This month marks the two-year anniversary of one of the most important articles ever written on journalism. On Aug. 7, 2016, after Donald Trump formally secured the Republican nomination and the general election was underway, New York Times media columnist James Rutenberg began with a question:
“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”
Under the Times’ traditional standards, the right answer is that you wouldn’t be allowed to cover any candidate you were so biased against. But that’s not the answer Rutenberg gave.
Instead, quoting an editor who called Hillary Clinton “normal” and Trump “abnormal,” Rutenberg suggested “normal standards” didn’t apply. He admitted that “balance has been on vacation” since Trump began to campaign and ended by declaring that it is “journalism’s job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment.”
I wrote then that the article was a failed attempt to justify the lopsided anti-Trump coverage in the Times and other news organizations. It was indeed that — and more, for it also served as a dog whistle for anti-Trump journalists, telling them it was acceptable to reveal their biases. After all, history would judge them.
Weeks later, Dean Baquet, the Times’ executive editor, told an interviewer the Rutenberg article “nailed” his thinking and convinced him that the struggle for fairness was over.
“I think that Trump has ended that struggle,” Baquet boasted. “I think we now say stuff. We fact-check him. We write it more powerfully that it’s false.”
Because the Times is the liberal media’s bell cow, the floodgates were flung open to routinely call Trump a liar, a racist and a traitor. Standards of fairness were trashed as nearly every prominent news organization demonized Trump and effectively endorsed Clinton. This open partisanship was a disgraceful chapter in the history of American journalism.
Yet the shocking failure of that effort produced no change in behavior. After the briefest of mea culpas for failing to see even the possibility of a Trump victory, the warped coverage continued and became the media wing of the resistance movement.
Which is how we arrived at the latest low moment in journalism. This one involved the more than 300 newspapers (including The Post) that followed The Boston Globe and, especially his accusation that they are “the enemy of the people.”
The high-minded among the media mob insisted they were joining together to protect the First Amendment and freedom of the press. In fact, the effort looked, smelled and felt like self-interest and rank partisanship masquerading as principle.
True to their habit, most of the papers expressed contempt for the president and some extended that contempt to his supporters.
Nancy Ancrum, the editorial-page editor of The Miami Herald, told Fox News her paper joined the effort without any hope of changing the minds of Trump supporters because “they are just too far gone.”
Imagine that — 63 million Americans are written off because they disagree with the media elite’s politics. Echoes of Clinton’s “deplorables” comment ring loud and clear.
I agree that Trump is wrong to call the media the “enemy of the people” and wish he would stick to less inflammatory words. His favorite charge of “fake news” makes his point well enough without any hint that he favors retribution on individual journalists.
But I am also concerned that media leaders refuse to see their destructive role in the war with the president. Few show any remorse over how the relentlessly hostile coverage of Trump is damaging the nation and changing journalism for the worse.
One obvious consequence is increased political polarization, with many media outlets making it their mission to denounce Trump from first page to last, day in and day out. Studies show 90 percent of TV news coverage is negative and the Times, Washington Post and CNN, among others, appear addicted to Trump hatred as if it is a narcotic.
This lack of balance permits little or no coverage of any of his achievements. How many people, for example, know about the employment records shattered by the jobs boom unleashed by Trump’s policies?
Black unemployment stands at 5.9 percent, the lowest rate on record. For Latinos, it is 4.5 percent, also the lowest on record. For women, it’s the lowest rate in 65 years and for young people, it’s the lowest since 1966.
Those statistics mean millions of people are getting their shot at the American dream. How can that not be newsworthy?
Rest assured that if Barack Obama had achieved those milestones, they and he would have been celebrated to the high heavens.
Yet when it comes to Trump, nothing is ever good. Having decided he is unfit to be president, most news groups act as propagandists, ignoring or distorting facts that contradict their view of him.
While media manipulation hurts Trump’s popularity, there is a second, ironic impact: The skewed coverage is doing even more damage to public trust in the media itself.
A Gallup/Knight Foundation survey of 1,440 panelists earlier this year found adults estimating that “62 percent of the news they read in newspapers, see on television or hear on the radio is biased” and that 44 percent of “news” is inaccurate.
Separately, Axios and SurveyMonkey polled nearly 4,000 adults in June and found that 70 percent believe mainline news organizations report as news things “they know to be fake, false or purposely misleading.”
