Objectivity is passé
Journalism has always been biased. Those missing the ‘good old days’ when reporters reported the news without bias fool themselves with false memories of journalism that never was, just like those who want to Make America Great Again miss that every era of American history has some less than great warts.
Still, things are different now. Reporters and editors have defined the President of the United States as an enemy. It’s not just Sean Hannity and Glen Beck anymore. The press has always distorted news to serve their agenda but rarely stooped to outright fabrication (“Remember the Maine!”) and rarely operated in such tandem with elements of the government.
I had hoped to coin a new term, “Orange Journalism,” to evoke thoughts of both historic yellow journalism and the “Orange Man Bad” mantra that guides our press. Through the power of Google, I found the words already used by Thomas Bailey in 1919 to describe the fusion between sensational yellow journalism and radical red journalism. Still, the term fits our current ethics.
We expect overt orange journalism out of the New York Times, with its journalists explicitly calling to abandon objectivity, the paper cutting the public editor position to fight introspection, changing headlines when not critical enough, doing it again, retracting a ‘bombshell’ collusion story, and retracting an anti-Semitic cartoon about Trump. Most recently, petulant staff forced the resignation of the opinion page editor for publishing opinions of a sitting United States senator.
Similar lists could be made for the Washington Post, CNN, and most especially MSNBC where collusion reigned non-stop for years, outdoing even Rachel Maddow’s fixation on New Jersey traffic.
Orange journalism can also take on softer, more subtle tones. With appropriate skill, one can cast aspersions that can’t be fact-checked based on no evidence whatsoever.
Casual bias in the last round
Recently I read a mostly delightful article posted by the Los Angeles Times. The author told the story Jean Seberg, a married actress who was also a social activist. In 1970, J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI leaked to the Los Angeles Times that she was pregnant with the child of a Black Panthers leader with whom she was having an affair. The gossip column ran with it. Her career was ruined, she lost the baby, and she took her own life some years later.
It’s a timely and poignant piece about the danger of government power coupled with a press with no restraint. The racial element rings especially true as the country grapples with inequality.
During the third paragraph from the end of the article, though, the author turns full orange. After a mea culpa on behalf of the Times for printing unfounded and scurrilous accusations, the writer does some Olympian level mental gymnastics and sticks the landing. He states, “There is no reason to believe that President Trump has unleashed his intelligence agencies the way Nixon did…” and then goes on a tirade about the President’s dishonesty and how this is the sort of thing he is likely to do.
There’s also no reason to believe that my barber starves his children, but he seems like he’s the kind of guy that might do it. I tried to figure out what species of a logical fallacy this was, but I gave up.
In spending the last paragraphs talking about the possible dangers of Trump, the author also ignored clear, recent evidence of FBI political leaking:
- Andrew McCabe, when he was Deputy Director of the FBI, leaked to the Wall Street Journal that Hillary Clinton was under investigation, then lied to investigators. He has admitted this and apologized.
- Former Director of the FBI James Comey, immediately after being fired, leaked records to damage President Trump for revenge and in the hopes of forcing a special prosecutor.
- No one knows for sure who leaked to CNN that Comey was briefing the Steele dossier to the Trump, but someone sought to force the ‘salacious and unverified’ information into the public realm. If it wasn’t James Clapper at the CIA, then likely it came from the FBI as well.
The Seberg story painfully illustrates the orange journalism ethic. In providing a parable about the press destroying people with unverified accusations and innuendo, the author ends with unverified innuendo speculating that Trump might use mechanisms of the state to leak to the press to destroy people. At the same time, the article ignores recent and well-publicized examples of the FBI and maybe the CIA leaking to the press for political purposes.
The article also makes a brief point about Trump acting as his own press and spreading rumors, but that creates a false analogy. Politicians are political and Twitter is just a megaphone. Collusion between the FBI and the formal media is far different.
[I reached out to the author of the article via email for comment but received no response. I will update if I receive comments back.]
The grim future
There is no way back from this in the short term. Once President Trump leaves office, either next year or four years from now, he will almost certainly be replaced by a Democrat. Then most of the press can go back to pretending to be objective.
The only hope for actual change is if the next Democrat president does not elicit the visceral hate that President Obama earned from Fox News. Perhaps after that, the next Republican president will merely be despicable in the eyes of the left, rather than evoke the frothing frenzy we see now.
We will never get to an unbiased press; remember that before becoming a darling of the media for opposing Trump, Mitt Romney was vulture capitalist robber baron that caused his employees to die of cancer while he abused his dog. The best that we can hope for is to recede to our normal level of poison.
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Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own. Learn more at brianewish.com.