Institutions Part V: News Media Lapses in Modern Times


The news media in America are spinning out of control, caught up in a powerful funnel cloud of self-righteousness, self-interest, a loss of journalistic identity, and wild-eyed illusions of grandeur about saving the planet from evil.

The media are not the enemy of the people; not by a long shot; but they are their own worst enemy, exhausting their credibility and abandoning the character and measured judgment that not too long ago was the hallmark of American journalism.

The free press is just one of several institutions absolutely fundamental to our system of self-government and our open society experiencing decline, from the Legislative and Executive branches of government to public and private education, organized religion, community, charity, and the family unit.

It seems well past time for the news profession to take stock of itself and maybe submit to an honest and critical independent evaluation of its purpose and performance. The industry owes that to the American people, because it is through the people that the news media are afforded highly-prized protections under the Constitution, which come with both privilege and responsibility.

The evidence of the media’s lapses and their abuse of power in this new age is considerable, dating back years, but more recent behavior, shall we say over the last several years, has raised concerns and a sense of urgency about an erosion of public trust in an institution that is supposed to be a guardian of public trust.

The elements of American media had distinctions and distinct roles in society. Not anymore.

The lines between social media, cable news, mainstream media, and even the infotainment media have narrowed and blurred. The distinctions between news and commentary have dissolved. The battle between subjective and objective reporting is over. Objectivity lost.

Recent examples: social media, not the established media, drove coverage of the Covington, KY high school students, some wearing Make American Great Again baseball caps, who got trapped on the national mall between threatening black Hebrew Israelites on one side and a group of Native American activists on the other, one of whom thought it courageous to stare down what appeared to be a very nervous 17-year-old.

A 2-hour video of the incident didn’t leave much room for misinterpretation, but that didn’t stop many in the media from drawing instant and inaccurate conclusions, playing to stereotypes that drive much of political coverage today. The coverage of this incident was outright fraudulent.

There were four fatal flaws in the media coverage.

First, mainstream media were, as they have been for awhile, led like sheep by social media. It is a perilous and lazy habit they have formed.

Second is the pervasiveness of pack journalism and the injection of narratives in the news that are often very subjective advocacy or stridently adversarial.

The rush-to-judgment conclusions on the mall were a falsehood media chose to believe because it conformed to an anti-Trump narrative and a liberal stereotype of white-privileged, male teenagers. After all, they were participating in a March for Life rally and wearing those hats. And they are Catholics. Trump supporters, and all Republicans if you get right down to it, are angry racists, right? The stereotype and others like it reflect the dark side of human nature, especially in American politics, where they should have no place.

The stereotype and its magnification by the media produced a predictable result.

The students should die, a news production manager in Los Angeles tweeted (he got fired). Kathy Griffin: ‘the reply from the school was pathetic and impotent. Name these kids. I want NAMES.” Alyssa Milano: “the MAGA hat is the new white hood. Without white boys being able to empathize with other people, humanity will continue to destroy itself.” Howard Dean, former presidential candidate and Democratic Party Chairman: “Covington Catholic High School seems like a hate factory to me. Why not just close it?”

Those comments were mild. The death threats came pouring into the frightened community of Covington. They closed the high school. The media will move on uninhibited and undaunted; the students will move on, too, but probably not without permanent scars.

Third, journalists simply did not get their facts straight and failed to make a legitimate effort to do so prior to running the stories containing falsehoods. Facts used to be the bedrock of journalism. They are now incidental.

The mall incident was yet another example of what Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, said six or seven years ago. The Huffington Post doesn’t concern itself with accuracy, just getting the story online before anyone else does. “The news” she said, “will self-correct.”

The media and politicians cherry pick facts to reinforce their opinions and perceptions, when a different set of facts may well question their conclusions. The use of selective facts accommodates political agendas, but confuses and misleads the public rather than informing them.

Remember Nathan Phillips, the drum beating Native American activist who confronted the students? He was portrayed, with a narrow set of facts, as a maligned minority and Vietnam war hero, accosted by racist high school students. But Phillips told different stories to different media, lied about the role of the Covington student blocking his path, portrayed himself as a Vietnam veteran when he never served there, and proved himself much more the activist than the peacemaker he claimed to be. The next day he was busy protesting at the National Catholic Shrine.

