GOODMAN: Rejecting The Media ‘Gatekeepers’

Jerod Harris/Getty Images for Fortune

Adam Goodman Contributor
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In baseball they wear black, in other contests their outfits look like prison stripes. We grouse and grumble about them, because they tread in the demilitarized zone between relevant and irrelevant, right and wrong.

They are Switzerland in a world of Hatfields and McCoys, plying neutrality among combatants who offer no neutral corners.

In sports they’re called umpires, referees, the officials, there to enforce the rules so the competition doesn’t degenerate into mob rule.

In politics, for generations, these rule-keepers wore a different name tag: the media. Today, they are fighting for credibility, if not survival, as a more discerning audience is rejecting bias (intended or not), and journalists’ slant (meant or not). They are also turning off America’s largest demographic, the center/right coalition of conservatives and moderates, which Gallup recently pegged at 72% of the electorate.

Last Sunday’s episode of “60 Minutes,” where the four major national contenders (Trump, Pence, Biden and Harris) were interviewed, provided another example of the challenge.

Lesley Stahl, a Hall of Fame media veteran, opted to continue the show’s history of reporter-centric investigative journalism by sculpting questions to reinforce it. Yet by the time it was over, Stahl’s sit-down with the president became a stand-off where both sides claimed victory but neither looked virtuous or victorious.

Thinking it benign, Stahl confided to the president that he better be ready for “tough questions.”  While antagonists on the left anticipated a media-driven impeachment of his record, those on the right heard it differently: Stahl – and “60 Minutes” – were embarking on another “search and destroy” mission.

What’s most disturbing for all, left and right, pro-Trumper and never-Trumper, is how all of this took place before the first question was asked.

What happened next was predictable. In a back-and-forth, increasingly argumentative exchange, the interviewer became the interviewed. When the president referenced historic pre-COVID economic gains, Stahl pushed back. When he raised legitimate questions surrounding the surfaced Hunter Biden emails re China, she dissed and dismissed them. Instead of an interview, it devolved into a debate between the President and Lesley Stahl.

The term for this is “gonzo journalism,” where the reporter becomes part of the story without hiding personal ideology, predilection or prejudice.  Maybe this is good for ratings, but it’s not good for America, or anyone determined to lead it.

In earlier times – back to the days of MurrowCronkiteChancellorBrinkley, et alia — media icons fulfilled their responsibility with honor and humility. They knew the nation looked to them to be judicious and balanced, that after sharing information on everything from wars to space, civil rights to human rights, they would defer any final judgments to public opinion over their own.

Well, that world is now gathering dust on the shelves of history, while the current one is generating dustpans full of conflict and rancor.

The Media Research Center released an empirical study showing just how much the media has fed into this. For the past three months, the three primary broadcast news networks devoted 95% of their coverage of the President to “negative” stories (compared to 34% dedicated to Biden). When calculated from Inauguration Day onward, negative stories on the commander in chief amount to 90% — nine out of ten times the media had nothing positive or balanced to say.

If any American were subjected to that kind of fusillade, there’d be nothing left but incalculable damage. Yet the president may win reelection despite it all because the public distrusts the media more than ever before.

Gallup poll in August reinforced what we already sensed: 84% of Americans blame the media for the nation’s divisiveness. A Columbia Journalism Review column delved deeper, suggesting the media should admit they don’t have “a disinterested effort at truth” but are out to express their take on national “values”.

Yet instead of embracing this or other remedies, many in the media corps continue to double down, as if pushing harder to prove their point will somehow nullify ours.

Regardless of who wins the presidency, controls the Congress or presides over the Supreme Court, we need the media to be better, and more self-aware, moving forward. If not, the divide in America will only grow deeper, the feelings more intense and the answers harder to come by.

In the sports world, the best officiated games are ones where the rule-keepers are relatively unseen and non-controversial.

There’s a lesson here for everyone else in the real world who cares to listen.

Adam Goodman is a national Republican media strategist and columnist. He is a partner at Ballard Partners in Washington, D.C. He is also the first Edward R. Murrow senior fellow at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. Follow him on Twitter @adamgoodman3