You would think having a story as big and juicy as Donald Trump – a man who wore his treason on his sleeve (“Hey, Russia, if you’re listening…!”) – who said things like “Mexicans are rapists” and “pussy grabbing”, and who lied so often and about everything that the press started keeping count – would have inspired a Golden Age of American Journalism. Instead, our news media whiffed on it completely. Rather than be inspired by the dogged skepticism of vintage Woodward and Bernstein, our news media saw the New York Times’ Judith Miller – the Queen of Access Journalism – their mentor, patron saint and role model. Don’t remember Judy? She sold her journalistic soul to gain access to Dick Cheney when he was veep. She went to jail for 85 days rather than reveal that the source for all her Iraq War/Valerie Plame Affair coverage was Scooter Libby (Cheney’s chief of staff – who’d been lying to her and using her the whole time as a weapon against knowledgeable war critics. Judy Miller was an accessory to corruption. That’s why other journalists snicker these days if you call Judith Miller “a journalist”.
In yesterday’s Washington Post (December 6, 2021), opinion writer Dana Milbank laid down quite an opinion about how he and his fellow colleagues in the Fourth Estate “are serving as accessories to the murder of democracy”. For those of us who have been underwhelmed (shall we say) by the news media’s coverage of the greatest story of their lifetimes, this was welcome contrition (if eons too late). But, hey – better late than never, right? Milbank was writing about the news media’s openly hostile coverage of the first year of Joe Biden’s presidency versus the news media’s coverage of the last year of Trump’s presidency. Milbank got the Post to pony up some money for data and analytics. They paint an ugly picture – for American democracy in part because the American news media has confused skepticism (what they’re supposed to have on their tool belt) with cynicism.
One can see – graphically – how the news media gave favorable coverage to Trump even as he “presided over a worst-in-world pandemic response that caused hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths; held a superspreader event at the White House and got covid–19 himself; praised QAnon adherents; embraced violent white supremacists; waged a racist campaign against Black Lives Matter demonstrators; attempted to discredit mail-in voting; and refused to accept his defeat in a free and fair election, leading eventually to the violence of Jan. 6 and causing tens of millions to accept the “big lie,” the worst of more than 30,000 he told in office”. And, one can see how the press gave far less favorable coverage to Biden despite the fact that he and his administration’s policies had gotten more Americans vaccinated and back to work, gotten the economy revving (so much so that inflation became “the” issue to some “journalists”), reduced the scourge of childhood poverty in America by half and passed into law a once-in-a-generation, transformative infrastructure spending bill.
Milbank suspects his “peers across the media have fallen victim to our asymmetric politics. Biden governs under traditional norms, while Republicans run a shocking campaign to delegitimize him with one fabricated charge after another.” Yeah… both sides don’t do what the Republicans are doing. ONLY Republicans do that. ONLY Republicans have ever done that because ONLY Republicans see white hegemony as their birthright. Same concept: when a Republican suppresses a Democratic voter’s right to vote – a violation of their rights and of the law – they are behaving as criminals for a political purpose. When that Democratic voter responds to having their rights violated, they are responding as a CRIME VICTIM. And, while the crime was committed for a political purpose, the victim’s response ISN’T POLITICAL.
Accept, it is to our news media. “Both sides do it” brand journalism has convinced American journalists that everyone acts politically all the time no matter what. Problem is, it simply isn’t true. Standing up for one’s rights may be a political statement, but it’s not “political” the way the act of deliberately taking away those rights is. And, because American journalists insist on seeing everything through a political lens, they end up equating opinions formed from facts to opinions formed from feelings. All opinions, ya see, are created equal. Even if they’re not.
Milbank puts it this way: “Too many journalists are caught in a mindless neutrality between democracy and its saboteurs, between fact and fiction.” It’s that false assumption of neutrality – that journalism means never taking sides. In a sense, that is what we need journalists to do: not take sides – with any particular political stance. That doesn’t mean journalists can’t have a point of view complete with political leanings. That’s just honesty. So long as the journalist can report evenly – giving the benefit of the doubt where due but denying it where it’s already been spent – their politics don’t matter. All journalism should be advocate journalism – for the truth. All journalists should be relentless in their pursuit of the core “why” – WHY does anyone do what they do?
Alas, that’s way easier said than done. Getting to any one person’s core why or any story’s core why takes more than just dogged determination. It takes imagination and perspective. It takes rock solid analytical skills. It takes the ability not just to listen to people but to hear what they’re actually saying. Being a good journalist is damned hard. Being a good writer is hard. Same goes for being a good anything. Being mediocre and banal are far easier bars to clear. But then, what are we to expect of “accessories” to democracy’s murder?
That’s accessories as opposed to the actual perps.
That is how American journalism will defend itself. “Don’t blame us, blame the people whose stories we were covering”. IOW, don’t blame journalists for repeating the bullshit their sources told them (even if the whole point was to get those reporters to repeat the very bullshit they repeated as they reported). The “Useful Idiot” defense, is it?