Fourth, the media have insulated themselves from constructive criticism and independent oversight. Too many in the profession bristle too easily at criticism, even when it is offered constructively and critics are too easily dismissed as Trump supporters.

So, when it came to the mall incident, instead of an apology—they so readily demand of others—the media again glossed over their mistakes and some remained in a complete state of denial. Some offered excuses, not explanations—a few of which were downright insulting to average intelligence.

The Washington Post ‘explanation’ of its coverage by Abby Ohlheiser and Paul Farhi was as it usually is, defensive and disappointing. They claimed that Post reporters didn’t have access to the facts before reporting (think about that) and apparently did not review the full recording of the incident for 48 hours.

Their excuses covered the gamut from this incident being extraordinary because it occurred in the volatile atmosphere of race-baiting and vitriol driving the “worst in American culture” (an atmosphere for which the Post shoulders much responsibility), to being “a typical…breaking news situations” in which news accounts are just unable to “provide all of the context and facts.”

Ohlheiser and Farhi then went on a tirade, shifting the blame, of all things, to the “Pro-Trump Internet (that) has for years worked to create a media environment that is designed to destroy the traditional news media and replace it.”

Farhi also wrote about the second recent example, the infamous Buzzfeed article claiming without evidence (the Post loves that phrase) that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has evidence that Trump specifically instructed his former attorney Michael Cohen to lie to Congress, presumably an impeachable offense. The story produced a very rare rebuke from Mueller’s office.

The Buzzfeed piece apparently has not been corroborated by any other media, but media repeated it with breathless sensationalism, exposing another serious lapse in journalistic responsibility. Fahri called Buzzfeed’s publication a “misstep,” an “apparently mistaken story.”

It was far more than a misstep. It was a reminder of the degree to which media has become comfortable with titillating speculation, innuendo, hyperbole, and gross exaggeration in the pursuit of an audience hungry for and vulnerable to reality TV salaciousness, which has become a real money-maker for all kinds of news outlets.

The Buzzfeed article is located on a long trail of news stories that range from misleading to incomplete, to one-sided, exaggerated, inaccurate, false, or outright lies, most in pursuit of agendas that take us to the outer boundaries of journalistic responsibility and integrity.

Glenn Greenwald, writing this month on his site, The Intercept, highlighted 10 of the more egregious media “missteps” related only to the Russia investigation.

They included Trump being offered advance access to the Wikileaks email trove, a gem from CNN and MSNBC; and Paul Manafort’s clandestine meetings with Wikileaks Julian Assange that never happened. It included a CNN lie about using Cohen attorney Lanny Davis, a notoriously partisan Democrat and Trump nemesis, as a source, according to Greenwald. There were 10 honorable mentions, leading off with ABC firing Brian Ross for misreporting the critical timing of Trump’s instructions to General Michael Flynn to contact the Russians, and several involving reporting of Russian hacking from a single incident at a Vermont power plant to the alleged confirmation of hacking by 17 intelligence agencies.

Journalist Sharyl Attkisson, for whom liberal mainstream media has a distinct aversion, has cataloged nearly 70 media mistakes since Trump began his campaign for the Presidency.
They stretch backwards from the latest incident on the national mall to inaccurate stories claiming Melania Trump violated her visa status. In between are false claims that Trump paid no income taxes for 16 years, that Hillary Clinton won Michigan—Trump won it; that Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King from the Oval Office, that the entire senior administrative staff at the State Department had resigned; that Sara Sanders was leaving the White House; and that Gina Haspel, future CIA director, was in charge of waterboarding at a secret CIA prison.

They also included stories that FBI Director Comey was fired after he requested more money for a Russia probe and that Comey was going to refute Trump’s claim he was told three times he was not under investigation.

