Much has been written about the political and ideological one-sidedness of TV networks like Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC, but in the larger scheme of things their performance is not a game changer. MSNBC, after all, is just a liberal opinion channel, and both Fox and CNN have little influence among journalists elsewhere.
The much greater problem arises from the news coverage of those outlets that do influence others, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. And it’s those papers’ ongoing commingling of fact and opinion in their news articles that may have lasting effects on the role and standing of the media in society.
Recognizing, perhaps, how far they’ve fallen, the Times recently published a note from its new publisher, A.G. Sulzberger, son of the former publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger. Among the more noteworthy quotes therein:
The Times will continue to resist polarization and groupthink by giving voice to the breadth of ideas and experiences—because we believe journalism should help people think for themselves. The Times will hold itself to the highest standards of independence, rigor, and fairness—because we believe trust is the most precious asset we have . . .
We will continue to put the fairness and accuracy of everything we publish above all else—and in the inevitable moments we fall short, we will continue to own up to our mistakes, and we’ll strive to do better.
It is, of course, possible that Sulzberger actually believes this is the Times’ profile, but it would be far more comforting (and wiser) if it is instead a sly way of offering hope to the many people who do not believe they’ve seen those values in the New York Times recently.
That the public has a declining opinion of the media, and would like to see something better, has been shown in numerous opinion polls from outfits like Gallup, Morning Consult, and Pew. In the fall of 2016, for instance, Gallup released poll results on the level of confidence Americans have in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. Only 32 percent, the lowest in Gallup’s history, said they have a “great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.” And when this question was asked just of Republicans, that number fell to 14 percent.
In an effort to portray their abandonment of principled journalism as acts of constitutional obligation, much of the news media justify their news coverage of Trump on the grounds that he is a threat to the First Amendment.
This claim has been made by many journalists (and media-funded nonprofit organizations) since the earliest days of the Trump Administration. It began after the president’s tweet suggesting a need for tougher libel laws, and accelerated following his declarations that the media are the “enemy of the people,” and that the FCC should consider revoking the broadcast licenses of TV stations that allegedly air “fake news.”
Responding to these broadsides, groups like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press immediately began to suggest that we were in a dangerous new era, a claim made too by journalists like the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg, who averred that Trump is so awful it is understandable if news reporters abandon even the pretense of objectivity.
There are, however, two big errors in this line of thinking: Trump’s incendiary comments are bluster, not policy directives; and when the media strike back by abandoning objectivity it is their own credibility, and the citizenry as a whole, that suffer.
Consider, for instance, the president’s suggestion that the FCC should revoke broadcast licenses. The Trump-designated chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, patiently replied that the FCC could not and would not do so, and that was the end of that. The same thing could be said about the fate of Trump’s suggestion to overhaul the nation’s libel laws.
To put it another way, tweets are not policy proposals, and were they to become such they would run head-on—in the courts and Congress—into the objections not just of the mainstream press but of those media outlets, like Breitbart, Infowars, Fox News, and talk radio that are favored by the president!
A piece published by the Columbia Journalism Review in 2009, provocatively titled “Journalism Should Own Its Liberalism,” reads today like something out of a time capsule. The author, journalist and professor Thomas Edsall, confirmed that the press is liberal but went on to confidently opine that, though liberal, “their committed pursuit of neutrality and objectivity is crucial to the quality of American journalism.”
One needn’t buy the idea that, even in 2009, the mainstream media were passionately neutral and objective to see the press clearly is not performing that way now.