Entertainment: The Real Value of Journalism? [In the Aftermath of Sam Nunberg’s Meltdown]


By Mathew Brady’s studio [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Until the mid-1830s, American journalism existed for politics. That is, most newspapers were supported by the largess of the politicians they supported. There were no government printing offices and the newspapers were products of shops that produced all sorts of printed documents–many of them through government contracts.

As specialty presses began to be introduced, and as governing bodies developed their own in-house printing operations, that began to change. Newspapers, very quickly, could only print newspapers on their presses and the stream of government revenue was drying up, anyway. If newspapers were to survive, a new source of income was going to have to be generated.

One of the first of the “penny press” newspapers to appear, papers seeking a new model, was Benjamin Day’s New York Sun in 1833. Two years later, James Gordon Bennett followed with the New York Herald. These took advantage of cheaper paper and of advances in printing technology From the ability to produce perhaps 300 copies of a paper in an hour, the Lightning rotary press, developed by Richard Hoe and put into service in 1847, could print 8,000. Soon, 20,000 was not impossible. Suddenly, it was possible for newspapers to reach a lot more people for a lot less money.

There were only two problems remaining: How does one get possible readers to part with a penny and, in connection, how does one convince potential advertisers to pay for reaching them?

First, one needed to reach the audience. Then one could demonstrate whether or not the advertising works. Here’s what I wrote about this years ago, in The Rise of the Blogosphere:

At some point, Bennett realized he needed a different model, one that wasn’t dependent on political affiliation, if he were to succeed in this field. What he developed was an exclusively commercial model with no dependence on (or direct financial ties to) political entities, a model that would be the base for all American news media of the future….

Bennett, knowing he had to replace politics with something else that would motivate people to buy the papers, quickly turned to sensational stories of murder and prostitutes. The dedicated news hound that he was, Bennett also expanded coverage into every possible area, from Wall Street to the theater, broadening the scope of the newspaper business forever. His primary focus, however, was on the salacious….

One of the first real salesmen of the news business, Bennett realized that if increased readership was the goal, it was more important to entertain his readers than to inform them. This simple concept irrevocably change the news business, though not without a great deal of controversy and pain within the profession. (74-75)

Controversy and pain that continues today. The latest example being the Monday, March 5, 2018 meltdown of political hack Sam Nunberg,

Putting it nicely, Nunberg made a fool of himself on MSNBC and CNN, as well as in phone interviews with a number of other news entities. In The Washington Post, Paul Farhi asked:

Through it all, a question about Nunberg began growing: Was he drunk?

Fox Business reporter Charlie Gasparino talked to Nunberg off the air during the day but determined that Nunberg was too impaired to be interviewed on air. He later told network host Liz Claman, “I asked him three times whether he was sure and is he of sound mind to do [interviews]. He told me he was drinking.” A Fox News Channel spokeswoman said her network tried to secure an interview with Nunberg but he did not respond.

Journalists rarely use material from people they know to be intoxicated or mentally impaired, and the known instances of live TV interviews with drunk people are few. The issue is fairness: Would a person say what he or she said if they were fully sober?

Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, writing for Axios, talk about “Awful Scanal Porn: Nunberg Gone Wild” and they make a good point. They begin:

MSNBC dubbed it “a historic interview.” CNN’s Jake Tapper called it “a wild edition of ‘The Lead.'” Drudge’s banner headline, with a cable screengrab: “cRaZy!”

Here’s what it was: A sad, epic meltdown — a troubled Trump flunky, pecked at and picked apart like roadkill on the Russia Interstate, in his last gasps of public fame and shame.

Sam Nunberg, an early Trump campaign aide who was fired in 2015 but has remained a vocal alumnus, melted down cable interview by cable interview yesterday as he declared his refusal (later retracted) to comply with a subpoena by special counsel Robert Mueller.
  • Finally, CNN’s Erin Burnett said during an on-set interview with Nunberg: “Talking to you, I have smelled alcohol on your breath. … I know it’s awkward.”
  • Nunberg replied he hadn’t consumed anything “besides my meds — antidepressants. Is that OK?”‘

They go on to say that this “is one of the reasons America hates the media. Our entire industry lit itself on fire because a troubled Trump hanger-on made an ass of himself — live.” And they are right.

But many in the so-called “news media” (they should be, from the time of Bennett, the “news/entertainment media”) can’t help themselves today any more than they could back in 2016, when they were so artfully manipulated by Donald Trump that he ended up in the White House. This time, I don’t think it was performance art, deliberate pulling on strings attached to puppets who don’t even know what they are. No, this time everyone was simply operating on auto-pilot or reflexively, without thought for anything other than ratings. They were acting as Bennett at his worst, not as the best members of a profession that has, at least since the time of the Herald, attempted to keep the desire for “eyeballs” and the passion for news separate. They saw something that would gain quick attention and jumped at it–when they should have been asking, first, “Is this newsworthy?”

The best defense of any of the interviews I have seen came in a Facebook comment that equated Nunberg’s appearance on Ari Melber’s MSNBC show to an intervention. Thing is, it didn’t have to be on television; something like this should always be handled privately.

Monday was a sad day for the profession of journalism, though it made Tuesday more interesting for my “Introduction to Journalism” students. By the time class was over, I hope they recognized that there is more to the profession than getting as famous as you can. I hope they are learning that the real value of journalism lies in accurate reporting and not in entertainment or promotion.

The profession needs to change. For all of its breast-beating since the 2016 presidential election, it has not. Here’s hoping that, in the face of continued bad examples, it will.