David Hazinski: The public’s lost faith in media opened the door for trolls

There are no yardsticks, no criteria for the public to determine what is good news, what is bad news, who is qualified to report on something, says the American media specialist

David Hazinski is one of the most important media specialists in the world. He worked for six years as a foreign correspondent for the well-known American TV station, NBC News; for over 30 years, he taught journalism as an associate professor at Grady College in Georgia, USA; and he was recently named one of 10 NewsPro Noteworthy Journalism Educators by Crain NewsPro. His vast experience both in working and teaching in the journalistic profession makes him one of the most influential voices in this field. I was able to talk to David Hazinski this month while he was in Bucharest participating in a workshop on fake news organized by the National University of Political Studies and Administration, College of Communication and Public Relations.

Tell us more about yourself. Who is David Hazinski?

I am basically a journalist. I spent 20 years doing this for domestic stations and I was a domestic and foreign correspondent for NBC News, then I co-anchored a show with Caspar Weinberger, who was US Secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. I taught for 30 years and while I was teaching I had a consulting company. We launched 13 television networks, usually news networks, around the world, rebuilt about as many, and I helped launch the first private and 24/7 news channels in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Ok, my first question to you is this: are ethical codes unethical themselves since journalists worldwide are decision takers, not decision makers?

I think the ethical codes are fine, but they are a kind of false advertising, because we don’t really pay attention to them. The journalistic profession is much better organized in Romania than it is in the United States and it is still not doing the right thing. We do not have the characteristics of a profession; there is no mandatory education, there are no boards of reviews, no qualifications, unlike any other profession I can think of. We have a significant number of people who think that we don’t need some kind of controls between journalism and everybody else. That is part of the reason why we opened up to trolls. There are no yardsticks, no criteria for the public to determine what is good news, what is bad news, who is qualified to report on something. That is a huge problem. We have the worst of both worlds. The Romanian code of ethics that was adopted in 2004 is excellent. The problem is that they don’t pay attention to it. And the reason they don’t pay attention to it is not because the journalists don’t want to, it’s because the people they work for [don’t], and that’s what needs to be changed. That’s gigantic – that’s changing ownership, investment, among other things. But until we do, people really don’t have a yardstick to judge things. I work a lot with CNN. Not officially, but I talk with people in key management positions and I tell them they lost their mission, that they joined the pro-Trump/anti-Trump crazy train, and spend most of their time being anti-Trump. I don’t think that journalism should be pro- or anti- anything. I think it should be a legitimate form of information to give people facts so they can decide themselves. But here is the ironic thing about journalism. We are the most democratic system on the planet. We operate under a system of ratings for television and circulation for newspapers. If people don’t like what we put there, they don’t buy it. We are giving people what they want, but at the end of the day, the public is saying that they want more information on pro-/anti-Trump, or pro-/anti-family values and gay rights, in your case, in Romania. The public is determining a lot of what journalism is.

Ok, so you talked about the trolls. A lot of discussions focus on Russian propaganda. What is your take on that?

I think it’s destructive and very, very smart. It is very cheap and very easy. It is almost a no-cost action. You build a nuclear missile – it costs a hundred times what they are spending on propaganda that is doing more damage to Eastern Europe and western democracies than a bomb could. So, I kind of admire the efficiency of it, but at the end of the day it is destructive – lying and manipulating people for a political end. And granted, all parties do that, but I think the Romanians have a right to determine what is best for Romania. The Montenegrins have the right to determine what happens in their country, not the Russians. But that’s unfortunately what’s happening.

We have to be honest and discuss the claim that there is very efficient American propaganda. What do you think about that?

Tell me more what you are referring to and I’ll tell you what I think.

Well, some say that during the Cold War we had very appealing American media products and extremely stupid Russian and state propaganda. Anybody could spot the communist propaganda because it was blatantly stupid. After Perestroika not only did the Russians become capitalists but they also became very clever and skillful at making propaganda. So basically what we have now for the first time in history is extremely appealing propaganda coming from both the US and Russia.

I’ll take issue with that. Why? Because [if] we define propaganda as state-produced then Russians are much better at it than Americans are. We still have Voice of America. We still have Radio Free Europe. They lost their mission 20 years ago when the countries changed. But they are government bureaucracies so they stay intact. I think they are now counterproductive ironically enough. Part of the goal of Voice of America, Radio TVMT for Latin America and Cuba, was, they will tell you, being “the voice of truth”. But that was news and information with a democratic flavor to it in countries that didn’t have that. Now those things still exist. They cost a great deal of money.

Radio Free Europe announced this year that it will reopen in Romania…

Yes and they are competing with indigenous media that are capitalistic, that are businesses. So they are effectively hurting indigenous media by taking viewers away from them instead of helping them. I actually talked to the board of governors a couple of years ago. I think what American media should be doing is training, doing technology testing, doing video news services for Romanians and Bulgarians and helping them to get stronger both commercially and editorially. They are not doing that. They are competing with them because Voice of America is a government bureaucracy. The Broadcasting Board of Governors is a government agency and like all government agencies those people want to get the jobs they like and then retire. They don’t care about the mission. Well, the mission has changed. The world has changed. So, if we do this right, [we should] re-do all of that stuff and help them. So I don’t think the Americans are doing better. I think we are counterproductive on one side where the Russians have gotten better. The dynamic is not the same anymore and it isn’t good for us.

