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The demise of journalistic standards in media's pursuit of Trump - Part 2

By Michael Goodwin

       Michael Goodwin is the chief political columnist for the New York Post. He has a B.A. in English literature from Columbia College and has taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining the Post in 2009, he was the political columnist for the New York Daily News, where he served as executive editor and editorial page editor. Prior to that, he worked for 16 years at the New York Times, beginning as a clerk and rising to city hall bureau chief. He is the co-author of "I, Koch" and editor of "New York Comes Back."
       The following is adapted from a speech delivered April 20, 2017, in Atlanta, Georgia, at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar.
       Second of two parts. Part 1 can be found in the Westside Pioneer archives at this link.


       As we know now, most of the media totally missed Trump's appeal to millions upon millions of Americans. The prejudice against him blinded those news organizations to what was happening in the country.
       Even more incredibly, I believe the bias and hostility directed at Trump backfired. The feeling that the election was, in part, a referendum on the media, gave some voters an extra incentive to vote for Trump. A vote for him was a vote against the
Michael Goodwin.
From Goodwin's Twitter account
media and against Washington. Not incidentally, Trump used that sentiment to his advantage, often revving up his crowds with attacks on reporters. He still does.
       If I haven't made it clear, let me do so now. The behavior of much of the media, but especially the New York Times, was a disgrace. I don't believe it ever will recover the public trust it squandered.
       The Times' previous reputation for having the highest standards was legitimate. Those standards were developed over decades to force reporters and editors to be fair and to gain public trust. The commitment to fairness made rhe New York Times the flagship of American journalism. But standards are like laws in the sense that they are designed to guide your behavior in good times and in bad. Consistent adherence to them was the source of the Times' credibility. And eliminating them has made the paper less than ordinary. Its only standards now are double standards.
       I say this with great sadness. I was blessed to grow up at the Times, getting a clerical job right out of college and working my way onto the reporting staff, where I worked for a decade. It was the formative experience of my career where I learned most of what I know about reporting and writing. Alas, it was a different newspaper then. Abe Rosenthal was the editor in those days, and long before we'd ever heard the phrase “zero tolerance,” that's what Abe practiced toward conflicts of interest and reporters' opinions. He set the rules and everybody knew it.
       'If you have a romantic affair with an elephant, you can't cover the circus'
       Here is a true story about how Abe Rosenthal resolved a conflict of interest. A young woman was hired by the Times from one of the Philadelphia newspapers. But soon after she arrived in New York, a story broke in Philly that she had had a romantic affair with a political figure she had covered, and that she had accepted a fur coat and other expensive gifts from him. When he saw the story, Abe called the woman into his office and asked her if it were true. When she said yes, he told her to clean out her desk - that she was finished at the Times and would never work there again.
       As word spread through the newsroom, some reporters took the woman's side and rushed in to tell Abe that firing her was too harsh. He listened for about 30 seconds, raised his hand for silence, and said (this is slightly bowdlerized): “I don't care if you have a romantic affair with an elephant on your personal time, but then you can't cover the circus for the paper.” Case closed. The conflict-of-interest policy was clear, absolute, and unforgettable.
       As for reporters' opinions, Abe had a similar approach. He didn't want them in the news pages. And if you put them in, he took them out. They belonged in the opinion pages only, which were managed separately. Abe said he knew reporters tended to lean left and would find ways to sneak their views into the stories. So he saw his job as steering the paper slightly to the right. "That way," he said, "the paper would end up in the middle."
       He was well known for this attitude, which he summed up as “keeping the paper straight.” He even said he wanted his epitaph to read, “He kept the paper straight.” Like most people, I thought this was a joke. But after I related all this in a column last year, his widow contacted me and said it wasn't a joke - that, in fact, Abe's tombstone reads, “He kept the paper straight.” She sent me a picture to prove it.
       I published that picture of his tombstone alongside a column where I excoriated the Times for its election coverage. Sadly, the Times' high standards were buried with Abe Rosenthal.
       Reason for optimism, despite media's 'Humpty Dumpty moment'
