There is one worthwhile scene in the dreadful 1981 movie, “Absence of Malice,” in which Wilford Brimley provides a beacon for journalists’ behavior in this murky age.
If you haven’t seen the movie, allow me to summarize and save two hours of your life you might otherwise have wasted. Sally Field is a reporter set up by government lawyers to make it look like Paul Newman is the subject of an organized crime investigation. The selfish motives of every character in this movie are transparent, but it takes Brimley, an assistant attorney general assigned to clean up the mess, to remind us of how a disinterested journalist should behave. Brimley devastates people on one side of the chaos and just as the other side is smirking, he turns to them and repeats the reckoning. Everyone is flattened and only the facts are left. Brimley had no interest other than getting to the truth.
This is how it should be with the press covering this or any other presidential administration.
White House criticism of the press has been a constant in Washington since John Adams signed the 1798 Alien and Sedition Acts that made it illegal to publish anything critical of the government. President Trump is continuing the tradition with his palette of criticisms ranging from bellowing stump speeches on “the fake news” to belligerent tweets to press conferences where he individually calls out reporters.
What’s different about President Trump is the speed, the volume, the spread and the repetition of the press attacks. Then there’s the defensive reaction of the press—combined with a misguided softening of the line between straight news, analysis and opinion.
Fortunately, the remedy is the same as it has always been—a disinterested press whose light shines skeptically into each version of the truth. And one more thing: a steely-eyed focus on the issues that matter while eschewing the peccadilloes of the president.
We have created the climate for the president to land blows in the fake news fight. An American Press Institute study found about one-third of Americans find it difficult to distinguish news from opinions in the news media. And now a Duke Reporters’ Lab study that shows “news organizations aren’t doing enough to help readers understand the difference between news, analysis and opinion.”
That’s one thing you can start doing—develop a simple policy on how you are labeling your content. Spend some time drawing the line between opinion and analysis and news.
We don’t want reporters to become stenographers. We expect them to challenge the president’s untruthful statements that started on the day of the inauguration about the size of the crowd, but to do so without attitude and with evidence. Kathleen Hall Jamison, a founder of FactCheck.org, is part of a study that found it’s easier to debunk lies when you merely state the facts.
It’s also easier to stay in the middle with readers when you drop the loaded language. Gerard Baker, Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief, has infamously asked his reporters to cut inflammatory words that seem to offer judgment out of straight news articles. (In the meantime, Baker’s impartiality itself has been questioned because of his ties to the president and his family.) He’s got a point. It’s not a good idea to call the president’s statements “lies” as the New York Times famously calls them. It ought to be enough to report there is no evidence of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey after 9/11; no evidence of massive voter fraud; no evidence President Obama wiretapped his office. And so on.
Were I setting the tone for Trump coverage, I would focus on these four things:
- Foreign policy and how it relates particularly to America’s defense and global economic interests;
- Domestic policy, particularly on immigration and its effect on the economy;
- The economy. It seems to be thriving on the belief that regulations will be loosened and taxes will be lowered. Is there a chance of that?
- The future of health care. This is a ship without a captain and both Congress and the White House won’t take the lead. We are headed toward a day when health care consumes a third of our GDP.
An editor’s job is to set the tone for the newspaper. That should tough, but fair. Editors ought to demand that their reporting staffs be forever skeptical, but never cynical. Always even, but never adoring.
Tim Gallagher is president of The 20/20 Network, a public relations and strategic communications firm. He is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning editor and publisher at The Albuquerque Tribune and the Ventura County Star newspapers. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.