversation with Dylan Byers. Dylan is a great observer and commentator of the media, he’s with Puck news organization that he is an editor at and that he co-founded. And he’s been writing about what’s going on at CNN and writing about what’s going on at Fox, and writing about these implications. And this is an incredibly revealing dialogue and conversation. It’s one of the highlights for me over the last couple of months of some of the conversations we’ve had, because it takes an issue that we’re all reading about it, it puts it in a different kind of light, which I think makes us all smarter and wiser. Yes. You either love Fox News or hate Fox News. This isn’t about that. Yes, I realize I’m an occasional source of ridicule for Tucker Carlson, for whatever reason, this is not about that, that doesn’t bother me. But what I think is most interesting is understanding what is motivating them, and how they bring you the news, and what we can learn from that. Hope you enjoy this.
Andy Slavitt 08:13
Dylan, welcome to the bubble. Should be fun. I think it’d be interesting to talk about how the news is produced and how that’s changed, and how journalism has changed, because the things that we read, and you’ve been doing a lot of writing about what’s going on in cable news, CNN, Fox, and MSNBC are kind of fascinating. Maybe they’re not as relevant as they used to be, but they still appear to be at least somewhat influential. I’m curious, maybe we take them one by one, the what appear to be their philosophies of presenting the news to people. And, you know, I’m under the impression that we’re moving to a place that we are getting the news that people think we want to see, rather than the news that’s quote unquote, all that’s fit to print anymore. Maybe start with Fox News, we’ll go to the others. What’s their philosophy in producing news?
Dylan Byers 09:08
It’s important to take into account that these things have changed over the course of several years, and that they have changed, particularly in light of the Trump phenomenon in 2015, and 2016. And thereafter, the philosophy of Fox News today is almost entirely devoid of the traditional news gathering practices. Now, I don’t want to say it is not as though there aren’t broadcasts during the day when Fox isn’t out there trying to tell its viewers just run of the mill. Here’s what happened. By the way, when the United States shot down, the Chinese balloon that was floating over off the coast of the Carolinas, Fox News was the only network that actually had footage of it. So there are ways in which far Fox News continues to be a sort of news gathering enterprise delivering information and video to its viewers. But by and large, the editorial philosophy of Fox News and one that is not solely limited to opinion hours on prime time, but is actually pervasive throughout the entire network is one that is pro conservative, anti-liberal. And that is constantly as has been shown by the fox Dominion case, making decisions based on what it believes will drive ratings and both retain and gain conservative audiences, in some cases, pro Trump audiences, in some cases, conservatives who are not pro Trump, but that is the philosophy that I would say governs the entirety of the network.
Andy Slavitt 10:59
What have we learned about the separation if there is one at all between the business of Fox News, who just to focus on the ratings, the revenues and their stock price, and the journalists and journalism and they have had some real journalists there, some of them have left like Chris Wallace. And I have to say, like, you know, I found when, a year ago, when Russia invaded Ukraine, I found that like Fox reporters on the ground, were covering it in a really substantial, substantive way, even better than some of their competitors. So maybe that’s what you’re talking about, but the separation between what’s good for Fox, and what represents, you know, real journalism, however, you define that this real journalism, almost totally subsumed by what is in Fox’s business interests?
Dylan Byers 11:53
First of all, news isn’t necessarily a business, right? Unless you’re talking about PBS, or a nonprofit, you’re talking about organizations that need to make money to at least sustain or profit off of what they do. Now, the value proposition for the for the viewer, or the consumer, historically, has been that we are going to give you accurate, insightful reporting, and that we are going to serve as checks and balances on the statements of people in power, whether that be in politics or business or what have you. But that is not necessarily the only calculation you can make. And so yes, part of what is being offered here is reporting still that Fox News is reporting from the ground. Yes, there are still correspondents, yes, there. There are people who go out there and gather the news. But the calculation that facts come first, is no longer what is driving the priorities of that organization. And so if you look at who has been forced out of the network, some of the most important people who have been forced out of Fox News over the course of the last five or so years, have been the very people who tried to provide the guardrails against misinformation against conspiracy theories. In some cases, they are the people who said, Here’s what the facts say. And they were overwritten by the people who said, Here’s what our listeners want to hear.
