Media Must Drop the Political Shenanigans and Get Back to Scrutinizing the Powerful

Covering stories is too important to abandon for brazen partisan pandering-or wishful thinking.


Paco Navarro Blend Images/Newscom

Looking for evidence that ink- and pixel-stained wretches are their own worst enemies when it comes to destroying public trust in the media? Consider the continuing turmoil of a week which closed with an MSNBC news editor pressuring a freelance writer on behalf of the Democratic Party just days after media types donned collective frowny faces because an investigation apparently did not find evidence that the president conspired with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election.

That MSNBC editor, Dafna Linzer, called journalist Yashar Ali to try and convince him to delay or kill a small story that would slightly inconvenience the Democratic Party over its presidential primary debate plans. According to Ali, "the head of all political coverage for NBC News and MSNBC" had not been "calling to advocate for her network, she was calling to advocate the DNC's position."

"She wanted me to wait so they could call state party leaders," wrote Ali. It was, he noted, "unethical"—and way off base, since he wasn't writing for any outfit that she represented.

"What he ran up against here was just a tendril of the media-PR-political complex," commented Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple on the to-do. That is, it was a brief glimpse into some unpleasant behind-the-scenes workings.

Relative to events of the previous weekend, Yashar Ali's tale of being pressured by Linzer was a minor kerfuffle. But it came in the same week in which Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded his high-media-profile investigation into charges that Donald Trump and company conspired with the Russian government to affect the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. The full report has yet to be released, but a summary by Attorney General William Barr quotes Mueller to the effect that "the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."

"Barr's announcement was a thunderclap to mainstream news outlets and the cadre of mostly liberal-leaning commentators who have spent months emphasizing the possible-collusion narrative in opinion columns and cable TV panel discussions," wrote Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi.

Thunderclap is right. Way too many reporters bet heavily on what they assumed would be the administration-ending outcome of the report. It turned out to be a bad gamble.

"If the story fell apart it would benefit Donald Trump politically, a fact that made a number of reporters queasy about coming forward" with doubts about the collusion story, wrote Matt Taibbi, a rare insider critic of the media's herd mentality, after Barr released his summary. "#Russiagate became synonymous with #Resistance, which made public skepticism a complicated proposition."

But unless there's something earth-shattering in the report that Barr is very unwisely eliding, it's just not going to have the impact that so many Trump critics—and too many media types—had hoped and anticipated. "The release of the findings was a significant political victory for Mr. Trump and lifted a cloud that has hung over his presidency since before he took the oath of office," Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner of The New York Times concluded.

That doesn't help journalists with the public, half of whom already thought the investigation was a witch hunt, according to a March 2019 Suffolk University/USA Today poll, and a majority of whom "have lost trust in the news media in recent years," according to the Knight Foundation.

Despite the screams of (mostly conservative) critics, the partisan affiliations of so many journalists are unlikely to be the big problem by itself. Boomer mythologizing about Walter Cronkite and a supposed golden age of journalism aside, the era of "objective" news coverage was something between a historical aberration and complete nonsense. Most news organs of the past, as of the present, had partisan preferences. But they were expected to be open about their affiliations, and to at least try to get the story right. And they were supposed to have some basic understanding of and connection to the people they were covering—at least within the United States.

By contrast, most Americans now think that reporters are sloppy about writing stories before learning all the facts, and that they even get paid by sources, according to Columbia Journalism Review.

Just as bad, 58 percent of the U.S. adults surveyed "feel the news media do not understand people like them," Pew Research finds—a number that rises to 73 percent among Republicans. Even worse, "the news media is the enemy of the American people," 29 percent of Americans say, echoing the president who so many people think was the victorious subject of a recently concluded and unsuccessful witch hunt.

A big part of the problem is that "the national media really does work in a bubble," insisted Politico's Jack Shafer after the 2016 election. "And the bubble is growing more extreme. Concentrated heavily along the coasts, the bubble is both geographic and political." The result, he said, is an industry-wide groupthink that represents the views and priorities of the few cities where national journalistic jobs are located. It's a groupthink that almost certainly means that many Americans are alien and "misunderstood" by bubble-dwelling journalists who take each other's sloppy thinking for granted.

So when journalists start favoring outcomes–like salvation in a special counsel's report or special consideration for political apparatchiks—over just covering stories, they tend to overwhelmingly favor the same faction. And that comes off as especially obvious to the large segment of the population that lives at a distance from them geographically, culturally, and ideologically.

Benefiting from these missteps are the politicians who journalists are supposed to be scrutinizing and holding to account. Democrats either get a pass or else are understandably believed to get such a pass by a public that sees them as part of the same team. Republicans get to cast shade on what is easily portrayed as an excitable pack of opposition campaign workers.

In the eyes of Trump's inner circle, "the report is a gift that vindicates Trump, undercuts Democratic investigations, and repudiates critical news coverage," reports The Atlantic. Going forward, any reporter who gives the president a hard time "will be hit with 30-second spots of all their ridiculous claims about collusion," a Republican source told the magazine.

It may work.

"Nothing Trump is accused of from now on by the press will be believed by huge chunks of the population," worries Taibbi.

Which is too bad, because there's plenty to report about Trump on matters of policy and personal conduct. Some of what he does is good, and much of what he does is bad—which can be said of many politicians, to be honest. There's plenty of hard work for the news media to do in gathering, analyzing, and presenting information instead of hoping that an investigation will magically annul an election, or that every scribbler will be on-side in favoring the "right" political faction.

"Journalists respond to their failings best when their vanity is punctured with proof that they blew a story that was right in front of them," Shafer concluded in his 2017 piece.

We'll see. Because in favoring political games over covering the news, too many journalists have badly blown their reputations along with a lot of stories.

If journalists abandoning real work in favor of political shenanigans only cost some their professional reputations, you could just break out the popcorn and watch the show. But journalists, when we do our jobs right, serve an important role by keeping people informed and scrutinizing the powerful. When we drag our own credibility into public view and shoot it in the head, that deprives the public of an important service while also empowering bottom-dwellers who should be subject to constant observation.