Thinking out loud ... or at my keyboard.
Postulated: Modern mainstream journalism is heavily biased in favor of Donald Trump, at least when it comes to the Mueller investigation. You read that right. The same journalists Trump accuses of being out to get him, the ones he calls purveyors of “fake news” and “the enemy of the people,” are biased in his favor.
Journalists are funny creatures. I know. I used to be one. They obsess about being “fair and balanced” (a phrase that long predates its appropriation by Fox News as an Orwellian battle cry). They’ve been known to give equal time, or at least a mention, to such folks as anti-Obama “birthers” and climate change deniers.
These claims may be no more factual than those of flat-earthers and Holocaust deniers, but they’re given a voice because enough of them are shouting loudly enough to demand it. Not for the sake of facts, but for the sake of “balance.”
If enough people believe something false, does that alone make it worthy of coverage? Some in the media seem to think so. But it’s hard to cover a belief without lending it a degree of legitimacy, and that’s what journalists do when they repeat false claims. They’re worried that if they don’t, they might be accused of favoritism – especially when it comes to politics – so, they let virtually anyone with a loud enough voice have a platform.
That generally means people with R’s and D’s after their names. Independent voters are too, well, independent to offer any unified message, and third parties are too small.
Truth or consequences
All other things being equal (or close to it), the level of interest in a story should be a factor in whether it sees the light of day. When it becomes the overriding factor, however, there’s a problem. The Founding Fathers understood this when they devised a system founded on a statement of fundamental principles: the U.S. Constitution. Under this system, any movement that opposed those principles was deemed unlawful – regardless of how popular it was.
Similarly, the journalist’s unwritten constitution should put the truth ahead of popularity. Period. No matter how great the sacrifice in terms of ratings or subscriptions or advertising dollars.
When journalists decide popularity is more important than truth in deciding whether to report a story, they abandon their traditional role as gatekeeper. They throw open those invisible gates they’re supposed to be guarding to anyone and everyone, including marauders who want to destroy or plunder or conquer.
The result is chaos, and it’s hard to put the genie back into the bottle.
Journalists are gatekeepers whether they like it or not. They have limited resources - space on their news pages, time on their newscasts, staff to report the news - so they must pick and choose what they cover. Some things will get covered and others won't. Journalists are the ones who decide; they're responsible.
When they abdicate this responsibility, giving con artists and conspiracy theorists a platform, they may try to debunk them – thereby compromising their own integrity. Suddenly, they’re not just reporting a story, they’re commenting on it. Are Anderson Cooper or Sean Hannity reporters or advocates ... or entertainers? Even Hannity doesn’t seem to know: He’s argued at various times that he is and is not a journalist. If he doesn’t know the difference, how are viewers supposed to?
And how are journalists supposed to retain credibility when they seem more like attack dogs than reporters? In the eyes of viewers, they’ve sacrificed the very “balance” they sought to achieve in the first place.
More important, though, is that it’s a lot harder to confront marauding hordes inside the city gates than beyond them. The only negotiations likely to take place at that point will involve the terms of your surrender.
Actions, not words
Before I go further, I should point out a key distinction: Sometimes, the actions of people purveying falsehoods are worthy of coverage, even though their ideas aren’t. When 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult committed mass suicide in an attempt to somehow rendezvous with an imaginary spaceship, the tragedy was newsworthy. The spaceship wasn’t. These people believed so strongly in its existence that they were willing to die for it, but no one suggested that this viewpoint deserved to be considered as a rational possibility for the sake of “balanced coverage.”
Yet somehow, when politics become involved, all that changes. Modern politics transforms many in the media from champions of truth into scared puppies cowering under the table.
They tend to believe they must give the ideas of both sides relatively equal weight, even when one side is arguing for beliefs that have been disproved by science, rewrite history or fly in the face of the most basic common sense.
It’s bad enough if one side is telling the truth on a given issue, while the other side is lying. (In politics, neither side tells the truth all or even most of the time). But what if one side is making a series of false statements, and the other side isn’t saying anything at all?
This is exactly what’s happening in the Mueller investigation. Donald Trump and his legal team/PR machine are spewing out daily tweets, legal claims and proclamations, many of which are at odds with established facts and with one another. Sometimes, both.
