On the day the Women’s March hit Alaska, a 49th-state journalist popped a photo of demonstrators up on Instagram with this description:
“We hate Donald Trump up North too.”
In the Mount Moriah Cemetery in Kansas City, Mo., Walter Cronkite must have started spinning in his grave. For those too young to know of Cronkite or simply unaware of journalistic history, Cronkite was the CBS broadcaster once judged “the most trusted man in America”.
He was not perfect. No one in the media business will ever achieve that. But Cronkite’s biases were thoroughly masked by his creation of a perception of fairness that became its own reality. He was pretty much the opposite of where we are at today.
Ignore the random capitalization and the bad punctuation in the quote above and consider that there used to be a time in Alaska when reporters, editors and publishers worried mightily about the perception of bias in general and “liberal bias” in particular.
Yes, there were some financial reasons for this. The concept of an objective media was arguably good for the bottom line of publications in one-newspaper towns. If journalists were fair and objective, why would anyone need more than one local newspaper?
But there was more to it than that.
For years before and after the 1987 elimination of the federal “Fairness Doctrine” written to control news on the airwaves in the wake of World War II, journalists remained rooted in its principles. A Federal Communications Commission regulation, the doctrine required broadcasters, of which there were few in 1949, to cover issues “of public importance and do so in a fair manner” as a 2011 Congressional history put it.
Fairness is a tough standard to meet. Human emotions tend to get in the way on a regular basis. But a lot of journalists tried for a long time to put their personal feelings aside and be fair in reporting on the seldom black-and-white functioning of democracy.
They understood perfect answers are rare in public policy. Perfect is a three-quarter ton pickup that will fit in the parking space of a compact car, get 50 mpg mileage and cost less than $15,000.
Public policy is full of compromises. It looks like one of those black and white Ansel Adams photos that contains so many shades of gray it can almost fool the eye into thinking it was shot in color.
There was a time when the best skill a reporter had was the ability to argue either and all sides in a public-policy debate. News for a long time was built on that idea that the few facts could be presented fairly in the context of the many different ways those facts could be viewed.
“We were a priesthood, delivering truth to the masses,” Patrick Dougherty wrote in the fall 2005 “Nieman Reports,” a publication of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University.
A changing world
A 1989 Niemen Fellow, Doughtery had by 2005 climbed the corporate ladder of The McClatchy Company to become the executive editor and senior vice-president of the Anchorage Daily News.
It was a job he would hold through a time of turmoil as the news business began a radical transformation from the Daily News’ words on paper to ADN.com’s words on a screen. Not the most adaptable of individuals – and a man who found it difficult if not impossible to conceive of losing a debate – Dougherty struggled to adjust from a world in which, in his words, “we transmitted and readers received” to a world where people by the dozens and eventually the hundreds began to weigh in on what ADN.com reported.
At first, he wrote in that Nieman story, the tubes were filled with promise.
“A hundred thousand fact checkers can add a lot to a newspaper’s coverage of a story,” he said. “But it wasn’t long before things started to go bad. A small group of people began to write constantly. They were neither the best-informed nor most thoughtful participants. Instead they were profane, bitter, shallow, racist and relentless. Little by little, their
ignorant and mean-spirited comments began to predominate. They were prolific. They didn’t appear to hold jobs or even sleep. Ultimately their words set a tone for the forum that discouraged reasonable, intelligent, considerate voices from participating.”
They were people possibly like this guy:
“You are a coward and a shameless hypocrite, @SenDanSullivan.”
This would be the now former-ADN executive editor rebooted on Twitter as pdougherty directing his “reasonable, intelligent, considerate voice” at Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, for suggesting the short-lived government shutdown of the weekend was driven by politics.
Dougherty has every right to express his views just like everyone else in this country. As an officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve who has served in combat zones, Sullivan would be among the first to defend that right. And the big problem here isn’t with what Dougherty says so much as with who he is.
When former journalists abandon the “reasonable, intelligent, considerate voice” for which Dougherty once advocated in favor of hurling invective, they put a taint on everyone in the business. And when now working journalists do it, it’s only worse.
Hate is a dangerous word. The dictionary defines it as the description of “intense hostility.” It is both the word of choice and the tool of propagandists. And there is a lot of hating going on in this country at this moment.
Too much some would argue.
“In March, (Keith) Mines was one of several national-security experts whom Foreign Policy asked to evaluate the risks of a second civil war—with percentages,” Robin Wright wrote in the New Yorker back in August. “Mines concluded that the United States faces a sixty-per-cent chance of civil war over the next ten to fifteen years. Other experts’ predictions ranged from five per cent to ninety-five per cent. The sobering consensus was thirty-five per cent.”
Wright’s story ran under a headline that asked “Is America Headed for a New Kind of Civil War?”
She penned a thoughtful examination of the tribalism that increasingly divides people in the U.S. It was the kind of pithy analysis of a changing world that journalists used to see as their responsibility to pursue.
