Media today are more concerned with
getting so-called "balance" than seeking truth
A Civic Caucus
Review of Minnesota’s Public
Interview May 20, 2016
John Adams, Steve
Anderson, David Broden, Audrey Clay (phone), Janis Clay (phone),
Pat Davies, Paul Gilje (executive director), Randy Johnson,
Sallie Kemper, Dan Loritz, Paul Ostrow, Bill Rudelius, Don
Don Shelby, highly regarded investigative journalist, sees
campaign finance as a major threat to civic engagement and
democracy, with the media contributing to the problem. The
connection between an informed citizenry and the media has
broken down. Resources for news coverage have diminished. People
are losing faith in their government. News outlets seem
preoccupied with being "balanced", irrespective of what the
facts say. Civic organizations might be complicit. The younger
generation is cynical about politics. He remains optimistic as
he reviews the environmental movement.
Growing up in the tiny town of Royerton, Ind., just outside
Muncie, Shelby was the youngest of three children. A high school
basketball standout, he attended the University of Cincinnati
but never graduated. Instead, he dropped out in the late '60s
and enrolled in the Air Force. He is now completing his degree
at Metropolitan State University.
After serving four years in the
military, Shelby held TV news jobs in Charleston, SC, and
Houston, TX, before coming to WCCO TV in the Twin Cities in
Shelby was the chief architect behind
WCCO's "I-Team" segment, which spotlighted current issues, both
local and on a larger world scale, with rigorous investigative
journalism. He is particularly well known for his environmental
reporting. Shelby retired from television after his final WCCO-TV
newscast on November 22, 2010.
He has won three national Emmy awards,
the Columbia-duPont, the ScrippsHoward, the National
Distinguished Service Award from the Society of Professional
Journalists, and has twice won the George Foster Peabody award,
regarded as the Pulitzer prize of broadcasting. He was honored
in 1983 with the top award for investigative reporting by the
International Radio and Television News Directors Association.
Shelby and his wife Barbara have three
Today's interview is one of several in the Civic Caucus
review of Minnesota's organizations of public policy--its media,
foundations, academic organizations, think tanks, political
parties, and civic organizations.
Campaign finance is a
major threat to civic engagement and the nation's democracy.
Action of the U.S. Supreme Court that gives wealthy donors the
right to make unlimited contributions on behalf of political
candidates without being identified represents a major threat to
civic engagement and the nation's democracy, Shelby said.
Because wealthy donors often are
associated with industries that have a strong vested interest in
the outcome of public policy related to these industries the
donors use their power to shape public policy to their desires,
he contended. Moreover, Shelby said, they have real influence
over keeping information that could be damaging to their causes
from being made widely available. And through their Washington
lobbyists, they end up actually writing legislation the way they
With such a procedure it's no wonder
that some critics can cite circumstantial evidence of officials
are being bought, not elected, he said.
Unfortunately, the media unwittingly
contribute to the problem. It's not that electronic and
print media deliberately try to mislead the public, he said,
because they undoubtedly believe their task today, as it always
has been, is to uncover objective truth. Know the facts and
proceed. But powerful interest groups are successfully blurring
the picture with the use of subjective truth.
Shelby used a mathematical
illustration to make his point. On a given issue, objective
truth is 2+2=4. But powerful groups not comfortable with the
impact that objective truth would have on an outcome, insist
that 2+2=6, using what might be called subjective truth. The end
result might be 2+2=5, a convenient result but still objectively
untrue. Thus public policy too often gets decided based on wrong
information, he said.
It is vital to uncover the facts that
power groups don't want others to know. Shelby said his
guiding principle as a journalist always was to find the facts,
which very often was information that interest groups didn't
want anyone else to know.
