What NBC’s 90th Anniversary tells us about “Fake News” rants

On Sunday night, NBC revealed an excellent example of a major problem with the modern news media. It came, quite accidentally, in between old clips of The Golden Girls and Hill Street Blues.

To commemorate the network’s 90th anniversary, NBC spent three hours of prime time reminiscing about itself. The self-indulgent walk down memory lane included classic television clips interspersed with sound bite interviews with various on-air personalities. In reverent tones, current and former stars talked about how culturally significant and ground-breaking NBC’s programming has been, as if the final episode of Cheers should appear in the National Archives next to the Declaration of Independence.

The self-congratulation showed an understandable yet dramatic lack of self-awareness, mistaking longevity for significance. That seems to be a running problem at NBC right now.

Consider Chuck Todd, Political Director for the network’s news division and the host of Meet the Press, television’s longest running show. On Sunday morning (several hours before the 90th anniversary retrospective), from his moderator’s chair, Todd speculated about the free speech implications of President Donald Trump’s hostility toward the media. “Is that how, dictators get started?” he asked Sen. John McCain after reading one of Trump’s tweets. In the week since Trump turned a press conference into a bash-the-media wrestling match, Todd has vocally defended the Fourth Estate.

“This is not a laughing matter,” he admonished on Twitter in the immediate wake of the press conference. “I’m sorry, but delegitimizing the press is unAmerican. [sic]”

Todd certainly isn’t wrong about the critical need for a free press. But his comments reflect a fatally flawed assumption: That calling out the media is the same thing as opposing the First Amendment.

Mass news media has a serious, industry-wide credibility problem. According to Gallup, fewer than one in three Americans trust the media; a Fox News poll showed voters slightly less likely to trust the media than the White House. President Trump may exploit public distrust of the media, but he did not create that distrust.

Todd, along with many of his colleagues at major news media outlets, seem unaware of this fact. Like the erstwhile NBC stars who spent Sunday night waxing poetic about Saturday Night Live’s role in Western civilization, too many journalists suffer from a heightened sense of importance. Because their role is so critical, they reason, any criticism of the way they do their job must be an affront to that importance. It’s completely understandable why journalists would feel this way. After all, one might forgive a former SNL writer who gets swept up in the idea of being part of an historical, culturally impactful network lineage. Similarly, what journalist doesn’t envision themselves as a latter-day Edward R. Murrow, standing up against power in the public interest?

In reality, news consumers do not share that image of the press.

By treating this as a problem that begins with Trump, journalists ignore their industry’s own culpability in losing public trust. It is notable that Trump levies attacks at specific media organizations. Whether carefully or accidental, his blistering screeds are against journalists — not journalism writ large. And his criticisms, boiled down, are about competence, not role. Savvy news consumers understand the difference between calling out how the media operates and attacking the institution of free speech.

When Todd warns that de-legitimizing journalism is a dangerous game, he’s right — but he may want to think about which entity is actually doing the de-legitimizing.

NBC’s self aggrandizing retrospective may have gone over the top — but it was relatively harmless for any network to gush about its entertainment programming. The stakes are higher when news departments suffer from a skewed self-perspective.