“Mines has spent his career—in the U.S. Army Special Forces, the United Nations, and now the State Department—navigating civil wars in other countries, including Afghanistan, Colombia, El Salvador, Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan,” Wright wrote. “He returned to Washington after sixteen years to find conditions that he had seen nurture conflict abroad now visible at home. It haunts him.”
Hopefully he is not alone, but you have to wonder.
As Mines himself observed in Foreign Policy, “violence is ‘in’ as a method to solve disputes and get one’s way. The president modeled violence as a way to advance politically and validated bullying during and after the campaign. Judging from recent events the left is now fully on board with this, although it has been going on for several years with them as well — consider the university events where professors or speakers are shouted down and harassed, the physically aggressive anti-Israeli events, and the anarchists during globalization events.
“Press and information flow is more and more deliberately divisive, and its increasingly easy to put out bad info and incitement.”
There is way too much truth in those observations. Were Dougherty, an old colleague, some strange Alaska outlier, his behavior wouldn’t be worth writing about. But he is no outlier. He is a reflection of so many others today – right or left – still in or formerly in the media.
At a time when the country cries out for those of reasonable, intelligent, considerate voice, it instead gets a bounty of name-calling ranters.
It would be easy to put a lot of this at the doorstep of Trump or the woman who showed him the low-road to the White House – former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. She of the Ali-esque, pol-ebrity catch phrases: “pallin’ around of terrorists,” “death panels,” “don’t retreat; reload,” and more.
But the decay of civility predates them. As Dougherty noted, it was already underway by 2005 when Palin was still clinging to President George W. Bush’s mantra of being “a uniter, not a divider.”
Palin wasn’t elected Alaska governor until 2006, and then there was she in her inaugural address talking about how “Alaska is a family…let us be united with one heart.”
Only a couple of years later, Republican Presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., tapped her as his vice-presidential running mate, and she began a makeover that started with two lines uttered at the Republican National Convention in Sept. 2008.
“What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?” Palin asked.
So was born the “pit bull with lipstick” destined to become a Tea Party favorite in a not-so-United States that seems to have fractured a little more with every passing year. And the mainstream media that used to cover these sorts of phenomenon – the lamestream as Palin took to calling them – is now part of the story.
“Stories marveling at the stupidity of Trump voters are published nearly every day. Articles that accuse Trump’s followers of being bigots have appeared by the hundreds, if not the thousands. Conservatives have written them; liberals have written them; impartial professionals have written them. The headline of a recent Huffington Post column announced, bluntly, that “Trump Won Super Tuesday Because America is Racist.” A New York Times reporter proved that Trump’s followers were bigots by coordinating a map of Trump support with a map of racist Google searches. Everyone knows it: Trump’s followers’ passions are nothing more than the ignorant blurtings of the white American id, driven to madness by the presence of a black man in the White House. The Trump movement is a one-note phenomenon, a vast surge of race-hate. Its partisans are not only incomprehensible, they are not really worth comprehending.”
The biggest loser in the name calling wasn’t Clinton or Trump; it was all of the media that got caught up in chosing sides. It was the people who used to do journalism, with all its damn grays, instead of propaganda, with its stark blacks and whites.
The goal here is not to defend Trump. His public behavior is aggressive, combative and sometimes offensive even to the thick-skinned, although if you believe the interview his porn star date gave to InTouch he is more of a gentleman in private than President Bill Clinton.
Bill, however, had an affable nature that made most Americans like him, even when some didn’t want to like him. As the U.S. Congress was considering impeaching him in 1998, his popularity rating was going up, according to Gallup polls at the time.
Clinton polled about 60 percent; Trump, a New Yorker to the core in all the worst meanings of that observation, is polling about 40 percent. Trump is an undeniably flawed President inclined to lash out at the smallest of insults and burdened at times with a stunning inability to separate fact from self-serving fiction.
But not everything Trump has done to date as president is deplorable. The economy is healthy and the International Monetary Fund is predicting solid economic growth ahead. The President hasn’t ordered the secret bombing of any foreign country in violation of the Constitution as President Richard M. Nixon did, or if he has no one has found it out yet.
America has had worse presidents. James Buchanan comes immediately to mind. But you wouldn’t know from a mainstream media turned increasingly partisan and fractured by social status. A lot of editors and reporters today think themselves members of the educated, ruling class no matter their marginal pay scales.
Some of the lowest paid, in fact, might be among the highest minded in the belief of their need to save the unwashed masses of American democracy from themselves.
This is not good for journalism, but it is even worse for democracy. Arrogance alienates, and it’s hard to engage a reasonable, intelligent, considerate conservation about anything once you alienate people.
It might be a good time for a lot of reporters and editors, present and former, to take a good, hard look in the mirror and consider what they see. A lot of them, if they are honest with themselves (something admittedly easier to say than to do) are likely to find some version of Trump staring back at them.
In these tubular times, it is so easy to play to your tribe as Trump does. It is so easy to replace substantive critique with simple name calling as Trump does. It is so easy to talk about tolerating those with differing views, and so hard to do as Trump demonstrates.
That Trump presents a poor role model is bad; that so many mimic it – most especially those in the media – is worse.
We have met the enemy, and he is us.