Sunday, October 23, 2022

The problem might be in your TV, after all.

Here's that serious post that I was going to write last week but ran out of mojo. And in it, I'm going to admit that I was wrong.

maxxyustas | Deposit Photos

For the past six plus years, I've been banging the drum about how serious journalists shouldn't take sides. Report on all sides of the story, I've been saying, and let the audience sort it out. It worked for Edward R. Murrow, I said -- he reported dispassionately on Sen. Joseph McCarthy, simply showing him in all his Red-baiting glory and allowing his viewers to draw their own conclusions. When McCarthy realized Murrow was on to him, he targeted the journalist, as I noted in another post: "[T]he senator got mad at Murrow and accused him of being a Communist himself. Why didn't Murrow call him out as a liar? Because in attacking Murrow, McCarthy showed his true colors. Murrow didn't do editorials. He was a journalist. His method was to give McCarthy just enough rope to hang himself." It worked. Public opinion soon turned against McCarthy -- not before ruining a lot of lives, particularly in Hollywood, but it did turn.

I learned about Murrow and his role in bringing down McCarthy in journalism school in the 1970s. Journalism, we were taught, had a critical First Amendment role; it was the marketplace of ideas, where all sides aired their views. The lesson we journalism students took away from the Army-McCarthy hearings, as well as from the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, was that if journalists did their job and presented all sides objectively, people would figure things out on their own

I believed it. For decades, I believed it. I don't believe it anymore.

Margaret Sullivan served for many years as media columnist for the Washington Post. Her job involved critiquing the way the news media, including her own paper, covered the stories of the day, and in many cases how they could have done it better. She has a book coming out this fall -- a sort of memoir of her decades in the newspaper business. And in a piece in the Washington Post Magazine last weekend, she wrote about how the Trump presidency changed her view of how journalists should cover him. For many decades, she too believed in traditional journalism and the marketplace of ideas. But now she writes: "As [former President] Trump prepares to run again in 2024, it’s worth reminding ourselves of the lessons we’ve learned — and committing to the principle that, when covering politicians who are essentially running against democracy, old-style journalism will no longer suffice."

Journalists can no longer simply repeat what newsmakers say. Discernment was always part of the job -- if the sales manager asked you to do a story about his big account, you didn't do it unless there was an actual news angle. But at certain levels, particularly in day-to-day political reporting, the idea was to tell people what the guy said, and then tell what his opponent said, and your responsibility pretty much ended there. 

As Sullivan says -- heck, as we've all seen -- Trump saw how it worked and capitalized on it. He spewed endless bilge, and news managers covered every second of it because his bilge drew eyeballs for their advertisers. Journalists should have called him on his bullshit a lot sooner than they did. Even now, six years down the road, I see too many euphemisms in stories about the guy. Baseless claims. False this or that. Why don't they just come right out and say he's lying

I suppose one reason is that news organizations are skittish about being sued for libel. But another thing I learned in journalism school is that the first defense against a charge of libel is the truth. The lies Trump and his minions tell have been disproven many, many times over. It's clear they're lies -- not falsehoods or baseless whatevers.

Moreover, it's not like Trump didn't know the 2020 election results were legit. Many of his advisors told him so. So did members of his family. He even admitted it in private. And yet he has continued to lie in public that the election was stolen from him. Maybe it was because he didn't want to think of himself as a loser. Maybe he wanted to keep the grift going so his supporters would continue to send him money. Maybe both, and more.

Sullivan's point is that if Trump runs again, things have to be different: "I’m convinced that journalists — specifically those who cover politics — must keep a sharp focus on truth-seeking, not old-style performative neutrality. Does that mean we throw objectivity out the window? Of course not. We should be resolutely objective in the sense of seeking evidence and approaching subjects with an open mind. We should not, however, resort to taking everything down the middle, no matter what." Simply handing  each side a microphone isn't going to be enough: "We should be thinking about what coverage serves the public best."

She also criticizes traditional political coverage -- reports on the latest polls, stories based on "conventional wisdom", "campaign in disarray" articles, and the like -- as a distraction from the bigger picture that a chunk of one of our political parties seeks to end democracy.

That doesn't mean playing favorites or going soft on the other party, she says. What's required is for journalists to make a habit of putting their reporting in context: "They shouldn’t just repeat what’s being said, but help explain what it means."

Another thing I learned in journalism school is that every news story should answer six questions -- the famous five Ws and an H: who, what, when, where, why, and how. It's the why that Sullivan is addressing here: We need not just the facts, but the truth, in context. Trump and his supporters will howl about the unfairness of it all -- but they'll howl regardless. Journalists must do it anyway. Our democracy is on the line.


These moments of bloggy truthiness have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell. Stay safe! And get out and vote!

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