An Open Letter To The Press, From Left To Right

Journalism has... let’s be kind and say “changed” over the years.
01/18/2017 08:49 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2017

With all due respect to journalists and media organizations, it’s time to do some soul searching and some long-term organizational planning. This will sound hyperbolic, but it must not be read that way: The future of our nation may be at stake—we don’t really know yet, and that’s concerning—and if that’s not enough to worry news organizations, your future profits may be at stake.

Donald Trump’s relationship with the media has ranged from tenuous (at its best) to contentious (most often) to one of intimidation, which has become the norm. On Sunday, Brian Stelter of CNN tweeted out the above summary of a meeting with incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, in which White House Correspondents Association President Jeff Mason wrote that Spicer “expressed concern that journalists adhere to a high level of decorum at press briefings and press conferences.” Spicer’s comment must be interpreted as a kind of admonishment and a warning to journalists following Donald Trump’s January 11 press conference (full video below), which consisted of the following:

  1. Spicer began the conference with a condemnation of BuzzFeed and CNN for having reported allegations about Donald Trump potentially being blackmailed by Russian officials. Spicer called this a “sad and pathetic aim to get clicks.” It must be noted that the Society for Professional Journalists Ethics Committee Chair Andrew Seaman defended both BuzzFeed and CNN’s actions, writing that “While I may disagree with decisions made by CNN and BuzzFeed from time to time, I know neither organization is ‘fake news’ or a ‘pile of garbage.’ The above statement sounds silly at first, but I fear it’s a necessary declaration as the incoming administration grows more hostile each day to different members of the press.” The day after Trump’s press conference, BBC News’s Paul Wood stated that he had received information from four sources who made the same claims as those reported by BuzzFeed. Even Fox News’s Shep Smith defended CNN on air, stating that CNN’s reporting was appropriate and ethical; critics from the alt-right such as Breitbart have mocked Smith for saying that Trump was “mean to CNN’s John Acosta,” but it must be noted that unabashedly the right-leaning Fox News broadcast Smith’s testimony in support of CNN’s reporting. In an age of an increasingly Disintregrating States of America, it is vitally important to observe that Fox News made an effort to unite our free press against the wishes of a Republican-dominated government. This is hopeful—not because Fox News took an anti-Republican position, but because Fox News took the side of the People of the United States when it meant temporarily stepping away from its party line.
  1. The Breitbart aspect is significant and must not be underplayed: Brietbart as it exists today was designed and curated by incoming White House Chief Strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who was selected by Donald Trump to orchestrate both his political campaign and his political future. Spicer began the press conference by ridiculing the press as “sad and pathetic” and then threatening the White House Press Corps with limited access unless they “adhere to a high level of decorum.” The incoming Trump administration has explicitly threatened constitutionally guaranteed free press, and also, in keeping with Donald Trump’s modus operandi, has undermined irrefutable truth with cognitive dissonance: The media, including and perhaps especially Jim Acosta, have adhered to a high level of decorum. Acosta’s worst offense was persistence—one ingredient of competent journalism—while addressing Trump as “Sir, Sir.” Trump, who called another press outlet “a pile of garbage,” told Acosta he may not ask a question because Acosta is “rude.” View the video below and Acosta’s offense is clear: He did the job of a journalist, not that of a hired publicist. He was denied the right to ask the question, denied an answer, and told “your organization is terrible.” This, while Trump’s paid staff cheered and applauded and laughed. The press maintained a high level of decorum. Representatives of the Trump administration and Donald Trump himself did not.

Given that the media’s role is to uncover truth and to relay it to the public, this incident and Spicer’s admonition and Trump’s tweets that have followed warrant dogged investigation by the news media. Yet the news media instead continue to focus on petty incidents. Why?

During a Facebook live chat with a Washington Post political reporter, I asked whether journalists and news organizations have any role in informing readers and viewers of civic rights and responsibilities—whether the Washington Post might, for example, dedicate efforts to convey analyses of why the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is dedicated to free speech, and what free speech consists of and does not consist of and the consequences of limiting free speech from the executive level of the government. The reporter answered that the news media’s role is to uncover and to document current events—but not to take on an activist position. The one exception, she said, is that journalists have the responsibility to be First Amendment advocates and, if necessary, activists, because the integrity of the news media sector is dependent on the First Amendment being upheld.

