A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a tribe called “journalists” once took seriously their role as “seekers of truth,” and in an uneasy truce with a tribe called “politicians,” reported what was said and done by the politicians without fear or favor.
This was done for the benefit of those who chose the politicians to make law and regulate the population’s lives. Based on simple social contract theory, it made sense that the population could deed this power to the politicians only on the basis that the population had all the facts upon which to make their choices.
The other side of this truce was an implicit promise by the journalists to hold themselves to the same level of accountability that they applied to the politicians. This would manifest in two different ways: first, the journalists promised to quickly and clearly correct factual errors; and second, in severe cases involving a matter of public concern or national interest the journalists would also explain to the population how and why an error was made, by publishing an “autopsy” detailing the news organization’s errors, process, policies and most importantly, promises for improvement.
Those days are long gone.
Enemy of the people?
The relationship between the tribes of journalists and politicians may be at the most acrimonious point in the history of modern publishing. It’s worth remembering that many of our Founding Fathers lived as refugees because King George had issued warrants for the capital offense of treason against those who wrote tracts unfavorable to his reign. Now you have to go to Mexico to find that dynamic.
President Trump has often referred to the press as “the enemy of the people.” When pressed for details, he backtracks and says that he means “the fake news.” At the same time, any story that does not read like a press release lauding him gets labeled “fake news.” It’s kind of a circle of bombast for two reasons.
To begin with, as I’ve written here and elsewhere, even the harshest critic of the modern press must recognize that there’s a difference between “fake” and “wrong” news. Journalists are for the most part human beings and anyone who ever set pen to paper, myself included, will make an error. Recognizing that a good-faith error must be tolerated in exchange for the value of the “free marketplace of ideas” is the moral engine behind the First Amendment.
But I think President Trump’s greatest mistake is calling the press “the enemy of the people.” When you look at the way journalism has abandoned their promise of self-accountability, it may be more accurate to say that “the press is the enemy of the press.” As far as credibility goes, these are mostly self-inflicted wounds. To be sure, Trump has cleverly milked this populist view for all it’s worth, but there are a lot of moving parts to the all-time low esteem in which journalists are held.
Once upon a time
There was a time when news organizations who stumbled took their role and responsibilities seriously and came clean with their readers and viewers about how they messed up. In what I consider the high point of press accountability, in 1998, CNN broadcast a story that the U.S. military used nerve gas in a mission to kill American defectors in Laos during the Vietnam War called “Operation Tailwind.”
It turned out that CNN had no evidence regarding either the use of nerve gas or the targeting of Americans. Admirably, CNN retained the eminent First Amendment scholar and attorney Floyd Abrams to perform an autopsy. It was not an exercise in excuse-making or blame shifting. Abrams produced a fifty-four-page review that explained to viewers in detail what went wrong and why, and CNN published it for the world to see, warts and all.
Another shining example of self-accountability — as painful as it must have been — came to light in 1981 when The Washington Post published and then retracted a story by Janet Cooke called “Jimmy’s World,” about an 8-year-old heroin addict. Although the story won a Pulitzer Prize, it turned out that there was no “Jimmy.” Cooke invented him.
Then-Publisher Donald Graham and Executive Editor Benjamin Bradlee oversaw an internal investigation and quickly told the public in print what had gone wrong, with Bradlee adding that:
“The credibility of a newspaper is its most precious asset, and it depends almost entirely on the integrity of its reporters. When that integrity is questioned and found wanting, the wounds are grievous, and there is nothing to do but come clean with our readers […] and begin immediately on the uphill task of regaining our credibility.”
In the past, a few public mea culpas stand out as something of which journalists should be proud: The New York Times was forthcoming in the aftermath of their Jayson Blair fabulist scandal; and Gannett’s Cincinnati Enquirer front page apology for a reporter using illegal means (hacking into a phone system) to obtain material about Chiquita Brands International are both good examples of the press adhering to Bradlee’s sage advice. But no more.
The currency of credibility has been abandoned
In the recent past news organizations across the spectrum have made several serious errors, some even potentially causing harm to people’s reputations and to the accuracy of public dialogue. But in these cases, even when a story was corrected or retracted, the press has largely forgotten Bradlee’s reminder about the currency of credibility and the obligation to “come clean” with readers.
For example, Fox News incorrectly reported in May that “that evidence showed Seth Rich had secretly shared the emails of Democratic Party leaders with WikiLeaks at the height of last year’s presidential campaign.” The story fell apart, Fox retracted the story and promised the public they “will continue to investigate this story and will provide updates as warranted.” NPR’s media writer David Folkenflik walked through Fox’s errors and noted that the update promised by Fox never materialized. How and why did this happen?