You talked about ownership of the media. Let’s talk about information. Do you think information is a commodity or is it a public good?

I’ve changed on that. I think it is public good. The networks I started in India, Pakistan, Montenegro, Serbia are all commercial. (I never worked for a government broadcaster.) I don’t think they operate for the public good. Remember also the story about CNN I told you about. They are driven by profit; that’s their yardstick, that’s their criteria. They do a lot of things right, but their news agenda is set by what gets the most eyeballs or generates the most advertising and revenue and that’s fine for a business. But that’s not necessarily serving the public best. I have trouble getting news about anything but Trump. I don’t want an analyst to talk for 30 minutes either on Romanian or on American TV. I want to have someone take me to the tsunami in Indonesia and tell me more about it because that’s a big deal. People’s lives are at stake there. You don’t see that much anymore because they’re not focused on it. I think government media doesn’t work. By definition it is an inherently prejudiced organization. I heard Daniel Funke say previously in the workshop that we were just in, that fact checkers publish the sources of their income. They do that because that’s an obvious influence. The BBC is funded basically by the government and they spend a gigantic amount of money. There will be a flavor of what the government wants no matter what. I don’t think that’s necessarily in the public interest. Sometimes the politicians argue that if you have an elected government then the government does what the public wants. Well, yes, until it doesn’t and we have another election. So there is that period when it isn’t functioning but the state media organization will support the government because that’s who pays them. I don’t think it could work well. I think it should be nonprofit.

I think this is a very complex problem, because if you have a corporation supporting the media, you cannot criticize the corporation.

Although I can show you an example of CBS doing exactly that.

But there were counterexamples too, when a reporter writing about working conditions in Nike factories was finally…

This is one of the things I like about exposing the process. When I worked for NBC News I didn’t even know anybody from NBC Sports. They were two completely different corporations but the public doesn’t know that. The public doesn’t know the lines that we have or that we are supposed to have in between editorial content and commentary and we merged too much content and commentary too. The Sports have a completely different perspective. Let me give you another example. Sports will buy college football – our American football, not the European version – rights and then a television station will pay for the rights to cover that stuff. They don’t cover in an unbiased way. Their news people will cover it but not in an unbiased way because there is a contract and they want to generate more revenue. It’s a built-in corrupt system. They never talk about it. We never tell people that. They are supposed to figure that out. That’s what trolls exploit. The little holes that we have in our system that people don’t know about. They know about them and they say: “you can’t trust these people because they are getting money from that. Their broadcasting is getting money from that contract,” and they’re right.

Let’s get back to the state-owned institutions. The BBC is one of the leading journalistic institutions in the world.

I will tell you what I tell my clients about the BBC. I think it’s very well done and if you gave me the amount of money they have I would do ten times better than they have. They are well done, but they are incredibly inefficient. I think they can do a much better job for the money they have. But you gave one choice. Give me other choices.

But what is the other solution?

Non-profit.

But it must be difficult for you to finance that.

I completely agree. What my tools provide is the chance to start local non-profits cheaper. I intend to sell advertising. You could sell advertising. Almost all government broadcasters sell advertising. So they basically have two sources: the government and advertising. We don’t want government money. We are going to do things significantly differently. We are not going to cut deals with anybody for distribution. We are going to create our own apps on the web. But given that Facebook and Twitter hide their information we are going to give it to researchers, give it to the public, and give back to the businesses so they can make decisions based on real life and not get manipulated by somebody.

We have now an ecosystem based on manipulation. That’s the problem. So the way to fix it is to un-manipulate it to expose the entire process to people, and by the way, if you expose the entire process to people, they’ll trust it. It’s the only way they’ll trust it because we will see how decisions are made and why they are made. The reason a lot of people are reluctant to do just that is because the problem with the public is that the public is composed of 10-15% crazy people who will threaten to kill you or may try to kill you or wreck your name. Well that’s the price of public information. That’s the price of putting yourself out for the public and I think that’s the price we have to pay because the [other] option is to try to hide behind anonymity or corporations and say you should trust us anyhow. Well people aren’t going to. Why should they? I agree with them.

I believe that the whole system based on the idea that the public is in charge is based on an elitist illuminist assumption: the public is rational. The public sits on the couch and chooses the best documented information on offer. Don’t you think that this model is flawed?

If we can’t trust the public, who can we trust? We can trust some kings, some despots, some dictators to do a better job. I don’t think we have a lot of choice. I think the people who pay the money, who live in society, have the right to decide how things are done. Again, there will be crazy people amongst those who are called society, but what other choice do we have?

