Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

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Much Ado About Nothing: Journalism’s Unjustified Indignation

Now that Mitt Romney has the Republican nomination locked up, we have entered a familiar phase in U.S. politics where every femur, fibula and mandible of the skeletons in the candidate’s closet comes up for examination in the media. Inevitably, countless pundits will dissect and (over)analyze every detail from Romney’s life, from his youth to his business and political careers, formulating hasty judgments about a complex person’s words and actions to arrive at some pithy sound bites about that person’s words and actions. Equally inevitably, Romney’s detractors will spread his faults and foibles as far as they can while his supporters will proclaim those detractors to be biased and distracting from important issues. Such media circuses should surprise no one familiar with U.S. politics and how mainstream journalists cover it.

Yet it did, however, surprise Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen, two senior figures at Politico, a media organization specializing in political journalism. On May 31st, VandeHei and Allen published an article entitled “To GOP, Blatant Bias in Vetting.” One would reasonably expect the piece to be a relatively neutral relaying of major Republican figures complaining about how little coverage President Barack Obama, a Democrat, gets for his past and present shortcomings, while Romney’s deficiencies are overexposed and exaggerated. If that had been the case, it would be just rumination on the common conservative criticism that there is a “liberal media bias” in which progressive personages and causes receive positive portrayals in newspapers and on TV while conservative counterparts are demeaned and demonized.

The article surpassed expectations, however, as the article may well have been named “To GOP and Politico, Blatant Bias in Vetting.” VandeHei and Allen make it clear that not only do Republicans think there is a bias against media coverage of Romney, but that those Republicans are correct to think that:

“…[T]he 5,500-word account [about Romney being involved in homophobic bullying in high school] was invested with far more significance than it merited, and is more voyeuristic than relevant to assessing Romney’s readiness for office.

The Post’s top political blogger, Chris Cillizza, wrote Tuesday of his paper’s hit: ‘Romney appears to have weathered — at least for now — a Washington Post story detailing some bullying behavior in high school.’ The implication: that there’s an authentic debate about how a candidate behaved 50 years earlier.”

VandeHei and Allen go on to discuss dismissively how the New York Times featured prominently a story about Ann Romney and her involvement in horse-riding, indicating that the story both depicts the wealthy Romneys as “out-of-touch” with the average American and suggests Ann Romney may have been involved in some dishonest horse-trading (of the literal kind). Meanwhile, they noted, the Washington Post and the New York Times treated revelations that Obama had smoked marijuana at one point in his life as small stories, while the ones about Romney ended up on the front pages of their respective publications.

Other journalists soon started tearing Politico the proverbial new one. Devin Gordon, a senior editor at GQ, lambasted the article as an “unsigned house editorial” posing as a news story and accused VandeHei and Allen of cynically attacking their competitors in order to gain readers, not to report the truth. The left-wing blog site Talking Points Memo referred to it as an example of “aggressive concern trolling on behalf of conservative complaints about media bias.” Erik Wemple, who covers media for the Washington Post, wrote that it reflected Politico’s disappointment that they had not broken the stories about Romney and that it was hypocritical for Politico to talk about “voyeuristic,” irrelevant reporting about Romney’s past and pastimes when Politico has extensively covered the same stories themselves. Dylan Byers, Politico’s own media blogger, attempted to defend his colleagues by arguing that VandeHei and Allen were not complaining about the stories being covered at all (which is a stretch, as the above excerpt alone attests that the authors considered the stories to be hit-pieces designed to drudge up old muck, not significant revelations). Byers reframed VandeHei’s and Allen’s article as being about the disparity between coverage of Romney and Obama, concluding that the disparity is simply a symptom of the differences between digital and print media. Of course, this rings hollow too, for while Web pages may not actually have “front pages,” news sites can and do choose which stories they’re going to blast in 36 point font and which they are going to post as a blurb after you scroll almost to the bottom.

