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Sam Donaldson: Reporting is challenging when people ignore facts

Sam Donaldson

The internet has created a world where a significant number of Americans no longer understand facts or care about the truth, according to an experienced network news reporter.

In a discussion Tuesday evening hosted by the University of Montana Mansfield Center, veteran ABC News reporter Sam Donaldson reminisced about his 52 years in the news business and discussed changes in the media landscape that don’t bode well for a healthy democracy.

Remembering Montana’s Sen. Mike Manfield, the 88-year-old Donaldson said he last spoke to Mansfield in the mid-1990’s. Donaldson had heard that President John Kennedy had told Mansfield that he intended to pull U.S. troops out of Vietnam after he was reelected. He asked Mansfield if that was so. True to his reputation of being a man of few words, Mansfield replied, “Yup, he did.”

Donaldson was not so taciturn, fortunately, and told many stories of his years reporting on Congress and the Vietnam War to back up some of his observations of today’s issues.

When he started reporting, television broadcasts were still in black and white. When he finished, the internet and social media were beginning to show how dangerous they could be. Throughout all that, Donaldson said the most significant change was the number of Americans who don’t know the facts and are willing to believe certain opinions.

“There is a segment of our population that accept the lies and if you try to expose the lies, they get very angry,” Donaldson said. “Many people I watch on cable as well as individual websites, they don’t care about the facts. I think it’s very injurious to the country and it’s worrisome if you can’t solve the problem.”

Donaldson was at a loss as to how Americans could come together to accept common facts, as they did to a greater extent prior to the advent of the internet. His only suggestion was to encourage people to read or listen to more than one news source.

“You need a variety (of sources),” Donaldson said. “Many people have the ability today to get that on the internet, but they don’t do it. Because change isn’t something they’re familiar with. So how are you going to separate the truth from the fiction?”

Along the same lines, Donaldson said reporters covering events in Ukraine need to have a greater diversity of stories. They’re falling into the rut of covering a lot of the slaughter without as much coverage of the challenges of diplomacy. Because video of the carnage can be posted instantaneously to the internet, that’s the quick and easy story, as opposed to the 1960’s when it took two days for his film from Vietnam to reach newsrooms. The slower pace allowed more time to get deeper into the issues.
“The danger is what we see is a small slice of the picture,” Donaldson said. “Night after night, I see another family brutalized in Ukraine. I’m for doing something to stop it. But I got it. I don’t need more and more as the lede. Tonight, I wanted to hear what (U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin) had to say and I want to see the question of whether the Russian foreign minister – when he talks about ‘be careful, World War III, we have the nukes,’ something Putin himself brought up – is just trying to bluff people out.”

Even after covering wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan, Donaldson said he was shocked as he watched the insurrection take place at the nation’s capital on Jan. 6, 2021. Again, the people who rioted had believed lies that the election had been rigged but no one had produced any evidence to back that claim up.

Reporters working today to separate truth from fiction have a harder time than in decades past, Donaldson said, because lying has become such a common thing for politicians, pundits and charlatans of the internet. Although there were exceptions, presidents and press secretaries of the past didn’t tend to lie – they just wouldn’t answer a question.

That wasn’t the case for the Trump administration.

“I never had to put up with what these reporters put up with Donald Trump. Some presidents may have wanted me fired, but no one ever said that in public. And no one ever tried to tell me I couldn’t ask a question. No one ever tried to take my pass away at the White House. There was civility on both sides. We reporters understood what the president’s job was and our job was to ask questions to get the person to reveal plans,” Donaldson said.

“Today – not the present one – but we’ve seen press secretaries who knowingly lie on behalf of their boss,” Donaldson said.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.