Among Republicans and GOP-leaning independents, an astonishing 92 percent harbor that distrust, as do 53 percent of Democrats.
And get this: Two-thirds of those who believe there is rampant false news say it usually happens because journalists “have an agenda.” Clearly, the distrust is not limited to Trump supporters.
These numbers reflect an urgent crisis of confidence in the press. And it’s getting worse.
A Gallup survey three years ago found that 40 percent trusted the media; two years ago, the trust meter declined by 8 points, to 32 percent. Now even that low bar looks like the good old days.
Yet instead of soberly examining their conduct, most in the media ratchet up the vitriol, apparently believing that screaming louder and longer will lead the public to hate Trump as much as they do.
But as the surveys show, their bias is a boomerang. With media behavior undermining public trust more than anything Trump says or does, a return to traditional standards of fairness and a separation of news from opinion are essential.
Jeff Jacoby adds:
Last week more than 400 newspapers nationwide responded to a call by The Boston Globe to publish editorials in defense of freedom of the press, and to explain why the news media, far from being, in President Trump’s malicious phrase, the “enemy of the people,” is one of the foremost guarantors of the people’s liberty.
I’ve written about Trump and the press before, both to caution against an anti-Trump feeding frenzy and to warn of the danger in a presidential war against the press . Here I want to focus on something else — the notion, especially widespread on the right these days, that freedom of the press is for “unbiased” news coverage, not for journalism that is unfair or hostile to the president.
An Ipsos poll taken earlier this month found that 26% of Americans — and 43% of Republicans — believe that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior.” In a Quinnipiac poll , also released this month, 26% of voters agreed that “the news media is the enemy of the people.” Among Republicans, an actual majority, 51%, agreed with that statement.
It is hard to overstate how radically un-American such views are. Public disenchantment with the press, and complaints by officials that the press treats them unfairly, are as old as the press itself. But whatever people think of the media, the question of their right to publish what they please was settled when the First Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1791: “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press . . .”
Nothing in the language of the Amendment makes freedom of the press contingent on objectivity, or popularity, or public approval. Such a condition would never have occurred to the Constitution’s framers, because the press in their day was anything but (to coin a phrase) fair and balanced. Newspapers made no pretense of detachment — quite the opposite.
In 1800, for example, Samuel Morse of Danbury, Conn., publisher of the Sun of Liberty newspaper, readily flaunted his support for Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republican Party. He was opposed to the Federalists led by John Adams, and saw no need to hide the fact. “A despicable impartiality I disclaim,” he wrote. “I have a heart and I have a country — to the last I shall ever dedicate the first.”
By that point, the tradition of a freewheeling, no-holds-barred, decidedly partisan press was well-established. On my way to the Globe’s office each day, I pass the spot on Court Street in downtown Boston where James Franklin, the publisher of the New England Courant (and the older brother of Benjamin Franklin), had his printing presses. Franklin’s Courant got into a famous battle in 1721 with the Massachusetts Puritan leader Cotton Mather over the best way to treat smallpox, which was then ravaging the colony.
As Matthew Price wrote in a Globe essay in 2006, “Franklin made hell for Mather with a potent combination of slander and innuendo. Mather shot back that the Courant was a ‘Flagitious and Wicked Paper.’” (That was Puritan-speak for “fake news.”)
My point isn’t that the openly, even brutally, partisan press culture of the 18th and 19th centuries is better or worse than the ideal of journalistic impartiality that began to take hold during the Progressive Era early in the 20th century. It is that when the First Congress and the states enshrined in the First Amendment an adamantine prohibition on “abridging the freedom of . . . the press,” they were protecting the raucous, argumentative, ideological, often vicious journalism of their day. Freedom of the press, like freedom of speech, is meaningless if it only protects decorous messages and inoffensive expression that ruffle nobody’s feathers.
News organizations — and their customers — don’t need the Constitution to shield anodyne, noncontroversial journalism. If newspapers restricted themselves to printing stories that the president liked, what would be the point of newspapers? If Fox News or MSNBC broadcast commentary that challenged no one’s partisan preferences, what would be the point of watching?
“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. in 1929. “Not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
Only people profoundly and alarmingly ignorant of Americans’ constitutional liberties could believe that presidents should have the right to shut down publications “engaged in bad behavior.” The proper term for such “bad behavior” is a free press, and it is among the shining glories of America’s constitutional democracy.