‘If It’s Not True, Don’t Put It on TV’: A Former TV Exec on How to Save Live News in the Trump Era
Many Americans are disturbed that TV networks air the Trump White House’s misinformation-filled coronavirus briefings live and in primetime. One of those people is Mark Lukasiewicz, a former executive at NBC News who also happens to be an ideal person to consult to try to understand why the networks and cable channels continue to broadcast Trump’s briefings unfiltered.
A 40-year veteran of broadcast journalism, Lukasiewicz spent much of 2000 to 2017 as the executive in charge of NBC News’s coverage of live events and breaking news — election nights, presidential debates, inaugurations. He helped make the all-important decision of when to break into the network’s regular programming and go live with a major announcement, whether it was the death of Michael Jackson or the killing of Osama bin Laden. He was often in the room as NBC News staffers wrestled with how much live coverage to give Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential run, which, by one estimate, reaped more than $5 billion in free airtime.
In 2018, Lukasiewicz left NBC to run the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. Now a journalism educator and full-time news consumer, he assessed with fresh eyes whether the networks and cable-TV channels were drifting from their journalistic mission, replacing hard-hitting interviews and painstakingly reported segments with manufactured conflict and easy-to-produce shouting matches that too often ended with the dreaded words “We’ll leave it there.”
Watching the live coverage of Trump’s coronavirus briefings, Lukasiewicz hit a breaking point. He wrote a story for the Columbia Journalism Review in which he made a modest request of his former colleagues in the TV news business: “Let truth-telling be a prerequisite for appearing on live TV,” he wrote. “Repeat offenders who lie or obfuscate with abandon, no matter their position, should not be put on live again.”
Lukasiewicz agreed to several conversations with Rolling Stone about his CJR story and his career inside the belly of the TV-news beast. We asked him what the live airing of Trump’s coronavirus briefings tells us about the state of TV news today, why networks still invite professional obfuscators like Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller onto their airwaves, and how broadcast news can get back to its roots as a profession focused on facts.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rolling Stone: Why was the broadcasting of the coronavirus briefings a tipping point for you?
Mark Lukasiewicz: It’s hard for me to remember another time when the information coming across our screens to our homes has been more important and more vital. To see that feed of information corrupted and misused was particularly egregious.
Putting people on live television who you know are going to lie, it seems to me, is journalistic malpractice. I don’t think — for want of a better word — a “traditional” journalist would be sitting at their computer going, “Gee, I need an expert on biomedicine. I think I’ll call that guy who’s lied to me 10 times before and see what he has to say.” No, you wouldn’t call that guy.
Yet there are people who lie to Chris Cuomo or lie to George Stephanopoulos or lie to Chuck Todd and they’re back and they’re back again. There’s something profoundly wrong with that equation.
Why does, to pick one person that immediately comes to mind, Kellyanne Conway, get to go on TV again and again?
Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller are people who are known to be extremely close to Donald Trump. They have influence in the Oval Office. They have influence over policy. That’s been demonstrated time and again. So journalists naturally are going to continue to want to talk to those people because they’re looking for insight into what the president is thinking and about his decisions and why he’s made those decisions. It would be very challenging for journalists across the board to simply not interact with those people when there’s the opportunity.
Not to mention that there is still a communications operation at the White House and reporters don’t get to pick and choose who is the spokesperson on a given issue. So when Kellyanne Conway walks down the driveway to address the microphones outside the West Wing, it’s a little hard to suggest that everybody should simply turn away and not pay attention to that. It’s somebody who’s just been in the Oval Office, talked to the president, talked to his advisers, and you do want to hear what they have to say.
My quarrel is: Do you always, in a reflexive knee-jerk way, put people on live when you don’t really know what’s going to happen? Particularly in a situation we’re confronting now where the information is life or death. I’m not sure what the extra 10 minutes of reflection would cost you. I think it would instead deliver more accurate information, better content, better news to the audience, and at the end of the day that’s our mission.
I admire and respect — though I don’t envy — [full-time fact checkers like CNN’s] Daniel Dale for what he does. But I sometimes feel like he is trying to turn back a tidal wave with a teaspoon. We have to come up with another way to counter the misinformation or the bad information because just fact-checking it and saying, “Well, this wasn’t accurate and this is why” doesn’t seem up to the challenge.
There’s no evidence that I’ve seen that fact-checking actually has any particular impact or positive impact. There’s anecdotal evidence that when you label something false on social media, for example, as various social media platforms have experimented with doing, that actually increases traffic. It’s the train-wreck phenomenon. People want to know, “Oh, that’s fake? Let me read more about it.”
