Integrity Lost: The Journalism Chronicles

Michael Goodwin was weaned on Abe Rosenthal’s New York Times, rising to City Hall Bureau Chief before becoming Executive Editor of the Daily News and, now, chief political columnist for the New York Post. He’s been around, so when he says this, it comes from experience:

It’s not exactly breaking news that most journalists lean left. I used to do that myself. I grew up at The New York Times, so I’m familiar with the species. For most of the media, bias grew out of the social revolution of the 1960s and ’70s. Fueled by the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, the media jumped on the anti-authority bandwagon writ large. The deal was sealed with Watergate, when journalism was viewed as more trusted than government—and far more exciting and glamorous. Think Robert Redford in All the President’s Men. Ever since, young people became journalists because they wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, find a Deep Throat, and bring down a president. Of course, most of them only wanted to bring down a Republican president. That’s because liberalism is baked into the journalism cake.

This is the sort of statement that really needs context, as the left-leaning of the Nixon era wasn’t the same left as today. There were similarities, of course, in that Nixon was viewed as inherently evil and must be taken down. The lives of young men in Viet Nam depended on it, so the platitudes were born.

During the years I spent teaching at the Columbia University School of Journalism, I often found myself telling my students that the job of the reporter was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I’m not even sure where I first heard that line, but it still captures the way most journalists think about what they do. Translate the first part of that compassionate-sounding idea into the daily decisions about what makes news, and it is easy to fall into the habit of thinking that every person afflicted by something is entitled to help. Or, as liberals like to say, “Government is what we do together.” From there, it’s a short drive to the conclusion that every problem has a government solution.

So journalists were always advocates, forfeiting integrity for the good of the afflicted at the expense of the comfortable? Not quite.

But I was still shocked at what happened. This was not naïve liberalism run amok. This was a whole new approach to politics. No one in modern times had seen anything like it.

To anyone paying attention, this conclusion couldn’t be avoided. It wasn’t entirely clear what was different, the intensity, the constancy, the pervasiveness, the inclusion of an adjective before every noun, an adverb before every verb, but no story went unmolested.

Every story was an opinion masquerading as news, and every opinion ran in the same direction—toward Clinton and away from Trump.

For the most part, I blame The New York Times and The Washington Post for causing this breakdown. The two leading liberal newspapers were trying to top each other in their demonization of Trump and his supporters. They set the tone, and most of the rest of the media followed like lemmings.

During the campaign, every op-ed in the New York Times included the word “Trump” in the title. If it was a story about cute little birds, it would include a paragraph about how Trump would probably like to bite their adorable heads off. But those were op-eds. What about news?

To the age-old elements of who, what, when, where, and why, he added the reporter’s opinion. Now the floodgates were open, and virtually every so-called news article reflected a clear bias against Trump. Stories, photos, headlines, placement in the paper—all the tools that writers and editors have—were summoned to the battle. The goal was to pick the next president.

Where the old New York Times Executive Editor Abe Rosenthal would can a reporter who was conflicted or couldn’t overcome his feelings to stick to the facts, Dean Baquet gave his reporters permission to serve the cause.

Of the daily struggle for fairness, Baquet had this to say: “I think that Trump has ended that struggle. . . . We now say stuff. We fact check him. We write it more powerfully that [what he says is] false.”

Baquet was being too modest. Trump was challenging, sure, but it was Baquet who changed journalism. He’s the one who decided that the standards of fairness and nonpartisanship could be abandoned without consequence.

I can hear you muttering, “But he IS literally Hitler!!!” So why not report the facts and let the reader draw that conclusion rather than force-feed the reader the conclusion by twisting the story so that no one could possibly reach any other? Color the verbiage, omit the factual detail that might undermine the inexorable conclusion and, boom, you’ve done your duty as an advocate for truth and justice. All it cost was your integrity.

Goodwin offers three ways in which journalism could recapture its status as a legitimate source of news.

The mismatch between the mainstream media and the public’s sensibilities means there is a vast untapped market for news and views that are not now represented. To realize that potential, we only need three ingredients, and we already have them: first, free speech; second, capitalism and free markets; and the third ingredient is you, the consumers of news.

