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Developments in Journalism from 1970 to Today: An Interview with Joan Lunden (Part 2: Journalism and the Political Landscape)

Image via Executive Speakers Bureau

Joan Lunden is a bestselling author, motivational speaker, and former co-host of Good Morning America. Lunden is the host of the PBS television series “Second Opinion with Joan Lunden,” host of the Washington Post podcast series “Caring for Tomorrow,” and ambassador to the Poynter Institute Mediawise for Seniors. Recently, she served as a visiting professor at the Lehigh University College of Health. After her diagnosis and recovery from breast cancer, Lunden became an advocate for women suffering from cancer, and she has worked as a national spokesperson for the American Heart Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, American Lung Association, American Red Cross, American Academy of Pediatrics, and Colon Cancer Alliance. 

Sophie Jaeger: What are the most marked changes overall you’ve observed within the media? What impact do you think the political landscape of recent years has had on journalism?

Joan Lunden: Well, it’s interesting because, two weeks ago, I delivered a keynote address before the National Association of Secretaries of State. I spoke to them about the changes that have gone on in the world of media and specifically the transition in news gathering from film to video. In film, which is how we gathered news when I started, you would go out with a film crew. It was almost like making a mini-movie. You would come back to your news station and you’d have time while the film was being developed to sit and reflect and think about who you talked to and what was the best way to tell the story. 

Then came video. Well, video only required one person, so it was huge in saving costs for the station. That quickly transitioned into being able to transmit the video back to the station so that there was immediacy of getting that story on the air, and then we got live satellite trucks. I’ll never forget, I was sent out on the first story at WABC with our new live news truck, and I remember we pulled up in front of the story. There were tons of people. I was still in the truck putting my earpiece on in my ear. The guy was getting this camera on his shoulder, and I hear, “Joan, Joan. Can you hear us?” It was the director in New York. And I said, “Oh, yeah, I hear you.” He said, “Good. We’re coming to you in 30 seconds.” I had not talked to anyone; I had not been able to evaluate what was going on. The only thing I had to go on was the wire copy that somebody handed me as I walked out the door of the station. In that moment, I realized that our business had changed forever. That it was now going to be about the [ability] to be the first on the air with the story. That did not bode well, in my opinion, for accurate reporting. There are good and bad things [about] this immediacy. It allows the people at home to immediately be able to see what’s going on anywhere in the world. On the other side of the coin, it produces this urgency on the part of news agencies to be the first on the air with the story. 

It was [during the] summer of 1980 that Ted Turner announced that he was going to do a 24-hour news station called CNN. We all kind of scratched our heads and said, “How are they gonna fill up 24 hours a day with news? And is there even an appetite for that in America?” That was the beginning of the 24-hour news cycle. I don’t think any of us could have imagined [at] that moment the proliferation of 24-hour channels, how they would take off. You suddenly had a multitude of channels delivering news, delivering entertainment. I don’t think any of us could have imagined at that moment what it would turn into, what [we] live with today. Once again, it was the urgency and, now, the competition. 

Then, in the 1990s, we experienced the biggest change that ever hit the news industry, and that was the internet. No other news entity could compete with the immediacy of the internet, and that changed news gathering and news delivery forever. Once again, in good ways and bad ways, because soon after that, what followed was the proliferation of social media. We began to get this proliferation of social media platforms that were also sometimes activist platforms, and I think that when you ask how the political divide got us to where we are, [social media] brought us to this place where, today, pretty much anyone can push information out, sometimes made-up information, out to the public. As more people continue to consume their news via social media, I think it can be really difficult for people to be able to discern real information from misinformation. Quite often, they just don’t have a clue that they’re actually consuming something that is not true. Social media [has] allowed just about anyone to become a content creator or a podcaster or a blogger. Let’s be honest, not many of them are professional journalists, but real journalism requires credible resources and reliable research in order to work. In today’s world, you can go viral without either. More and more young people’s preferred news delivery is social media. It’s not NPR, CNN, [the] New York Times, or [the] Washington Post. So, to me, the big question today is, how do we protect the sanctity of trusted sources and information that’s based in fact and not in opinion? 

