Yesterday, I wrote about the higher, ritualistic purpose some of the more responsible cable channels news played on election night as earth-shaking results were tallied.
In fact, at that very moment, the civic responsibility of American journalism kicked into an even higher gear – to help steady and stabilize the nation as our elected leaders work toward a peaceful transition of power.
President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump did their parts on the day after this earthquake of an election. I have criticized Obama over his attempts to limit press freedom during his tenure, but I have nothing except praise for his statesmanlike behavior in the wake of Clinton’s defeat.
Ditto for Clinton, who stressed the need for a peaceful transition even though it is to a man who reviled her at every turn during the campaign.
On the other hand, there is no defense for CNN continuing to put dueling political operatives on and letting their angry rhetoric pollute the civic discourse at this difficult time of transition.
Like Fox and MSNBC, CNN has made piles of money that last 18 months letting the culture wars and monumental forces of social change undergirding this election play out symbolically on air in the form of surrogate talking heads. You couldn’t buy more cost-effective programming.
Fine. But now that people are protesting in the streets and the peaceful transition on which democracy depends feels threatened, please, cable news executives, think about the higher calling of a free press in a democracy.
Think of how Walter Cronkite performed after the assassination of President Kennedy, or even Katie Couric on “Today” and Charles Gibson at “Good Morning America” on 9/11. Try to provide information in a responsible, steadying way -- not invective from angry politicos who care more about the parties that pay them than they do the people in your audience.
We might not be there yet, but the waters of American life could become as troubled in days to come as they were in the time of Cronkite or Couric.
To see CNN at its worst, check out the video above, depicting commentary that started about 8:14 p.m. Wednesday with and exchange between Van Jones, a Democratic talking head, and Kayleigh McEnany, a Trump surrogate. By the time Jones commanded her to “back off,” all I wanted to do was turn off the channel in disgust.
I didn’t, of course, and what I saw only made me more heartsick over the performance of the medium I have spent my professional life covering.
And all of this with split screen showing thousands of people in the streets of major American cities.
This is a plea to CNN President Jeff Zucker: You’ve made some brilliant programming moves that have taken the channel to a new level of prominence and profitability. But please serve journalism’s higher calling for just a few weeks until the peaceful transition is accomplished.
Over at MSNBC, I hope Chairman Andy Lack will check out Rachel Maddow’s address to her audience Wednesday night. Ask yourself, Mr. Lack, if even as she is paying lip service to peaceful transition, she isn’t simultaneously suggesting this president-elect doesn't deserve it because he is such a threat to democracy.
At best, it's confusing, and I think Maddow is smarter than that.
The audience, especially the millennials in it, needs clarity, not more confusion, in these fragile times.