New York Times Pitchbot is a satirical Twitter account run anonymously by a 52-year-old math professor who aims to satirize the sometimes lazy conventions of the paper of record.
Following the FBI’s search of former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, last month, the popular Twitter account was busy mocking the Times with numerous body blows, including this particularly on-point headline: “Whether it’s Republicans committing crimes, or Democrats attempting to prosecute Republicans for these crimes, both sides have a crime problem.”
Naturally, the FBI searching the home of a former president was unprecedented, and news organizations leaped into action to cover the breaking news. But with few actual details to go by and a massive interest gap to fill, many outlets quickly pivoted to bland horse-race narratives about upcoming elections. They even adopted Trump’s own language about what transpired at Mar-a-Lago.
“The FBI went to Mar-a-Lago, knocked on the door to collect boxes of classified material that Trump stole from the White House, and major news outlets all just decided to go with the term Trump used for it — raid,” wrote Parker Malloy, who covers media, politics and culture in her newsletter, “The Present Age.”
How reporters cover the first few hours and days of politically-charged events like this is vital to properly informing local and national readers. The subjects will obviously be different — it could be an FBI search of the former president’s home, the business dealings of a local politician or a crime just tangentially related to politics. But as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen suggests, reports should be mindful of the distinction between the properly political and the unduly politicized.
What is the distinction? In the online news site, PressThink, Rosen wrote during the 2020 election that a proper political act of journalism would be, for example, pushing back against prominent political figures who are floating poisonous claims or charges without evidence — that the agenda of a news outlet is to “prevent lying from being raised to a universal principle in politics.” But those same outlets can become unduly politicized if they are reduced to cheerleaders for individual candidates or let their ideology distort their reporting.
“This is not good,” Rosen wrote. “It erodes trust, validates bad faith attacks on the press and ultimately renders journalism useless as a check on power because it is trying to be the power.”
Unfortunately, with few details and a massive interest gap to fill, many outlets quickly pivoted to coverage from a political frame. The Washington Post changed a headline on a story titled “Garland vowed to depoliticized Justice. Then the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago” after it garnered criticism from media critics who rightfully pointed out it suggested that Garland was unduly politicizing the Department of Justice.
The Times also drew criticism for a new analysis piece that described the FBI search as a “high-risk gamble,” despite not knowing most of the details that led up to the search or what it actually uncovered. This was made public just days later — 11 sets of documents with some type of top secret or confidential classification, including “top secret/sensitive compartmented information,” which are so sensitive they’re meant to only be viewed in a secure government location.
Of course, these are just two stories in a wide net of coverage that extends to cable news, where pundits are cycled in to speculate freely without many facts to back them up. But this trend is symptomatic of the urge to immediately turn any story involving a politician into a political story.
“In any other context, if you pull a well-known politician out of a story and substitute in just a random citizen or even a major business later, you will see that as a crime story,” said Jeremy Littau, a journalism professor at Lehigh University. “So anything that involves a political actor, I think we tend to cover it along a partisan split as default narrative device.”
Littau was among the media critics calling out the coverage in the immediate aftermath of the FBI search. In a widely-shared Twitter thread, Littau was especially critical of news outlets passing on Republican outrage, which he described as “stenography,” especially since Trump’s political allies knew as little as everyone else. In one example Littau shared, The Wall Street Journal published a story filled with statements from GOP lawmakers sympathetic to Trump under the headline, “FBI Search of Trump’s Florida Home Mar-a-Lago Is Criticized by Republicans.”
“If I was going to go to a Republican source, if I felt the need to talk to a member of the party, what would I look for? Find a Republican on the Judiciary Committee who does oversight, for example, and ask them what role Congress plays in overseeing whether this was done in good faith and that all the rules and regulations were followed,” Littau said.
Short of that, if you feel the need to seek quotes from Republicans, Littau suggests that if they don’t have evidence to back up their fiery statements, attach that to their claims alongside their quotes, or simply don’t quote them.
“There are limits to what officials can properly say — and, if they stay quiet, it’s irresponsible for the press to respond by letting the loudest voices flood the void and calling that Garland’s fault,” wrote Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop in “The Maddening coverage of the Mar-a-lago Search.”
Another distinction Littau made is that in a breaking news situation with few facts, the other side of coverage shouldn’t by default be politicized statements or speculation — it should be context and understanding.
Why parrot talking points from Trump’s political supporters or opponents — who are equally in the dark about the facts — when you can explain to readers the process of a warrant and why it’s normal for the Department of Justice not to release details about an ongoing investigation?
Littau said the best stories he saw in the first 24 hours explained and unpacked the warrant process, including how the FBI gets authorization from a judge to search a home and what sort-of protections are in place to prevent the appearance of politicization by serving the former president of the United States. They helped his understanding of the event despite remaining in the dark about the details of how it was executed.
Another option in a breaking news situation is to be straightforward with your readers and offer a piece that outlines the facts you know and those you don’t.
“That seems to me like a really sensible approach, rather than just going straight to the people who like the limelight and are going to try to fundraise off the cynical tearing down of our institutions,” Littau said.
Rob Tornoe is a cartoonist and columnist for Editor and Publisher, where he writes about trends in digital media. He is also a digital editor and writer for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Reach him at email@example.com.
No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here