Obviously, Byers is wrong and so are VandeHei and Allen. Politico rather nakedly went after the competition, armed with the “liberal media bias” weapon, when they themselves have devoted ample HTML to the very stories they lamented the Post and Times had given so much time to. It was a play straight out of the FOX News playbook, whose motto of “fair and balanced” is less an accurate objective description (since everyone and their mother knows that FOX has a conservative slant) and more about playing into the ideological worldview universal to all zealots that, if a fact contradicts an ideology, it must be because the person conveying the fact is an ideological enemy. Granted, digging up dirt and slinging said dirt about a candidate rather than discussing the issues is an unfortunate part of politics and whether or not Romney engaged in homophobic bullying as a teen pales in comparison to what he would do to retard the progress of gay rights as president. Still, Politico taking the moral high ground when it comes to journalistic integrity is risible, and should be so regarded.

Of course, I cannot in good conscience attest that the Post and the Times have been doing stellar jobs. The same day that the Politico article went online, Glenn Greenwald posted about the government-orchestrated, media-supported campaign to smear WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and WikiLeaks contributor Bradley Manning. Greenwald draws parallels between Assange and Manning with Daniel Ellsberg, who released the Pentagon Papers and who was himself a victim of a smear campaign by the Nixon White House. Whereas the effort to tarnish Ellsberg’s name largely failed, Greenwald observes that, today, public opinion has turned against WikiLeaks and those associated with it because the media has been so effective at vilifying Assange and Manning as perverts and deviants:

“Who wants to be seen advocating for an unhygienic, abusive egomaniac or a psychologically crippled, gender-confused, vengeful freak: the caricatures of Assange and Manning that have been successfully implanted in the public mind by today’s Nixonian smear artists? The truth or falsity of these caricatures matters little for this tactic to work: once someone is rendered sufficiently radioactive in Decent Society, even many who are sympathetic to their cause will turn away, become unwilling to defend them, lest any of the slime relentlessly poured on the whistleblowers splatter onto their defenders.”

Greenwald points out that mainstream media figures, even those who have authored some of the pieces personally attacking Assange, have come out against the U.S. government charging the WikiLeaks with a crime. Regardless, it is sadly humorous to read about journalists talking about their responsibilities to reveal information that powerful people do not want to share with the world as a defense for their muck-raking on politicians, yet eschewing that same responsibility by going along with the obvious Washington agenda to turn WikiLeaks into a virtually terrorist (if not terrorist-aiding) organization. Personally, my mind is not made up about Assange, his personality defects or the charges against him in Sweden. I am, however, fairly confident that Manning is more whistleblower than war criminal, yet he is being treated by the government as the latter. In any instance, the journalistic community should devote less time to analyzing and re-analyzing the personal histories of the individuals involved and be more concerned with the what, when, how and why behind how the U.S. government has misled the public and the world on foreign policy, especially our two never-ending, unpopular wars.

Journalists are educators. They should primarily report the facts in order to better inform their readers, watchers and listeners, and not simply what competing ideologues or spin doctors say or believe. Journalists are not just neutral umpires obligated to offer “he said, she said” versions of events, but instead to dig deep and supply the answers to questions that really matter. At the same time, journalists should pursue those stories which are in the public interest – which have the greatest impact on domestic issues and our foreign policy. The extensive use of Predator drones, for example, and the almost daily “collateral damage” they cause with their “precise” attacks has a gigantic influence on our relations with important strategic allies like Pakistan, yet – again as Greenwald points out – the media gives more time and space to civil war in Syria. Part of this is laziness, no doubt, but it also reflects that the media will, generally, go with the dramatic story in a far-off land that Washington can pontificate on while avoiding unpleasant topics that Washington would much rather deny.

There can be no excuse for the Politico piece. It was bad journalism, pure and simple. Simultaneously, other news organizations cannot credibly claim that they are practicing good journalism themselves. Yes, Politico put business interests above objectivity and their responsibility to be fair and candid. For their peers to call them on it without admitting they too have largely forsaken speaking truth to power for speaking the power’s truth, however, is just as dishonest.