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“Among the many firsts, last year’s election gave us the gobsmacking revelation that most of the mainstream media puts both thumbs on the scale—that most of what you read, watch, and listen to is distorted by intentional bias and hostility. I have never seen anything like it. Not even close.”
So said Michael Goodwin, the chief political columnist for the New York Post during a presentation at Hillsdale College. The speech was adapted for the Imprimis publication, June 2017. I think his comment reflects the attitude of many conservatives. I believe that many of his observations describe this newest wave of fake news, distortions and biases demonstrated by the national press.
One of his first comments suggested at least one origin for sensational and glamorous journalism: Watergate. He says,
Ever since, young people became journalists because they wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, find a Deep Throat, and bring down a president. Of course most of them only wanted to bring down a Republican president. That’s because liberalism is baked into the journalism cake.
He also points to a line often used during his tenure at Columbia University School of Journalism: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” He suggests that this phrase became distorted to mean that every person afflicted must be helped, and that afflicting the comfortable meant “endless taxation.” With these kinds of distortions, the groundwork was laid to support an increasingly liberal bias.
Then Goodwin brings us current with reflections on the media’s coverage of Trump. As much as the media detested him, they began to cover him more and more often during the campaign, because their ratings improved. And with the growing publicity, more people were attending Trump’s events. Suddenly, the man who had no chance of winning was in every headline, on television and in the newspapers. The media began to realize what they had done: the very person they despised was one of two people running for president, and they were helping him with free publicity. And they were furious. As a result, Goodwin explains,
Day in, day out, in every media market in America, Trump was savaged like no other candidate in memory. We were watching the total collapse of standards, with fairness and balance tossed overboard. Every story was an opinion masquerading as news, and every opinion ran in the same direction—toward Clinton and away from Trump.
Given the details of Trump’s background, tough scrutiny of him could certainly be justified. Goodwin quoted the New York Times media reporter:
If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalist tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?
Goodwin’s response was direct: don’t. You shouldn’t cover a story where you can’t be objective. “Go cover sports or entertainment.”
But the editor of the Times, Dean Baquet, wouldn’t have agreed with Goodwin as he explained during his interview at the Nieman Lab. He believed the Times reporter, Jim Rutenberg, had given everyone permission to report the news in a fresh way, referring to his own past experience with the controversial Swift Boat story [that focused on discrediting John Kerry during his presidential run]. Baquet said,
I think that he’s [Trump] challenged our language. He will have changed journalism, he really will have. I was either editor or managing editor of the L.A. Times during the Swift Boat incident. Newspapers did not know — we did not quite know how to do it. I remember struggling with the reporter, Jim Rainey, who covers the media now, trying to get him to write the paragraph that laid out why the Swift Boat allegation was false…We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.’ We struggle with that. I think that Trump has ended that struggle. I think we now say stuff. We fact-check him. We write it more powerfully that it’s false.
He is essentially blaming Trump for journalists’ contemptible and unethical behavior.
Goodwin responded to Baquet’s comments:
Trump was challenging, sure, but it was Baquet who changed journalism. He’s the one who decided that the standards of fairness and nonpartisanship could be abandoned without consequence.
Since the Times sets the standard for newspapers nationwide, we can be quite certain that most newspapers are following this unethical direction. Partisanship and opinions are now part of the journalistic norm. Trump is frequently called a liar. Barack Obama, in spite of the many times he “misspoke,” never was.
One other point I’d like to make is about journalistic ethics. They still exist in theory. You can find one list at the Society of Professional Journalists. Three noteworthy guidelines to journalists are:
- Take responsibility for the accuracy of the work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
- Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
- Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
Another resource is the Ethical Journalism Network.
I’ll end with Goodwin’s closing statement:
If I haven’t made it clear, let me do so now. The behavior of much of the media, but especially The New York Times, was a disgrace. I don’t believe it ever will recover the public trust it squandered.
Do you think there is way back, or better said, a way forward?