As I reflect on my nearly four decades in Madison journalism about where the media is today and where it’s headed, two themes always jump out.
One is the challenge that relates to the well-understood, decade-old “disruption” of the business models of mainstream print and electronic journalism. The internet has changed reading and viewing habits and made it harder for news organizations to afford the number of reporters, editors and other news professionals ideally required to produce the episodic and investigative coverage necessary for an informed citizenry.
The second challenge relates to the loss of public trust in the mainstream media and other American institutions — be that the New York Times, the FBI, or even, here in Wisconsin, our system of public education. The tradition of accepting the essential integrity of our institutions is waning. As a result, those who hold diametrically different views cannot talk through issues because they disagree on basic facts.
Not that the institutions aren’t trying. A recent four-part documentary series on Showtime titled “The Fourth Estate” gave a close-up view of how the New York Times covered the first year of the Trump administration. I wonder if Trump loyalists would watch such programming or allege it was “fake” if they did. In it, a bunch of reporters and editors are “revealed” as consummate professionals obsessed not with ideology, but with accuracy, fairness and being first with news. Hardly “our country’s biggest enemy,” which is what Trump has called the media.
Journalists from the nation’s premier newspaper down to the smallest of small-town newspapers can only do what they have always done — endeavor to produce fair-minded, balanced journalism to the best of their professional ability.
Let’s be optimistic and predict that — somehow — the professional media will develop new and robust business models as reporters perform their historic watchdog role while employing the highest of professional standards.
Even if those things happen, there remains an enormous obstacle that will be even harder to overcome.
This phenomenon was perfectly illustrated by recent coverage of the exhaustive inspector general report into the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of an unclassified private email server as secretary of state.
The report concluded that, months before the 2016 election, FBI director James Comey erred in publicly blasting Clinton even as he declined to bring charges, then erred again by disclosing only days before the election that he was reopening the Clinton email inquiry. And he did all this while not revealing the investigation into Russia’s role in helping Trump.
But Fox News, the public relations mouthpiece of the Trump administration, led with a headline that focused on a text message from an FBI agent about wanting to “stop” Trump. That was the story to Fox, not how Comey helped Trump because he feared criticism had Clinton won. And that story may well have been all some right-wing news consumers heard.
Yes, senior FBI agent Peter Strzok did text that word to a colleague in 2016, but the report found no evidence he had actually tried. That did not stop Trump and backers from calling it definitive proof that the “deep state” was out to get him.
Laughably, commentator Bill O’Reilly — who lied repeatedly about sexually harassing women before losing his Fox job for sexual misdeeds — wrote this about what he called the “smoking gun” text message: “Now, you’re going to hear if you watch television news or read the internet the dispatches, an incredible amount of garbage. You’re going to be lied to, you’re going to be insulted, your intelligence is going to be insulted, all of that is going to happen in the next 24-36 hours. Not here. Not here. We’re going to tell you exactly what this report means and we’re going to advance the story.”
He said he was sharing his thoughts beyond paying subscribers because people need to “see the difference between our reporting and analysis and the garbage you’re getting in the mainstream media.”
Clinton’s former campaign chair, John Podesta, saw this coming, telling the Times: “A fair reading of the report shows the FBI applied a double standard to the Clinton and Trump investigations that was unfair to Clinton and helped elect Trump. That said, he’ll use one random Strzok email to spin a deep-state conspiracy.”
That is precisely what Trump did, because diminishing Comey and the FBI helps him try to discredit the ongoing investigation of Russian election meddling. Trump, for example, claimed the report “went a long way” to proving there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, Vox pointed out, even though the inquiry did not even consider that question.
To any fair-minded person — conservatives and centrists, too — such assertions by Trump, Fox and talk radio must seem absurd.
Still, most traditional Republicans, especially members of Congress, are so giddy over deficit-expanding tax cuts and seating a far-right U.S. Supreme Court justice that they are apparently willing to put up with anything.
But back to where I started, with the media. What if the professional media rebounds economically and doubles down on the even-handed pursuit of accurate, contextual and revelatory stories?
That would be cause for celebration, but could that bring the perpetually disaffected back into the fold of verifiable truths?
I suspect that only would happen when thoughtful Americans who are moderate or center-right in their politics decide we are risking too much in pursuit of the next tax cut or bit of deregulation and call out the lies of Trump mouthpieces in the media.
Journalists and media owners can only do their part — re-engineering their business models and working hard to assure a strong, independent and authoritative press.
It will be up to thoughtful people across the ideological spectrum to decide this thing is bigger than any garden-variety, left-right squabble. That will determine what kind of country — democracy really — we leave to our children and grandchildren.
On that, it’s wait-and-see.
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