Similarly, CNN erred in a June 2017 story defaming Trump supporter and advisor Anthony Scaramucci by implying his improper involvement in a Russian investment fund. Although CNN retracted the story, apologized to Scaramucci, and accepted the resignation of three journalists involved in the error, CNN would only say the story “did not meet CNN’s editorial standards.” How and why did this happen?
Publishing a falsity that can only be described as bizarre, in June ABC News broadcast a graphic stating that “Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had pleaded guilty to 5 charges of manslaughter.” ABC apologized for the error and promised viewers an investigation but so far that has not materialized. If it was merely a “technical problem” then wouldn’t ABC earn the currency of credibility by explaining that to viewers? How and why did this happen?
It’s not about journalism, it’s about public relations
The soap opera being played out between Ronan Farrow and NBC News’ Chairman Andy Lack may be the best indicator that errors and challenged allegations are now treated as public relations and marketing problems rather than ones of journalistic ethics. Farrow’s Pulitzer-winning story about film producer, Democratic Party financier and notorious pervert Harvey Weinstein was rejected by Farrow’s then-employer NBC.
Farrow took the story to The New Yorker (who one would presume submitted it to at least the same level of legal and editorial scrutiny as would NBC) and the resulting publication historically changed the way society views — and rightly condemns — the rich and powerful exerting a droit de seigneur to commit sexual abuse.
When the public learned that NBC had rejected the story, allegations began to circulate that powerful interests, including Weinstein himself, had pressured NBC to kill the story.
NBC’s Lack could have hired an independent media lawyer, journalist or ethicist to investigate and publish an unbiased report. Instead, he chose to use NBC staff to draft an arguably self-serving memorandum claiming variously that Farrow’s story was not ready for broadcast, attacking Farrow personally, and vigorously denying that NBC tried to interfere or block Farrow’s reporting.
In counter-response, a female former Weinstein employee has challenged the details of Lack’s memo and supports Farrow’s version of events. As of this writing, it’s all just a big ugly food fight bereft of disinterested and objective fact-finding.
I think the autopsy has fallen from favor for a few reasons. To begin with, the ratings wars have spilled over into content. Fox talking heads regularly trash CNN talking heads who trash MSNBC talking heads ad infinitum. Journalists love talking about themselves and each other and most media criticism is written for the same 100 people. Everyone else is a spectator to this boxing match.
Because of that dynamic, publishers and broadcasters are not going to give their competition reasons to gloat. And make no mistake, the president has it wrong asking the Times to “investigate” the author of the “anonymous White House insider” op-ed in The New York Times. The fact is that other media organizations are already in a frenzy to “out” the author.
The elimination of the Public Editor/Ombudsman role in many news organizations indicates the low priority publishers place on clarity and accountability.
In an email conversation with Washington Post media writer and former NYT Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, she wondered aloud whether the fast pace and reckless race for “breaking news” has simply squeezed the idea of public accountability out of the newshole: “It may be related to the pace of news: we just move on, instead of thoughtfully looking back”, she said. “Not every mistake needs an autopsy,” she added. “Some just need a full, solid and very visible correction. We don’t always get even that.”
So, what to do? Some outfits have experimented with an interactive social media autopsy. In 2014, The Associated Press experimented with using a Reddit A/M/A to delve into industry pushback and complaints about a report critical of the ethanol industry. Although the results were mixed, it was a good effort and one that they and others ought to revisit.
Ever the optimist, I’m hoping that more editors like the Houston Chronicle’s Nancy Barnes heed Bradlee’s old-school advice. On September 10, she penned an item telling readers that they were launching an investigation into possible fabrication of sources by a veteran reporter and told Newser that “a full account of the findings will be published when it is complete.” Here’s hoping she follows through.
Blaming President Trump for the public’s lack of trust accorded modern media is misplaced. He may whip die-hards into a frenzy, but there’s no “there” there: You could put what he knows about journalism and the First Amendment in your eye and still see pretty well.
That said, he’s not wrong about overwhelmingly biased coverage, and one might even give him credit for holding the media’s feet to the fire. When the press is sloppy, unfair, or deceitfully inaccurate, it’s up to the press to step up and come clean on their own. They don’t owe that to the President. They owe it to the dignity of journalism, the historical record, and to the readers.
Charles Glasser (@MediaEthicsGuy) was a journalist in the 1980s and later studied at New York University School of Law. After several years as a First Amendment litigator, he became Bloomberg News’ first global media counsel. He is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook”, teaches media ethics and law at New York University and the CUNY Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and also lectures globally and writes frequently about media and free speech issues for Instapundit and other outlets.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.