This Washington Post reporter is Margaret Sullivan, and a few days ago she published an essay called “A hellscape of lies and distorted reality awaits journalists covering President Trump.” My initial reaction to Sullivan’s essay was, “Yes. Yes. Yes. Why aren’t more journalists holding this conversation?” While I suspect most news organizations are holding this discussion privately, trying to assess their futures in a coming time when access to the White House is limited to those who cover the White House as the White House dictates they must, these conversations should not be had only among journalists and news organization executives: They should be held in public forums. Reporters and all employees of news organizations are dependent on the viability of the media sector—but the pink elephant in the room is the reality that democracy and the integrity of the United States of America as we have known it until now is equally dependent on the viability of a media sector that has full access. If the media are not given full access, then it is incumbent upon the media to demand access and to continue investigating, to find information whether it is given to them or not.

Which brings me to a concern of mine that predates the advent of Donald Trump.

Research vs. “Research”

Journalism has... let’s be kind and say “changed” over the years. Journalists used to be public investigators who knew how to dig for information. In many cases today, this is not the case. It’s been part of a societal evolution, and my intention is not to place blame; however, the time to change the bad habit of reportorial laziness is long overdue.

As a member of Generation X, born in 1978, I live in the strange ether that lies on the cusp of analog memories and today’s digital world. I learned the Dewey decimal system in elementary school. I had library cards, and I used libraries. As an undergraduate English student, I was told about the importance of using (and being able to discern) primary, secondary and tertiary sources. At the same time, as I was completing my undergraduate degree, the Internet had made streamlined access to research—and was just beginning to offer easy access to sources that were less than fully reliable. (Wikipedia was not yet a commonly accessed source, having been founded months before I received my BA.)

Today, of course, the Internet is an indispensable resource, and competent researchers have developed methodologies for vetting sources. But I’ve noticed a trend among reporting—no doubt driven by time and expense and, I suspect, at least in part a loosening of accountability—that involves investing full trust in both governmental and industrial authorities. In many cases—I’d venture to guess most, but that could be wrong—when reporters are assigned a story and a deadline, they call or e-mail communications professionals at federal offices, trade associations, and so on. If they receive comment, they relay the comment, tagging it with “...according to _____________.” And there you go: Research has been performed with due diligence!

Let’s say a reporter is assigned a story on declining seahorse populations. That reporter has the option to look up both original research and literature reviews that have been published in peer-reviewed biological and ecological journals. But the reporter will not do that; he or she instead will call or write to the communications professional at one or two universities and/or at a seahorse conservation foundation, ask the question, and then report the response. Audiences will not question the response. In many cases, the response is the well-considered view of a subject-matter expert. In some cases, the purported expert will not be up to date on current science, or will have a bias or agenda tied to research funding, or may he or she simply may not be informed.

Whose fault, then, is the conveyance of misinformation or disinformation to the public? Hint: It is not the fault of the presumed expert. Less subtle hint: It is the fault of both the reporter and the news organization that published the reporter’s story.

I understand journalists who may read this and feel that asking them to go a step beyond relaying quotes from sources is asking too much but—actually, that’s a lie. I don’t understand. If you feel this way, become a publicist.

If the observation and opinion stated in the above few paragraphs were about Donald Trump, Donald Trump would be offended because, despite my intention of stating an observation for the public good, his sensitive ego would receive the observation as personal attack on his character, and perhaps his intellect. I hope that any journalist who reads this has an ego that is reinforced with greater confidence and a greater perceptive ability to discern criticism from character assassination.

Journalistic Balance vs. Disinformation

For decades, the news media—now known by residents of the Internet ether as the mainstream media or “the MSM,” because without an acronym nothing is legitimate—have been accused roundly of liberal bias. That won’t be settled here. It can’t be denied with a straight face, though, that Fox News is a right-wing propaganda outlet, MSNBC is a left-wing propaganda outlet, and—it has been denied and will be continually denied, but here comes a bold opinion—Breitbart is a kind of new American extremist arm that has intentionally cultivated white supremacists while abruptly having changed direction to focus on getting Donald Trump elected. Fox News, as observed above via the Shepard Smith defense of CNN, still has a foot planted in the concept of a United States of America; Breitbart actively and aggressively has taken a divide-and-conquer tactic. The creator of that tactic will be orchestrating every movement of the President of the United States as of Friday. You’ve been warned.

There’s a stark difference between politically correct information and incorrect information. Part of both Trump’s and Breitbart’s fundamental message is that American people should no longer tolerate political correctness. What they are saying is that the American may no longer demand correct information that has a basis in facts and/or truth.

