The 24-7 “Muslim Ban” reportage should remind us of the first rule of Journalism:
Tell the truth, then quit.
The Mainstream Media lies, but maybe not for the reason we think.
The yellow press of the 19th Century set a pretty low bar for truth culminating when Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World and William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal battled to drive up circulation.
Yellow Journalism presents “little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more newspapers. Techniques may include exaggerations of news events, scandal-mongering, sensationalism” and outright falsehoods. We us the term today “as a pejorative to decry any journalism that treats news in an unprofessional or unethical fashion.”
Today, there’s talk that the low bar is set for political reasons.
Journalism transformed itself from making stuff up and muckraking to the investigative reporting of the mid-century. American reporters have discovered and reported on individual and corporate and government wrongdoing, secret practices, corruption, and witch hunts.
The iconic news organizations had a golden age. Murrey Marder exposed Sen. Joe McCarthy. Edward R. Murrow, the most distinguished figure in broadcast journalism, simply gathered news completely and then broadcast it. Walter Cronkite assumed the mantle of investigative journalism as a watchdog who delivered the facts as a CBS anchor. Woodward and Bernstein may be the last of the modern era “complete, factual” investigative reporters.
News writing and journalism transformed again in the 60s and 70s. The so-called “new journalism“ driven by writers including Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson moved the bar to the long-form narrative that uses novel-like scenes in stories instead of straight reportage of facts.
That’s where we come in today.
“Political reporters” in particular want to tell a story rather than tell a fact. That story is often not true. Let’s look at some examples.
Mark Hertsgaard wrote that press coverage of the Reagan Administration was “extraordinarily positive.” The media “abdicated its responsibility” to report accurately what the government was doing. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee himself said the media had been “kinder” to President Reagan than to any other President in his time at the Post. Prominent journalists and news organizations, Mr. Hertsgaard wrote, “allowed themselves to be used” by the President’s political operatives. The media told at least some of the truth but the stories excused it.
The Teflon™ didn’t stick (heh) around for George H. W. Bush. From the reports about the grocery store scanner to Bill Moyer’s insistence that the first Iraq war was based on lies, the media abdicated again but this time chose to report inaccurately what the government was doing. The media told at least some of the truth and the stories blamed the president.
“Read my lips. No new taxes,” may be the most famous line that sank a presidency.
“I did not have sexual relations with that woman” may be the most famous line that didn’t.
The press narrative covered Bill Clinton’s lies and none-the-less forgave him. They played by the Clinton rules. The media told at least some of the truth but the stories excused it.
The Internet — Facebook, Twitter, Bloomberg, Google and YouTube, WikiLeaks, blogs, thousands of digital news and information sites — has pushed the media icons even farther away from the truth.
The botched 60 Minutes piece on George W. Bush’s National Guard service defined the tone for press coverage. It was, purely and simply, a lie. “The story we reported has never been denied by George W. Bush, by anyone in his close circles, including his family,” Dan Rather continues to say. In fact, Bush spokesmen have repeatedly denied it. In the other Bush narrative, the MSM to this day claims Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction. The truth? Iraq certainly had chemical weapons but the MSM denial lives on. The media told at least some of the truth but the stories pilloried the president.
NBC News correspondent Lisa Myers found this statement in the 2010 Obamacare regulations: “A reasonable range for the percentage of individual policies that would terminate is forty percent to sixty-seven percent.” Did you know that? From lies about health care to lies about the deficit to lies about tax cuts to lies about terrorism, to lies about scandals, Mr. Obama’s lies are legion but excused or buried by the mainstream media. The media told at least some of the truth but the stories excused it.
This weekend, a protest lawyer told ABC News “the immigration ban is unconstitutional.” The network treated that as fact. When a lawyer said the same about ObamaCare, the network immediately cut to “experts” explaining why the program was indeed constitutional. The media tells at least some of the truth but the stories blame the president.
Since the press chooses some Republicans and some Democrats for praise and different Republicans and other Democrats for excoriation, I can’t simply point to “liberal bias” or even “conservative bias.” Liberal papers like the New York Times were nice to Mr. Reagan. Conservative papers like the Wall Street Journal were (relatively) nice to Mr. Clinton.
I love news and data but I am ashamed of what I see happening in this most important bulwark of democracy.
I have long thought the media was star-struck by Mr. Reagan but hated Mr. Bush 41’s class. Since Democrats love to play the race card, perhaps the press excused Mr. Obama because they were afraid of racial accusations. Perhaps they simply hate Mr. Trump.
A lot is our own fault dear reader.
Facebook, Twitter, Bloomberg, Google and YouTube, WikiLeaks, blogs, and thousands of digital news and information sites means We the People read less real journalism today than ever before. And sadly, that means the “real journalism” we do read or watch tells us more lies by commission or omission than ever, just to try to get our attention.
We pay attention. And we believe the stories.
Can you hear the shades of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst chortling?