We don’t yet know to what extent Donald Trump will succeed in remaking the United States, but his candidacy and presidency are already remaking American journalism.
It is not just that the ranting and raving on talk radio, on cable news, on websites, on Twitter have grown, if anything, louder. What’s more significant is how the political world’s encounter with Trump is changing our most respected journalism organizations—including the New York Times, the Washington Post, the network evening newscasts and CNN.
Yes, we have seen a new and welcome burst of investigative journalism at many of these news organs, as reporters have at the new administration’s generous supply of scandals and sort through an outraged bureaucracy’s abundant leaks about those scandals. But bursts of investigation come and go. The big news in American journalism today has been that reporters, editors and producers at legacy journalism organizations have become so eager to dispute the more questionable pronouncements and proposals of the Trump administration. Increasingly they are prepared to label the president’s wilder statements and tweets “falsehoods” or even “lies.” The big news is that many of our best journalists seem, in news coverage, not just opinion pieces, to be moving away from balance and nonpartisanship.
Is this the end of all that is good and decent in American journalism? Nah. I say good for them. An abandonment of the pretense to “objectivity”—in many ways a return to American journalism’s roots—is long overdue.
Journalism in the United States was born partisan and remained, for much of its history, loud, boisterous and combative. Note this appraisal of one of our presidents in the leading opposition newspaper of his time: “If ever a nation was debauched by a man, the American nation has been debauched by …. .” The commander-in-chief—and alleged debaucher—whose name completed this sentence? George Washington.
This attack upon our now sainted first president was launched by a zealous anti-Federalist editor. Well into the 20th century, newspaper editors tended to be zealous something-or-others, and large numbers of the columns in their newspapers reflected their points of view. Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, was a Republican—a founding member of that party. Before and during the Civil War, Greeley’s Tribune was thoroughly Republican too.
And there were so many newspapers in a large city like New York, that there was room for one or more representing most political points of view. The journalistic market was thoroughly fractured. You attracted readers by being strawberry or butter pecan, not vanilla. Joseph Pulitzer, America’s leading publisher at the end of the 19th century, was passionately progressive, as was his newspaper, the New York World.
This all changed in the 20th century.
The man who would eventually do the most to bring nonpartisanship and balance to American journalism was Lowell Thomas—whose voice was heard on the country’s first network radio newscast beginning in 1930. By 1941 this one man was delivering the news every weekday evening to about 10 percent of the adult population of the United States. And Thomas reached many more through the newsreels he hosted, shown in movie theaters twice-weekly.
No rabble-rouser to begin with, Thomas intuited that the best way to hold this large audience was to avoid excessively offending any major political group. He tried to play it, as he put it, “down the middle”—not leaning, during the 1932 presidential campaign for instance, to Franklin Roosevelt or to President Herbert Hoover (though Thomas himself was a Republican).
And Thomas’ main successors in the role of national newsmen—David Brinkley, Walter Cronkite, Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw—aimed for somewhere around “the middle” too. The business model of network television newscasts, which required gathering an audience of millions for their advertisements, necessitated that they be “trusted” by Democrats and Republicans alike.
By the last third of the 20th century, America’s newspapers, their numbers shrunk by competition with broadcast news, were honoring a similar business model. It no longer made sense for the one, two or a few papers that had survived in a city to spread out on the political spectrum. Instead they picked up the habit of reflexively pairing a quote from the Republicans with one from the Democrats. This is a variety of what the sharp-eyed and sardonic press critic A. J. Liebling once dubbed, “on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that” journalism.
Although it was the exception in the long history of American journalism, we have come to see this late-20th century journalism as “traditional” journalism. It was at least the journalism with which most of us grew up. And it did have one great advantage: the gravity and trust that often did flow from the mass audiences it attracted and its reputation for impartiality. That gave these news organs, on the rare occasions when they chose to exercise it, clout.
It is not clear that President Lyndon Johnson actually said in 1968, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost the country,” after Walter Cronkite—then anchor of the CBS Evening News—returned from a visit to Vietnam with a belated and reluctant critique of the Vietnam War. But whether Johnson said it or not, Cronkite’s audience was so huge and he was so widely trusted that he could help turn the country against the war and the president who, with considerable dishonesty, was waging it. Same thing when another CBS newsman, Edward R. Murrow, had taken on the reckless Communist-hunting Senator Joseph McCarthy.