Needing campaign contributions,
members of Congress spend enormous time soliciting and serving
wealthy donors. To illustrate the importance of money,
Shelby described the process he followed in evaluating a request
he received two years ago to run for the U.S. House of
Representatives. He acknowledged the potential prestige
associated with being a member of Congress was enticing. Shelby
himself had covered Congress in the 1970s. After consulting with
many members of Congress urging him to run, he decided against
it. He was reminded that a House member must run for re-election
every two years and that not more than one of those years is
spent on legislative business. The other year the House member
must spend 40 hours a week on the phone raising money to get
re-elected and, in the process, having to respond to concerns
that wealthy donors bring up. Shelby said his age also was a
factor in his deciding against running. If he were re-elected to
several terms, he'd be 84 years old before he'd be a committee
People are losing faith in their
government. It's not surprising, he said, that so many
people, especially the young, are backing away from civic
engagement. They believe the game is rigged and, therefore, is
over before it begins.
Founding fathers recognized the power
of factions. To show that today's problems are nothing new,
Shelby mentioned James Madison's
Federalist No. 10,
November 22, 1787, "The Utility of the Union as a Safeguard
Against Domestic Faction and Insurrection", which includes the
following quote: "By a faction, I understand a number of
citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the
whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of
passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other
citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the
There is an essential connection
between journalism and citizenship.
Growing up in
Muncie, IN, Shelby recalled that his father, a galvanizer by day
and a Ball State University evening teacher, faithfully read
every word of the morning and evening newspapers. Don Shelby
knew he could not interrupt his father during the hours of
newspaper reading. "It's my job," his father replied. But Don,
seeing no direct connection to his father's occupations, asked
why. His father went on to say that his first job is to be a
citizen of this country, and unless he is aware of what is
happening every day, he can't perform that citizenship
Shelby said that absolutely his father's view guided Don into
It has been difficult being a witness-participant to the
decline in mainstream media resources. Thinking over
his 32-year career at WCCO, Shelby recalled that in 1978, there
were not more than nine media entities (including three TV
stations and four newspapers) in the Twin Cities metro area
competing for a total advertising revenue of about $6 billion.
When Shelby retired in 2010, the $6 billion in advertising
revenue had not changed, he said, but now thre were 1,400
competitors, including websites, competing.
Consequently, newsroom budgets have been cut significantly. He
recalled the last major story he requested at WCCO TV was for a
$3,000 budget to cover the newly-opened Bakken oil field in
North Dakota. Higher-ups required him to shave the proposal to
$800 and still said no. After later being scooped by another TV
station, and after the story became widely covered, WCCO ended
up spending a lot more than would have been required by his
Where is citizenship education today? Time
magazine has yielded to Us and People magazines. We have seen
of the news, he said. As a result, many of us have fallen asleep
on public policy.
Media outlets seem to bend over
backward to provide balance among contending positions, instead
of searching for truth.
It's almost as if getting the
facts straight on an issue isn't important, he said. It's not
unusual, he said, for the facts to presented in a news article,
but in the interest of "balance" the media will quote someone on
the other side of an issue who might totally ignore the facts,
but the comments are routinely included, giving the impression
they are legitimate. Media executives are more afraid of
business or political leaders being angry about their coverage
than they are about trying to find objective truth, he said.
Therefore, he said, it's impossible for a reporter in this
situation to use any language that would inform the listener or
the reader that such-and-such is really the right information.
Accuracy, fairness, and balance are three cornerstones of good
journalism, Shelby said, but balance does not mean equal weight.
Equal weight is a mistaken notion when the preponderance of
evidence is on the side of truth.
Congress is not all that interested in
changing campaign finance
. Asked why the U. S. Congress
isn't exhibiting leadership in changing campaign finance laws,
Shelby replied that 87 percent of members are re-elected. They
complain about the system, he said, but their prime interest is
in having a good campaign chest for the next election and being
Is there more concern for "me" than for the community?
