Media-watchers and pundits have been debating liberal bias in the news media for decades. Now the debate is over. The national media are in full empire-strikes-back, hissy-fit mode in an increasingly hysterical campaign to not merely cover Donald Trump, but destroy his candidacy completely. They’re getting lots of help from Trump himself, of course, and the result may be mutual self-immolation.
Cue the hand-wringing. Is this the end of objective journalism? Maybe. So what?
The idea that journalists ought to report events with fairness, balance and accuracy did not occur to American newspapers until late in the 19th Century. Early American papers were political weapons, short on facts and long on opinion. Politicians used pen names to attack their rivals anonymously, though most readers figured out that “Phocion” was Alexander Hamilton exposing Thomas Jefferson’s relationship with a slave.
It got worse. In the 1828 campaign, Andrew Jackson was accused of murder and cannibalism. His wife was accused of bigamy and died soon afterward. Donald and Melania are getting off easy by comparison. So when today’s media echo-chamber the Democratic meme that Trump is temperamentally unfit and dangerous, it’s worth noting that America has seen worse. And survived.
I pay attention to this stuff because I graduated from journalism school, worked briefly as a reporter and spent much of my public relations career fencing with the media. When I started out in the 1960s, the journalism profession had been working for more than half a century to establish credibility and erase the stain of Yellow Journalism.
So I was schooled in rigorous objectivity: Cover both sides, check facts, get the quotes right. Chicago’s legendary City New Bureau made it a slogan: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. But fairness and balance are not easy to achieve because covering the news requires a cascade of subjective decisions. If you go into journalism with a sense of moral mission, you may unconsciously slant a story. I did that myself a time or two.
Objective journalism still thrives at the local level, but has been eroding in the national media since Walter Cronkite decided the Vietnam War in 1968. News outlets are covering more complex issues with fewer resources, have substituted analysis and commentary for reporting, and are more easily manipulated by institutional media wranglers.
We’ve long accepted that the TV networks and national newspapers such as the New York Times are biased in favor of the Democrats (which has been a bonanza for Fox News). We saw a dramatic increase in this perception during the 2008 presidential campaign, when 70% of voters believed the news media wanted Barack Obama to win. Still, media bias has been expressed largely in commentary and editorial decisions to slant coverage while maintaining the appearance of objectivity. Until now.
What’s changed is that the “mainstream” national media now are weaponized as a component of the Democratic presidential campaign, with opinion fully integrated into news coverage. I find this disappointing – hard to forget all those journalism classes – but see no threat to American democracy. If anything, ripping off the cloak of objectivity will help voters better evaluate what they’re seeing and hearing.
In April, before the anti-Trump media jihad began, only six percent of Americans said they had a lot of confidence in the news media: roughly the same disrepute as Congress. Most folks no longer rely on traditional news outlets to stay informed, but use social media instead. That means many voters won’t notice the media attacks on Trump, and those who do are unlikely to believe them.
Most important, the proliferation of Internet news outlets and independent investigative reporters means the news media no longer are information gatekeepers. If the NBC Nightly News refuses to cover the Clinton Foundation scandal, we’ll get the story from the Daily Caller, the Drudge Report and perhaps Wikileaks. Fox News will get even higher ratings.
As I said, we’ve seen this before. Media mudslinging did not stop Andrew Jackson from winning the presidency in 1828 and is not likely to make much difference this year. So there’s no way the New York Times can defeat Donald Trump. He’ll have to do that himself.