       Which brings us to the crucial questions. Can the American media be fixed? And is there anything that we as individuals can do to make a difference? The short answer to the first question is, “No, it can't be fixed.” The 2016 election was the media's Humpty Dumpty moment. It fell off the wall, shattered into a million pieces, and can't be put back together again. In case there is any doubt, 2017 is confirming that the standards are still dead. The orgy of visceral Trump-bashing continues unabated.
       But the future of journalism isn't all gloom and doom. In fact, if we accept the new reality of widespread bias and seize the potential it offers, there is room for optimism. Consider this: The election showed the country is roughly divided 50-50 between people who will vote for a Democrat and people who will vote for a Republican. But our national media is more like 80-20 in favor of Democrats. While the media should, in theory, broadly reflect the public, it doesn't. Too much of the media acts like a special interest group. Detached from the greater good, it exists to promote its own interest and the political party with which it is aligned.
       Ronald Reagan's optimism is often expressed in a story that is surely apocryphal, but irresistible. He is said to have come across a barn full of horse manure and remarked cheerfully that there must be a pony in it somewhere. I suggest we look at the media landscape in a similar fashion. The mismatch between the mainstream media and the public's sensibilities means there is a vast untapped market for news and views that are not now represented. To realize that potential, we only need three ingredients, and we already have them: first, free speech; second, capitalism and free markets; and the third ingredient is you, the consumers of news.
       Free speech is under assault, most obviously on many college campuses, but also in the news media, which presents a conformist view to its audience and gets a politically segregated audience in return. Look at the letters section in the New York Times - virtually every reader who writes in agrees with the opinions of the paper. This isn't a miracle; it's a bubble. Liberals used to love to say, “I don't agree with your opinion, but I would fight to the death for your right to express it.” You don't hear that anymore from the Left. Now they want to shut you up if you don't agree. And they are having some success.
       Left's Ivanka Trump boycott backfired because her supporters stepped up
       But there is a countervailing force. Look at what happened this winter when the Left organized boycotts of department stores that carried Ivanka Trump's clothing and jewelry. Nordstrom folded like a cheap suit, but Trump's supporters rallied on social media and Ivanka's company had its best month ever. This is the model I have in mind for the media. It is similar to how Fox News got started more than 20 years ago. Rupert Murdoch thought there was an untapped market for a more fair and balanced news channel, and he recruited Roger Ailes to start it. Ailes found a niche market, all right - half the country!
       Incredible advances in technology are also on the side of free speech. The explosion of choices makes it almost impossible to silence all dissent and gain a monopoly, though certainly Facebook and Google are trying.
       As for the necessity of preserving capitalism, look around the world. Nations without economic liberty usually have little or no dissent. That's not a coincidence. In this, I'm reminded of an enduring image from the Occupy Wall Street movement. That movement was a pestilence, egged on by President Obama and others who view other people's wealth as a crime against the common good. This attitude was on vivid display as the protesters held up their iPhones to demand the end of capitalism. As I wrote at the time, did they believe Steve Jobs made each and every Apple product one at a time in his garage? Did they not have a clue about how capital markets make life better for more people than any other system known to man? They had no clue. And neither do many government officials, who think they can kill the golden goose and still get golden eggs.
       Which brings me to the third necessary ingredient in determining where we go from here. It's you. I urge you to support the media you like. As the great writer and thinker Midge Decter once put it, “You have to join the side you're on.” It's no secret that newspapers and magazines are losing readers and money and shedding staff. Some of them are good newspapers. Some of them are good magazines. There are also many wonderful, thoughtful, small publications and websites that exist on a shoestring. Don't let them die. Subscribe or contribute to those you enjoy. Give subscriptions to friends. Put your money where your heart and mind are. An expanded media landscape that better reflects the diversity of public preferences would, in time, help create a more level political and cultural arena. That would be a great thing.
       So again I urge you: join the side you're on.

         Reprinted by permission from Imprimis, a publication of Hillsdale College, a private college in Hillsdale, Michigan. The Hillsdale website is hillsdale.edu.

(Posted 8/4/17; Opinion: General)

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