Andy Slavitt 13:26
So you’re basically saying they can have a conservative bent, find that to be a business niche that they exploited, that was missing before they got to the scene. And yet, you still have journalistic standards of telling the truth. In other words, they’re not entirely mutually exclusive. And what you’re suggesting, I think we’ve seen the Dominion case, which I which I’d like to ask you to review for us a little bit, is that they’ve gotten beyond the place where they’re subject to at least some guardrails and principles to a place where they’ve said, What what’s good for their revenue in their business. And the rating means that those principles of truthfulness, no longer have to be upheld. Is that fair?
Dylan Byers 14:11
Yeah. Or and it’s not just truthfulness. It’s actually just fact. And there’s no there’s no, I think greater illustration of the old remnant of an actual fact first news gathering organization running up against the overriding priorities of a demonstrably opinionated, almost advocacy Style Network. Then on election night in 2020, when you have the very responsible folks in the FoxNews election center being calling Arizona, for Biden effectively, saying that President Trump was going to lose the election. And then you have all of these producers and opinion you know, you know, Primetime hosts, basically try Hanging to just scrambling to sort of, you know, see if that decision could be overruled, or if there was a way to sort of dial it back. Because what it was it was making the Trump campaign angry because it was making Fox News viewers angry. And that sets the stage for everything that happens after the election where Fox News hosts become, despite knowing as Court documents show, despite knowing that the claims of voter fraud were absolutely batshit crazy, continuing to allow those lies to be peddled on air. Because they were worried about losing their viewership, viewership, the ratings, the revenue, etc. And one of those one out over the other. It was not the facts.
Andy Slavitt 15:49
It was a really big deal when they call the election, right. I mean, there was some thinking going into the election that what could happen is, Biden could be declared the winner by all the other news sources and Fox, if Fox just basically said their election hadn’t been decided, it would be a real problem. And so the fact that fox went first was a big blow to the Trump campaign. But it was, as you’re saying, it was an example of them being momentarily forgetting who they were and being journalists. Let’s take a quick break. And when we come back. I want to understand just what the fox do. So we’re saying on air, and what they were really also saying behind the scenes, it was different from that. What did we learn from this? What did we learn about? You know we have we have recent disclosure of Rupert Murdoch’s deposition and we have recorded texts and emails from the fox primetime personality is the troika of Hannity, Carlson and Ingram which by the way is my favorite law firm. It’s my least favorite law firm actually. What do we learn about from that incident?
Dylan Byers 19:44
Well, here’s one really interesting thing about this case. There are two different tracks here. There’s the what I call the public relations track, which is does this look bad for Fox News, right? What is being exposed is in the process of discovery. In this case where Dominion voting systems is suing Fox for $1.6 billion for defamation. Yes, immediately once Dominion basically lays bare its case against Fox. You see that it looks really bad because here you have all of the hosts you mentioned plus Maria Bartiromo, Lou Dobbs, a number of producers and the executives who run Fox Rupert Murdoch and Lachlan Murdoch, effectively saying in text messages and other correspondents, that they know that the Trump campaign claims are false, or that there’s nothing to them, and yet they continue to invite Rudy Giuliani, Sidney Powell, other Trump officials to come on the air and continue to spout these lies, unquestioned unchecked, so yes, it looks bad.
Andy Slavitt 20:57
But when you say it looks bad, does it look bad from our 1980s 1970s Walter Cronkite-Dan Rather perspective? Like I wonder, does it really look bad to the people that Fox cares about right today?
