An Afflicted News Media in the Trump Era

Arthur Gregg Sulzberger, the 37-year-old publisher of the New York Times, who just took the reins from his father Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., posted a New Year’s Day op-ed about the urgency of his mission and challenges the news operation faces.

“The business model that long supported the hard and expensive work of original reporting is eroding,” he wrote in the front page piece, “forcing news organizations of all shapes and sizes to cut their reporting staffs and scale back their ambitions.”

Here’s what Times editors might call the nut graph:

“Misinformation is rising and trust in the media is declining as technology platforms elevate clickbait, rumor and propaganda over real journalism, and politicians jockey for advantage by inflaming suspicion of the press.”

Sulzberger the younger might want to ponder the NYT’s own role in running with political narratives that create more polarization among the citizens it serves.

For more on that, we turn to the byzantine details behind the special counsel probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the campaign, or whatever it is they’re looking into. Former federal prosecutor Andrew McCarthy, writing in National Review, breaks down the latest  NYT story on this narrative, and its flimsy sourcing:

“Seven months after throwing [Trump campaign affiliate] Carter Page as fuel on the collusion fire lit by then-FBI director James Comey’s stunning public disclosure that the Bureau was investigating possible Trump campaign “coordination” in Russia’s election meddling, the Gray Lady now says: Never mind. We’re onto Collusion 2.0, in which it is George Papadopoulos — then a 28-year-old whose idea of résumé enhancement was to feign participation in the Model U.N. — who triggered the FBI’s massive probe by . . . wait for it . . . a night of boozy blather in London.”

“Well, it turns out the Page angle and thus the collusion narrative itself is beset by an Obama-administration scandal: Slowly but surely, it has emerged that the Justice Department and FBI very likely targeted Page because of the Steele dossier, a Clinton-campaign opposition-research screed disguised as intelligence reporting. Increasingly, it appears that the Bureau failed to verify Steele’s allegations before the DOJ used some of them to bolster an application for a spying warrant from the FISA court (i.e., the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court).”

Why isn’t the NYT interested in whether a government entity gained a spy warrant, and the ability to spy on its political opponents, using opposition research (also known as propaganda)?

This, in the view of many Americans is a “dangerous confluence of forces” that Sulzberger refers to in his op-ed that threatens “the press’s central role in helping people understand and engage with the world around them.”

The Daily Wire sums up some of the rogues’ gallery of media errors in the marketplace of ideas in 2017:

On February 14, Michael S. Schmidt, Mark Mazzetti, and Matt Apuzzo reported in The New York Times, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts With Russian Intelligence.” The Gray Lady was subsequently humiliated when former FBI director James Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on the story, saying, “In the main, it was not true.

On November 22, Gabriel Sherman reported in New York Magazine that “a group of prominent computer scientists and election lawyers” demanded a recount in three states because of “persuasive evidence that results in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania may have been manipulated or hacked.” Writers from Politico, Reuters, MSNBC, and The New York Times all shared the story. But as Nate Silver pointed out the next next, “Anyone making allegations of a possible massive electoral hack should provide proof, and we can’t find any.” Further, the New York Magazine piece had even misrepresented the computer scientists’ argument.

On December 1, Lorraine Woellert falsely claimed in Politico that Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin had once overseen a company that “foreclosed on a 90-year-old woman after a 27-cent payment error.” The story, which was shared by writers from The New York Times, NBC News, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, New York Post, and the Associated Press, had just one problem: it was entirely false. The woman was never foreclosed on, she never lost her home, and it wasn’t even Mnuchin’s bank that brought the suit.

On December 1, ABC News reported that during the 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump ordered Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to contact Russian officials in violation of the Logan Act. That story, based on anonymous sources, turned out to be entirely false. ABC News later “clarified” the report and suspended “journalist” Brian Ross. [The stock market also fell on the news.]

On June 6, CNN falsely reported that then-FBI director James Comey refuted President Trump’s claim of having been told multiple times that he was not under FBI investigation. The correction reads, “The article and headline have been corrected to reflect that Comey does not directly dispute that Trump was told multiple times he was not under investigation in his prepared testimony released after this story was published.

CNN’s coverage of Trump’s first 100 days as president was ranked among the most negative of most of the major cable news outlets, according to the Harvard Shorenstein public policy center study.

CNN’s urgency, its zeal to report opposition to Trump has resulted in a string of embarrassing errors, corrections and retractions that it’s hard to see how its reputation as a news organization recovers.

 

It wasn’t that long ago when journalists were trusted and admired, notes Michael Goodwin, chief political columnist for The New York Post

“Today, all that has changed,” he said at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar, held in Atlanta last April.  “For that, we can blame the 2016 election or, more accurately, how some news organizations chose to cover it.

“Among the many firsts, [the 2016] election gave us the gob-smacking revelation that most of the mainstream media puts both thumbs on the scale – that most of what you read, watch, and listen to is distorted by intentional bias and hostility. I have never seen anything like it. Not even close.”

This was not naïve liberalism run amok, Goodwin concluded. “This was a whole new approach to politics. No one in modern times had seen anything like it.”

Then again, when he taught at New York’s Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, Goodwin, like so many instructors at the school, many of them from the New York Times, often found himself telling students that the job of the reporter was “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”

“I’m not sure where I first heard that line, but it still captures the way most journalists think about what they do…From there, it’s a short drive to the conclusion that every problem has a government solution.’

“The rest of that journalistic ethos – ‘afflict the comfortable’ – leads to the knee-jerk support of endless taxation. Somebody has to pay for that government intervention the media loves to demand.”

From there, it’s been a short drive for generations to go from neutral reporters to political advocates.

At a time when the legacy gatekeepers of information are fighting to set the country’s news agenda while the web and social media carve out their audiences, this is a critical factor that news editors need to ponder in the “growing polarization” that is “jeopardizing even the foundational assumption of common truths, the stuff that binds a society together,” as Sulzberger wrote on New Year’s Day.

We are a far cry from the mission of the NYT espoused by Sulzberger’s great-great-grandfather Adolph Ochs in 1896:

“To give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved.”

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