GLASSER: What The President Gets Wrong About The Press

Tom White

Charles J. Glasser, Jr., Esq. Professor, Media Ethics and Law, NYU
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The national press is rightly often criticized for acting like babies in overreaction to the president’s “fake news” mantra and his labeling the press “the enemy of the people.”

There are two reasons this is true. First, it’s repulsive to see pompous, self-important people like Jim Acosta put themselves in the same boat as genuine journalists who are actually being killed and tortured for their work, and who are not merely the target of the president’s 50-caliber Twitter gun. Sticks and stones, Jimmy.

Secondly, although too few journalists and media critics will admit it publicly, the press, in general, has done a fine job on its own of alienating millions of readers by consistently publishing nontrivial errors, knowing falsehoods, hiding corrections and retractions, and most importantly, introducing bias into what is allegedly the truth-telling business. (Memo to MSNBC and Fox: intellectually-challenged partisan viewers and readers insist on calling opinions “true” or “false” because they agree with the analysis. Opinions can be based on accurate facts, but the opinion itself is not a fact.)

At the same time, the “enemy of the people” theme deserves a closer look, because it has had some degree of effect. When the president trots out the line at one of his well-attended rallies, the crowd often reacts by booing the press in attendance. And to be sure, if you get a crowd of 50,000 people together the odds are good that every now and then some knucklehead will shove a cameraman or verbally assault a reporter.

The Press Is Not Monolithic

The best starting point may be Justice Antonin Scalia’s observation that it is erroneous to think “that one’s reputation is a monolith.” Former National Intelligence Director James Clapper might be a boldfaced liar to Congress, but he’s not a drug dealer or pedophile. Similarly, the president and many of his supporters make the same mistake regarding “the press.” In my view (biased no doubt by my more than 30 years in journalism) this overly broad brush does a great disservice to the Fourth Estate.

Mind you, it’s not journalists’ feelings I’m worried about. With the notable exception of the D.C. snake pit, most reporters and editors are a pretty thick-skinned bunch. When teaching graduate students, I feel obligated to warn them that if they are easily offended, triggered by covering unpleasant events or dealing with controversial topics, or unable to take the same level of criticism that they dish out, they may want to rethink their career choices.

What I do worry about is the overly broad definition of “the press” that discounts the critical role that the Fourth Estate plays in an open and vibrant democracy. Demonizing the entirety of the press risks cheating the public out of crucial and life-affecting information published every day. Investigative reporters like John Carreyrou of The Wall Street Journal broke open the Elizabeth Holmes/Theranos scandal that cheated investors out of more than $750 million. Eric Eyre of the Charleston Gazette-Mail exposed the flood of opioids flowing into depressed West Virginia counties with the highest overdose death rates in the country. These are real stories with real reach. This kind of reporting is the antithesis of being the public’s “enemy”: it serves the noble and higher calling of being a watchdog for the public. In short, the problem is that real journalists are suffering the fallout from the misbehavior, dishonesty and bias of the “political pundit class.”

Blurring the Lines

To try and make sense of the dangerously overbroad phrase, I spoke with Ted Bridis, currently the Rob Hiaasen Lecturer in Investigative Reporting. Prior to his academic career, Bridis was the head of Investigative Reporting at the Associated Press for more than 11 years and reported for national newspapers before that. “There’s definitely been a blurring in the public’s understanding of who or what the press is,” Bridis says. “For one thing, people forget that different outlets have different standards. In addition, we’ve seen pure opinion creep into what ought to be straight public service journalism. That has an impact on credibility, especially with partisan readers.”

Aside from genuine investigative journalism, the “enemy of the people” meme also disregards the thousands of general assignment stories produced by news outlets every day. If we stop and step back, there’s no political angle present in the great preponderance of news. For example, stories about a local crime spree, unemployed workers struggling to make ends meet, mismanagement of spending by local government, or events in local education are journalism’s typical output. “Political reporting has become a bloodsport,” notes Bridis, “and there’s a disproportion to the way that kind of journalism tends to dominate the conversation.”

In addition, Bridis adds that the problem is “made worse by the fact that shrinking resources means that fewer newspapers are chasing fewer general assignment stories.” The addition of a new local library wing does not have the sizzle that political reporting does. Without the sizzle — and the attendant clicks — nonpolitical stories don’t represent enough revenue for publishers to invest in them. In my opinion, that’s a real loss to the public.

Is There An Enemy?

“Enemy” is a strong word, and when it comes from the bully pulpit of the White House, I suspect it’s taken a little too far in these polarized times. Nonetheless, the damage to public trust in journalism — which is its lifeblood — should be laid at the feet of the political pundit class. To gain some insight into why that class has alienated millions of readers and voters I spoke with Andrew Klavan, a best-selling novelist and well-known for his lively political commentary as an observer of mass media and politics.