That gets us to the next big change, which was the advent of Fox News. When Fox News came on board, it was 1996, and they were just an unapologetically politically biased network, and that had never existed before. While another news channel didn’t pop up as an unapologetic left-leaning station to try to combat the right-leaning station, I think that the mere existence of a politically biased news channel like Fox created a reaction by regular news channels: They felt they had to be coming back with an opposing point of view. As that change was happening, I think it’s fair to say that we really started to experience a societal change, just in what the public feels is acceptable discourse and behavior, both on news programs and in society. From a lot of our leading politicians, a stamp of approval seemed to be given. It was this new era of name-calling and making accusations, whether fact-based or not, and also making degrading statements about people. It really brought us to this point today, [where] we have a crisis in American civility. A lot of us would like to turn the clock back on this, but I don’t think we can put the toothpaste back in the tube, as they say. 

SJ: I’m studying history at Brown. I’ve always been a huge history buff, and it’s really interesting for me, as someone who has a pretty good understanding of American history, to see how certain things—for example, the sensationalism between Hearst and Pulitzer—are almost playing out in a modern version today—or the sort of political violence and animosity that was happening right up until the Civil War is something that we can see in similar sorts of patterns. 

JL: It will be even harder for Americans going forward to understand the context of how what we’re seeing today is so similar to what was going on before the Civil War if the political right gets their way and starts to rewrite history and whitewash history because that is the effort that’s kind of out there right now. If you’re studying politics and government and history, you know that there is supposed to be a division between church and state. Today, there is this ongoing effort to write laws based on the rules of a specific religion. This is prevalent in everything from gender equality to marriage, to abortion, to everything. 

I think right now there’s a tendency for everybody to blame the media [for] a lot of this change. Personally, I think if you’re gonna place blame, it would be more on the politicians and the political divide. I said to these [secretaries of state], “Well, I understand the public is looking to the media to fix the problem. I think the fix needs to come from the political arena as well.”  I just looked at them, I said, “That is the challenge for all of you to try to find ways to [tamp] down the animosity and the distrust, the disrespect, the divisive talk. And consequently, this tendency to just be totally intractable and unwilling to compromise in order to get your job done, which is to maintain our democracy and to pass legislation.” It was amazing how they were listening. I said, “Look, Democrats and Republicans disagree on policy and that’s normal. That’s a useful tension-filled discussion that drives democracy.” I said, “But today, you guys act like you fear that the other side is gonna destroy the nation if they get into power. But you gotta learn. You guys have gotta start playing more to the middle.” To me, that’s kind of a statement of where we are today.

SJ: So where do you see us going next? How do you envision politicians and journalists resolving this issue? You expressed in your last answer that you definitely see journalists playing a little bit more of a supporting role, but what do you see as the path forward in terms of them working with politicians or politicians working more on their own?

JL: Well, a lot of the public, according to all the recent surveys, think that either the government or the big tech companies need to do something, need to put into effect some kind of guardrails. Because let’s face it, it is the internet and social media that is putting all this out there. I think the tech companies are obviously very reluctant to do it; they don’t want to be the gatekeepers. When it comes to the government, I think that technology has advanced so fast [that] they haven’t even had a chance to keep up with it. But, as I said, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. So it’s very difficult to figure out at this point, but I think the American public is absolutely exhausted by it all. I think the American public is fearful of where it has led us: to this very vulnerable, volatile point in our American history. I’m hoping what I’m saying is correct—that the American public is exhausted by all of it and concerned about where it’s taking us because, if that’s true, then maybe we’ll see it in the way that they vote. Quite honestly, I think that in the last election, we did see that.

As I said to the secretaries of state, “The stakes are so high. It is our democracy, it is our stature on the global front, it’s our incredible way of life that we have here in America, that [is] worth the effort.” I can tell you as a journalist who [has] traveled this globe extensively, I’ve reported from 27 different countries over five decades, and I [have] always come back home and thought to myself how grateful I [am] for the kind of life we have here. I have never been to another country anywhere where I have felt that they have the ease of life and the freedoms that we have here in this country. People who haven’t traveled the world extensively don’t have that kind of context; they don’t understand that what we have here is so special.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.