Dylan Byers 21:09
So I wrote this the other when that first came out that the real tragedy here is not is not so much the fact that the most watched cable news channel in the country, and very often the most watched cable channel period in the country is sort of knowingly misleading, and lying to its viewers. The great tragedy is probably that many of them won’t, won’t even believe that that happened. Because, you know, it’s being written about in the New York Times in the Washington Post, and they don’t trust either of those outlets. And then perhaps a greater tragedy still is that, even if they do acknowledge it happened, perhaps they won’t care. Right? So yes, but look, I would like to think, and from my, you know, myriad travels across the country, I would like to think that no matter what your political persuasion is, you still value, integrity and consistency. And that if you see someone who’s trying to pull the wool over your eyes, that you don’t like it, because you don’t, you know, no matter no matter what your political persuasion is, maybe I’m wrong. Anyway, the second track here is actually proving defamation, and that in this country, perhaps, thankfully, is an extremely hard thing to do. So I looked at this case against Fox initially, and I thought, you got a really good case here, that Fox News for lack of a better word is full of […]. But you don’t have a defamation case here. Because what Fox News can say is, look, these were news, newsworthy claims that were being made these were coming from the White House, the White House was saying something, it is our obligation to our viewers, to let them know what the White House is saying. And it is not necessarily our obligation to tell them they’re wrong, when we don’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are wrong. That is the case and make all of that in my mind changes this week when we learn about the statements that Rupert Murdoch, the founder and chairman, of course of Fox News, made when he was deposed. And what he effectively said is that a number of the hosts did endorse these claims. He also says he wishes that they had done a better job of challenging these claims in hindsight. And then when asked, effectively, if he could apologize or write the wrong, he says it’s too late, which is effectively an acknowledgment that the damage has already been done. And so now I think what you have is and also, by the way, acknowledging at a certain point, in a very, very memorable line, that these calculations were being made for business concerns when he says it’s not red or blue, it’s green. So now I actually think that Dominion has a much stronger case for defamation here, and I think what is likely to happen, although you never know, and I’m not a legal expert. But I think what is likely to happen here is that Fox News will be forced to settle out of court. And we might even see some repercussions at the executive level at Fox News in terms of perhaps the CEO Suzanne Scott losing her job, something to basically allow the Murdochs to as best they can wipe their hands clean of this for the sake of their own business and their own legacy.
Andy Slavitt 24:36
Yeah, that look that strikes me is still maybe when you’re closer to this it feels like an optimistic scenario with I’ll have had dinner with Rupert Murdoch before. He’s though Boy Scout IQ. I think he could care less what people think about him. I think he is a business person who was desperately worried that he was losing his niche on the hold of Americans that made him the biggest moneymaker in cable news. And I think, you know, to the extent that they have, you know, even one juror who’s a Fox News viewer or in they do win the case, they’ll be able to say we’re completely vindicated, even though to your point, vindication on a legal track is not the same thing as being right or wrong. And I don’t think that he really thinks that his viewers care about journalistic integrity. I think he believes his viewers believe that the rest of the media is so against conservatives, that he’s if anything, can argue to them, or that they would justify that he’s just putting up a moderate fight, to protect what is, you know, immediately escaped, it’s so stacked against them.
Dylan Byers 25:50
I take your point, I also think that look, in a week or so, he’s going to turn 92. And he has built a rather formidable media empire, in the United States, in in the UK and in Australia. And I think he recognizes that this is not a good look for him and his legacy. And I don’t think he cares. I agree with you. I look, all available evidence from this case suggests that Fox News executives and talent don’t really care about their viewers because they have no problem misleading them. So that I think is, is demonstrably true. And I think he is a businessman, first and foremost. But I also think at this point in his life, I think there is some consideration for legacy. And I don’t think he really wants all I don’t think he liked it. And I also look, he’s also somebody who was under oath, right, and didn’t want to commit perjury. And so I think what he did is I think he came forward, I think he told the truth, I think he told it in his sort of, you know, characteristically blunt way. And I think for him, the calculation is, obviously, this is not a good look, we can call this what it is, let’s get it over with I He certainly nothing’s gonna happen to Rupert or Lachlan, they’re gonna lose, you know, a billion or a few billion dollars, and then life will go on for them.
Andy Slavitt 27:25
To me, the seminal moment, Dylan for the rest of us in terms of how we understand the news that we’re comprehending is when you could feel the fear that Fox News viewers would become OAN viewers and not Fox viewers any longer. And that while there may have been an effort to start an election night by reporting the truth, or just the facts, I think it’s better put, as you said, and then when they saw that their viewers weren’t happy. To me, the big takeaway became, we need to tell people what they want to hear. And that, to me, is a kind of a profound departure from this sort of sense that journalists job is to do what you said earlier, report of the facts, separate opinion from that reporting through the primetime hour through the repetition of brand, etc. And when they when they did that, and effective said, let’s go back and re report the news in a different way. That really changed how I think, you know, people believe where the line is, let’s play actually a clip from real quickly for the two of us to listen to from Tucker Carlson, who had gone out and prior to this had been critical of Sidney Powell, who was Trump’s lawyer, and decided to rethink it.
