As our media environment blurs, confusion often reigns

This combination photo shows MSNBC television anchor Rachel Maddow, host of "The Rachel Maddow Show," moderating a panel at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. on Oct. 16, 2017 , left, and Sean Hannity of Fox News at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md. on March 4, 2016. A generation ago, the likes of Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer were the heroes of television news. Now the biggest stars are arguably Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow. Old lines between journalism and commentary are growing fuzzier with traditional media guideposts stripped away by technology and new business models. (AP Photo)

NEW YORK — A generation ago, the likes of Walter Cronkite, Peter Jennings and Diane Sawyer were the heroes of television news. Now the biggest stars are arguably Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow.

Notice the difference? Cronkite, Jennings and Sawyer reported the news. Hannity and Maddow talk about the news, and occasionally make it. But you never doubt how they feel about it.

In a chaotic media landscape, with traditional guideposts stripped away by technology and new business models, the old lines between journalism and commentary are growing ever fuzzier. As President Donald Trump rewrites the rules of engagement to knock the media off stride, he’s found a receptive audience among his supporters for complaints about “fake news” and journalists who are “enemies of the people.”

In such a climate, is it any wonder people seem to be having a hard time distinguishing facts from points of view, and sometimes from outright fiction? It’s a conclusion that is driving anger at the news media as a whole. On Thursday, it produced a coordinated effort by a collection of the nation’s newspapers to hit back at perceptions that they are somehow unpatriotic.

“We don’t have a communications and public sphere that can discern between fact and opinion, between serious journalists and phonies,” says Stephen J.A. Ward, author of 10 books on the media, including the upcoming “Ethical Journalism in a Populist Age.”

Not long ago — think back 30 years — the news business had a certain order to it.

Evening newscasts on ABC, CBS and NBC gave straightforward accounts of the day’s events, and morning shows told you what happened while you slept. Newspapers flourished, with sections clearly marked for news and editorial pages for opinion. The one cable network, in its infancy, followed the play-it-straight rules of the big broadcasters. There was no Internet, no social media feed, no smartphone with headlines flashing.

Today, many newspapers are diminished. People are as likely to find articles through links on social media posted by friends and celebrities. Three TV news channels, two with firmly established points of view, air an endless loop of politically laced talk. There’s no easy escape from a 24-hour-a-day news culture.

The internet’s emergence has made the media far more democratic — for good and ill. There are many more voices to hear. But the loudest ones frequently get the most attention.

“No one can control the flow of information across social media and the internet media,” says George Campbell, a 53-year-old business consultant from Chicago. “This has led to a confusion about fact vs. fake. But mostly, it has resulted in a cash cow for conspiracy makers.”

Let’s not neglect the memorable journalism that the Trump era has produced all across the country. Many newspapers are far from “failing,” as Trump often claims about the scoop-hungry shops at The New York Times and The Washington Post. The number of digital subscribers to the Times has jumped from below 1 million in 2015 to more than 2.4 million now.

The cable networks have turned politics into prime-time entertainment, and it’s been both great for business and polarizing: Fox News Channel (from the right) and MSNBC (from the left) are frequently the most-watched cable networks in the country.

For many years, those network executives did a delicate dance. The stations were news during the day, opinion at night. But with the opinion shows so successful — shouting what you believe tends to “pop” more than facts — it has become harder to suppress those identities. Even when different sides are given, the hours are filled with opinionated people giving their takes.

A recent White House briefing illustrates how the Trump administration has plucked examples from the endless talk feed in its campaign against the media.

When press secretary Sarah Sanders rebuffed CNN reporter Jim Acosta’s attempt to have her renounce Trump’s attacks on the press, she noted that she’s been attacked personally by “the media” more than once, including by CNN.