A similar power was possessed by then almost universally respected newspapers like the Washington Post, which, in an earlier burst of investigative zeal, played a crucial role in exposing the Watergate scandal, or the New York Times, which was the first to publish the Pentagon Papers, questioning the premises of Vietnam War.
But let’s not romanticize this era of mostly disinterested journalism. Given the fear of being caught possessing an opinion, pussyfooting abounded. And with so many journalism organizations clustered near “the middle,” the range of available viewpoints necessarily narrowed. On the seesaws reporters were so intent upon balancing, plenty of perspectives were denied seats: non-white and non-male voices, anti-anti-Communist or anti-war opinions.
McCarthy had been leveling his wild charges for four years before Murrow took him on. The Vietnam War had been sinking toward a bloody stalemate and the Johnson administration of Johnson had been dissembling about its causes, toll and futility for a few years before Cronkite spoke out against the war. When it was not investigating, American journalism—post-radio, pre-Internet—leaned for the most part toward the vanilla.
One last point about the more temperate journalism of the late 20th century: It did not lead to a more temperate country. On the contrary, the 1960s and 1970s—near the height of American journalism’s infatuation with impartiality—were a time of protest marches, civil disobedience, assassinations and urban riots. Indeed by failing to offer more diverse and radical voices access to its columns and microphones, mainstream 20th-century journalism may have compelled them to express themselves in the streets.
The audience for journalism fractured again in the 21st century. With hundreds of popular websites and Twitter feeds added to a few cable news networks, journalism began appearing in lots more interesting flavors: not just Fox News Channel and MSNBC, but the Drudge Report, Andrew Sullivan, the Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, BuzzFeed, Politico, Breitbart, Vox.com, the Intercept, etc. In many corners of journalism good old-fashioned Horace Greeley-, Joseph Pulitzer-style partisanship reigned. Hence, the current cacophony.
Our legacy journalism organizations—including NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, NPR, PBS, the Associated Press and most daily newspapers—were slow to recognize the new order and find their voices in the din. They continued to police themselves for tilts and biases and remained a little vanilla well into the 21st century. Indeed, their obsession with nonpartisanship lingered long enough to leave them deeply vulnerable to manipulation by a boisterous, rudderless presidential candidate like Trump.
Trump dissembled, most fact checkers determined, with much greater frequency than other candidates. But could “objective” journalists actually declare that a major presidential candidate was lying? For quite a while during the presidential campaign most shied away from the L word. Here, for example, are two mealy-mouthed euphemisms for Trumpian whoppers from one November 2015 article in the New York Times: “salesmanlike stretches” and “questionable recollections.” (The article did eventually get around to noting that one Trump assertion was “false.”)
And it was presumably in the name of old-fashioned balance and nonpartisanship—bending over backwards, in this case, not to slight the difficulties of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton—that the New York Times made a decision that still sticks in the craw of some of the newspaper’s critics. Just a little more than one week before the election, the Times turned over the entire top half of its front page to stories surrounding FBI director James Comey’s announcement that the FBI was to reopen its investigation of Democratic candidate Clinton’s emails because new emails might be found. New emails, we soon learned, were not found.
Many of those critics saw this as an example of “false balance”—equating Clinton’s minor transgression in having used a private email server for correspondence, some of which was classified, while secretary of state with Trump’s highly questionable and potentially more nefarious behavior: refusing to release his tax returns, failure to thoroughly divest himself of his business interests and adopting pro-Russian policies while members of his team apparently had significant financial relationships with entities connected to Russia and he was receiving considerable help in the campaign from Russian cyber-warfare directed at the Democrats.
And CNN, in its urge toward balance, seems to feel obligated to invite one or two reasonably telegenic Trump supporters to join many of its “panels”—sometimes seemingly for purpose of twisting logic into knots in support of an evidence-deficient Trump tweet.
It was not as if the Times, CNN and the other legacy news organizations gained much in the way of gravity and trust from such strained efforts at evenhandedness. If the mainstream media do not merely echo their man’s views, Trump supporters dismiss them as the “liberal” media, as, gallingly, “fake news.” In the second decade of the 21st century, it seems impossible to be trusted by many on all sides the way a Lowell Thomas was.