I spent a weekend back during the impeachment situation and tried to document a number of live interviews on the Sunday political shows. Whatever you might have an opinion about as far as primetime on Fox News, Chris Wallace is a very skillful interviewer. So he sits with Stephen Miller. Miller occupies the vast majority of the airtime in that segment, is able to repeat his talking points not one, not two, but six, seven, eight times. And irrespective of the anchor declaring, “Well, that’s not true,” it’s still on television.
The other thing about fact-checking that’s really important here is the news media [is] operating in an environment where they have been under relentless, aggressive attack by the president and his allies for four years as to their credibility. They are called disloyal. They’re called the enemies of the people. They are called traitors. Fact-checking coming from those organizations is immediately dismissed by a large segment of the American population because there’s been that attempt to devalue and sow mistrust about many institutions, but the news media particularly.
When you have a platform as big as a TV network and the network makes the decision to break in, that strikes me as one of the most important decisions you can make. What went into that decision versus let’s have a correspondent cover this, edit it, and air something in the nightly news?
As a rule, interrupting network television would be a much bigger decision in primetime than it was during other parts of the day. The standard tended to be: Is this of national interest? Is it truly breaking news? Is it something that the country needs to know about? So, a major terrorist incident somewhere. The unexpected passing of someone important — Michael Jackson — would get our attention. A violent attack on some public figure or some politician somewhere would get our attention.
And then you had Washington and the White House. Now, I can only speak to when there was what I guess they would call in Congress “regular order.” When there was an administration with a press secretary, a communications director, a functioning relationship with the White House press corps.
I have had very limited dealings of that kind of stuff with the Trump White House because I left my position in the spring of 2017. But my impression is that that relationship doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. The president’s favorite venue for talking to the press until these briefings started was the chopper shot. [It] was just holding forth for as long as he felt like it when he emerged onto the South Lawn of the White House to make his way to Marine One.
It’s a terrific format for him because the questions are very difficult to hear. The answer is always heard. He has complete control over when it starts, when it ends, who he talks to or doesn’t talk to. He likes that format. And he’s taken to doing that most times he goes out to Marine One.
It’s just another one of those indications of this kind of surreal, different world we seem to find ourselves in, especially when it comes to dealing with this White House.
I think there is a segment of the American public that believes, and particularly in a crisis like this, that if the president wants to be on TV, he should be allowed to be on TV and the networks should give him the TV time. I don’t agree with that. I think the president today, compared to a generation ago, has his or her own ability and channels to reach a massive audience. The president has Twitter. The White House has its own video teams and media teams and streaming platforms. This isn’t like it was in John Kennedy’s day where the only way for the president of the United States to talk to America about the Cuba crisis was to commandeer the public airwaves on radio and television. That was the only way he had to communicate.
Obviously, we are in a much different situation now. When the president requested network time, what was it, two weeks ago now for his Oval Office address, all the networks gave him that time. It’s worth noting that within an hour after that address, the administration issued not one, not two, but three corrections to what the president had said.
To what degree were you involved in the ongoing discussions about how to cover Trump as a candidate? I think a lot of people would love to know how that discussion evolved and how you treated a candidate who was just so outside the norm for all of these different reasons.
I was involved. I was at the table at a lot of conversations. I was certainly not the lead decision maker or even a significant decision maker on how we covered the campaign. That involved a lot of other people.
The thing that I remember being an ongoing discussion that I think I and others got wrong was: Do we say that Donald Trump is lying? As the Trump campaign unfolded, and there was instance after instance of what I would now characterize absolutely as lies, we would have these longish discussions around, “Should we say misspoke? Misrepresented? Inaccurate?” Lie seemed like we were attributing an evil intentionality to what was happening. And we don’t have a basis for that. That’s making a judgment. We should put it in front of the audience and let them decide. Those conversations would come up, and I think, sitting here today, “quaint” is the right word for that.
They are lies. And I think the press has gradually gotten better at calling those out. But there was also this difficulty dealing with the concept of that one side’s doing something that the other side isn’t. And you hear this term bandied about bothsides-ism, right? For a story to be fair, if we’re going to say, “Well, this one lied and did this; we’ve got to run over and find an example of where the other side did the same thing.”
Here we had a candidate and a campaign that was playing by an entirely different set of rules, which is to say they were throwing out all of the rules, and I don’t think we in the press were awake to that, and we didn’t really understand how to deal with it. And even now, three years later, I don’t think we’ve figured out how to deal with it, and the live television coverage of the utterances of the president is a perfect example.
The terms “live” and this “breaking news” label have become ubiquitous on TV. You write, “Not only have they become even more dominant, they become somewhat devalued buzzwords of the business and that has marked a substantial surrender of journalism and journalistic values in television news.” Why do you think that happened?
Television news has always struggled with the dual characteristics of the medium, which is information and entertainment. There is a visual aspect to the medium.
