If you’ve been paying any attention at all to the election coverage in the nation’s largest newspapers and on cable TV, you have likely found yourself a bit exasperated at how events from the campaign trail have been covered. Much of that comes from editorial bias in story selection, but more than a little is caused by the obvious bias inherent in the “explanations” of the stories which do make it into print or on the air. But it seems that the journalists aren’t too happy either. Some of them feel constrained by the musty, dusty old rules of engagement in the news game. Keep in mind that we’re not talking about “opinion journalists” like Hannity or Maddow here, but the reporters who are supposed to be covering the stories for us with all of the who, where, when, what and how details. When it comes to politics such things can be hard to define, as politicians employ greater and greater amounts of spin in their stump speeches and debate performances.
Marc Ambinder feels their pain and brings us an opinion piece at USA Today this week in which he calls for new rules of journalism. Under these revised guidelines, reporters should feel free to correct what they perceive as errors on the part of the candidates on the fly.
Here’s a tried-and-true creed, straight from Journalism 101: Journalists should never take sides. But how do you not take sides when one of those sides is so clearly wrong?
Another: Journalists should not characterize political candidates as liars. But what happens when political candidates base their entire campaigns on very persuasive lies?
Journalists are supposed to bend over backwards to treat unpopular points of view with respect. But at what point does that somersault confer legitimacy onto something that does not deserve it?
And since when did journalists become the designated signifiers of anything? Aren’t they supposed to just observe and report?
There is, unfortunately, such a volume of these musings that I was having a hard time trying to select a section to extract here. It’s mostly an obvious tirade against Donald Trump in particular and conservatives in general. They say so many things that are just plain wrong and we should all know that! So why should journalists continue to report their positions without calling them liars in the same breath? From that launching point, Ambinder provides us with New Rule Number One for journalists: “Amend the canon of political facts that are legitimately arguable.”
And with that, Marc clearly lays out some guidelines for which things will be allowed as “facts” and which are to be discarded. Anthropogenic climate change is a fact and arguments (even from other scientists) to the contrary do not have to be treated seriously. The criminal justice system is (and I’m quoting here) institutionally biased against black people. He’s not talking about a few bad apples which you find in any profession, including that of police. The entire institution is biased. In the ongoing battle over Obamacare’s future, Ambinder helpfully reminds us that any suggestion that Republicans have an alternative is worse than a fantasy. It’s a lie.
The list goes on. But what Marc is really suggesting is a “solution” which has already been rolled out. I’ve frequently commented on the daily updates I receive in my email from the Washington Post. They contain a list of article titles, summaries and links. They are uniformly negative about Donald Trump, employing words I’ve rarely if ever seen in a hard news report in the past. Their “fact checkers” focus almost exclusively on Trump’s speeches and ferret out anything they can find to disagree with to give him a “pants on fire” rating or one hundred Pinocchios or whatever the demerit system of the day consists of. Hillary Clinton’s email scandals? On the rare occasion they show up the impact is softened. Most recently, any coverage of the candidate herself has been replaced by criticism of James Comey.
And what of the “new media” and the internet engines which drive it? Thanks yet again to Wikileaks, the mask has been fairly well pulled away there as well. Take for example Google executive Eric Schmidt. He sent a strategy paper to Cheryl Mills with the unassuming title, “Notes for a 2016 Democratic Campaign.” (Hat tip to Zerohedge for that one.)
“I have put together my thoughts on the campaign ideas and I have scheduled some meetings in the next few weeks for veterans of the campaign to tell me how to make these ideas better. This is simply a draft but do let me know if this is a helpful process for you all.”
And then there’s the ongoing problem with Facebook and their unending opposition to conservative views. Where does that come from? Perhaps the answer can be found with Sheryl Sandberg and a note she sent to John Podesta.
And I still want HRC to win badly. I am still here to help as I can. She came over and was magical with my kids,”
I make no apologies for raining on Marc Ambinder’s parade here because even if it’s well intentioned, the underlying premise is flawed. What we observe in too much of what passes for journalism these days is a far cry from his description of dedicated but tortured journalists, battling their inner demons in a fight between desired objectivity and a professional devotion to accuracy. Too many of the “facts” which Ambinder cites are actually better defined as facts agreed upon by a majority of the people in the newsroom. And a frightening share of those aren’t facts at all, but opinions which they recite to each other and to their audiences so frequently that they become accepted as facts.
And if that’s the future of journalism under these new rules, then we may as well turn the entire affair over to the National Enquirer. Hey… they got the John Edwards story right at least.