Dylan Byers 28:55
What Powell was describing would amount to the single greatest crime in American history, millions of votes stolen in a day, democracy destroyed the end of our centuries old system of self-government, not a small thing. Now, to be perfectly clear, we did not dismiss any of it. We don’t dismiss anything anymore, particularly when it’s related to technology. We’ve talked to too many Silicon Valley whistleblowers we’ve seen too much.
Andy Slavitt 29:23
So, you know, I believe he said this in the same segment after saying that Powell didn’t make good on any of her claims. So you know, that this is evidence that okay, this is a business, we are all the commodities, if we don’t like what we’re hearing on one channel and go somewhere else, at least Fox News is willing to say we need to readjust how we tell the story.
Dylan Byers 29:49
That yes, it is also a testament though I hate to say it to Tucker Carlson’s rhetorical style, which is come completely defensible in court. And if you look at what Rupert Murdoch said when he, they go through and they say, Do you believe that this person endorsed the voter fraud claims? Yet, you know, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. It keeps going down he says even says Sean Hannity did it. And so he goes, Did Maria Bartiromo do it? Yes Did Jeanine Pirro do it? I think so. Lou Dobbs. Oh, a lot. Sean Hannity a bit. Tucker Carlson. No, he doesn’t say that Tucker Carlson did it. And it’s because what Tucker does is basically a microcosm of what the entire network does, which is it says, here is this crazy thing that might have happened. And if it happened, it is terrible. And it could have happened, and we can’t dismiss the fact that it could have happened. And here’s someone from the White House to tell you that they think it happened. And now we got a commercial. And it’s like, what better way to simultaneously court back the pro Trump viewer you are worried about losing to OAN, while simultaneously keeping yourself in the clear from beyond a shadow of a doubt, demonstrably endorsing the so called big lie. And that is that is the tightrope that Fox decided it was willing to walk out of purely out of business considerations. And it seems and again, maybe I’m overly optimistic on behalf of Dominion here. But it seems like many of the Fox News talent fell off that tightrope, whereas Tucker Carlson to his credit stayed on it, which ultimately, will be good for Fox Business, even as it takes these blows elsewhere.
Andy Slavitt 31:46
I want switch cable networks on us when we come back from the break, final break, and talk about what’s happening on another media channel, CNN, and what all this means for us as news consumers. Typical American is, I think, has a greater concern, which is, can I trust what I’m seeing? Or are they just spoon feeding me the sugar and carbohydrate diet that they think I want to watch? Let’s, let’s turn to CNN. And you can come back to Fox if you need to as a comparator. But you’ve been reading a lot about CNN, which seems to me based on what I see. And when I read that there’s a number of things going on. That may be a different background, but some interesting themes, a new ownership and ownership that is kind of trying to find some identity for that network. And, you know, there was one point in time when CNN was kind of boring, middle of the road networks that if there was an invasion somewhere around the world, you’d flip it on and watch WOLF BLITZER, you know, then the Trump era happened and things changed. And now they’re changing again, give us a flavor for what you see from that network.
Dylan Byers 34:35
Sure. Well, there’s no, you can’t understand what’s happening at CNN right now without understanding the priorities of the new parent company, which is Warner Brothers discovery. They saw, like you said CNN used to be this sort of very milquetoast network where you could rely on it when I think it’s former media correspondent Brian Stelter. But once said it’s sort of like the emergency room. Basically, you go there when there’s a disaster, but you don’t want to stay there any longer than you have to. And to go back to business considerations. A cable news channel does remain a business and you do need to make considerable profit. That is what media companies want. And when Jeff Zucker took over the network in 2013, he wanted to keep the reliable news brand, the Wolf Blitzer on the war, or on the bombing or on the whatever it might be. But he also wanted to fill all of those hours when no one was watching. It was something that they actually would watch. And so he just he, his philosophy was to go all in on a single story. It might be a missing Malaysian Airline jet. We’re gonna go wall to wall on that it might be the poop crews. We’re gonna go all in on that. And then in 2015, he was given Trump and in by the way, Trump, you know, Jeff Zucker played an instrumental role in bringing Trump to the American people through the apprentice when he was the head of NBC. So, he goes all in on Trump, I think, probably believing that Trump had no shot at actually winning the White House. But then of course, Trump does win the White House. And so the Jeff Zucker produced Trump show runs from 2015, all the way through 2021. And that becomes all-consuming for CNN. And what it means is that CNN takes up a posture that is decidedly no longer that milquetoast non-partisan thing it is. It has a point of view, it positions itself as a sort of member of the media resistance against Trump. Zucker, meanwhile, is encouraging his most notable anchors and correspondents to be more outspoken against the Trump administration and against the Trump Trump’s enablers at Fox News, on Capitol Hill, whatever it may be.
