“The free press is a pillar — maybe the pillar — of a free society, not the enemy,” the president said at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, referring to a notorious criticism of the media leveled by former president Donald Trump.
Then he joked, “In a lot of ways, this dinner sums up my first two years in office. I’ll talk for ten minutes, take zero questions, and cheerfully walk away.”
Attendees of the dinner roared with laughter.
Though the president says he respects and admires the press, his actions suggest otherwise. His refusal to take questions, for example, suggests that he holds the industry in as much contempt as did his predecessor. On this count, Biden has an awful lot in common with the public, which holds an overwhelmingly dim view of modern journalism. In fact, according to Gallup’s most recent data, only 16 percent say they have either a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in “newspapers” and “news on the Internet.” Even fewer — 11 percent — said the same of “television news.” Which is to say, modern journalism is perhaps one or two notches higher on the popularity scale than syphilis.
There’s a reason the public distrusts the press. It’s very simple: Too many journalists behave in an untrustworthy manner! In the past week alone, reporters at various major-league institutions have produced or promoted, either purposely or accidentally, misleading or utterly bogus information.
A National Public Radio reporter, for example, falsely accused Twitter, and Twitter CEO Elon Musk specifically, of censoring NPR’s unflattering coverage of the social-media platform. None of it was true.
“The story appears to be blocked on [Twitter],” tech reporter Bobby Allyn claimed of his attempt to share a report titled “Elon Musk threatens to reassign @NPR on Twitter to ‘another company.’”
Fellow journalists, including the Daily Beast’s Justin Baragona and former Washington Post opinion columnist Radley Balko, were quick to amplify Allyn’s false claim, racking up hundreds of combined likes and retweets. Allyn even posted the entire report on Twitter, uploading pictures of the story in installments. Turns out, however, Twitter didn’t block anything. Allyn had simply posted a bad link, a mistake he corrected later with an accompanying two-word note: “better link.”
Whoops! Oh well.
Meanwhile, CNN published a news blurb unfairly characterizing former Fox host Tucker Carlson’s private texts. On second thought, “unfairly” is too generous a descriptor. CNN’s portrayal of the texts is outright misleading.
“In a newly revealed text message,” the CNN news blurb read, “ousted Fox News host Tucker Carlson made a racist comment and said he found himself briefly rooting for a mob of Trump supporters to kill a person.”
For the record, here is what Carlson said (emphasis my own):
A couple of weeks ago, I was watching video of people fighting on the street in Washington. A group of Trump guys surrounded an Antifa kid and started pounding the living shit out of him. It was three against one, at least. Jumping a guy like that is dishonorable obviously. It’s not how white men fight. Yet suddenly I found myself rooting for the mob against the man, hoping they’d hit him harder, kill him. I really wanted them to hurt the kid. I could taste it. Then somewhere deep in my brain, an alarm went off: this isn’t good for me. I’m becoming something I don’t want to be. The Antifa creep is a human being. Much as I despise what he says and does, much as I’m sure I’d hate him personally if I knew him, I shouldn’t gloat over his suffering. I should be bothered by it. I should remember that somewhere somebody probably loves this kid, and would be crushed if he was killed. If I don’t care about those things, if I reduce people to their politics, how am I better than he is?
The italicized sentence certainly deserves its own scrutiny. Nevertheless, compare what Carlson actually said, and the totality of his remarks, to what CNN reported. Would you call CNN’s characterization — omitting the parts where Carlson clearly condemns bloodlust — a fair one?
In a by-now familiar phenomenon, newsrooms also insisted this week on referring to an illegal immigrant charged with slaughtering a family of five as a “Texas man”:
“Multiple people have been arrested in connection with the Texas man accused of fatally shooting five neighbors,” the Washington Post reported.
The suspected shooter, 38-year-old Francisco Oropeza, is a Mexican national. He has been deported at least four times between 2009 and 2016, according to U.S. immigration officials. Yet, to the press, Oropeza is a “Texas man,” not a Mexican national in the United States illegally.
“The Texas man accused of killing 5 neighbors is in custody,” reads an NPR headline.
“Police say the Texas man suspected of killing five people, including a 9-year–old boy, has been arrested after a multi-day search,” reported CBS News.
Reuters then topped it off with a self-refuting headline: “Texas man accused of killing five neighbors was deported four times.” The “deported four times” would seem to stand in conflict with the “Texas man” designation.
Lastly, in an all-too-familiar act of subservience to the powerful, PolitiFact went to bat this week for American Federation of Teachers union boss Randi Weingarten, mounting a ludicrous and paper-thin defense in response to critics who note, correctly, that she was a big-time proponent of school closures during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s misleading to suggest that [Weingarten] didn’t want to pursue reopening schools at all,” declared PolitiFact, which is run by the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit focusing on media literacy and ethics.
Well, no, it’s not misleading. Weingarten absolutely opposed reopenings.
“As educators, parents and students struggled through the early COVID-19 pandemic to balance learning with health safety rules, teachers union president Randi Weingarten grappled, too,” PolitiFact claims. “Weingarten advocated for tailored approaches that prioritized safety needs of individual districts, educators and students but stopped short of endorsing a full return to in-person learning all across the country.”
It adds, “The AFT’s reopening plan, first released in April 2020, prioritized maintaining physical distance between people, establishing COVID-19 testing protocols and involving school staff and parents in these decisions. It also called for federal aid to help schools prepare.”
“Prioritized safety needs” is such a tidy and euphemistic way of characterizing Weingarten’s actions and rhetoric at the time, granting her an enormous amount of wiggle room to rewrite history. But it’s also all a little too obvious, and parents, it turns out, have long and clear memories regarding what happened with their children’s schools during the pandemic years.
What PolitiFact and Weingarten herself conveniently omit from their retelling are the “ludicrousness of union demands, the constant goalpost shifting, the coffin-protest hysterics, and the degree to which American school closures were out of step with the rest of the developed world, most severely in blue states and cities,” as Reason magazine’s Liz Wolfe notes.
All of which is to say: PolitiFact clearly is sucking up to power, and all in defiance of the facts.
Biden isn’t wrong when he says that the press serves a core role in the functioning of a healthy republic. It’d be nice if more journalists saw it this way, which might lead them to take their jobs more seriously — more so than what we’ve seen lately. Perhaps then Biden himself would treat the industry with more respect, and take a few questions.