24 Hours of Media Malpractice
In the Trump era, it increasingly appears that journalistic standards are on life support. Consider, if you will, what a day in the life of contemporary journalism now looks like.
Late Tuesday afternoon, some conservatives on Twitter started grumbling about an article the Washington Post published that morning. The op-ed in question accused best-selling conservative author J.D. Vance of being racist, and otherwise tried dubiously to connect the dots between mainstream pro-life advocates and white supremacists. At a speech in July, Vance said the following: “Our people aren’t having enough children to replace themselves. That should bother us.” Washington Post contributor Marissa Brostoff characterized the remark by saying, “Vance did not spell out exactly who was included in the word ‘our.’ He didn’t need to.” Her clear implication was that Vance was referring to the fact he only wanted to have white children. This would be news to Vance, since he’s married to a woman of color, and his best-selling “Hillbilly Elegy” – a movie version, directed by Oscar winner Ron Howard, is in post-production – is a very critical look at the mores of poor white Americans.
And Vance did, in fact, spell out exactly what his pronoun referred to. A couple of sentences earlier in his remarks, which Brostoff didn’t bother to read closely, he makes it clear he’s referring to all Americans. Low birth rates are a serious concern in Western countries for many reasons, including the need to sustain liberal welfare policies, which have nothing to do with racism.
The Post printed a correction after all this was pointed out, but that doesn’t answer the question of how it got published in the first place. Once upon a time, accusing people of racism was a serious matter. If you were going to do it in print, editors would demand it was sufficiently backed up by evidence. But if Brostoff is to be believed, “my editor suggested that Vance’s comments might be added to the list of evidence being marshaled” and “we both did our due diligence in putting them in context.” Perhaps it’s telling that this op-ed appeared in a section of the Washington Post’s website called “Post Everything,” a title that, based on many other ill-advised opinion pieces that have run under that heading, appears to have become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The whole point of journalism is that you don’t post everything – you make sure it’s fair and accurate first.
A few hours after the controversy over Brostoff’s article flared up, on Lawrence O’Donnell’s 10 p.m. MSNBC show he delivered a blockbuster report that a Russian oligarch co-signed loans Trump took out. O’Donnell apparently kept repeating “if true” in regard to the assertion throughout the segment.
The very next morning, just before 10 a.m., someone else at the Washington Post made another outrageous and unsupported accusation of racism. The New York Times’ Jeremy Peters had written an article assessing the impact of the Tea Party protests 10 years later. Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery, who is the paper’s “national correspondent covering law enforcement, justice and their intersection with politics and policy” -- and ostensibly not an opinion journalist -- took to Twitter to express his disapproval of the story. “How do you write a 10 years later piece on the Tea Party and not mention - not once, not even in passing - the fact that it was essentially a hysterical grassroots tantrum about the fact that a black guy was president? Journalistic malpractice,” he tweeted out to his 600,000 followers.
It's true that there were a few racially charged signs that popped up at Tea Party rallies, but there are always fringe characters in every large crowd, especially at political protests. I covered multiple Tea Party rallies at the time – Lowery was still a teenager in 2009, so I presume he doesn’t have a lot of first-hand experience talking to Tea Party protesters – and I saw and heard nothing to indicate widespread racial animus. If the media covered the nearly concurrent Occupy Wall Street protests by highlighting the same fringe extremism, we’d unfairly dismiss the left’s sincerity out of hand and conclude that they were engaged in a hysterical tantrum in support of rape and defecating on cop cars.
Of course, it’s hard to blame Lowery for thinking this was what the protests were about. The coverage then was also shameful. When Democratic congressmen claimed they were called racial epithets at a Tea Party protest, the media reported it as a fact even though it was just an allegation. The slurs were supposedly made in broad daylight with dozens of cameras around. Conservative journalist Andrew Breitbart pledged $100,000 to the United Negro College Fund if anyone could provide evidence supporting the congressmen’s claims. No one ever did. It’s probably worth taking Tea Partiers at their word when they said their protests were, among other things, about a very expensive and complicated health care law that didn’t have popular support and caused millions to lose their insurance after a president, who happened to be black, brazenly lied about it.
Still, Lowery’s objections – and those of lots of other journalists and angry social media activists – to the Times piece won the day. Tuesday afternoon, just after 2 p.m., the Times’ official Twitter account made it, well, official: “We have updated this story assessing the policy failures of the Tea Party movement 10 years after its rise to include context about attacks on President Barack Obama and racist displays at some Tea Party rallies.”
The capitulation was particularly notable because it’s the second time in a month the Times has caved to political pressure. The paper ran the headline “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” to describe the president’s remarks after two mass shootings, but soon changed the headline to “Assailing Hate, But Not Guns” after the social media eruption.
This is an ominous trend for the Times. As an acquaintance quipped, “The Times used to have a public editor. Now they're edited by the general public.” Telling people what they want to hear may be good for business, but it’s not journalism.
While that minor controversy was still dying down, at 3:53 p.m. on Wednesday Lawrence O’Donnell tweeted, “Last night I made an error in judgment by reporting an item about the president’s finances that didn’t go through our rigorous verification and standards process. I shouldn’t have reported it and I was wrong to discuss it on the air. I will address the issue on my show tonight.” He did so, but didn’t go so far as to explain MSNBC’s broader problems related to years of unduly sensational and misleading Trump-Russia coverage. The concession came a few hours after President Trump’s personal attorney threatened legal action.
Exactly two minutes before Lawrence O’Donnell’s admission of error, a reporter at the military news website Task and Purpose tweeted out a story headlined “Children of US troops born overseas will no longer get automatic American citizenship, Trump administration says.” The story merited obvious skepticism from the get-go and was soon revealed to be premised on a misreading of a minor policy change. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service quickly clarified: The new policy would not affect all kids of service members. It would affect only a tiny minority of service members in rare circumstances.
Nonetheless, the story was dutifully regurgitated by many other media outlets – many of which appear to have done no reporting of their own – and spread far and wide by journalists on social media. On Wednesday night, Twitter was still full of misinformation and anti-Trump invective generated by an inaccurate story.
Again, all of this played out in about 24 hours, and a recap of media conduct in recent years doesn’t make this day look like an especially abnormal performance for our political press. Indeed, the very next day the Washington Post published another seriously ill-advised op-ed, headlined “Conservatives say we’ve abandoned reason and civility. The Old South used the same language to defend slavery,” which, yes, actually makes the argument that fretting about reason and civility is racist.
Donald Trump has taken a lot of criticism for his pointed attacks on the media and having gone so far as to call them the “enemy of the people.” That kind of egregious attack doesn’t help, as we desperately need a functioning media to provide us with accurate information – democracy can’t function without it.
But we also need to be very clear that what we currently have is a media that, with little forethought and much less remorse, engages in lazy character assassination, has no trouble attributing the worst possible motives to tens of millions of sincere Americans, routinely runs with wild and unverified allegations, and expresses zero skepticism when it’s obviously warranted. All that seems to matter is that the story is critical of politicians – or even ordinary voters – the media clearly doesn’t like.
Despite concerns about Trump’s own motives and relationship with the truth, the fact of the matter is that at some point he will no longer be president, and perhaps as soon a year and a half from now. We’re likely to be stuck with a media that apparently has no desire to reform itself or restore the institutional credibility it started losing long before Trump landed in the White House. The press may not be the enemy of the people, but these days it’s not doing us many favors, either.