Why the media has broken down in the age of Trump

Why the media has broken down in the age of Trump, by Michael Goodwin. An important mea culpa from an ex-NYT left-leaning journalist.

There was a time not so long ago when journalists were trusted and admired. We were generally seen as trying to report the news in a fair and straightforward manner. Today, all that has changed.

For that, we can blame the 2016 election or, more accurately, how some news organizations chose to cover it. Among the many firsts, last year’s election gave us the gobsmacking revelation that most of the mainstream media puts both thumbs on the scale — that most of what you read, watch and listen to is distorted by intentional bias and hostility. I have never seen anything like it. Not even close. …

What journalists believe:

For most of the media, bias grew out of the social revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Fueled by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, the media jumped on the anti-authority bandwagon writ large. The deal was sealed with Watergate, when journalism was viewed as more trusted than government — and far more exciting and glamorous. Think Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men.” Ever since, young people became journalists because they wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, find a Deep Throat, and bring down a president. Of course, most of them only wanted to bring down a Republican president. That’s because liberalism is baked into the journalism cake.

During the years I spent teaching at the Columbia University School of Journalism, I often found myself telling my students that the job of the reporter was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I’m not even sure where I first heard that line, but it still captures the way most journalists think about what they do. Translate the first part of that compassionate-sounding idea into the daily decisions about what makes news, and it is easy to fall into the habit of thinking that every person afflicted by something is entitled to help. Or, as liberals like to say, “Government is what we do together.” From there, it’s a short drive to the conclusion that every problem has a government solution.

The rest of that journalistic ethos — “afflict the comfortable” — leads to the knee-jerk support of endless taxation. Somebody has to pay for that government intervention the media loves to demand. In the same vein, and for the same reason, the average reporter will support every conceivable regulation as a way to equalize conditions for the poor. He will also give sympathetic coverage to groups like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. …

The 2016 presidential campaign:

This was not naïve liberalism run amok. This was a whole new approach to politics. No one in modern times had seen anything like it. …

One study estimated that Trump had received so much free airtime that if he had had to buy it, the price would have been $2 billion. The realization that they had helped Trump’s rise seemed to make many executives, producers and journalists furious. By the time he secured the nomination and the general election rolled around, they were gunning for him. Only two people now had a chance to be president, and the overwhelming media consensus was that it could not be Donald Trump. They would make sure of that. The coverage of him grew … vicious and one-sided …

The evidence was on the front page, the back page, the culture pages, even the sports pages. It was at the top of the broadcast and at the bottom of the broadcast. Day in, day out, in every media market in America, Trump was savaged like no other candidate in memory. We were watching the total collapse of standards, with fairness and balance tossed overboard. Every story was an opinion masquerading as news, and every opinion ran in the same direction — toward Clinton and away from Trump.

For the most part, I blame the New York Times and the Washington Post for causing this breakdown. The two leading liberal newspapers were trying to top each other in their demonization of Trump and his supporters. They set the tone, and most of the rest of the media followed like lemmings. …

The New York Times has not endorsed a Republican for president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, meaning it would back a dead raccoon if it had a “D” after its name. …And the Washington Post, which only started making editorial endorsements in the 1970s, has never once endorsed a Republican for president. …

[In 2016] the Times’ top editor, Dean Baquet … decided that the standards of fairness and nonpartisanship could be abandoned without consequence. With that decision, Baquet also changed the basic news story formula. To the age-old elements of who, what, when, where and why, he added the reporter’s opinion. Now the floodgates were open, and virtually every so-called news article reflected a clear bias against Trump. Stories, photos, headlines, placement in the paper — all the tools that writers and editors have — were summoned to the battle. The goal was to pick the next president.

Thus began the spate of stories, which continues today, in which the Times routinely calls Trump a liar in its news pages and headlines. Again, the contrast with the past is striking. The Times never called Barack Obama a liar, despite such obvious opportunities as “you can keep your doctor” and “the Benghazi attack was caused by an internet video.” Indeed, the Times and the Washington Post, along with most of the White House press corps, spent eight years cheerleading the Obama administration, seeing not a smidgen of corruption or dishonesty. They have been tougher on Hillary Clinton during her long career. But they still never called her a liar, despite such doozies as “I set up my own computer server so I would only need one device,” “I turned over all the government emails,” and “I never sent or received classified emails.” All those were lies, but not to the national media. Only statements by Trump were fair game.

As we know now, most of the media totally missed Trump’s appeal to millions upon millions of Americans. …

The good old days, when we had reporters to journalists:

The Times’ previous reputation for having the highest standards was legitimate. Those standards were developed over decades to force reporters and editors to be fair and to gain public trust. The commitment to fairness made the New York Times the flagship of American journalism. …

Abe Rosenthal was the editor in those days, and long before we’d ever heard the phrase “zero tolerance,” that’s what Abe practiced toward conflicts of interest and reporters’ opinions. He set the rules and everybody knew it.

As for reporters’ opinions, Abe … didn’t want them in the news pages. And if you put them in, he took them out. They belonged in the opinion pages only, which were managed separately. Abe said he knew reporters tended to lean left and would find ways to sneak their views into the stories. So he saw his job as steering the paper slightly to the right. “That way,” he said, “the paper would end up in the middle.” He was well known for this attitude, which he summed up as “keeping the paper straight.” … Sadly, the Times’ high standards were buried with Abe Rosenthal.

What of the future? The media’s credibility is gone now.

Can the American media be fixed? And is there anything that we as individuals can do to make a difference? The short answer to the first question is, “No, it can’t be fixed.” The 2016 election was the media’s Humpty Dumpty moment. It fell off the wall, shattered into a million pieces, and can’t be put back together again. In case there is any doubt, 2017 is confirming that the standards are still dead. The orgy of visceral Trump-bashing continues unabated. …

Free speech is under assault, most obviously on many college campuses, but also in the news media, which presents a conformist view to its audience and gets a politically segregated audience in return. Look at the letters section in the New York Times — virtually every reader who writes in agrees with the opinions of the paper. This isn’t a miracle; it’s a bubble.

Liberals used to love to say, “I don’t agree with your opinion, but I would fight to the death for your right to express it.” You don’t hear that anymore from the Left. Now they want to shut you up if you don’t agree. And they are having some success.

But there is a countervailing force. … Rupert Murdoch (who owns the New York Post) thought there was an untapped market for a more fair and balanced news channel, and he recruited the late Roger Ailes to start it more than 20 years ago. Ailes found a niche market, all right — half the country!

Incredible advances in technology are also on the side of free speech. The explosion of choices makes it almost impossible to silence all dissent and gain a monopoly, though certainly Facebook and Google are trying.

As for the necessity of preserving capitalism, look around the world. Nations without economic liberty usually have little or no dissent. That’s not a coincidence.