Indeed, in this fractured, partisan environment there is no Cronkite or Murrow who might bring down—however belatedly, however reluctantly—a Trump. No journalist today appears to possess the gravity and trust to shake a presidency—not Anderson Cooper or Matt Lauer and certainly not, unless they were to take on a president of their own persuasion, Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow. A small percentage of Americans even know the name of the most recent anchor of the CBS Evening News, Scott Pelley. When 17 days after Trump’s inauguration, Pelley concluded on the air that Trump had made statements that were not just untrue but “divorced from reality,” it caused a minor fuss on Twitter and the Web—and not much else. Pelley’s willingness to attack the president with such vehemence seems not to have played any role—negative or positive—in the recent, presumably ratings-based decision to remove him as anchor of this newscast.
Instead journalists have had to grapple with the Trump administration not only the way Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein took on the Nixon administration—leak by leak, exposé by exposé—but by shucking off their shackles.
Our most respected mainstream journalism organizations are beginning to recognize the failings of nonpartisanship—its tepidness, its blind spots, its omissions, its evasions. It was news when the patriarch of American journalism, the New York Times, finally used the word “lie,” in a headline on atop its front page on September 17, 2016, to describe a Trump assertion (albeit one he claimed no longer to hold: “birtherism”). Other legacy journalism organizations began more regularly calling out Trump’s “falsehoods,” if not actually accusing him of lying. About a week later, the Los Angeles Times declared, also on page one: “Never in modern presidential politics has a major candidate made false statements as routinely as Trump has.”
And these acknowledgements of Trump’s untruthfulness and wild accusations continue into his presidency: On April 5, 2017, the Times, reflecting the new order, quickly changed a headline online from “Trump Says Susan Rice May Have Committed a Crime,” to “Trump, Citing No Evidence, Suggest Susan Rice Committed Crime.” Pelley at CBS upped the ante with “divorced from reality.”
Journalists at many, perhaps most, mainstream journalism organizations now seem comfortable detailing the incompetence or dishonesty of the Trump administration without always feeling the need to quote someone contributing to the dishonesty by denying what is clearly true. The “but” in their stories, once routinely followed by a response to a charge, is now often followed by an extension of the charge, as in this lead paragraph from an Associated Press story picked up online by ABC News at the end of March: “The White House’s handling of intelligence reports on the Russia investigation has been labeled unorthodox and, to the Democrats, suspicious. But when it comes to Trump’s relationship with his spy agencies, that’s par for the course.”
When it comes to coverage of the Trump administration by mainstream American journalism organizations, the conclusion that there often is no credible response to the charges is becoming par for the course.
American journalism has been changing in front of our eyes. And even after historians have taken over from reporters the task of investigating the depredations of the Trump administration—the old “on-the-one-hand-this, on-the-other-hand-that” style of journalism is not coming back. The condition that created it—a limited supply of news organs, which sought large audiences by not offending—is gone. Its weaknesses are manifest. Journalists will not willingly slip that straightjacket back on. Our now unlimited supply of news organs is instead encouraging a robust, contentious style of journalism that George Washington might in some ways have recognized.
Better that journalists surrender the old pretense to objectivity entirely. Our best reporters must still dig and keep digging, check and double check as they investigate. They must still be fair to those they cover and give credit or blame where due. But can’t we now acknowledge that the New York Times and the Washington Post—in their take on the news as well as in their editorials—are deeply skeptical about Trump’s presidency? Is it not time for CNN and the others who are in that camp to own up to it too? Certainly, there is a roster of journalism organizations, albeit not as extensive and distinguished, on the other side. Why can’t all newspapers and news channels stop pussyfooting and own up to having something of a political point of view?
Most other countries are comfortable with journalists who wield a well-honed perspective. In France, Le Monde has long been openly of the left and Le Figaro the right; in England it’s the Guardian and the Telegraph. They all manage, with their biases, to be fine news organs. The democracies they monitor continue to function.
Having a take on events is no sin for a journalist. Presenting as reasonable an argument you know to be unreasonable is. How refreshing it is to see mainstream journalists beginning to realize that they no longer need pretend.
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