GRAND FORKS – Months after U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., sent three broadcast news giants a questionnaire on media bias, he’s heard nothing back -- and he said that, for now, he’s moving on.
“I’ve had a response in that I haven’t heard back from any of the network executives,” he said recently, blasting the “unconscionable” decision of executives at NBCUniversal, CBS Corp. and ABC Television Group to ignore his March 31 letter. “I consider their arrogance or indifference to be a message, and I take it as much. No response is a response to me.”
Cramer began pursuing the issue just before the November election, when he announced he intended to call for hearings on broadcast media bias. He was upset with coverage of the presidential campaign -- specifically, FBI scrutiny of Hillary Clinton emails -- and believed it warranted a discussion on networks’ responsibilities using federally-owned airwaves. He later called it a “shot across the bow” for media leaders.
In December, Cramer opted for questionnaires instead of hearings, claiming news coverage had since improved and that a new administration would give his letters more clout. His questions pressed executives on any collusion with the Clinton campaign to create a “favorable narrative,” and asked if their coverage of the new Trump administration would “match the approach” they took with the early Obama administration. His questionnaire was not sent to Fox Television Stations Group, a recipient of a Nov. 4 letter in which he announced his intention to call for media bias hearings.
The media networks “need other things,” said Cramer, a member of a House committee that hears communications and technology matters. “I’ll have plenty of other opportunities to ask them what’s wrong -- why they didn’t have the opportunity to send me a note.”
An NBCUniversal spokesman said the broadcaster had no comment. Neither ABC Television Group nor CBS Corp. responded to requests for comment.
Cramer’s scrutiny comes as the news industry itself is increasingly in the news. He was an early endorser of President Donald Trump, who has long had a contentious relationship with the media. Since his inauguration, Trump has tweeted the phrase “fake news” about 60 times, “fake media” 11 times and used the phrase “fake msm” on June 6.
“The FAKE MSM is working so hard trying to get me not to use Social Media,” Trump tweeted then. “They hate that I can get the honest and unfiltered message out.”
Sarah Cavanah, an associate professor in the University of North Dakota’s communication department, said those developments come as the media landscape changes. Though journalism still follows the same tenets of objectivity, Americans consume it differently than in decades past.
“Instead of getting that nightly news message from Walter Cronkite … now we get all these very targeted messages that come through social media, that come through partisan media or only come through specialty media,” she said. As a result, viewers can pick and choose the kind of news they want to hear.
Cavanah said those changes have still left major media institutions’ objectivity intact. Though outlets like Breitbart or The Nation might skew right or left, studies show major metro newspapers and national broadcast media remain objective.
“You will see some studies where they poll personal beliefs of journalists,” Cavanah said, which often finds that reporters, as a group, are politically left of center. “But when they actually assess the content, they have a hard time finding this alleged bias. … In rigorous academic studies, it hasn’t popped up a whole lot.”
Cavanah drew a distinction between Trump’s rhetoric and Cramer’s questionnaire. Cramer’s apparent openness to conversation and heated debate, she said, makes him “radically different” from President Trump.
And she drew a further distinction between Cramer and Rep. Greg Gianforte, R-Montana, who made headlines after body-slamming a reporter for The Guardian in late May, the day before Gianforte won a special election for his congressional seat. The incident stemmed from a question the reporter asked on GOP health care reform. Gianforte later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge and apologized.
“I think there’s a lot of steps between the two,” Cavanah said of Cramer and Gianforte. The journalism industry will likely “shake off” Cramer’s questions, she said, which appear designed around a political purpose and less around an earnest interest in learning about the media. “He may sincerely want to reform the media in a certain way, but it doesn’t seem like the data gathering.”
Cramer responded to those kinds of comments in December, claiming he didn’t announce his interest in media bias hearings for political gain. Instead, he sent the letter “so that these guys are on notice that they’re not doing this within a vacuum.”
Last week, Cramer went a little further. “I don’t think most people care what the Washington Post or the New York Times says,” Cramer said. “But the three broadcast networks -- everyone in America can watch them.”
Sam Easter is a local government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. Reach him with tips, comments or story ideas at (701) 780-1102. Follow him on Twitter @SamKWEaster.