The lines between news and opinion are not what they once were, and Stephanie Ruhle, host of the “11th Hour” on MSNBC and Senior Business Analyst for NBC News, says that point was driven home to her as she looked back at her own family’s media habits, including how they have turned to talk radio and the evening news to get both information and context.
“My grandparents were religious listeners of Rush Limbaugh, because he was a radio personality who shared some of their political ideology. But they didn't turn to Rush Limbaugh to get their news. That was Walter Cronkite. And those are two different things,” Ruhle says. “I think those are two valuable things that exist in news and entertainment and in opinion. But they should be marked for what they are, and audiences should understand what they are.”
Speaking with iHeartMedia CEO Bob Pittman on the latest episode of the Math & Magic podcast, Ruhle said as consumers have become savvier it has allowed news organizations to work more in the grey zone between the black and white of strict news and opinion.
“Merely providing information is limited, and it’s not necessarily what people need from news organizations because you can get basic information from a lot of places,” Ruhle says. “I think there's something more than just straight news that doesn't take you all the way to bias.” And while she wishes it was clearer as to where the basic information was coming from, Ruhle says adding a voice like a presidential historian to a conversation about the day’s news adds perspective and context. “They’re not coming on and giving a deep bias,” she says.
Ruhle is a former Wall Street banker who made the leap to business journalism, first at Bloomberg Television and since 2016 at NBC. When Brian Williams signed-off from the “11th Hour” on MSNBC last December, the network tapped Ruhle in March to take over the nightly news program. While she thinks that news organizations operating almost like a nonprofit public service may sound good in theory, Ruhle says at the end of the day most of the big operations are controlled by money and the most talented are drawn to profit centers, not nonprofit centers.
Ruhle also says she is not worried about research that has shown the public’s view of news organizations has changed with fewer people saying they trust what they hear, see and read, and more partisanship creeping into what sources are considered trustworthy. She thinks social media is a factor.
“Before social media existed, I had to really carry myself to a standard that somebody is part of a news organization. And if I was saying, or doing irresponsible things, NBC could say to me, ‘Hey Steph, you do that, you're off the air,” she says. “Now, you've got news ‘personalities; that consider themselves bigger than their news organizations. And so they're saying and doing wild irresponsible things and their news organizations can't control them.”
But even with the downsides, Ruhle tells Pittman that social media is part of a bigger democratization of what is considered news, and that’s good for consumers.
“Because there are so many news outlets and the barriers of entry are so much lower today, that I think in many ways, the American public is better served than they've been before,” she says. “Back in the day, when there was only a certain amount of news organizations, whether it was TV news, or radio news, or newspapers, weren't we all the better? I don't know that that's the case. Back when there were such difficult barriers of entry, did the whole truth ever get out? Now, one person's tiny voice can have a huge impact because of those social media channels because the barriers of entry are so much lower. That's extraordinary. Now, is that dangerous in terms of standards and best practices? Absolutely. And we've got to figure that out.”
Listen to the full Math & Magic: Stories from the Frontiers of Marketing with Bob Pittman episode HERE.