An Epidemic of Media Partisanship

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WARNING: Reading The Washington Post might be hazardous to your (mental) health.

Leafing through the first section of Sunday’s print edition of the Post, nearly every headline seemed designed to scare the bejesus out of readers already nervously confined to their homes because of the coronavirus crisis.

The Page One banner headline, splashed across the full six-column width in bold type, read: “Death toll surges past 2,000 in the U.S.” To dramatically illustrate that point, the paper carried a photo of face-masked military police carrying a coffin.  But the caption tells us the coffin was not in the U.S., but in Italy where the death toll has surpassed 10,000.

Other apocalyptic March 29 headlines on the Post front page:

  • “The U.S. economy’s downturn has exposed preexisting flaws”
  • “Inside Trump’s risky push to reopen the country”
  • “World’s poor face grave new hardships while in isolation”
  • “States’ needs overwhelm unprepared stockpile”

And down at the bottom of the front page, under the headline “Anything good I could say about this would be a lie,” was a sad tale told by an Indiana man whose 69-year-old female partner died of the virus.

 Turning inside the A section, a reader seeking solace would have found, well, none. The headlines included the following:

  • “Underfunding, command changes hamper allocation of supplies from stockpile”
  • “Major New York City hospital system is at a tipping point”
  • “Lack of water is stumbling block for many Americans amid pandemic”
  • “Loneliness, poverty grow in isolation”
  • “Trump sows confusion as he invokes wide-reaching presidential powers”
  • “Battle to reopen U.S. pits Trump against multiple governors”
  • “Urban centers across the nation brace for devastating outbreaks”
  • “Latest sign recession is intensifying: White-collar workers are being laid off”

These  are difficult and uncertain times, to be sure, and journalists have a duty to report the news and not wish problems away. Yet, the Post’s  editorial page staff figured their readers could use a pick-me-up after wading through all that woe, so they furnished an oasis – at least for readers who are partisan Democrats -- in the form of  three full pages of opinion extolling the leadership skills of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

 It opened with a nearly full-page color portrait of the speaker, the likes of which are rarely seen in print newspapers these days, let alone the Post, except maybe on inauguration days of new presidents.  (This followed a news section puff piece on Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer. Its headline reads, “After years as partisan brawler, Schumer takes leading role to help his country.”)

But wait, we haven’t come to the editorials and opinion columns yet.  They were uniformly dripping with negativism and criticism of President Trump’s handing of the coronavirus crisis. The Post’s lead editorial bears the headline “We need wartime leaders.” The editors don’t mean an elected chief executive. “The president should hand over the task to others,” they assert. “Then he should get out of the way.”

The editorial does not name who those “others” should be. All the writers seem to be sure of is that Trump should not be in command.  The editorial cartoon by Tom Toles, never a friend of Trump’s, shows a corpulent, pig-like president (his usual depiction by Toles) wearing bunny ears and rolling dice instead of eggs at the 2020 Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn.

“His plan is to roll a fourteen,” Toles writes in the cartoon. I guess Toles assumes savvy Post readers all know you can’t roll dice higher than 12. How clever. It’s a joke on Trump’s candlepower. Get it?

So, what should we make of all this negativity on the part of The Washington Post and other national news organizations?  (The Post is hardly alone.) As a newspaper reporter on the local, state and national levels for nearly 40 years, and as a journalism and political science professor for 15 years, I find it highly disturbing. I am reminded of a course I took in graduate school that focused on the responsibility of the media. I recall the professor noting that with the American press enjoying such great freedom, it becomes even more important that it wield that freedom judiciously.

“With such great freedom comes even greater responsibility” is the way that professor wisely put it. It is a lesson I never forgot. Of course, there is no law against the Post or other news organizations framing its coronavirus coverage with a highly negative and anti-Trump slant.  But there is obligation to readers to present its information in a fair and balanced manner.

This is not to say that the media should be painting rosy pictures of a very dangerous situation. At the same time, they should not be using the crisis to frighten people and further their own political agenda.The American public, which is anxious enough in these perilous times, doesn’t need its trusted news sources to be playing political games.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He now teaches media and politics at American University and in The Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.



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