Mainstream news outlets aren’t just covering them, they’re falling all over themselves to do so. They trot out a parade of “breaking news” items, significant and otherwise. Then, when there’s a lull, they call in any number of talking heads who proceed to analyze this stuff to death, exhume its remains and dissect it until there’s nothing left but dust and bones.
All the while, they’re referring back to the Trump team’s version of events, time and again. No matter how fanciful or self-contradictory that version may be, it will start to take hold if it’s repeated often enough. And it appears to have done just that: In July, 45 percent of those surveyed in a Washington Post poll disapproved of the way Mueller was handling the investigation, up from 31 percent at the start of the year.
This, in spite of the fact that, apart from several indictments, no one really knows what Mueller is doing. They only know what the Trump team tells them: that the inquiry is a “witch hunt” being conducted by a bunch of “angry Democrats” and that it’s “bad for the country.” All of this is either badly exaggerated or patently false. Even so, it’s dutifully reported in painstaking detail by Trump’s mouthpiece: the mainstream media he professes to hate.
Mueller, meanwhile, remains silent because that’s what a good prosecutor does.
Unhinged and unbalanced
The result is far worse even than what happens when media outlets give equal coverage to two sides – one factual and the other not. In this case, not only are journalists reporting falsehoods and dubious statements from a biased source, those statements are the only things they’re reporting. Because that source is the only one they’ve got. Trump’s team is the only side with direct involvement that’s providing any information, so their message, naturally, carries the day.
The media “solution” to this only makes matters worse. Cable news networks trot out talking heads to act as surrogates for what Mueller might be doing or considering. But it’s all just speculation, and speculation is no substitute for facts. Viewers know this and treat it as such.
When commentators try to balance the scales by casting themselves in adversarial roles, it’s even worse. It only fuels Trump’s narrative that the media are biased against him, even though almost all the news of substance they’re reporting originates in his own camp! He’s having his cake and eating it, too, all the while giving journalists heartburn.
How to restore balance
This leads me to the blunt conclusion journalists don’t want to face, and the thesis of this column: In order to achieve actual balance in this case, the media would have to stop reporting the Trump team’s side.
Should they, really? The news media are supposed to report the news, not withhold it. But if they’re so dedicated to achieving “balance” that they repeat phony claims such as birtherism and climate change denial, shouldn’t they refrain from covering one side when the other side doesn’t have a voice?
Especially when the side that’s talking has a history of contradictory, false and self-serving statements. And especially when national security is at stake. Let’s not forget the gravity of the accusations being made: that people close to or involved in the Trump campaign were complicit with wealthy, politically motivated Russians in helping to influence the outcome of a national election.
Our election, not theirs. Not an election to be decided at the pleasure of Vladimir Putin, who has openly admitted he wanted Trump to win. If he’d wanted Hillary Clinton to win, the episode would have been just as repugnant. No more, no less. Putin’s actions are an insult and an act of violence against the heart of a democratic republic, against the Constitution, against the nation and against each of us as U.S. citizens.
Journalists must take their role as gatekeeper seriously if they are to avoid being suckered into becoming a propaganda mouthpiece for Donald J. Trump. That’s where they’re headed, if they aren’t already there.
But as much as many in the media may loathe Trump personally, there’s a reason they won’t pull themselves back from the brink. They might tell you it has to do with journalistic ethics or integrity, but there’s something else in play here: ratings, subscriptions and revenues.
Bottom line: Trump’s story sells newspapers and lifts ratings, which, in turn, woos advertisers. This is ultimately why mainstream media outlets will go right on telling it. Right on serving as his mouthpiece. Because to them, popularity really is more important than truth.
Popularity equals ratings equals profit. Trump and the media both know this. They’re on the same page, so is it really any surprise that media companies do Trump’s bidding? When it comes right down to it, it’s all about the Benjamins.
Stephen H. Provost is an author, former journalist, historian and media critic. His book Media Meltdown in the Age of Trump examines the toxic relationship between journalism and Donald Trump, focusing on the media’s transformation from impartial observer to ringside commentator and sometimes-combatant in the 21st century culture wars.