Unlike many on the right, I felt the investigation was warranted. There was enough smoke around the president and his administration that an investigation was in order, either to root out the bad or prove the innocence of those closest to the top, including the commander-in-chief. This is not a popular view, but to invoke Nixon, the people deserve to know the president is not a crook.
Journalists covering the investigation all came to it with their own pre-conceived notions. We are no different than anyone else. We are trained, however, to check that at the door to the best of our abilities. After all, it’s pretty simple: Discover what you can, talk to people, write it all down, assemble it coherently and report. Leave the conclusions to the reader, present the facts.
But a lot is changing in today’s media. Despite the inaccurate perceptions rampant among the general public, we are not an economically healthy industry. Our business model is broken, our resources are strapped like never before, and the rise of new competition has challenged the time-tried way of doing things.
When legacy news sources — the old guard — dominated the scene, they could afford to take their time investigating and vetting information. Newspapers battled television and radio, but it wasn’t on a 24/7 basis, and no one could offer the depth newspapers brought to the table. Newspapers could afford the luxury of high objectives.
Gone were the days of yellow journalism, when newspapers rushed out breaking news as fast as they could, and corrected themselves later. The profession became something taught in fancy university journalism schools instead of the streets and smoky newsrooms, and now holds itself to ethical standards Hearst and company would have scoffed at.
Today’s 24/7 “news” networks and online sources have turned that all on its head. Now, again, legacy news organizations find themselves trying to be first to send an alert, opening up a wide range of possibilities on ways to get it wrong. Coupled with the erosion of advertising, their primary source of funding, newsrooms have seen waves of layoffs of people trained to get it right — to question what they are reading, and put a story on hold until the facts have been vetted.
If anyone is in their place, it is either an overworked multi-tasker trying to do the jobs of three people, or a cheaper, fresh-out-of-school recruit who lacks the experience to see the red flags. Not only do many lack the experience to check personal motivations at the door, they lack the desire to, as well, often seeing journalism as a crusade.
Considering the public’s strong feelings about the 2016 election, the Mueller investigation provided the perfect scenario to challenge a contested presidency. Not much of that was based in reality, but it helped those who wanted Trump removed from office to believe there was a chance. Despite the protestations of the president, Mueller was an ideal choice. A relatively straight shooter who clamped down on leaks and ran an organized investigation.
But there was a hunger that became an expectation on the left for Mueller to dig up a bombshell that would be an impeachable offense. And the right circled the wagons in fear that it would come to pass, or that something would be conjured up to do the deed. The president did little to help the situation, with his relentless attacks on the investigation, the character of the investigator, behavior that led many to believe he was guilty of “something,” and the number of shifty people he had surrounded himself with — certainly not “the best people” he had promised.
Those expecting Trump removed from office as a result of the investigation, and those who still do, are subscribing to wishful thinking. Firstly, there is a general lack of understanding of what “impeachment” means. It is not immediate removal. It is a process. Only two presidents were ever impeached: Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. Both failed in removing the president from office.
To remove Trump, any impeachment process would need bi-partisan support to succeed. Setting aside that Republicans have shown themselves to be solidly behind Trump, that kind of evidence would have to be irrefutable and show, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Trump making a deal with Putin and company. That was always going to be the longest of long shots.
All of those factors created a perfect world for the media: Long, drawn out, contentious investigations allow for hours of speculation by talking heads, self-righteous indignation for professional opinionators, inches upon inches of copy to fill news hole, and it sells. But, a media transitioning into a “new world” found itself in a vulnerable position.
That new world? The sunset of objective journalism.
Let’s be fair. Objectivity is a relatively new concept. The type of journalism that led to the revolution, and the establishment of the first amendment, had little to none to do with objectivity. It was designed to motivate people to a cause. And that was the point of journalism for many years. It is a primary reason newspapers had political names like Republican, Democrat, Whig and Independent. You knew what you were getting. News outlets competed to be first and exciting. Tarnish them today and correct it tomorrow.
In many ways, we are returning to that mentality. As news organizations struggle to find models that work and survive today, they rush to scoop the competition, be the first to air or post. You don’t have to wait until the next day or week to correct errors, you can do it live.
