Skip to content

Catastrophic media failure

It is rare to be an observer at an important event and then to see how the media report on it. I watched the Mueller hearings yesterday, as well as the Democrats’ press conference afterwards. What I saw was not what the media are reporting — at all.

What I saw was a dignified and meticulous accounting of a vast array of damning evidence against Donald Trump. What the media saw was a “flop” and a “fizzle” and “such bad TV” (Politico). The Washington Post wrote, “The Mueller testimony didn’t deliver the spark the Democrats wanted. That puts the onus on House leaders and heightens the stakes for next year’s presidential election.” The New York Times wrote, “For all the dismal reviews of his performance, the day did not end talk of impeachment.”

I learned many things during my years in the newspaper business. For one, I learned that reporters are not the smartest people in the world. They tend to be dim bulbs for thinking in terms of ethics and principle. But in matters of perception and reaction, they are perceptive. They also are a blind herd. They come together as a herd very swiftly to align their narratives, and once they all begin reporting essentially the same thing, they cannot imagine that they might be wrong. Remember the Iraq war?

Our media also have become addicted to spectacle. In many ways, we owe Donald Trump for that. A more ethical, more principled, and more thoughtful media would reject spectacle and focus on substance. Notice the unconsciousness in the words of the New York Times: “dismal reviews,” which reveals more than they mean to reveal about how they evaluated the Mueller hearings. Politico was more conscious of the low standard they were applying, the circus standard: “such bad TV.”

Once again, our mainstream media have become a clueless herd, as when they caught war fever and helped Bush and Cheney deceive the nation into war. Now our mainstream media have caught Trump fever, and we can’t hold Trump accountable for his crimes because it might make bad TV.

A friend sent me a quote from Twitter. I am unable to identify the source, but the quote is spot on: “Who can forget when a flood of Americans responded to the election of a racist wannabe authoritarian by backing the New York Times so it could tell us that the author of the most damning indictment of a president in our history wasn’t good enough on TV.”

As a young editor, I was given special training in media law, and, along with it, responsibility for holding the line against sloppy reporting that could get us sued. I have often said that, to do that, you don’t really need to be able to cite case law such as New York Times v. Sullivan. Rather, you only have to apply some ethical principles, to use the words of a wise old editor I once worked for: Be fair, and don’t lie. I have sometimes walked a story back to a reporter, pointed to a particular passage, and asked: “Is this fair?” Inevitably I would get a blank look. Most reporters don’t think that way. They just write what the rest of the herd is writing.

Was Mueller slow and halting yesterday? Yes he was. He was trying very hard not to make any errors. He knew quite well that many questions would try to lead him to say more than he could say, based on principle, the law, and the authority that was given to him. I also believe that he might have a hearing problem, and that because of noise in the room and his distance from the questioners, he often had to ask for clarification to make sure that he had heard correctly. He wrote the report, but does that mean that we expect him to have it memorized?

Our media long ago stopped caring about Trump’s obvious stupidity, which Trump puts on display for us every day. But a careful slowness on Mueller’s part is big news — “halting and faltering,” according to the Washington Post. The questions from Democrats were meticulously aligned with fact and law. Democrats treated Mueller with great respect, and they also got the answers that they expected and wanted. But the media couldn’t care less, because it “lacked the dramatic moment” (New York Times) that Democrats were assumed to have wanted. That Republicans lied and bullied and demeaned Mueller is not even being reported, based on what I’ve read this morning. Lying and bullying by Republicans is no longer news. It’s just the new normal.

During the Iraq war, I watched virtually the entire newsroom of the San Francisco Chronicle catch war fever. The same thing happened in almost every newsroom in America, including the Washington Post and the New York Times. (The McClatchy Washington bureau was the only news organization that did not succumb to war fever.) Once a news person succumbs to one of these psychic epidemics, I have found that it is impossible to get through to them. It was years before most people in the media were able to awake from their madness, admit that the war was a disaster, admit that we had been lied into the war, and admit that the media were grossly guilty of being complicit in misleading the U.S. into war, that the media had been duped and played. As I said above, reporters are not the smartest people in the world.

Once again, we are in a state of media madness. The media have now normalized Trump to such a degree that sober, rational Democrats in House committees leading us through evidence and law is weird, because it’s not a circus. Everyone wants a circus now — except those of us who want to be well governed. I commend the Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives. History, at least, will be able to see what they did yesterday to try to save us.

I am ashamed of our media. And I am terrified that some very bad things are going to have to happen before we awaken from this mass psychosis.

Update: As pundits and the media continue to blindly expose themselves as fools today, at least one piece gets it right — Lillian Rubin in the Washington Post. The piece is “Mueller didn’t fail, the country did,” and a link is below.

I am increasingly proud of the Democrats in Congress, who displayed yesterday the concern for reason, fairness, and equal justice that are among the defining characteristics of liberals. Those characteristics also happen to be among the founding values of our democracy. The media, having taken leave of its collective mind, somehow expected the Democratic Party to behave toward Donald Trump yesterday the same way that the Republican Party behaved toward the Clintons, including with the impeachment of Bill Clinton. Whereas Republicans yesterday put on full display their reliance on distortion, their contempt for law and process, their sheer meanness, and their willingness to embrace and protect criminality and corruption to preserve their power, Democrats showed that we remember who we are and that we remember and respect what America is supposed to be about.

As I have said here before, Republicans who support Trump have lost all claim to being considered decent human beings. They proved that yesterday. Who knows how long justice will take. But at least we liberals showed yesterday that we are not like them.

Mueller didn’t fail. The country did.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *