Veteran journalists reflect on changing news media, political polarization

Truth or Consequences

When Woodstock native, noted Civil War historian and former print journalist, academic and political communications director Howard Coffin speaks before the Bridgewater Historical Society this Sunday, he’ll share more than just “Stories from a Newspaper Reporter,” the working title of his talk. Coffin will also reveal the stories behind the stories from five decades of work as a reporter and correspondent with the Rutland Herald and Christian Science Monitor and as a media and public affairs director for Dartmouth, the University of Vermont, and for the late United States Senator from Vermont, James “Jim” Jeffords.

In the run-up to his speaking engagement at the Bridgewater Grange Hall, Coffin reflected last Monday morning about his writing career and about the news media environment in the United States, past and present. In follow-up conversations to the Memorial Day chat with Coffin, several other Woodstock area media luminaries, all retired, also shared their thoughts about the U.S. media, its accomplishments, pitfalls, and public image, then and now.

The media veterans who spoke in advance of Coffin’s presentation included another Woodstock native, Bob Hager, a veteran of 35-plus years as a foreign correspondent and analyst with NBC News; and the husband-and-wife team of Sandy and Karen Gilmour. Sandy served as a television newsman, correspondent, and international bureau chief — both with NBC and CBS News; and Karen helped forge a leading role outside the “Living” and “Society” pages for women in print journalism during a decades-long career with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Houston Chronicle, and the Associated Press that began in the late 1960s, then wrapped up with a stint in broadcast news production at NBC.

Coffin, who started out in journalism as a sportswriter for his hometown paper, the Standard here in Woodstock, spoke admiringly on Monday regarding an early editor’s news philosophy. Coffin then went on to cite his own, aggressive approach to gathering the news in a time when scooping the competition was paramount and when there wasn’t the 24-hour, technology-and-social-media-driven, flashy, ever-shifting media environment in which we live today.

“I worked for two great newspapers — the Herald and the Christian Science Monitor,” Coffin, who recently turned 80, said on Memorial Day. “Of course, the Herald was one of the great small dailies in the country and the Monitor was one of the world’s best papers. The real motto at the Herald was that the public has a right to know — and the Managing Editor Kendall Wild, a great newspaperman, had an unfailing belief that a great democracy cannot function without an informed public. So he told us to be as aggressive as we could be and to find out things we were not supposed to know.

“We worked hard in what was a tremendously competitive environment at the time,” Coffin continued.“When I got into covering politics, I became the chief political reporter for the Herald and I got a lot of complaints from elected officials because I was so assertive.” He added that the current environment for the media in the United States, rankled by allegations of promulgating “fake news” and colored by the ultra-partisan pronouncements of cable TV commentators, prognosticators, and pundits, is deeply problematic.

“Democracy is in trouble in this country,” Coffin worried. “One of the reasons is that in many instances the voters aren’t getting the truth. They sure were in my era. There was no Fox News. The media were all after basically the same thing — the truth. There were a few problems here and there. When I was at Dartmouth, the biggest problem we had in New Hampshire at the time was the Manchester Union-Leader, which distorted the news toward the right all the time. We got a preview then of what was to come.”

Hager, who covered the world from Vietnam to Berlin to Iran to international aviation disasters to the tragic, terrorism-plagued Munich Summer Olympics over the course of three-and-a-half decades with NBC News, also shared his perspective on the media landscape of yore versus today’s saturated news cycle, with its seemingly endless onslaught of “breaking news.”

“It’s drastically different today,” Hager said Tuesday. “The headlines, the reporting — it’s instantaneous. That’s different from the media I grew up with. You had some time with deadlines to reflect more on the issues, whereas today you have to grind out the news immediately, if not ad lib on the spot right away. The increasing prevalence of opinion is also a factor. At first, it was a prime-time cable phenomenon, but now it’s creeping more into the mainstream. I think young journalists feel a compulsion to take a bit more of a stance, even in a straightforward news column. They feel that’s good. I don’t. But that seems to be what is happening.”

Hager went on to address how profoundly technological advancements have impacted contemporary media coverage of events the world over. “The fact that you can go on live, immediately, from anywhere in the world — from out in the boonies, the jungle, or wherever — it’s unbelievable,” Hager noted. “In the early days of my career — of course, it was different by the time I retired — we always had to drive to an affiliate to put our stories together and feed them into the New York headquarters. By the time I left, you had a little satellite truck coming to you, no matter where you were in the world. That’s a profound change. Now everything is breaking news, whether it just happened or happened hours ago. Roger Ailes at Fox was a master at that, dressing everything up and making it sound instantaneous. Then it spread to CNN and everyone else.”

Hager also offered his thoughts on the role media outlets have played in fostering the seemingly endemic political polarization in the U.S. “I do think the media plays a role in it,” Hager offered. “But I don’t think it is completely the media’s fault by a long shot. The opinionating of the nighttime cable outlets in particular fosters the differences and encourages people to have tunnel vision where they don’t hear or bother to hear the opposing side of any issue. I’m old school — I always think you have to listen to the opposition, absorb it and think about it, and at least try to understand the other side’s argument. That’s fading — and part of it is the media, but certainly not all of it.”

Sandy and Karen Gilmour spoke by telephone Tuesday morning as they savored cups of coffee in their Woodstock home. Karen noted the steadily increasing gender and racial diversity in American newsrooms as one positive aspect of the major media’s transformation over the past generation or two. “I was the third woman hired by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch at the time,” she recalled, harkening back to her early work at the Missouri newspaper in 1971. “The other two women literally came to the news side from the society and living pages.” Gilmour added that she only got the Post-Dispatch job initially because the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) was pressing the newspaper to diversify its workforce significantly.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, when she stepped up to report on politics and international affairs, first with the Post-Dispatch and later with the Houston Chronicle and the Moscow bureau of the Associated Press, Karen said she wasn’t subjected to the acerbic slings and arrows that many mainstream journalists — especially women — face in today’s polarized political environment. “I got complaints about some of my stories, but they were gentle complaints,” she recalled. “There was nothing like being called an enemy of the people or anything like that. I don’t know how people can do it today. I guess they think they have to take the kind of warlike approach you see on the cable shows. What we’re talking about are not actually news programs — they’re commentaries.”

For his part, Sandy, who started out in journalism in Salt Lake City in the 1960s and then moved on to a storied career as a correspondent with both NBC and CBS-TV, including a stint as NBC’s bureau chief in Beijing, drew a distinction between the traditional news operations of the three longstanding broadcast television news outlets and their cable companions. “The three networks — ABC, CBS, NBC — still have traditional newscasts every night, just like they did 50 years ago,” Gilmour pointed out. “Of course, the ratings for those are greatly diminished. And then these cable programs come on and most of the time they don’t even give you headlines — they just start out with whatever the concern of the day is, the elementary school shooting or the takeover of the Capitol — and off they go from there. It’s not reporting, it’s not a newscast — and they miss a lot of opportunities to run actual stories and even do some more in-depth, live reporting on stuff that we as Americans really need to know about.

“The media landscape has just changed dramatically since the days when Karen, Bob [Hager], and I were in it, largely with social media and in my view for the worse,” Sandy Gilmour continued. “Back in the day, with newspapers — many of them owned by Republican families — and with the networks and local stations, at the end of the day, most Americans had some basic understanding of what was going on and they could act accordingly. There was a basic agreement and a mutual understanding of what the facts were and what they weren’t — during Watergate and things like that, for example. 

“Now it has become so diversified and fractionalized with so many different news sources out there to choose from. And that’s just the cable channels, not to mention social media,” Sandy concluded. “Every individual with a Twitter account has basically become a newspaper publisher. Americans don’t have any agreement on what the facts are, and this is negatively affecting our democracy.”