Yesterday I got into an argument on Facebook: does this article in the NY Times reporting on the speech Donald Trump made at Mt. Rushmore constitute good journalism?
I noted that the writer, Annie Karni, used pejorative language – she called the speech “dark and divisive,” said that it used “ominous language and imagery” and was aimed at a “straw-man version of the Left.” She chastised Trump repeatedly for making the wrong speech, not talking about the pandemic (and presumably his failure to deal with it), and instead “rail[ing] against what he described as a dangerous ‘cancel culture’ intent on toppling monuments…” The article also quoted several comments by individuals critical of Trump and none that were positive.
I argued that I wouldn’t object to the publication of such an article on the editorial pages, but that it did not belong in the news section. It should have been labeled “opinion,” not “news.” I did not wish to have a conversation about Trump (and I don’t now, either). I was only concerned with the new idea that the Times’ staff seems to have about the nature of journalism, and how it differs from the traditional conception.
Most of the replies to my comment were simply attacks on Trump, but one person did respond to my point. He said that in his view, “the journalist’s use of “dark and divisive” is not a value judgement, it is not an attempt at persuasion. It is a fair description of the content of the president’s speech,” and therefore is legitimate news reporting.
I think I understand what is going on here. The Times’ reporter and my Facebook interlocutor share a progressive worldview that is an internally consistent conceptual scheme. What may appear axiomatic to them might be controversial to someone with a different worldview, and vice versa. They also probably exist in a “bubble” of “woke” discourse in which contrary opinions are rarely heard. Both social and mainstream media are now partitioned into such bubbles; indeed, the inhuman algorithms by which social media providers determine what their users will see enforce that partitioning.
But when they are writing news articles, journalists are (or used to be) supposed to do their best, if not to totally overcome their prejudices, at least to remain aware of them, and to write – to the best of their ability – an objective story. This is very hard, but so is being an ironworker or a firefighter, and the people that do those jobs are expected to learn to do hard things. Of course the consequences of not learning are much greater for ironworkers and firefighters than for journalists!
So what should Annie Karni have written? She could have quoted and paraphrased Trump, described the tone and delivery of his speech, the reactions of the people present and the general atmosphere of the event, and presented a balanced selection of reactions by political figures. Boring? Comparatively, yes. But an objective report of most political speeches will be boring. She could still write a more exciting attack piece for the op-ed page, but we need the news report.
The NY Times has always had its biases. All newspapers do. But as A. J. Liebling said, “freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one,” and a corollary to this is that if you own a press, maybe it’s because you want to exercise that freedom. The NY Times has endorsed Democratic presidential candidates since Kennedy, and it is not unfair to say that they lean in the liberal direction. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it seems that recently the attempt to distinguish between news and opinion has been abandoned. And that is a big deal.
This works in both directions. Recently, after a staff rebellion, the Times fired (officially, they resigned) two editors for allowing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas which called on the president to use the military to suppress rioting after the killing of George Floyd. The Times also added an apology to the op-ed. Many commenters pointed out that the Times had also published op-eds with bylines like Taliban terrorist Sirajuddin Haqqani, Hamas terrorist Ahmed Youssef, imprisoned murderer Marwan Barghouti (leaving out the fact that he was in prison for five murders), Vladimir Putin, and one in 1979 by terror apologist and antisemite Richard Falk praising Ayatollah Khomeini and saying that he was misunderstood.
But the Times’ young and “woke” staff claimed that Cotton’s op-ed “endangered the lives” of black people (including some of them) and therefore was out of bounds. And that was enough.
The importance of objective journalism can’t be overemphasized. So much media is biased; we must be able to see a byline and trust that at least the facts will be correct. Particularly in connection with Israel, the media have served us ill. For example, in 2002, the IDF entered Palestinian cities in Judea and Samaria in response to a wave of bombings and shootings that had left more than 1000 Israelis dead, and countless more seriously injured or maimed. Terrorists were holding out in a neighborhood in the city of Jenin, and rather than pulverize the area with artillery and air attacks (as the Russians did in a similar situation in Chechnya), the IDF sent in ground troops. When the battle was over, 23 Israeli soldiers were dead, and 53 Palestinians – 48 of whom were combatants.
The media rushed to publish stories – some by correspondents on the ground like British reporter Phil Reeves – that described a massacre of civilians and the destruction of the entire city. Numbers of dead ranging in the thousands were bandied about, with “eyewitness” accounts of large numbers of bodies buried by bulldozers, and the “sweet and ghastly reek of rotting human bodies” seeping from the ground. An Israeli Arab filmmaker, Mohammed Bakri, made a “documentary” which used footage from other conflicts, accused the IDF of summary execution of civilians, and described the destruction of a hospital wing that had never existed (to this day, he is embroiled in a libel suit filed by IDF soldiers who were in the battle).
Despite the truth about Jenin having come out – just as it has in the case of the alleged shooting of Muhammad al-Dura in 2000 – many people still accuse Israel of war crimes in Jenin. And both Mohammad Bakri and Charles Enderlin, the (Jewish!) French TV bureau chief who narrated the fake footage of al-Dura that inflamed the world, admitted that “the details” of their accounts – that is, the facts – were wrong. But both were convinced of the rightness of the Palestinian Cause, and so their reporting served a higher truth.
And this is why the kind of advocacy journalism that denigrates facts in favor of advocacy (because the “correct” political outcome is so important) is dangerous.
I am not comparing Annie Karni to hacks like Phil Reeves; and the blame for destroying the distinction between opinion and news falls on the Times’ management and editors too.
But if journalists won’t give it to us straight, who will?