But the problem here is that we truly believed that once the public was in charge, then the best documented journalism would win their choice. But what happened was that the most disgusting forms of doing journalism actually won. Our reaction was to say that the model is good but the public is stupid.

Well… yes, but I don’t think they are necessarily stupid but I think they want to be entertained more than they want to be informed. That’s pretty obvious. We see that in the US, not just here. Circulation is up. Ratings are up. That happened as the quality of the news deteriorated, when they became screaming matches with pro- or anti-Trump people, or left or right wing people screaming at each other. One of the shows on the BBC – the network you talked about – is Hard Talk, where people scream at each other all the time. That’s what they do, they yell at each other. That gets good ratings. I don’t know how we fix that if we educate people to be better citizens, but in the end they are the ones that have to make the choice. Again, what’s the option? The Russian hoped that after Perestroika they would get a wonderful system and now a bunch of thugs are running the government and [there are] oligarchs who are rich and powerful thugs. I think in their case, part of the reason could be that they have no history of democracy. They have no multi-party anything. They went from a centralized form of government with the tsars to a system with the communist leaders being the first among equals. The same type of first-among-equals was Ceausescu. But what I find interesting about Romania is that the ruling class is formed by the same people: somebody is the prime minister, or the minister of education and then they lose a political election but they get to be rectors somewhere, then they come back. But we are talking about the same people. In the end, the fact that there are changes in politics is a positive thing. But we have the same issue in the United States. We also need some fresh blood. I personally as an American don’t plan to vote for anyone who isn’t a woman. I think the white guys had plenty of time to make things right.

But I think what you mean is that she should be a feminist, because you have Judge Jeanine, that is Jeanine Piro, a famous TV star, a woman and a person of color, who is conservative and pro-Trump.

I don’t think there are a lot of women or persons of color who are pro-Trump. His numbers among women are very low.

What I am saying is that you can have a feminist male leader like Trudeau or a conservative woman like Jeanine Piro. You need the feminist spirit, not the body.

Yes, but I think being a woman helps a lot. The thing I find amazing about both Romania and the United States is that we formed oligarchies ourselves. We formed elites ourselves. The Clintons, the Gores, the Bushes. It’s not coincidental that a couple of brothers are governors at the same time. This is supposed to be the thing that America avoided [so it could] get regular people as officials. I think part of the problem is term limits: you can stay in office forever but most of the people that run politics in the US are oligarchs. Now we had a “middle class tax cut” that gave 83% of the money to corporations and to the most rich people in America. They certainly did not serve the guy I talked about in the workshop that works in Cleveland, that works in the mill; he is not served. And the Democrats aren’t serving those people either. They’ve lost their focus on organized labor; they’ve lost their focus on civil rights and invariably (and I bet this is the case also for Romania) they have the choice of the people they like less. That is the choice and I don’t want to vote for any one of them. This is the irony. The American  system is bipartisan. You are either Democrat or Republican. The system is built for two parties and you don’t have a choice. The truth is, the majority of Americans would rather be independent but there is no power there. The system is set up for two parties. In the Parliamentary system you can have a variety of parties. But that doesn’t work too well either because you risk giving a gigantic amount of power to lunatic parties even if they are on the crazy sides of the spectrum. And the answer is, I don’t know what works but both systems have some serious flaws.

Ok, my final question relates to what we discussed during the seminar. The most toxic gift that Russia Today can give you is to speak highly of you every day. You can’t bring them to court because they are saying positive things about you. And it creates a huge amount of suspicion because we created a monster that feeds on our paranoia. And today Russia Today is the most powerful force not to inform us but to destroy potential critical voices.

Yes, I think that’s very funny, I liked it when you gave this example yesterday. Sure, I agree. But how can we fix that? You have no control over what they say! I’ll go back to the clip I presented where the director of the FBI said that the best defense against fake news, smearing and manipulation is factual news. You can’t out-fake them, you can’t out-manipulate them. That’s not going to help. The response is not to go to the other extreme and lie and manipulate. That’s not going to help. What helps is coming out with factual information so people can make good decisions – that was my point in this workshop – and proving to them that it is factual information, that you have taken the trouble to do things right and to balance both sides, to get information, to go there and report yourself and see what is going on. If we go back to the foundations of journalism the public is going to have a lot of faith in us. They lost faith and that opened a door for trolls because we haven’t done things right, because we have a bunch of ministers telling us what the story should be and then we don’t go out and check to see the effect and then we wonder why the public doesn’t believe us. Because we are doing a crony job. We have to do a better job.

Photo: David Hazinski (YouTube, David Hazinski)

Maria Cernat is a graduate of the Faculty of Journalism and Communication Sciences (FJSC) (2001) and the Faculty of Philosophy (2004) at the University of Bucharest. She obtained an MA from FJSC in 2002 and in 2008 she was made a doctor of philosophy. She is currently a PhD Lecturer in the Department for Communication and Public Relations at Titu Maiorescu University. Since 2011 she has published articles on Romanian websites for political debates (CriticAtac, Cealaltă Agendă, România Curată).