In an (in my view) conspicuous effort to overcompensate for criticisms that they have a liberal bias, news media organizations—specifically in this case television news and current-events talk shows—are doing extraordinary damage to the public’s ability to discern truth from fantasy.

Kellyanne Conway is omnipresent on television. She lies. Consistently. This isn’t an unfounded accusation; it’s just what she has given us. Behold Conway attacking Donald Trump’s veracity and his character during the primaries:

What she says here undermine everything she has said since she was hired by Donald Trump to speak on his behalf. The New York Times ran an op-ed last week that analyzes Conway’s hypocrisy as her unique “dark magic.”

Conway is a celebrity of sorts. So is Donald Trump, yes, but Donald Trump is now an elected official if not a public servant, and so we have to shrug and say “he is what he is; he’s the president-elect now.” Conway and others like her can’t be excused this way. Who is Kellyanne Conway that warrants her being invited to speak on Donald Trump’s behalf on veritably every news and political talk show in the country?

Would The New York Times, Washington Post or The Atlantic quote a source who was objectively, provably providing disinformation at least half the time? Why do we expect less from television news? And why do they do this?

My only conclusion to the last question is that it’s overcompensation for being accused of being too liberal. But when a story is researched and fact checked, relayed to the public by a television anchor, and then that anchor invites Conway or another spin artist—however talented they are at that spin—to refute the facts with utterly invented stories, then that news program has voluntarily chosen to undermine its own researching and reporting efforts, and it has chosen to give disinformation to the public.

The news organization and the journalist who do this are responsible for disinformation. Allowing a reliably unreliable source to relay false information that undermines true, fact-based information is not “journalistic balance.” It’s propaganda.

Are Journalists Really Being Sincere?

While, as I stated, my response to Sullivan’s article about the “hellscape of lies and distorted reality” that journalists now face was “Yes!” a friend of mine posted a response to the article on Facebook that I think is valid and warrants brief discussion.

Sullivan is a great reporter. Her essay is important. There are many, many great reporters covering this often-surreal transition. At the same time, I believe my friend is absolutely correct here: No media organization is beholden to the Trump regime to play its game by its own rules.

It is, in my opinion, entirely inauthentic to continually ask whether Donald Trump’s most recent bold statements are defensible, and to try to interpret what they mean. First, very often, they are indefensible—at least if any justifiable defense needs to be based in truth, fact, reality, etc. Second, to interpret what Donald Trump means when he speaks incoherently, or how his most recent comment may apply to future policy, is a futile effort because Trump has few consistent behaviors. He consistently fires back at any high-profile critic—that we can count on. He takes the Saturday Night Live bait every week, and I suspect he does so knowing by now that doing so will get him press—one can imagine him barking “no such thing as bad press—but most of the press are bad! Terrible! Sad!” Otherwise, he’s utterly inconsistent. One, probably unnecessary, example:

During his campaign, Trump said this about Obamacare:

Days after the campaign, he said this:

He said he’d repeal the ACA entirely because it’s “bad.” Then he said he would not repeal a couple of its defining, fundamental benefits, and that not one day would go by without health coverage for former ACA participants. Now he wants to get rid of it entirely. What have we learned? Nothing we didn’t already know: Donald Trump’s words mean nothing, which is precisely why Kellyanne Conway truly is an adequate spokesperson for him—because her words are hollow, too.

The press wastes time analyzing Trump’s words. The press invests much less time looking into Trump’s actions. If it didn’t buy and sell the hype, it may suffer fewer news story clicks. But then journalists might, if they really invest in true investigative reporting, uncover a whopper or two that will, like, make them the new Woodward and Bernstein. Or save our democracy or something. Small potatoes compared to pharmaceutical ad dollars and access to exclusive quotes, I know, I know.

Is Propaganda the Future of American News?

It’s a question that we have to ask at this time. The president-elect is demanding that the news media report what he says, whether true or not, without criticism. How long will responsible journalists hold out? How long will their employers hold out if Trump and his wealthy and influential compatriots wage a financial war on the media’s ad revenue? Will any journalists have the integrity to opt for public service over highly compensated positions? Will they work in service to the public or in service to financial incentives, to money?

If Donald Trump’s intimidation is successful, and if the news media at large continue to operate the way they have been, then every news organization before long will be a version of Russia Today—not as overtly extremist as Breitbart, but working at the pleasure of the president, in his service, as his publicists.

So my last questions to American journalists is, are you a journalist or a publicist? Can you even discern the difference anymore?

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