As competing “narratives” (the current preferred term for attempts at understanding what is happening in our national affairs) vie for public acceptance, we are forced to wonder whether conventional ways of making sense of political things are no longer adequate. We are in the midst of a serious quarrel about what the “news” is because, as Bill Clinton famously said, “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” That is precisely what is at issue between our two major political parties.
To illustrate the problem, the so-called legacy media, meaning mainly the New York-Washington axis, have been reporting for weeks that Russian operatives have had an extraordinary impact on our elections and our governance—all of which is denied vehemently by the Trump Administration. Counterpunching, Sean Spicer, Trump’s press secretary, insists that Obama Administration personnel and supporters, in violation of federal law, improperly surveilled and, worse, leaked the names of Trump folks meeting with Russians. This claim from Spicer elicits a big yawn from most media who, naturally, have strong sympathies with the first view of events.
Not since the openly partisan journalism of the early days of the Republic, have Americans been presented with such widely differing and widely disseminated accounts on a regular basis. For partisans of either side, the choice of whom to believe is easy. But for millions of other Americans, the task is harder.
Because the partisan divide over what is news shows signs of becoming permanent, we are forced to deal with the matter of news judgment, which itself is always subject to partisanship. But it is also an issue for what James Madison called the “candid” citizen, meaning anyone determined to discover the truth.
Whenever this issue presents itself, it is typically discussed in terms of the dreaded “partisan divide” and mistakenly thought to be the unique curse of our time. This is often, not without reason, attributed to the emergence of conservative and populist newspapers and networks that continue to challenge the legacy media’s reporting and commentary. The New York Post, the Washington Times and Examiner and Fox News are the upstart challengers to the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, NBC, CBS, ABC, and CNN.
Behind the judgment that insurgency journalism has fueled, if not caused, the divide is the fairy tale about “the good old days” when our nation was blessed with a consensus on what the news is with only three major television networks and homogeneous newspaper reporting. What that mythology obscures, and is meant to obscure, is that lack of real competition enabled the liberal Democrat agenda to move forward more or less unhindered by any “reactionary” opposition.
In order to maintain this fiction, the spinners even have to falsify events as recent as those that occurred during the Reagan Administration, weirdly claiming that the President and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill got along pretty well together. This narrative must be a big howler to those who actually remember the fractious days of the early Reagan years. Democrats then viewed Ronald Reagan hardly less unfavorably than their successors today view Donald Trump.
Walter Lippmann, the most influential journalist of the last century, early in his career noted that most of the work of journalists is done according to routine, meaning “beats” are established at the places where news is most likely to emerge. Sensibly, that means covering the legislative, executive and judicial departments of the federal, state and local governments.
Why is that sensible? Obviously, because what government officials say and do affects the lives, liberties and properties of citizens. That is hardly an arbitrary judgment and, indeed, it is a correct judgment.
We could not respect our media if they actually failed to understand, much less perform, this fundamental duty. But that means that, to the extent our journalists think and act like good citizens, they are doing their work well.
Politicians and other public officials are citizens too. All of us, whatever our station, are obliged to abide by the U.S. Constitution, “the supreme law of the land, and all laws… passed in pursuance thereof.” Notwithstanding that universal obligation, citizens can and do disagree about not only what policies to establish but about what constitutes a problem worthy of bringing to public attention. That applies to what is news no less than to what we should say or do about the news.
We cannot avoid the hard work of determining whose accounts, the Democrats’ or the Republicans’, should be believed. Lippmann actually hoped that we could transcend our partisan differences with neutral journalism. That hope is daily exposed as something between naiveté and fantasy. Just like conscientious members of a jury, we must consult both the law and the facts, make a decision, and live with the consequences.
And just as juries must weigh opposing accounts and arguments in the courtroom, so must we when confronting controversies in the political arena. Merely knowing the facts won’t do because the facts are invariably filtered through a human prism. Contentiousness in journalism and politics demands that we do the hard work of judgment for ourselves. The only thing that is different today is that we are again having the occasion to remember this.