Andy Slavitt 37:07
Well, does that did that strategy work? It before we get to is to wonder why it didn’t work.
Dylan Byers 37:12
So he will he so here’s the thing. Did it work in terms of every metric on the scoreboard? Ratings? Yes. Revenue? Yes. The most profitable years and the most watched years in CNNs. history happened under Jeff suckers watch. So yes, okay, from that vantage point at work, from where Warner Brothers discovery is sitting, they see as a long term play that you are doing more that posture, which is very polarizing, for especially on the right, is doing more damage to the brand than is healthy for the long term trajectory of CNN for the value of CNN, because CNN, especially globally, is a brand like Coca Cola, it is almost synonymous with news. And if you are turning it into a network that not only isn’t trusted by the right, but it’s sort of known for this like chest thumping hair on fire, you know, five alarm fire all the time, editorial posture, their view is that this is bad for the brand. So they come in, they install and then by this point, Jeff suckers out which is a whole saga we don’t need to go into right now. But they install Chris Licht, longtime executive producer of morning television and then late night and give him the keys to the kingdom with no other mandate, really, than to depolarize the network, get Republicans to start watching again get Republicans to come back on make this something that is appealing to a broad swath of America and make it something that they know that when the war, you know, when the bombs start dropping KYV that people will come back to see what Wolf Blitzer has to say. And to me as a consumer, as someone who is considers himself neither left nor right. This sounds really appealing. The problem is twofold. One is that there are so many economic pressures that Warner Brothers discovery has in order to pay down its own debt that it sets about cutting a lot. It cuts CNN gamble for a digital future with CNN plus, it enforces $100 million more than $100 million in fact in layoffs and budget cuts and basically neuters Chris licks ability to do any sort of really bold, creative programming that might cost some money. At the same time, Chris left is utterly inexperienced really hasn’t had does not know how to run a news organization of 4500 people in way over his head and comes in and basically makes every wrong decision. From the get go, he as a leader, he proves an ineffective leader. He does everything he should not do. As a programmer, he makes a lot of pretty, I would say boneheaded decisions. I have the luxury of saying that in retrospect, as a Monday morning quarterback, nevertheless, it’s true. And the ratings go down, the revenues go down. And as a result, the combination of his leadership with the Warner Brothers discovery cuts, effectively throws the news organization into chaos and brings down its brand value far more than anything Jeff Zucker ever did while he was turning historic profits.
Andy Slavitt 40:39
Doesn’t this in some way, prove Fox, right. And by that, I mean, that, you know, the Jeff Zucker story during the Trump years was a give the people what they want you to curl up at night with your glass of wine and watch us crap all over Trump. And do it endlessly. Because you know, you to our viewer, hate the president, and we’ll do better. And so we’re feeding you what we think you want. You’re watching, we’re making money. That’s what Fox News does as well. And then the Warner Brothers team comes along and says, No, let’s be more responsible, you know, but they have without stars, by the way, right? Chris Cuomo is gone. Lemon has his own issues, which we could talk about, and you’ve written about. And you know, tapper, you know, it’s maybe not proven to be the kind of star that attracts people based on his personality, you can you can tell me whether I got that wrong. But that, in fact, they went back to a CNN, the BBC is consistent with their global brand. And maybe it’s consistent with where they were during the hostage crisis. And or I should say, the Iraq war that made Wolf Blitzer famous. And there’s a war going on in Ukraine, but there just seems no appetite anymore. And so this tradeoff between what’s good for my economics, and what’s real journalism? Doesn’t this kind of tell us that Fox is right, and that CNN was right that that model is outdated now?
