A year after his reporting from within the Capitol riot transfixed the world, the British television journalist Robert Moore believes American media is “woefully ill-prepared” for Donald Trump’s prospective bid to return to the White House via the ballot box.
The Washington, DC-based correspondent described American journalism to me as being “fractured” over the task of covering a Trump candidacy, with television news operating in “ideological silos” and tied to “studio debating” formats that cause major stories to go unreported.
“Newsrooms are woefully ill-prepared for what is coming down the track,” said the ITV News veteran. “We have got a train coming down the track out of control, and we have got no signal system. And we are in trouble if we don’t figure this out quickly.”
He questioned whether American networks have resolved how they might cover Trump on his likely return to the campaign trail. “Are they going to cover a Trump rally if he’s spouting misogynistic and inflammatory language? Or if he continues to regard the election as a fraud, do they put him on air saying that?” he asked. “It’s not at all clear to me that newsrooms are ready for the biggest test for a generation, maybe for many generations.”
Moore won 13 awards for his coverage of the storming of the Capitol, during which he, along with the producer Sophie Alexander and cameraman Mark Davey, mingled with the mob as it forced its way into the heart of American democracy. The graphic images might have been a wake-up call for US networks as Moore’s reporting won a Golden Nymph and the Rose d’Or festival’s Golden Rose. He was named Journalist of the Year in the UK.
Moore claimed that much of the American media failed to convey the intricacies of the 6 January riots he witnessed up close. “I saw with my own eyes a very complicated kaleidoscope of different people with different grievances storming Congress, and when I came out, I discovered that, largely speaking, America saw it in totally different terms. They either saw domestic terrorists attempting to take down American democracy or they saw patriots trying to defend American democracy,” he said.
“There were nationalists and Proud Boy types but there were equally, all around me, people who were conspiracy theorists, fantasists – people who were clearly mentally unwell in their political views. It was a much more complicated picture of America than is now being portrayed. Deep reporting has fallen victim to easy stereotypes.”
He is “super alarmed” at the potential consequences. “If a country doesn’t have a shared narrative, then there can be no agreement about who won an election… and no agreement about whether 6 January was an insurrection or a display of patriotism.”
The most talked-about documentary on the riot has been Tucker Carlson’s Patriot Purge for Fox Nation, in which, Moore explained, “6 January went through a complete reinvention.”
Moore said a lack of “deep reporting” in the US results from the “panellisation of news” by national outlets. Television journalism needs “to get out of the studio and, instead of having these debates in which there are ten, 12, 15 panellists all talking to each other, actually go back to eyewitness reporting”. He praised some American broadcasters for “excellent coverage overseas”, but said they rarely apply the same forensic eye to domestic news. “This country is beset by issues that are under-reported: homelessness, [abuse of the opioid drug] fentanyl, the wealth gap and environmental issues.”
This approach is partly due to the “cultural pull” of the news anchor, he suggested. “The glamour in American television news isn’t in being a field reporter, the glamour is being in the studio,” he said. “That’s where the big money is, the recognition is, and that seems to be part of the problem in American TV news now.” Moore, who has reported from conflicts in Chechnya, Kosovo, Sierra Leone and the Middle East, never wanted to be a newscaster. “All we dreamed about was getting on planes, getting into the field, being on the road… we never aspired to being anchors.”
Yet despite a preponderance of anchors, none has the nationwide trust of past figures such as Ed Murrow, Tom Brokaw or Walter Cronkite, about whom the former president Lyndon Johnson supposedly said: “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” According to Moore: “There’s nobody who people coalesce around anymore as an authoritative media figure. We haven’t got a shared media landscape anymore so maybe there could never be another Ed Murrow or Walter Cronkite… but we are the poorer for it. There is no water cooler here now, no platform where people can have a civil debate and a shared narrative of what’s happening in the country.”
American television news networks have registered a decline in audiences since Joe Biden entered the White House, signalling the end of a “Trump bump” in ratings. This presents a financial dilemma for outlets, with Trump the “overwhelming favourite” to win the next Republican presidential nomination, said Moore. “The journalistic model will [need] to be highly sceptical of everything Trump says but the business model is [that] he’s ratings gold.”
A Trump candidacy could result in the internal polarisation of newsrooms. “There are going to be those who say that we need to take to the barricades and journalists need to be activists preserving democracy, and others saying we can’t abandon our neutral referee status.” He noted the stance of New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who has argued that the press should be aggressively pro-democracy.
Moore’s view is that it would be “catastrophic” if journalists were to see themselves as activists. It would “validate the criticism of Trump supporters who say, ‘We always told you that journalists have got a thumb on the scales.’” The role of the journalist is to “listen to people’s grievances”, to “explain context” and to “rigorously fact-check”, he argued.
He acknowledged that foreign media outlets are “highly peripheral” and have “very limited” impact on American opinion but said it is helpful for Americans to have an outside view of their country, just as Britain gained “fresh perspective” from foreign commentary on Brexit. While he praised the work of the biggest American newspaper brands, he said “polarisation of cable news” and a “catastrophic loss of local journalism” have created a “real journalistic deficit” in the US.
He also believes that the social media ban on Trump plays to the former president’s advantage. “By chucking him off their platforms, they have sort of sanitised him – we can no longer read his incendiary and inflammatory tweets and that may have done him a favour. To some, he is now looking more like a martyr down in Mar-a-Lago than a wild-eyed political fugitive.”
Meanwhile, the struggling Biden is “looking like a prisoner in the White House” with the 2022 midterms fast approaching.
“It looks at the moment like everything is assisting Trump in a 2024 campaign and that raises such big issues,” Moore concluded. “We are maybe a year or 18 months away from him announcing that he’s running for another presidential term and there’s no indication that the newsrooms are ready for this massive journalistic crisis that could be coming.”