She did not include my favorite, the broadcast on ABC by anchor Tom Llamas of a photo of a computer disk that appeared to be sitting on a shelf in a small safe that Llamas claimed, without evidence, contained proof of Donald Trump’s infidelities, all according to ABC’s reliable source, Michael Avenatti, attorney for porn star Stormy Daniels.

The problem isn’t just one of mistakes. Opinions run rampant through news stories; the use of anonymous sources is badly abused. The prejudices in headlines, story placement, and the repetition of stories doesn’t seem to be based on news judgment but marketing and propaganda techniques. In the background of it all are deeply embedded East Coast liberal and Democratic biases.

Diversity is fine, sometimes. What would network news be like, produced and broadcast in Sioux Falls?

Oddly enough, the biggest failure of the media in this new age is that none of them, neither pro-Trump nor anti-Trump, has ever figured out how to cover a political phenomenon like him outside their comfort level, beyond their comprehension, and contrary to their established notions of both social and political norms and behavior.

Instead, the press has reverted back to its classic muckraking days of the early 19th century and farther back into an earlier century of strong partisan and ideological alignments. The public loses because the public is denied the kind of detached and objective oversight of its government that once was considered a cornerstone of good journalism.

One of the best commentaries on the subject came, oddly enough, in one of the worst practitioners of agenda-driven journalism, the Washington Post.

Columnist David Von Drehle wrote on Jan. 25:

“But there’s a direct line from the TweetDecks of 2012 to the widespread failure of political journalism to understand the Trump campaign four years later. Too many of us covered Twitter’s reaction to Trump, instead of covering the ideas and impulses of the voters he was reaching. Whether by instinct or intention, Trump stoked the addiction by fueling Twitter with red meat and steroids. Now the problem is full-blown. Respected journalists can spend a week debating the expression on a 16-year-old boy’s face in a video snippet of uncertain provenance and unknown context.

They can assert that “the world” was rattled by a minor confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial, proving only how deeply they’ve confused the bot-infested echo chamber of Twitter with the world at large. That’s addiction talking. They can pore over hours of cellphone video, as though enough video might somehow put them at the scene. I frequently hear that Twitter must clean up its platform. I’m reminded of our endless wars against drug cartels. Let Americans stop using and — voilà! — problem solved. Twitter will evaporate without journalists to feed it content, without journalists to promote its existence, without journalists to hook new audiences. So, my fellow journalists: Just say no.”

Back to the beginning, there is dire need of reform in the news media; a thorough independent review of standards of procedure and practices and standards of behavior for professional journalists.

Many questions need and deserve discussion: Who is a journalist? What minimal amount of training should be necessary to practice the profession? How are professionals separated from the amateurs? To what extent should the public be made aware of potential conflicts of interest that could unduly influence reporting, such as journalists who withhold information for their lucrative book projects, or those who have been aligned politically or commercially prior to joining the profession, or those who are writing or reporting for a companies with conflicts of interest in the subject matter being reported? How can the public judge the objectivity of anonymous sources and their conflicts of interest? Who owns news outlets? In what are news outlets invested themselves? Does the separation between news and advertising still exist? Why is there little or no separation between news and opinion? What happened to requirements that information be verified with multiple sources before publication?

There are dozens more.

The dramatic transformation in the news business—technologically, competitively, ethically, politically, socially—suggests that greater oversight of the industry is needed. Government has intense oversight, internally and externally. So do most professions and industries, such as medicine, corporate finance, aviation, law enforcement, manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, building trades, and the media’s neighbor in the First Amendment, professional lobbyists who petition the government for redress of grievances.

A free press is an institution as essential to our Republic and our social fabric as our government. It is at times like these far more powerful than the government itself. It is cemented into the cornerstone of our Constitution. It requires a high degree of public trust and a disciplined commitment to reach beyond commercial success and meet fundamental civic responsibilities. The public deserves reaffirmation every now and then that its responsibilities are being met. This is one of those times.

I wonder what Robert Mueller is doing after he finishes the Russian collusion investigation?

Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff, co-founder and member of the Board of the Congressional Institute, and a participant in the Congress of Tomorrow congressional reform project. Johnson is retired. He is married to Thalia Assuras and has five children and three grandchildren.