Dylan Byers 42:08
1Yeah, I in a way. And part of the problem is that, look, there are the internal forces, I mentioned there, also the external forces. Part of the thing here is that news itself is a commodity. And you can get it so many different ways, right? You do not need. Obviously, there was a time when you had to wait around for six o’clock or 630, to turn on your broadcast station and get your news. Obviously, we do not live in that time anymore. And your news is showing up on your phone and in your inbox all the time, and we are inundated with it. How do you CNN does not have an exclusive claim on the news. And in fact, the one thing that they really had, which is like they can be anywhere in the world when the bomb goes off, or when the riot starts or the uprising or what have you. They don’t even have that because not only are there an endless amount of citizen journalists out there doing it, The New York Times is also proven very adept at doing it another international news organizations have proven very adept at doing it. So what is your differentiator, the Zucker thesis was, we are going to turn our on air talent, we are going to make them stars. And we are going to make them household names. And so if you’re conservative, you can go to Tucker, if you’re liberal, you can go to Matt out. But if you want something else, you can come to us. And because of where Trump was, that ended up meaning that they had to take a pretty hard swing toward the left, or at least toward an anti-Trump posture. The idea that you can somehow go back to this Walter Isaacson era, you know, John Klein era, CNN, when the news is the star. The news is not the start the news is the commodity and you have to have reliable people sitting in those chairs, who look good, who know how to fill the hour, and who people want to get to your point want to curl up with their glass of wine. How do you do that if you are not going to be partisan at this time, when things everything feels hyper partisan, and we’re living through all of these sorts of crazy political and cultural wars. It’s really, really, really hard. And so even as Chris […] is out there saying that the news is going to be the star and we’re gonna go back to that old thing. He is also trying to lure household names like Gayle King, Charles Barkley to come over and do these sort of once a week news style programs. The problem with all of this is that it is still he is still sort of refuting like you said the fox news MSNBC model of what works in cable, which is a consistent show that gives people not necessarily what they want to hear, but at least frames the news through the press. them that that. That is what they want to hear.
Andy Slavitt 45:02
Right. Exactly. Yeah, that’s better said, it is interesting. How do you how do you feel about this sort of white knight theory of news ownership, this premise that it choosing between what’s right for business and what’s right, or what’s true journalism, presuming that we as Americans, at least some of us still value true journalism, the true journalism is going to lose when it comes to the margins, it may lose in a blunt way, as we saw with the Dominion case, or it may lose in more subtle ways as people struggle to build ratings. So people said, Well, gosh, maybe these corporations or these idiot blogs, like Murdoch can’t own these main sources of news without and get us reliable news. So that’s sort of the fantasy of the Jeff Bezos, you know, hold us in a trust for the public good that they did with the Washington, you know, that sort of Washington Post acquisition is, what do you think about that? Is that a fantasy?
Dylan Byers 46:04
Well, here’s the thing about the white knight scenario. Let’s take two examples. You have Jeff Bezos at the Washington Post, and you have Laurene Powell Jobs at the Atlantic. Both of those individuals are business people. And they’re both philanthropists, when it comes to their news organizations, they do not see themselves as philanthropists, they see themselves as business people. And well, they have put a lot of money into these respective organizations. Both of them have the expectation that what they are investing in are companies that can create self-sustaining economic models for journalism. So they don’t see those things as charity projects. And I would argue that as much trouble as the Atlantic is having right now, in terms of maintaining the Trump era growth that it saw, as much trouble as the Washington Post is having right now it’s having a lot of leadership struggles, and it didn’t, it didn’t grow at the same rate that the New York Times grew. And it probably in retrospect, should have been more aggressive about that. I would argue that the approach that Bezos and Laurene Powell Jobs are taking is actually better long term for the for journalism, because journalists have to stop acting like what they do is like, like, like, We’re all entitled to it. We are not all entitled to great journalism, we are only entitled to great journalism, if people figure out the economics of it and figure out how to turn it into a sustainable business. You know, the First Amendment does not guarantee us that we get a robust New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc. It just says that if you can figure out how to pay for it, then you can do it.
Andy Slavitt 47:54
And yellow journalism ain’t a new thing, right? We didn’t invent it. Didn’t invent it. 10 years, 20 years ago, I’ve been they’ve always been these sorts of pressures. Is there a difference though, Dylan in that Lorraine jobs and Jeff Bezos don’t cross the line to the newsroom. From the business side less. In other words, they don’t put their thumb on the scale of how stories are reported in that that is a difference between them and the Murdoch.