Liveness is another piece of that, right? Watching something live is inherently more attractive, more interesting, more compelling than watching the same thing on tape. And at the end of the day, particularly cable news operations are about attracting an audience. Liveness also matters because information is distributed so many different ways now. If you taped an interview with somebody important and aired it in one place on tape thinking you’re going to air it again six hours later somewhere else, well, that six hours later doesn’t matter because once you air it the first time, it’s going to be everywhere, right?
It is also unquestionably true that interview content is easier to produce than full, taped reports. Your average minute of NBC Nightly News or 60 Minutes is vastly more expensive to produce than the same 60 seconds of Chris Cuomo or Brian Stelter or Nicolle Wallace talking to somebody. I’m not saying that it has less value for that reason, journalistically, because it doesn’t necessarily have less value because interviews can be incredibly valuable.
But that’s where I get back to my truth-telling standard, right? Half an hour live spent with somebody whose agenda when they sit down with you is to lie or to achieve some political end that has nothing to do with the questions you’re asking them — that’s not time well spent.
I feel like that tension you described — informing the public on the one hand and also the entertainment, visual value — is ever-present. I feel it more acutely in the Trump era, if we can call it that, but especially even more acutely with these coronavirus briefings because, from a ratings perspective, the ratings are extremely high for these briefings. How do you strike that balance?
It’s a very difficult balance to strike and I called for networks not to air these things live. But to be real, it would be extraordinarily courageous for a single network to decide not to do that, because a big chunk of the audience will simply click two channels over to go find out where they can watch it.
I will challenge you on one thing when it comes to ratings. Every person in journalism is interested in getting an audience. I don’t think we should apologize for that. When you write for Rolling Stone, you want people to click on your articles. You want people to buy the magazine. You want people to read your stuff. You want to have an impact.
I don’t think any of the managers that I’ve ever worked with in television news treat the dollars and cents as the sole objective. It’s always there, we have to meet our budgets, we want to be successful, but that’s not the primary thing.
The other thing to remember is in this moment, and in these kinds of settings like the White House briefing, the networks are actually losing a lot of money. Because when they air those [live briefings], they’re airing sometimes multiple hours with no commercial inventory. The money-making piece of every hour on broadcast television and cable television goes away in these situations. I think the idea that ratings are the goal when they’re airing these — they’re not making money off those ratings in that moment. It may be a cumulative effect down the road, but in that moment, there’s not money being made.
You say it would be “extraordinarily courageous for a single network to decide not to do that, because a big chunk of the audience will simply click two channels over to go find out where they can watch it.” What’s the answer, then? Would the networks ever collectively agree not to air something if they all knew it didn’t serve their audiences? Did something like that ever happen during your four decades in the industry?
No. And honestly I don’t think that’s desirable. I don’t think you want all of the networks collectively making a decision on what should or shouldn’t be on television or be in front of their viewers. I would hope we would all want those decision to be made independently by independent newsrooms guided by journalists in each of those places. I’m not advocating for some sort of collective decision-making by the major networks on a journalistic decision like that.
I’m advocating for newsrooms to reexamine the value of what they’re doing, the way the Wall Street Journal just did in its editorial, of all places. The way many of the anchors on some of the news networks are calling out their own management and asking, “Why are we doing this?” I think those conversations are healthy and I hope they lead to healthier decisions about what we’re airing.
Liveness matters but accurate information matters more. And that old tension between being first and being right — being right really matters right now. If newsrooms can persuade themselves to pause a beat and report the stuff that’s true, they’d be doing their audience a service.
I’m not arguing don’t cover it. I covered eastern European communism where nothing true was said from behind a lectern, but that didn’t mean you didn’t go there. You went there, but you didn’t turn over your airwaves to it. You didn’t simply become a vessel for the transmission of political speech. That wasn’t your mission, and I think to go back to something we’ve talked about before, there was never this kind of dilemma in the briefing room of the White House under prior administrations. Yes, there was spin. Yes, there was answer avoidance. But there wasn’t this phenomenon.
If you could play Television News God and put in place changes tomorrow that would address these issues, that would restore the truth-telling mission of TV journalism, what would they be? “Let truth-telling be a prerequisite for being on live TV” seems like one very good place to start, but also just a place to start. What would you do?
I don’t have a magic bullet for this situation. And part of it is, you said if you were The News God, you know, we don’t live in a country where there is a news god. There are lots of platforms, and what one platform decides not to do, the other one will happily pick up and do.
But I think we have to step back and remember what our mission is, what all of us got into this business to do. We got into this business to ferret out facts, to hold people to account, to speak truth to power, and ultimately to make a difference with the stories and serve the public. Put that filter back on what you’re doing live. And if where you pointed your camera isn’t doing that for your audience, then maybe that camera shouldn’t be on live television.
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