Scott Klug and I share similar backgrounds — we’re both 1950s-born baby boomers from Midwestern manufacturing towns with master’s degrees in journalism and careers in media. His was in television in Seattle and Washington, D.C., before his time as a news anchor in Madison in the 1980s.
But brother, do we part ways in assessing today’s media.
He suggested we meet face-to-face so he could emphatically disagree with views in my recent column about media neutrality.
“I am an old school guy and am on the other side of this issue,” he emailed, and said we should have coffee or lunch and “arm wrestle.”
In a nutshell, Klug asserts that during the Trump administration, leading national newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post have strayed toward anti-Trump advocacy in their news reporting, apparently to drive digital circulation and revenue. That move, he argues, will make it impossible to maintain momentum and regain an objective footing whenever it is that Trump is gone.
A self-described center-right Republican, Klug expresses no fondness for Trump, but thinks the national media, especially these national newspapers, have erred grievously.
Beyond his journalistic cred, of course, Klug was a successful politician — he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1990 from the Madison-dominated 2nd District, defeating Robert Kastenmeier, a liberal Democratic icon who held the seat for 32 years.
Klug served eight years and stepped away, succeeded by now U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. He left “undefeated and unindicted,” he told me, smiling.
After leaving Congress, he went into business — he has an MBA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison — and today is director of public affairs in the Madison office of the Foley & Lardner law firm, the same office that employs former two-term Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle.
Klug was reacting to my column about journalistic neutrality, which was based on a book by Stephen J.A. Ward, who years back had been the first director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW-Madison.
Ward recommended that journalists abandon the belief that pure objectivity is possible, saying that rigid neutrality is outdated in this era of rampant distortion and disinformation, mostly by Trump. Current times, he argued, require journalists to be relentless in fact-checking at every turn and verifying assertions, especially with about one-third of the public apparently believing Trump and his Fox News enablers over the mainstream media.
Klug contends that the Times and Post go too far, seldom producing straightforward news stories about Trump without injecting the Russia investigation or some other criticism that is peripheral to the main topic.
Klug said he shared this analysis with a fellow member of the board of advisers at Medill, the journalism school at Northwestern, his alma mater. He said they agreed the Times had “essentially gone hook, line and sinker to be anti-Trump champions.” He added, “But what happens after Trump is gone?”
He continued: “What are you left with then, especially what happens if you end up with a progressive president? There’s no reason to subscribe to what you do, and so the newspapers now I think have fallen into the same trap that cable news has. You know you’ve got Fox on one side and MSNBC on the other, and I can’t watch either of them because 95 percent of it is opinion.
“I admire the New York Times, what it’s been historically, but I can barely read the paper. I think what that does in the long run is undercut any sense of objectivity, and if you undercut the objectivity, people begin to question the credibility of it, and I think especially with the Times and the Post ... it’s so over the top that I just have a hard time reading it as somebody who’s a journalist.”
He argued that it must be a conscious business decision. “I understand what’s going on because you have to drive subscriptions, but it in many ways that makes the industry even more wounded than it is because you lose the rationale for why you read the press in the first place.”
But, I counter, during the 2016 presidential campaign, many thought it was Hillary Clinton who was treated unfairly, that the national press inflated and excessively covered her issue with emails to offset the attention focused on Trump’s lies and the recording about how he liked to grope women.
Once again, Klug disagreed. “No, I don’t really see that. I mean if that would’ve been (the case), then they could have adjusted by now, and it’s just been incessant.
“If you read the Times and the Post on a regular basis, the middle of every story has some reference to do with Trump and something other than the story they’re covering.”
Klug also disputes my view that Fox News is more a fiction-producing propaganda arm of Trump’s GOP than any entity on the left. “I think MSNBC is in the same boat, and has no qualms about that,” he said.
He also lamented the impact of social media channels, which he says contribute to the hysteria around modern politics. He added, “I’d actually argue that the internet can be the internet, but the press really needs to be much more balanced and much more nuanced.”
Klug, who at various times advised former Gov. Scott Walker, does not think this criticism applies to the state press. “While the press had fights with Scott Walker, I didn’t think (the negative coverage) was disproportionate.”
No, his beef is national: “I understand the business challenges, so I don’t look at that lightly. I just worry for the national tone setters (about) what it does in the long run, because you now put yourself in a position where everybody can question anything you say, which feeds into the whole false-news narrative.”
He added: “So I guess I’m old school that way. I understand the argument that says, ‘Well, we can’t be deferential to this guy,’ but the office holds some kind of deference, and so I just think it’s out of balance, and once that genie is out, I don’t know how you roll it back.”
My thought? In the face of Trump’s relentless — even dangerous — attacks on media integrity to undercut reporting on his record, I think the Times and Post exhibit professional restraint.
With that, the arm wrestling can continue.