Tuesday, September 04, 2018

It's time for all journalists to speak up against 'the campaign to destroy the legitimacy of the American news media'

A volunteer at a Trump rally in Evansville last week tried to keep
photographers from taking pictures of protesters. (AP/Evan Vucci)
By Al Cross, Director and Professor
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

Journalists need to speak up for their work, to counter "the campaign to destroy the legitimacy of the American news media," NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd writes for The Atlantic, where he is now a contributing editor. My friend Chuck makes some good arguments, but his 2,284-word piece appears aimed at journalists and their paymasters in the national news-media establishment. They need some backup from news outlets in smaller places, where the campaign probably has the greatest traction.

Todd's biggest target is Fox News, its prime-time commentators, and its longtime chairman and CEO, the late Roger Ailes, who, starting with his service to Richard Nixon, cited journalists' "errors of omission and commission, inadvertent inattention and willful disregard, unconscious assumptions and deliberate distortions" and "collapsed all of it into the single charge of bias. . . . There are some great journalists at Fox, including Chris Wallace, Bret Baier, and Shep Smith, but it’s not an organization that emphasizes journalism."

Chuck Todd (NBC News photo)
Todd, host of "Meet the Press," says other news outlets and their reporters have made mistakes that accelerated Ailes' campaign, picked up by President Trump. But they "own up to mistakes, and learn from them so they can do a better job the next time." But they have been taught not to engage with their critics, and journalism "finds itself on the ropes because it allowed a nearly 50-year campaign of attacks inspired by the chair of Fox News to go unanswered," Todd writes. "If you hear something over and over again, you start to believe it, particularly if the charge is unrebutted."

Washington Post Editor Martin Baron likes to say "We're not at war, we're at work," but Todd seems to disagree. "The idea that our work will speak for itself is hopelessly naive," he writes. "Reporters need to showcase and defend our reporting. . . . I’m not advocating for a more activist press in the political sense, but for a more aggressive one. That means having a lower tolerance for talking points, and a greater willingness to speak plain truths. It means not allowing ourselves to be spun, and not giving guests or sources a platform to spin our readers and viewers, even if that angers them. Access isn’t journalism’s holy grail—facts are. The truth is that most journalists, in newsrooms large and small across the country, are doing their best each day to be fair, honest, and direct."

Yes, but too many journalists in those small newsrooms don't see themselves as targets of the anti-journalism campaign, and some of them even sympathize with it, having bought into Ailes' 50 years of stereotyping. But I believe most rural journalists feel a bond with those who cover the national scene, and they are in unique positions in their communities; they are trusted by their readers, listeners and viewers, largely because they are members of the same community. But they are also members of the American journalism community, and should take opportunities to explain and defend journalism at large. Let's remember what Jason Robards said as he played Post Editor Ben Bradlee in All the President's Men, telling reporters who had made a mistake: "Nothing's riding on this except the, uh, First Amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country."

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