Dylan Byers 48:21
That is that is a difference. And that is, that is a great thing. That’s a wonderful thing. But I think I you know, what I think is really telling us, I cover the media organization, every single day, and I write about it twice a week. And I feel like I’ve got a pretty good vantage on all of the leading media organizations in this country. And even the ones owned by the white knights aren’t doing that well. I mean, Marc Benioff bought time. And my god that things. I think, you know, he probably regrets it. The one company that is doing well as a business that I look to as sort of a model right now is the New York Times. The New York Times got very serious, and it is testament to its journalism, and its editorial leaders. But it is very much a testament to its business leaders. It understood that it needed to diversify and it needed to become more than just news because the average person who even cares about the news and we’re talking about a sliver of the population or the average person who really cares about the news in his and wants to be up on what’s happening, probably spends anywhere from eight to 15 minutes with the news in the morning and maybe eight to 15 minutes with the news at night. And there are 24 hours in the day and the New York Times said okay, how can we be well maintaining our core focus on journalism and credibility? How can we be everything to you all at once? We’re going to become your favorite destination for recipes for when you’re cooking We’re going to become your favorite destination for games. When you’re bored, and you’re waiting in the, you know, you’re waiting in traffic or the doctor’s office, you got 10 to 10 minutes to yourself to play some games, we’re going to become the place where you go, as a consumer, anytime you want to buy something, whether it’s a vacuum or a coffee maker or a Christmas gift, we’re going to become the place that that becomes your guide for that. Oh, and by the way, what is the one thing that is keeping local journalistic outlets alive, it’s the sports section. So we’re gonna buy the athletic, and we’re going to become the place for local sports for every market in the country. And we are going to be a lifestyle brand, across platforms. So you can get us not just in print or online, but you can get us we’ve got podcasts, we’ve got apps, we’ve got push notifications, you can follow different stories, we are going to meet you where you are in every conceivable way that we can. And in so doing, the New York Times made itself profitable, successful, and it could funnel that money back into the journal into its journalism, which I would argue there’s the New York Times always has some sort of newsrooms scandal going on, but I would argue, is the benchmark for great journalism in this country. Now, the New York Times has a litany of problems. It’s got a lot of really disgruntled staffers who all feel like they’re underpaid, who feel like they’re not getting enough, you know, their own shot at a podcast, or like Maggie Haberman or Andrew Ross Sorkin level stardom. Nevertheless, as a as a journalistic institution, the New York Times remains, it is a successful business. And it remains the sort of creme de la creme if you are an aspiring journalist in this country. And you know what, you know what CNN should be doing right now. And as the same thing that the Washington Post should be doing right now, and everyone should everyone who has any sort of resources at their disposal, you are not going to be saved. By moving anchors around, moving Don Lemon from primetime to mornings is not going to save the long term trajectory of the CNN business. In a world where the linear television is dying a long and slow death, the thing that is going to save you is becoming essential to people to consumers to citizens all day long. And you have to figure out a way to do that you have to figure out a way to be multi-platform multi-channel, servicing people in myriad ways. And CNBC should be thinking about the same thing. CNBC has a network that just covers money, they should not just be covering if the stock if stocks are going up or down, they should be meeting people for you know, personal finance, how to manage your money, they should be doing it across, you know, emails and apps and all these different things. I mean, there’s just, if you were thinking solely about how to bump up your ratings on television, by like, a few 10 or 100,000 Viewers, that is not the game, we are playing anymore. Every media company is competing with every other media company. And you have to start thinking more creatively about how you’re meeting the consumer.
Andy Slavitt 53:00
Okay, so none of this is going to work. Unless we have good journalists and journalists don’t go along with this game that media companies are being played. And I want to close by asking you this sort of final question, not just what do we need to do as people watching the news, but what advice would you give to someone who is an aspiring journalist? And advice on how to make that the right kind of career?