Klavan has a considerable laundry list of complaints about the political pundit class. “To begin with, most of that writing belongs in the Opinion section, yet it pretends to be news.” The inconsistencies (or double standards) displayed by the political pundit class is another source of annoyance for Klavan. “They can deny it all they want,” says Klavan, “but the degree of incuriosity displayed by the press towards investigating the Obama administration is undeniable.”

Klavan notes that for eight years the press turned a blind eye to deep, meaningful coverage of serious issues like the weaponization of the IRS and the bungled gun-walking “Fast and Furious” debacle that cost the lives of a US border patrol agent and others. “After Trump’s election, the press did a 180 and has feverishly tried to get any dirt they can that might invalidate the 2016 election.”

“These pundits have simply lost the plot,” says Klavan. “I have no problem at all with vigorous examination of any politician, in fact I think that’s their responsibility. But these elitists seem more intent on reflecting each other’s views and feel no obligation to inform those people they delighted in calling deplorable.”

Conservatives are not alone in their critique of the political pundit class. In an epic Kinsleyian gaffe, Ben Rhodes, the former deputy national security adviser to President Obama told The New York Times that “it was easy” to manipulate reporters because of the inexperience of many of those covering the issue. “The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”

While Rhodes may have been speaking to naïveté or incompetence, the well-respected and markedly left-leaning Matt Taibbi published a stunningly honest piece in Rolling Stone this month, highlighting the fundamental flaws in the rabid news coverage of the now-debunked “Russian Collusion” issue:

The 2016 campaign season brought to the surface awesome levels of political discontent. After the election, instead of wondering where that anger came from, most of the press quickly pivoted to a new tale about a Russian plot to attack our democracy. This conveyed the impression that the election season we’d just lived through had been an aberration, thrown off the rails by an extraordinary espionage conspiracy between Trump and a cabal of evil foreigners. This narrative contradicted everything I’d seen traveling across America in my two years of covering the campaign. The overwhelming theme of that race, long before anyone even thought about Russia, was voter rage at the entire political system.

Crossing The Line: Political Handmaidens

The mechanics of reporting often include a small degree of “give-and-take” between reporters and politicians. Holding off on publication briefly until a comment can be put together or making sure that an opposing set of facts is included in the story is the everyday stuff of political journalism. But in the elitist desire to become powerbrokers rather than reporters, ethical lines have been crossed too often.

This month it came to light that Dafna Linzer, the managing editor overseeing political coverage for NBC News and MSNBC ominously bullied reporter Yashar Ali (who does not work for Linzer) to pressure him to delay publication of a story so that Democratic Party officials could formulate a strategy. There is no possible excuse for a so-called journalist to use her position and power to try and squelch reporting — outside her own newsroom no less — that reflects poorly on her political allies. Why would an allegedly disinterested journalist call another reporter not working for her and demand that he alter or delay his story because of the inconvenience it represented to a political party?

Glenn Thrush was the subject of a small amount of scrutiny in 2016 when it came to light that while working for Politico he was sending his stories verbatim to Clinton honcho John Podesta for approval before publication. Thrush and his supporters pretended that he was merely “fact checking” his story, but Thrush’s own emails to Podesta gave that the lie. In one email Thrush said: “Because I have become a hack I will send u the whole section that pertains to u…“Please don’t share or tell anyone I did this. Tell me if I f—ed up anything.” (Thrush now works for The New York Times). I dare any journalism professor, senior editor or media ethics critic to say that prepublication review by the subject of verbatim portions of a story is appropriate.

Trump’s Gonna Trump

The president’s overbroad demonization of the press has worked for him, and I don’t see him making the distinction between real reporters and the pundit class anytime soon: nuance and detail are far from his strong suit. Moreover, those people who characterize Trump as “stupid” are doomed to get their asses kicked again. Whether by intuition or design, he has an uncanny knack for mass communications. His “Apprentice” franchise made millions of dollars for both him and NBC. He is also, as Scott Adams has pointed out elsewhere, a “master persuader” and has used his twitter account and off-script comments to drive the pundit class insane. When he says something batty, it’s like catnip to these people.

Seeing how it is unlikely that the president will change his approach, and as long as there is a monetary or egotistical reward for people like Ezra Klein, Lauren Duca, Rachel Maddow and yes, Sean Hannity or Ann Coulter, I don’t see them changing their ways or having an ethical “road to Damascus” moment. That leaves resolution in the hands of journalism professors who should be inculcating higher ethical standards in young journalists, and in the hands of thoughtful readers and voters, who would serve their own interests better if they rejected the president’s overbroad definition of “the press.”

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 teaches media ethics and law at New York University and the CUNY/Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of “The International Libel and Privacy Handbook.”

 The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.