An interviewer inquired about examples where people--whether
citizens or elected officials--seem primarily interested in the
benefit for the larger community than for their own personal
welfare. Shelby replied by relating his experience recently in
supporting a local school building program campaign. He
repeatedly encountered citizens who said they would be voting
"no" because their children no longer were in school They
believed it is now the responsibility of those with children in
school, not they. What's missing in that attitude, he said, is
that the older people are going to benefit from that campaign,
because better education for the young will pay off with more
economic benefits for the entire community. Regrettably, he
said, too many people have too narrow a view of citizenship
Minnesota Public Radio provides leadership. An
interview recalled that last week we met with Minnesota Public
Radio and were astounded to see the size of its newsroom, which
has as many reporters as a major Minnesota daily newspaper.
Shelby replied that Nancy Cassutt, who was once an intern in
"Shelby's investigative I-Team, is now the news director at MPR.
The best civic organizations are the quiet ones, with
"no dog in the fight". Shelby highlighted those
organizations that stress calm, civil discussion, where people
listen to one another without shouting, rely on fact, look to
what is best for the community, not themselves, and who don't
have an advocacy position to defend, i.e., no dog in the fight.
A listener yells at the TV in
frustration over superficial coverage.
complained that too often public officials get away with dodging
reporters' questions or are able, via a nice-sounding, but
non-responsive, comment, to divert a reporter's attention from
continuing to pursue the real question. What's wrong here, the
Reporters might be discouraged by the culture of corporate
ownership of a media outlet from appearing disagreeable, Shelby
replied. The media outlet doesn't want to irritate a news source
or perhaps be subject to pushing an agenda, he said. Further,
given time pressures covering the news, reporters might choose
to go with a quote that sounds good, even though non-responsive,
without pursuing the matter further. Keep in mind, too, he said,
that with the myriad of areas needing coverage in a given day a
reporter might be on assignment with very limited knowledge of
the subject and isn't well equipped to know the right follow-up
Sometimes a crafty public figure can divert a reporter's
question to something else, while appearing to be responsive,
Shelby said. For example, a reporter should be on guard when the
person being interviewed says, "That's a good question." Instead
of really responding to the "good question" the individual says
something that goes in an entirely different direction with a
different subject. The reporter might then follow up in that
area, ignoring or forgetting the original subject being pursued.
Are well-meaning civic and research
organizations failing to recognize that they could do a better
job of educating the public, including reporters?
Instead of blaming the media for less-than-satisfactory
coverage, an interviewer suggested that groups that supposedly
are digging for the real truth about a situation should do more
in their reports on public problems to consciously educate the
public, which includes news media. That would help equip
reporters with needed background information for their questions
of public officials, the interviewer suggested.
Millennial generation has a different
approach to the news.
Responding to an interviewer's
question about changing ways that people of
the millennial generation get their news,
Shelby noted that generation is much more inclined to rely upon
social media. It's a social populism generation, he said, that,
unfortunately doesn't vote in proportion to comparable numbers
for older generations. As an illustration Shelby noted that a
Wisconsin sign-maker apparently is doing a booming business for
lawn signs reading "Everyone Sucks 2016".
Shelby said that to the extent
millennials are rejecting the traditional political world, it is
because they sense that going into politics is not a public
service, but a business opportunity to get rich.
Optimism warranted by progress on the environment.
Shelby returned to a major point he made earlier in the meeting
about the importance of doing what, in capital letters, is
Right, seeking and reporting truth. He cited Paul Hawken's book
which, he said, outlines the largest populist movement in the
world with some 100 million people not only working, but getting
paid, in the area of the environment. It's a crazy,
uncoordinated, conglomeration of all kinds of interests, but
they are seeking, he said, what is "Right" based on objective
The Civic Caucus
is a non-partisan,
tax-exempt educational organization. The Interview Group
includes persons of varying political persuasions,
reflecting years of leadership in politics and
business. Click here
to see a short personal background of each.
S. Adams, David Broden, Audrey Clay, Janis Clay, Pat Davies, Bill
Frenzel, Paul Gilje (executive director), Dwight Johnson, Randy Johnson, Sallie
Kemper, Ted Kolderie,
Dan Loritz (chair), Tim McDonald, Bruce Mooty, Jim Olson, Paul Ostrow, Wayne
Popham, Dana Schroeder, Clarence Shallbetter, and Fred Zimmermany,