American journalism has a lot to answer for. Given multiple opportunities to be the new Woodward-Bernstein, most American journalists chose to be Judith Miller instead. Judith Miller was the vaunted New York Times Reporter with the remarkable inside access to the George W. Bush White House and to the office of Vice President Dick Cheney in particular. The cost of that access was any pretense that Judith Miller would tell the truth about Dick Cheney and the mountain range of corrupt behaviors Cheney and his office perpetrated in order to put and keep America at war with Iraq. Cheney’s chief of staff Scooter Libby was convicted of leaking the identity of covert intelligence officer Valerie Plame. To Judith Miller, getting and maintaining access to a source (even if it compromised her capacity to tell the truth) was more important than telling the truth. Judith liked the power access gave her. And, frankly, the naked cynicism fit better than the skepticism she’d never quite mastered.
Skepticism v cynicism. That, in a nutshell, is where American journalism went wrong. Skepticism is harder by a long shot. It requires perspective. “Is that really so?” and “Why IS that exactly” should be the guiding principles. The journalist has to appreciate at all times that the story she’s focusing on is a tile in a much larger mosaic. How does that tile fit into the larger picture? That’s a skeptic’s question because it assumes a complex world. Cynics, on the other hand, assume only simplicity. Every story can be boiled down to one opinion versus another. He said, she said. But, if you walk in the door assuming everyone’s an honest actor — or that everyone’s a dishonest actor — you’re going to mis-frame your reporting because neither assumption is true.
A skeptical journalist – bringing perspective to the table – looks and listens for subtle clues that what they’re seeing and hearing has the ring of truth. When they see and hear those signs, the story takes a step forward because their skepticism has established to their satisfaction that their reporting can now add information upon which it can build. Adding information is how good, skeptical journalists build and tell a story. But a cynical journalist can’t do that because they can never establish to their satisfaction that anyone’s telling the truth. Or that anyone’s lying. If journalists won’t be the bulwark for what is versus what isn’t then their subjects will get to do it. That’s how Donald Trump managed to stand in front of the White House Press Corps for four years and spew pure, unadulterated bullshit with only the occasional whimper of complaint.
Counting Trump’s lies was great sport. It didn’t stop him from lying. Perhaps if the White House Press Corps had — just once — walked out en masse (and on camera) in order to make the point: STOP LYING TO US! But, of course, doing that would have risked access to an historically hypersensitive POTUS. Yes, on the one hand, if you’re not there to ask a question, you can’t ask a question. But, then, OTOH? Are you really asking any kind of meaningful questions? It’s all access for the sake of having access. That is pure cynicism.
Let’s compare public servant Adam Schiff to public servant Matt Gaetz.
While in high school, Schiff was both class valedictorian and the student voted by his classmates “most likely to succeed”. He got a BA from Stanford in poli sci and his JD from Harvard Law School. Those are nice names to have on your resume. They don’t automatically convey anything however. Donald Trump has Wharton and the University of Pennsylvania on his CV. Without daddy’s money, Trump wouldn’t have been allowed in the dorms at either institution never mind the classrooms. After law school, Schiff clerked for a judge in California then became an assistant district attorney. He first ran for office in 1994 (but lost), trying again (and succeeding) in 1996. Since then, Adam Schiff has epitomized the very notion of what a “public servant” should be.
Schiff’s closing remarks delivered during Trump’s first impeachment pretty much sum up his public servant bona fides…
Matt Gaetz is one hundred percent the Goofus to Schiff’s Gallant.
In Gaetz’s defense, there’s nothing wrong with being mediocre. Gaetz was an unremarkable high school student, an unremarkable undergrad at Florida State University and an unremarkable graduate of the William & Mary Law School (the country’s oldest, by the way). In 2008, Matt had a run-in with the law after cops pulled him over and booked him for a DUI. Strangely, though Matt SHOULD have lost his license, he didn’t. Pays to have connections apparently.
After a year of “private practice”, Gaetz did what his father and grandfather had done — he ran for office (as a Florida state rep). Having more money than any other candidate in the Republican primary got him through a crowded field. Having waaaaaay more money on hand than his Democratic opponent made a huge difference in the general election which Gaetz won handily. Having a little political power in his hands brought Matt Gaetz’s base awfulness to the surface.
A taste: Gaetz proposed legislation that would hasten the execution of many inmates on Florida’s death row, he joined State Senator Greg Evers in proposing legislation to eliminate the federal ethanol content mandate that 10 percent of gasoline sold in Florida contain ethanol and he was one of two members of the Florida House to vote against a Florida bill against revenge porn in 2015, after having successfully blocked the bill previously.
In 2016, Gaetz took his act national to the US House of Representatives. As we’re about to learn from the flipped testimony of Gaetz’s buddy former Florida Tax Collector Joel Greenberg, the answer to question “Are you a pedophile?” is “yes”.
And lest we forget — Matt said this:
In theory, both Adam Schiff and Matt Gaetz are “public servants”. From the news media’s point of view — that’s certainly true. But beyond the label, the two have zero in common.
But, from a cynical news media’s point of view, that fact’s irrelevant. They’re both “politicians”, too. If Matt Gaetz is also a criminal? Then what’s to say Adam Schiff isn’t one too?
Or, conversely — if Adam Schiff is a paragon of political virtue and public service then so is Matt Gaetz. From the news media’s point of view, who are they to say otherwise? Well, actually, according to the Constitution, they are the ones we most NEED to say otherwise — to employ their most skeptical instincts as the final check on raw political power.
When this assault on our democracy is finally laid to rest — as it will be — after we’ve finished investigating and prosecuting every last perpetrator (to leave an unprosecuted would invite them to try again), we need to turn our focus on the news media. We need to force some very real, very hard self analysis upon them. We need to rub their noses in “both sides do it”. It’s the only way to make them feel the disgust the rest of us feel about it.
We’ll know we’re finally making headway when wastes of carbon like Chuck Todd finally get kicked to the curb.
America’s founders didn’t intend to create a binary political environment but their refusal to outlaw slavery at the outset pretty much guaranteed that America would always be binary — pro-slavery v anti-slavery. Take this to the bank: pretty much every white supremacist would vote to bring back slavery if they could figure out a way to get it onto a ballot somewhere. That’s why their “public servants” — like Matt Gaetz feel less like servants and more like co-conspirators to commit a crime. That’s what they’re doing — committing crimes. But, in order to see that happening, you must have perspective.
A news media that really and truly believes that all politicians and public servants are criminals because some are isn’t doing the democracy they’re serving any favors.