Ethics & Public Policy Center

Journalism Dies in Self-Importance

Published in City Journal on March 22, 2019


I suppose it’s true that “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” as the Washington Post’s slogan says. But journalism may also die, by morphing into forms that can no longer be described as journalism. Journalism may come to mean a crooked scandal sheet, or high-minded propaganda. Sometimes squalor and self-righteousness are equally disreputable.

The Post’s apothegm, somehow off-kilter, with its alliteration and self-importance, was a purposeful bit of branding, designed to claim high ground and to poke a thumb in President Trump’s eye every morning. Such partisan intent detracts from the slogan’s claim to universality. The self-serving implication—the notion that, against the Darkness, the Washington Postrepresents the Light—invites the reader to respond (as readers have always responded to the Chicago Tribune’s slogan, “The World’s Greatest Newspaper”) by muttering, “I’ll be the judge of that, pal.”

The other day, Ted Koppel, a voice from the late-twentieth-century practice of journalism, spoke about what has become of his old business in the age of Trump. “We are not the reservoir of objectivity that I think we were,” Koppel said, in an understatement. The Left always cites Fox News in this regard. He singled out the Washington Post and the New York Times, saying that they have gone overboard in their bias, transforming themselves into anti-Trump advocates. “We are not talking about the Washington Post [or New York Times] of 50 years ago,” Koppel said. “We’re talking about organizations that . . . have decided, as organizations, that Donald J. Trump is bad for the United States.”

Both papers have in effect declared a state of emergency because of Trump and have granted themselves the editorial equivalent of dictatorial powers. Doing so may be as ill-advised with newspapers as with elected officials. When journalists don’t consider themselves bound to old norms of objectivity, there comes an absence of restraint that is inherently corrupting. The morning story conference takes on the atmosphere of a rally of zealots. The newspaper becomes the Pequod: President Trump is the white whale.

Koppel made clear that he does not disagree with the verdict that Trump is “bad for the United States.” He means only that the Post and Times abandon their journalistic responsibility when they take sides so blatantly. For one thing, they dismiss the possibility that Trump (who is the elected president, after all) and his followers (who, “deplorable” or not, amount to approximately half of the country) are worth either considering as citizens or understanding as human beings. For progressives, it’s impossible to imagine that Trump and his supporters may actually be right in wanting to save the country from some of the perfections threatened by the left.

The line separating Koppel’s idea of fair journalism and the super-partisan variety practiced now may have been drawn on 9/11, when a certain absolutist and all-is-permitted atmosphere began to coalesce in the American public mind, a sense that old rules could no longer apply. When I started as a reporter years ago—we were known as “reporters,” never by the more pretentious “journalist”—I tried to use an adjective or an adverb now and then, in the wistful hope of making a story, well, colorful. The city editor, with a look of scorn, would ask, “Who do you think you are?” It was not for the reporter to characterize the facts of the story. He was to report them. Facts were sacrosanct—they had a hard-won integrity, an objective existence in the universe. They were to be approached with a certain scruffy reverence. Who was I to attach to them any adverb and adjective that happened to bubble up in my post-adolescent brain?

Today, opinion and dogmatic speculation are the currency of politics and journalism. Facts have become elusive or even unnecessary, except for, say, the body counts at mass shootings. Otherwise, the world is fluid and angry and ideological. Among other things, the new journalism—more theater than journalism, a slugfest of memes—is a lot easier to practice. Much of it, on either side, is little more than noise.

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