Even before Donald Trump leveled a Jack Lambert-style hit onto the collective psyche of The Fourth Estate, journalism awards galas were schizophrenia-inducing adventures for those of us willing participants who nonetheless maintain a heightened sensitivity to media pomposity and political class elbow-rubbing. It was nearly a lifetime ago, and I still shudder involuntarily at the memory of hundreds of working reporters standing to sing "God Bless America" to Dan Rather back in 2001.
In the two years since Trump's famous escalator ride into national politics, the awards-dinner genre's inherent self-importance and ideological homogeneity has been enough to make even the biggest All the President's Men romantic feel at least a little bit like a staff writer for The Federalist. Last night's entertaining Southern California Journalism Awards, for example, began with a first-person plural statement of professional sympathy from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. "I think this is probably [so] well-attended tonight because all of us—no matter whether journalists, or those of us who interact with journalists, who consume the work of journalists—we all feel that there is something bigger under attack than just journalism and news," Garcetti said. "The very values that we stand for, who we are, what we want to be, and whether or not we will come together."
This is pretty much boilerplate for political-class gatherings these days. National Press Club Chairman Jeff Ballou spent a good deal of his remarks last night making the defiant claim that "We ARE the Constitution!" Andrea Mitchell in her speech spent paragraphs cataloguing the Trump administration's violations against basic Washington norms and decency. It's not that she's necessarily wrong, it's that it always feels awkward to be in any room, let alone one populated by journalists, where so many people so vigorously agree on political matters.
That's why the speech given by CNN anchor Jake Tapper, who was accepting the L.A. Press Club's President's Award, was so contextually refreshing and I think nationally relevant to the ongoing push-pull between Trump and the media. Tapper warned implicitly against the journalistic first-person plural, and explicitly in favor of the seemingly obvious yet nonetheless timely reminder that "we really need to stand up and make sure that we get our facts right."
Since it was George Orwell's birthday, Tapper started with that great quote you might have seen online commemorating the occasion:
The main problem here? There's no evidence Orwell ever said or wrote such a thing. Tapper used that fact as a jumping-off point to reflect on how sloppiness, side-taking, and social media are combining to undermine many journalists' anti-Trump goals:
"We need to rise to the moment and make sure that when we quote somebody we know it's actually correct," Tapper said. "We don't need to give the enemies of the Fourth Estate any ammunition. That means we need to be squeaky clean?we're not the resistance, we're not the opposition, we're here to tell the truth, report the facts, regardless of whom those facts favor one way or the other."
Crazy talk! More from Tapper's speech as delivered (you can read the somewhat different version as written here):
I know it's difficult, and I know that it's easy to get swept up into the stance of opposition when a politician declares war not only on journalism, but on the very concept of empirical fact, and sometimes when that politician declares war on the very concept of basic decency. And we need to stand up for fact and truth and decency.
But when we look our kids in the eye, our grandkids in the eye, in two decades, and tell them what we did during this era, we need we need to make sure that we were also maintaining the integrity of journalism. […]
If the president does something good, we need to report that. When the president does something right, we need to report that. When we tweet every single emotion we have the very moment we have them, we undermine that foundation. And we can't afford to do that in this day and age.
While I'm confident many readers will still be put off by Tapper's set of assumptions here (and a perhaps overlapping group will scoff at his alleged false equivalence), this is a message I'm convinced my professional colleagues need to hear. Anti-Trump fervor is producing bouts of pointless hyperventilation and backlash-inducing error, helping cement anti-media sentiment as the most powerful glue left in the Republican coalition (aside from the taste of power, sweet power). Confirmation bias is arguably the greatest generator of journalistic inaccuracy (mine included), so avoiding the false lure of blanket opposition seems to me a sound strategy for producing fewer false positives.
But then, that could be my own bias talking….