Dylan Byers 53:31
It’s a great question. I’ve actually never been asked that question. But off the bat, what I would say is, first of all, don’t get discouraged. Because right now I know right now, journalism looks like a very sort of strange and often angry and place where people don’t make enough money. But there will always be demand for journalists who are authoritative, and deeply sourced on their beats. And so despite all of the change that’s happened in the journalism industry, despite the decline of local news, this then the other thing, there will always be room for like, you know, a Maggie Haberman, right? Who just owned the trumpet, there will always be that for everything, whether it is politics, business, sports, and if you are able to not just sort of glide off of the sort of like, conventional wisdom of journalists, you know, who are on Twitter and sort of Repatha you know, write the 38 version of like, the article that everyone else is writing. But if you actually are willing to be someone who spends their time picking up the phone, meeting with people in person and becoming almost a member of the industry. Three or the business it is that you cover and steeping yourself in that, and building a really big strong contact list of people who you can pick up the phone and talk to about what’s going on and get the inside story, there will be a market for what you do. And the other piece of advice I would give in that is, as you go through that process, just remember that at the end of the day, your obligation is always to the reader and your obligation. There are some people who believe that journalism is about, you know, holding people to account are serving as a check and balance system, that’s fine, they can do it. My philosophy on journalism is that you’re just trying to tell the story as accurately as humanly possible and to say the thing that’s actually going on, not the thing that everyone wants you to think is going on, but the thing that is actually going on. And if you know the people, if you know the players, you can get that story. And then when you sit down to write your story, remember that your obligation is to telling the story, it’s not to any of your sources or not to any entrenched interests, your obligation is to telling the story, as you know, it to be true based off of actual knowledge from people who are actually involved. And if you can do that, it doesn’t matter if you’re writing about immigration or political campaigns, or, you know, pickleball. If you can do that on the beat, you’re in business.
Andy Slavitt 56:29
Yep. And would you say that if you’re working someplace where the business interests impugns on your journalistic integrity, run?
Dylan Byers 56:39
Yeah, I’m Yeah, I would run. But I would absolutely run. But I am also, I’d say, come to puck. I’m simple. I’m sympathetic to the person who doesn’t want to give up the paycheck. But so give us a call. Yeah, yeah.
Andy Slavitt 56:57
Well, this idea that we can, you can build real business models, doing real journalism is important to everybody. And, you know, it’s never been more important that people have reliable sources of information that is fact based, they can develop whatever opinion they care to. But getting misinformation fed to you, purposely or not. What, honestly, is a real threat to threat to our democracy. It’s a threat to our planet, it’s a threat to you pick your issue, you pick what you care about, I guarantee you that not having reliable journalists, for us to access is a threat to that. Thank you. This was really fun. And I would love to do this again sometime.
Dylan Byers 57:41
I really appreciate it. Andy, thank you.
Andy Slavitt 57:57
Thank you to Dylan. We have some important episodes coming up next week that we’ve been doing a lot of work on, I think you’re really going to enjoy on Monday. We’re going to talk about COVID in the first year of COVID. What happened inside prisons, and we’re going to use that as an opportunity to talk about and look at what health and public health and health care and living conditions are like in prisons. It’s a show that I think […] a topic that needs a lot more exposure. And on Wednesday, potentially exciting, promising question we’re going to explore has to do Alzheimer’s drug is approved and comes out. Not without controversy. I want to know, how close are we? Are we on the cusp to being able to cure or even prevent Alzheimer’s? And the answer is it’s hard to cure. But it may be possible to prevent with some new medication that may be available in the next few years. So we’re going to talk to the actual researchers doing that work. It gets a perspective on what to expect there. So you’re gonna like those shows. But I bet you’re not gonna like them as much as you’re gonna like your weekend. I know. I know you. You’re like me. You like Saturday and Sunday. So enjoy. Have a great one.
Thanks for listening to IN THE BUBBLE. We’re a production of Lemonada Media. Kathryn Barnes, Jackie Harris and Kyle Shiely produced our show, and they’re great. Our mix is by Noah Smith and James Barber, and they’re great, too. Steve Nelson is the vice president of the weekly content, and he’s okay, too. And of course, the ultimate bosses, Jessica Cordova Kramer and Stephanie Wittels Wachs, they executive produced the show, we love them dearly. Our theme was composed by Dan Molad and Oliver Hill, with additional music by Ivan Kuraev. You can find out more about our show on social media at @LemonadaMedia where you’ll also get the transcript of the show. And you can find me at @ASlavitt on Twitter. If you like what you heard today, why don’t you tell your friends to listen as well, and get them to write a review. Thanks so much, talk to you next time.