“Criticism of the News Media Takes On a More Sinister Tone,” reads the headline of Jim Rutenberg’s latest New York Times column. “It sure does get exhausting working for the global corporate media conspiracy,” he begins, soon stopping himself: “I probably shouldn’t joke.”
Well, no harm done in that regard! But then Rutenberg strikes a serious, and aggrieved, note:
The anger being directed at the news media has become dangerous enough that some news organizations are providing security for staff members covering Trump rallies. “Someone’s going to get hurt” has become a common refrain in American newsrooms.
The reader who alerted us to Rutenberg’s column suggests in an email that it takes some chutzpah for him to complain about “anger being directed at the news media.”
After all, it was Rutenberg who in August urged news reporters and editors “to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century” and become “oppositional” against Trump, whom he described as “a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies.” As we noted last week, the Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, has since acknowledged Rutenberg’s August column reflects the editorial policy of the Times newsroom.
One critic observed that if journalists followed Rutenberg’s advice, it “will only serve to worsen [Trump supporters’] already dim view of the news media.” That critic was Rutenberg himself, in the same column. So he can’t claim to be surprised by the intensified anger.
What’s somewhat surprising about his new column, though, is that it eventually gets around to acknowledging that the other side has a point:
[The charge of media bias] is resonating with a large portion of the American electorate. There are many reasons, some of which should cause the news media to make good on its promises to examine its own disconnect from the cross section of Americans whose support for Mr. Trump it never saw coming.
How biased are the media? Rutenberg gets no more specific than this: “The answer, as I see it, is more than they’ll admit to themselves and less than conservatives claim.” That’s not even specific enough to be a middle-ground fallacy: He’s saying media bias ranks somewhere between 1 and 9 on a scale of 0 to 10.
Rutenberg acknowledges that “there . . . tends to be a shared sense of noble mission across the news media that can preclude journalists from questioning their own potential biases.” Again, this is a bit rich coming just two months after Rutenberg’s call for an “oppositional” approach to covering his disfavored candidate. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a point:
“The people who run American journalism, and who staff the newsrooms, think of themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, and, culturally speaking, on the right side of history,” Rod Dreher, a senior editor at The American Conservative, told me. …
As far as he’s concerned, mainstream journalists are “interested in every kind of diversity, except the kind that would challenge their own prejudices.” Those include, “bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks and bigotry against working-class and poor white people.”
Dreher’s operative definition of media bias is identical to Jim Roberts’s ostensive one. On Sunday Roberts, a former Times assistant managing editor, tweeted: “Yes. The media is biased. Biased against hatred, sexism, racism, incompetence, belligerence, inequality, To [sic] name a few.” Roberts left the Times in 2013, but surely a lot of like-minded people stayed behind in the newsroom.
The media, and not just the Times, have more or less followed Rutenberg’s August advice and become openly oppositional toward Trump—though it would be more accurate to say the parade was already under way when Rutenberg stepped to the front and took on the role of leader. In any case, it raises the question: What next?
That is, assuming Trump loses, do journalists continue in their role as partisans for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, or do they undertake some sort of a correction? Rutenberg urges the latter approach:
American newsrooms will be making a big mistake—and missing a huge continuing story—if they fail to adjust their coverage to better illuminate the concerns of Mr. Trump’s supporters well beyond Election Day.
Doing so might begin to build up trust in the news media, which the Gallup Organization reported as hitting a new low in September.
Color us skeptical. Sure, journalistic partisanship will probably not have as sharp an edge in the immediate aftermath of a Trump defeat as in the weeks and months leading up to it. But that’s just a matter of regression toward the mean.
Consider: After urging an adjustment in coverage (after the election, tellingly), Rutenberg himself immediately calls in addition for “a far more assertive defense from the news media” against “false and misleading political-style attacks that too often are mixed in with the valid criticism.”
That’s not objectionable in itself, and we’d agree with him that some criticism of the media is bogus and unjustified. But if, as Rutenberg acknowledges, journalists have a problem with political bias, why should we expect them to be able to distinguish between “false and misleading political-style attacks” on the one hand and “valid criticism” on the other? To pick on Jim Roberts, who certainly deserves it, he no doubt thought of his tweet as an assertive defense against a misleading political-style attack.
Anyway, it’s a lot easier to yield to your baser instincts, as Rutenberg urged journalists to do in August, than to develop discipline, as he now calls for. The best indication of that is that unlike his August column, this week’s did not appear on the front page.