It’s been a miserable season for political reporting. Some of the misery is self-inflicted. Let’s admit that we’ve moved a long way from Murrow and Cronkite. And, let’s also admit that what made the ‘Murrow Moment’ (March 9, 1954) significant when the broadcaster called out the invidious Senator Joe McCarthy was a matter of personal courage when most other stations were satisfied to repeat what the Senator had to offer without comment. Many of the broadcasters today weren’t around on February 27, 1968 for Cronkite’s epic Vietnam War comments. No anchor today has the gravitas to make the President say, as Lyndon Johnson remarked that day, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”
Nor can we look back to some Golden Age of political reporting without noting that Robert R. McCormick reigned supreme at the “America First” newspaper, the Chicago Tribune – arduously attacking Franklin D. Roosevelt, all things New Deal, and any question that the U.S. should enter World War II on the side of the British. The currently resurgent “America First” slogan got its initial patriotic veneer from the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst. [Atlantic] The unhelpful press has always been with us.
“Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” [SPJ]
The statement above is the standard by which journalism is to be delivered. There are two key words in that simple statement which seem to have become blurred — “accuracy,” and “honest.” The reading and watching public have been let down several times.
It took until 2004 for the New York Times to admit that the articles written by Judith Miller concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq 2001-2002 were inaccurate. When they did, the blame was deflected to “bad sources,” and “everyone makes mistakes.” There is a difference between being a journalist and being a stenographer using unexamined, “unreliable, and possibly partisan sources.” [MMA]
MSNBC host Chuck Todd received well earned flack for this bit of commentary in 2013:
“MSNBC host Chuck Todd said Wednesday that when it comes to misinformation about the new federal health care law, don’t expect members of the media to correct the record.” [TPM]
Really? What was that first standard from the Society of Professional Journalists again? Accurate and fair? Yes, it definitely is a journalist’s responsibility to the accurate. And, if your reporting isn’t accurate why should anyone watch, listen, or read what you have to say?
Todd got into similar territory during an interview with Senator Ted Cruz in April 2016:
“Cruz went onto accuse the Department of Justice of letting Planned Parenthood off the hook for supposedly selling baby body parts, which as we all know, is a bald-faced lie, and cited those doctored videos as proof, and what was Chuck Todd’s response? You guessed it. Crickets.” [C&L]
One can be a reporter, a stenographer, or a microphone – Todd did not choose to be a reporter.
The New York Times writer, Roger Cohen, got into an instructive exchange with Norman Ornstein a day ago, leading to Ornstein questions about the Times’ focus on Clinton ‘scandals;’
“Roger this is not about ignoring these issues. It is about obsessing on them to the exclusion of everything else.” [Storify]
Ornstein refers here to the questions about Trump University, the investigation into the actions of Trump University, and the possible bribes to Florida and Texas authorities concerning the investigations into Trump University.
Fox News, Chris Wallace, echoed the Chuck Todd defense yesterday:
“That’s not my job. I do not believe it is my job to be a truth squad. It’s up to the other person to catch them on that. I certainly am going to try to maintain some reasonable semblance of equal time. If one of them is filibustering, I’m going to try to break in respectfully and give the other person a chance to talk….” [MMA]
So, if one candidate, the other, or both are being untruthful, it’s up to the viewers to discern the difference? This is the very antithesis of informing the public.
If the main point isn’t to be the accuracy of the information given to the public what is the public getting? Not much. Not as much as we could be getting because the press is almost as interested in covering its own interests as it is in covering the news.
“The Press Conference Flap” is informative in itself. David A. Graham (Atlantic) Callum Borchers (WaPo) Oliver Darcy (Business Insider) and Jonathan Easley (The Hill) are among those who have wondered and opined about why Secretary Clinton hasn’t had a press conference. Paul Krugman’s column may provide a hint?
“So I would urge journalists to ask whether they are reporting facts or simply engaging in innuendo, and urge the public to read with a critical eye. If reports about a candidate talk about how something “raises questions,” creates “shadows,” or anything similar, be aware that these are all too often weasel words used to create the impression of wrongdoing out of thin air.”
If all the press conference is to be is a mob format Q&A in which Secretary Clinton can’t possibly say all the right things in just the absolutely right way to dismiss the innuendo and outright falsehoods of the email and foundation manufactured scandals, then why should she bother?
Besides which, contemporary press conferences don’t seem to get much accomplished. I’ve (almost) joked before that press conferences are sessions in which reporters ask ten minute questions and then expect a ten second response; or, press conferences are where reporters ask complicated questions to which they seem to want simple, sound byte, answers. Or, a session in which a reporter is asked for one question, squeezes in three, and then later complains that the respondent didn’t answer the second and third?
“Chicago — August has been the worse month in violence and homicides in several decades. Obviously, we focus on these things when we hit these milestones; I’m sure the President thinks about it all the time. What is his response to this? And more specifically, what is his response to the Trump statement that, essentially, he’s going to make these shootings stop, and that he’s the law-and-order candidate, and that the President has not done the job in this area generally, is the criticism?” [WHPC 8/30/16]
We could have shortened this question easily because it’s relatively obvious the questioner isn’t focused on the President’s reaction, but on the President’s reaction to Mr. Trump’s reaction. So, the question becomes – do reporters want a press conference because they have essential, policy related, questions about Secretary Clinton’s domestic and foreign policy statements, or do they want to get on TV asking about emails, foundations, and a personal aide’s domestic arrangements? Or, just to get themselves on TV?