After all, it is a business, and the product is output. That output has to draw eyeballs, clicks and please the advertisers, or you go out of business. For all the sanctimonious talk about what journalism is, the simple fact is in today’s polarized world, objectivity doesn’t sell. The majority of consumers aren’t looking for objective analysis, they are looking for affirmation.
Simply look at the evening lineup at Fox or MSNBC and you have all the proof you need. Fox has a trio of very good journalists in its news division — Chris Wallace, Shepard Smith and Bret Baier — who regularly find themselves criticized for their objective takes on a network that sports the likes of Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson. People watch those personalities, and their counterparts like Rachel Maddow, because they affirm their own beliefs. And the more they listen, the more their views conform with those hosts.
Fox saw that, dropping the “Fair and Balanced” moniker that served it so well for many years when it saw its audience wasn’t particularly hip to that way of thinking anymore. Opinion, conflict, conjecture and analysis sell. The Washington Post and New York Times saw it as well, dedicating themselves to every angle of the investigation, banking on their years of credibility to give them an advantage over the online upstarts challenging their space. That’s not to say there isn’t still a desire for straightforward, traditional reporting, but it is a far more niche product than any time in recent memory.
So, week after week we were told about what it all meant, what Mueller was working on, and why it meant Trump was in danger. So many pieces of vital information confirmed by sources inside the administration, or inside the investigation, who asked for anonymity.
The journalist in me says that is a world fraught with peril, contrary to all of my training. Who are these people? Are they in a position to know? Given the president’s embrace of disinformation and manipulation of the media as a civilian (John Barron/John Miller/David Dennison), are we being purposely led down the wrong path?
As a journalist, I have to take it on faith those newsrooms are doing due diligence, and quite frankly, even then it is easy to be duped. The public, however, is either going to take as the gospel or a pack of lies, depending on their political point of view. Add to the equation a president calling many in the press “enemies of the people” the questionable behavior of some members of the press and how ready some were to put their hopes on a bombshell in the Mueller report, I had a lot of fear the industry wasn’t going to come out of it smelling so good.
Now, the report is in, and the AG’s take that there is nothing to pursue has led the president to start taking his victory laps, attacking his enemies and claiming to be “completely exonerated” (not quite). The battle has moved on to the release of the complete report in the desperate hope Barr is hiding something. Expecting that hidden revelation is a pipe dream. Nancy Pelosi knows that, even if it isn’t the popular take.
And journalists are left picking up the pieces, trying to shed the image of rooting for a new Watergate. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi has called the issuing of a Mueller report without new charges “a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.” He makes a compelling argument — the new, politicized approach to covering the news was an enormous error in judgment — not to mention a gift to Trump’s 2020 campaign.
Yes, the news media’s reputation is tarnished, and for a minority of concerned citizens and many of us in the industry, this is a very bad thing. But how much changes? No doubt, Trump, always one to paint himself as the victim, will use this for all it is worth, and that will feed those who already felt the media was biased. Neither are people opposed to this president suddenly going to change their tune, or change the channel. The political arguments are bigger than the fallout of this investigation. The people want the talking heads who make them feel better.
In general, despite our efforts, much of the public has no idea how news happens. Recent surveys have shown much of the public has no understanding what the difference is between editorials and news stories, press releases and news stories, opinion columns and news stories, or even letters to the editor and news stories. Words like “op-ed,” “attribution,” or “sponsored content” mean nothing.
Neither do they have any idea what the process is that goes into news gathering or the rounds of editing that take place. Many don’t understand the concept of anonymous sources. In fact, many believe reporters are paid by their sources, which sincerely has me questioning the 175,000 miles on my 2009 Kia. Neither have they any concept of what constitutes “fake news” — many assume we are making it up.
No, with few exceptions, the only people paying enough attention to hold journalists accountable to traditional ethical standards are the journalists themselves and the people they cover. To think anyone outside that bubble cares is to have an outsized opinion of our influence. So, where do we go from here? Do we give the people what they need, or do we give them what they want? Traditional, objective journalism, or commentary masquerading as news? Unless we figure out how to pay for it, I fear that decision is being made for us.