Then came Trump: KC news anchor Mark Alford got up, ran for Congress after hot liquid media meltdown reached his morning show couch

With everyone else playing games outside at his family reunion, 6th-grader Mark Alford was inside. Watching the Watergate hearings live.

It was an era when a bumper sticker and button, popular especially in journalism circles, loudly proclaimed “Question Authority!”

“I’m a voracious consumer of news. Always have been,” Missouri’s 4th District congressman says. “I just love news. I loved what was going on in our society, our community and our government.”

Moreover, after a 35-year career in television news from Houston to Dallas to KC, the former child newshound is uniquely qualified to assess the state of American news media. So, The Heartlander asked him to give readers a feel for what the media landscape looks like now that he’s left it.

That’s all we had to ask. It poured out of him – diplomatically, to be certain, but no less sad and ominous for a country whose lifeblood is a free and fair news media.

Or was. Alford, as many, knew for many years that something was awry in the media – even before the sudden and precipitous plunge in fair-mindedness and credibility owing to the election of one Donald J. Trump.

The right-of-center anchor quickly found himself on the wrong side of newsroom politics.

“As a lifelong conservative, I always recognized that there was something wrong,” he says. “I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it didn’t seem complete – like you weren’t getting all sides of the story. And I didn’t even call it ‘conservatism’ back then; just balance in stories.”

Alford’s awakening to the growing partiality in media was quickened by former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg’s landmark 2001 book Bias, which he says “really opened my eyes as to what was going on in the media. And it defined, really, what I had been seeing in the media and explained why there wasn’t the balance that I thought there should be.”

Then came Trump. And COVID-19. And even wider fissures between public life and private thinking. Most media chose sides, notably against those who – well, chose to question authority.

Alford increasingly felt a duty to go beyond the incomplete stories he was given to read – “especially when Trump came to office.

“We would get scripts that would come in, through CNN or Associated Press, and the morning producers, they get there at like 9 or 10 at night and they write the scripts, and when we came in we would read what they had written. 

“And it’s no reflection on their character, integrity, whatsoever. But that’s the material that they’re given on which to write scripts. So there’s not a lot of base context, perspective and knowledge, especially for young people just coming out of journalism schools, which are pretty liberal now anyway. 

“And so, the scripts would be incomplete, and I would try to make them complete with the base knowledge that I had and the research that I had done and the information I had gained over my years.

“With this knowledge, I felt like I had a fiduciary responsibility to our viewers to tell them the truth, no matter where that was. And the more I did that, I think, the more it infuriated the management, and infuriated the progressive liberals who were watching our station.”

Although national cable news outlets cater to pretty targeted markets, local news still has consumers of all ideological stripes. Yet, Alford got in trouble for adding anything into his on-air presentations that smacked of conservatism.

“I don’t know how well local news serves conservative viewpoints,” he says. “Not that you have to cater to a viewpoint, but you have to represent in your coverage, I think, the different aspects that are reflected in society and in our political world.

“And so, by bringing that side – to balance out what I saw as a progressive liberal side to the news – I was almost deemed, like, the crazy old conservative guy in the newsroom. And I was reprimanded on several occasions for saying things on the air. I would get called into the management office and they’d say, you know, ‘We’ve got people that are calling the station. They want you fired again.’  

I said, ‘What did I say this time?’ And they’d say, ‘Well, you said this.’ I said let’s go back and look at the videotape. And we do. And I say, ‘What did I say that was inaccurate?’ And they said, ‘Well, it’s not that it’s inaccurate. We just don’t want you saying it.’”

By the spring of 2020, “I was told that I could no longer do any stories on President Trump, because they felt like I was not being unbiased in my presentation. I later found out they had told the producers that I was not able to do stories on gun control issues, abortion. There were five or six [issues] that I later found out that the producers were directed to give these stories to my counterpart. 

“I was left [with] the crime stories, basically, in Kansas City, and the fluff.”

And as for COVID, while his show featured a weekly segment with a doctor, “Well, I didn’t get a lot of those interviews with the doctor, let’s put it that way. My counterpart did, who read the questions as scripted.”

It’s not like Alford’s style didn’t attract viewers. Back in Texas, he says, “I was like the consummate Tom Brokaw or Dan Rather professional-type anchor with the right voice and the right inflection and all. And when I moved to Kansas City, I said to hell with that; I’m just gonna be myself. If people don’t like me, they don’t like me. If they like me, they like me.

“I wanted to be like we’re sitting around a breakfast table having breakfast and we’re reading the newspaper together, and I’m on the side of the viewer. We’re going through the newspaper and, ‘Hey, that doesn’t make sense.’ Trying to figure things out together. Kind of like an advocate for the viewer. Even on the air, I would maybe read the story and say, ‘That doesn’t make sense.’ But that was part of our style.

“And that was a new style for Kansas City. They had not ever had anything like that before, and it freaked our management out. But our ratings grew. We ended up within the first year – and not just me, but our team, what we developed – becoming a strong No. 1 in the morning ratings.”

When Trump started hammering the national media relentlessly, they lost their minds and their credibility right with it, Alford says, “because it’s not the media’s job to fight back. It’s just to report what’s going on, and then let the viewers decide.

“And yet they thought because they had been attacked, it was their job to return fire. They basically took the bait from Trump. That’s what he wanted. He outsmarted them. Had they remained neutral, and there were some semblance of neutrality, I don’t think there would be the demise of journalism in America today, where the vast majority of the people do not trust mainstream media.”

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