Goodwin’s third ingredient, dependent on the other two, is for readers to support the media it likes.

As the great writer and thinker Midge Decter once put it, “You have to join the side you’re on.” It’s no secret that newspapers and magazines are losing readers and money and shedding staff. Some of them are good newspapers. Some of them are good magazines. There are also many wonderful, thoughtful, small publications and websites that exist on a shoestring. Don’t let them die. Subscribe or contribute to those you enjoy.

Feel free to hit the tip jar on the right (and I appreciate your support), but frankly, this strikes me as the problem more than the solution. It’s not about what we “like,” which is the bubble that confirms beliefs and desired outcomes. It’s about what’s real, even if we don’t.

The evil of advocacy journalism, masquerading as news reporting, has been the subject of my invective for a while. But so too has the point that integrity, once lost, cannot be regained. Once the news media has joined a team, it can’t be trusted again to be the honest broker of news. That isn’t a problem so easily solved, and it may not be fixable at all.

H/T Our hinterlands correspondent, Kathleen Casey

13 thoughts on “Integrity Lost: The Journalism Chronicles

  1. norahc

    “So why not report the facts and let the reader draw that conclusion rather than force-feed the reader the conclusion by twisting the story so that no one could possibly reach any other? ”

    Okay, I’ll bite. Because that would interfere with the agenda of being able to tell people what to believe and do. After all, the current philosophy of society seems to be that if someone doesn’t believe exactly and as passionately as you do; then they are total idiots who can’t be trusted to think for themselves.

  2. B. McLeod

    And so, the election was a giant, public, flip-off of the obsequious Croneys in the media. Take that, power-of-the-press!

  3. John Barlycorn.

    …and here I thought you singlehandedly kept that newspaper you read everyday alive by refusing to accept kickbacks for all the traffic you send their way?

    Take the cash and start a weekend journalism academy for jive talking jingo’s who can juggle facts without basking in the afterglow before they edit their edicts.

  4. BikerDad

    The notion that integrity is like virginity is false. Integrity CAN be restored. It just ain’t easy. Journalism used to be yellow, then it cleaned up. Mostly. Now it’s gone yellow again, but it can recover. To do so it has to ditch that evil bromide about comfort and affliction.

  5. Steve S

    This is hardly a revelation. Any purported news story that includes words such as “it could”, “it might”, “this may cause”, and so forth outside of direct quotes is opinion, not news. It is an advocacy displaying the writer’s prejudice because the stories never discuss that “maybe it won’t happen”, at least not in any serious fashion.

    No, it was not Donald Trump who taught me to despise and distrust the news media.

  6. TBlakely

    One of the many things I found amazing with the Trump election coverage was that nobody in the media was fired after he got elected. In other job if you were as grossly incompetent and/or corrupt you’d get the axe. But nary a reporter, producer or even pollster got canned.

  7. Nate Whilk

    ‘I often found myself telling my students that the job of the reporter was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I’m not even sure where I first heard that line, but it still captures the way most journalists think about what they do.’

    Oh, for heaven’s sake. It was taken seriously by some newspaperman, but the original is poking fun at the media’s self-importance.

    “Th’ newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward. They ain’t annything it don’t turn its hand to fr’m explainin’ th’ docthrine iv thransubstantiation to composin’ saleratus biskit.”

  8. Biff

    It’s better with the appropriate bookends:

    Truth be damned, we “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” except when the comfortable are on the Left.

  9. Kathleen Casey

    Thank you for reposting this. I figured you would because the major news outlets and their lemmings should be too smart for the position they’re in yet they made people stupider, some people, but they still won’t stop it. Like Hillary. And it’s a pet peeve isn’t it. It’s refreshing to read a journalist who evidently loves the craft busting out of the bubble. The echo chamber. The facts of life he’s describing are not likely to sink in. I doubt that other journalists and especially their editors will grasp the reform message if it were written in letters a foot high and shoved under their noses. They seem to have retreated further back into their bubbles and echo chambers since last November. So Support what you read. Good advice.

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