The state of American journalism has long been a tale of two cities, or perhaps a big city and a small town. For a long time it has seemed that the Big Media -- as in the major TV networks, news magazines and national newspapers -- don't seem to abide by the same rules most of us do in flyover country. For instance, local journalists don't normally go "on background" with their city officials or local businesspeople for run-of-the-mill stories, but it's done routinely in Washington, D.C., even for such benign stories as the USDA handing out specialty crop block grants.
But now, it appears that much of Big Media is playing by no rules at all, and this has grave implications for public perception of the industry itself -- especially if journalists who have integrity remain silent about what is happening.
Many on the right have long accused the major news media of having a liberal bias, and these complaints tend to grow louder during elections. But what we've seen in the past year has gone well beyond simple bias. As Ken Kurson writes in the New York Observer:
It is no secret that the mainstream media has decided that the threat presented by a possible Donald Trump presidency is so grave that it has suspended even the illusion of objectivity. Writing in The New York Times, media columnist Jim Rutenberg granted permission to his fellow journalists “to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.”Rutenberg wasn't the only one to advise other journalists to, in the words of Newsmax media analyst James Hirsen, "jettison their ethics" and take sides in the campaign. Emmy Award-winning former CBS News investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson told of attending a journalism awards dinner in Washington, D.C., where an ex-bureau chief urged reporters to "step outside of their role" to sway the election results -- and received a standing ovation.
The Observer and others have detailed the ways in which traditional media companies and even tech companies have colluded to maximize negative coverage of Trump and minimize negative coverage of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. But it doesn’t end there. As Rutenberg described, many journalists feel the need to “move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.”
That opposition has extended into new and uncharted territory. In the coordinated effort [...] the mainstream media has taken not just to bashing Trump but to extracting a price even from those who support him.
CNN was caught fabricating a story about the Secret Service supposedly warning Trump to tone down his gun-rights rhetoric. A Telemundo journalist was caught on video staging a protest at a Trump rally. The Associated Press has been caught colluding with the Clinton campaign on how best to report on the email scandal. Just this week, video footage captured a top Clinton aide feeding questions to reporters, including NBC's Andrea Mitchell, to ask Clinton during a post-debate presser.
On several occasions, journalists have urged their colleagues to suppress information. A New York Times tech columnist called on Google to hide health information on Clinton, and Google complied. The Washington Post published an article titled, "Can we just stop talking about Hillary Clinton's health now?" After NBC News published a five-paragraph brief about a coughing spell that Clinton had last month, he was attacked on Twitter by former Newsweek editor Jonathan Alter and others. CNN abruptly canceled Dr. Drew Pinsky's television show on the HLN network after he speculated about Clinton's health on a local radio show.
Think this is just happening because of Trump? Think again. A lot of this activism started during the Democratic primary, to the detriment of Bernie Sanders.
According to the Center for Public Integrity, "(a)bout 430 people who work in journalism have, through August, combined to give about $382,000 to the Democratic nominee." In April, Politico's chief White House correspondent, Glenn Thrush, cleared part of an article about the primary through Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta before it was published. Donna Brazile, then a commentator for CNN, gave Clinton the questions she would be asked at a CNN town hall in March. Staff at the Boston Globe coordinated with the Clinton campaign to maximize her "presence" during her campaign against Sanders. A-listers in the national media dined and partied with top Clinton aides days before the rollout of her campaign in 2015, in "fully off-the-record" gatherings "designed to impart the campaign's messaging".
This is corruption on a grand scale, and it's diametrically opposed to everything most of us regular folks in journalism were ever taught and have ever practiced. Reporters at the Capital Press or the Daily Astorian or the Feather River Bulletin wouldn't even consider donating to a city council or congressional candidate's foundation and then advocating publicly for his or her election while covering the campaign. Yet there's a strange code of silence that prevents otherwise conscientious reporters, editors, publishers and TV producers from speaking out against this activity when they see it at the national level, and this silence is a danger to our industry.
There are two reasons for this. First of all, most people don't differentiate between Big Media and small, or responsible media and irresponsible. People don't say, "Well that's the news media, except for community papers and niche publications like Capital Press." In an American Press Institute survey of more than 2,000 adults this spring, only 6 percent said they have "a great deal of confidence" in the press, while 41 percent said they had no confidence at all. A Gallup survey last fall found similar results. These folks aren't saying they don't trust the media "except for our local TV station," they just say the media. So if we who try to do things right say nothing about our industry's worst actors, how are people to know we're any different?
This will affect all of us in a multitude of subtle and not-so-subtle ways, from the growing number of businesses that decide to spend their limited resources on marketing directly to customers rather than advertising through the media -- any media -- to the growing number of people who'd just rather not make time for reporters. You may think your community weekly is more well-liked than the dailies, but they won't have any time for you, either.
The second, more important reason: Within a few years, the only resumes editors will receive will be from recent journalism-school grads who haven't a clue how to do anything but be activists. After all, that's how they see journalism practiced on TV. And they're not likely to get much help in today's journalism schools. Not when professors at some of the nation's most prestigious, such as Columbia University and New York University, make excuses for the unbalanced coverage or scream for more of it.
I understand some may find it difficult to denounce this media activism without appearing to defend Trump, who's brought some legitimate bad press upon himself. Trump picks fights with journalists, and as Mark Twain once advised, one shouldn't pick fights with those who buy ink by the barrel. And local editors within major-media corporations may not wish to criticize things that people in their own companies may be doing, whether they agree with them or not.
But I was always taught to do my job well regardless of what a source called me, and there is precedent for small and niche media outlets calling out Big Media on its reporting.
In 2009, the president of the National Newspaper Association, which represents 2,400 of the nation's daily and weekly community newspapers, urged other news organizations to stop referring to the H1N1 virus as swine flu. Pork industry groups and even U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack had chided media outlets for referring to the virus as swine flu, arguing that it was inaccurate and unfairly harmed pork producers.
At the Capital Press, my editors have defined our role clearly for readers so that they don't get the mistaken impression we won't cover all sides of issues because we're a "farm newspaper". "While we work hard to cultivate friendly working relationships with all of our sources," Editor Joe Beach wrote in 2011, "our watchdog role and professional obligation as journalists can put these relationships to the test."
Those of us who care about the future of our industry can't afford to keep our heads down and pretend that what's going on in Big Media won't affect us. If a rising tide lifts all boats, then certainly the opposite is true. So more of us had better start bailing and rowing before we, too, scrape bottom.