The Kind of Journalism We Should Expect

The media is coming under a lot of scrutiny lately about how they are handling stories about the Clinton Foundation. We’ve been covering that story pretty heavily here at the Washington Monthly, with the latest entries from Paul Glastris, Martin Longman and myself.

At the center of much of the criticism is the New York Times – which is precisely why Paul Krugman’s column in that same newspaper yesterday stirred up such a storm. It wasn’t hard to figure out where at least one of his fingers was pointing when he wrote this:

True, there aren’t many efforts to pretend that Donald Trump is a paragon of honesty. But it’s hard to escape the impression that he’s being graded on a curve. If he manages to read from a TelePrompter without going off script, he’s being presidential. If he seems to suggest that he wouldn’t round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants right away, he’s moving into the mainstream. And many of his multiple scandals, like what appear to be clear payoffs to state attorneys general to back off investigating Trump University, get remarkably little attention.

Meanwhile, we have the presumption that anything Hillary Clinton does must be corrupt, most spectacularly illustrated by the increasingly bizarre coverage of the Clinton Foundation…

So I would urge journalists to ask whether they are reporting facts or simply engaging in innuendo, and urge the public to read with a critical eye. If reports about a candidate talk about how something “raises questions,” creates “shadows,” or anything similar, be aware that these are all too often weasel words used to create the impression of wrongdoing out of thin air.

Tom Watson captured what’s going on with this tweet.

But it was Krugman’s own tweet about his op-ed that was even more telling.

That’s an amazing admission by someone who works for the so-called “newspaper of record.” He’s basically admitting that he’s calling out his fellow “journos” and that they’re going to hate it. One can only hope that, as Watson suggested, Krugman’s publisher is paying attention.

It all reminded me of a fascinating conversation between the former executive editor of the NYT – Bill Keller – and Glenn Greenwald about the future of journalism.  At the outset, I’d like to say that I have had serious disagreements with both of those journalists over the years. But they broke down an interesting dynamic that can inform us in articulating the kind of journalism we should expect. The question Keller raises initially is about the role of the journalists’ own opinion in the process and whether or not it’s possible to be impartial. Here is how he describes his own ideal.

Journalists in this tradition have plenty of opinions, but by setting them aside to follow the facts — as a judge in court is supposed to set aside prejudices to follow the law and the evidence — they can often produce results that are more substantial and more credible.

Greenwald has openly embraced the concept of “activist journalism” because he sees a danger in attempting to conceal own’s own subjective point of view.

A journalist who is petrified of appearing to express any opinions will often steer clear of declarative sentences about what is true, opting instead for a cowardly and unhelpful “here’s-what-both-sides-say-and-I-won’t-resolve-the-conflicts” formulation. That rewards dishonesty on the part of political and corporate officials who know they can rely on “objective” reporters to amplify their falsehoods without challenge (i.e., reporting is reduced to “X says Y” rather than “X says Y and that’s false”)…

Worst of all, this model rests on a false conceit. Human beings are not objectivity-driven machines. We all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms. What is the value in pretending otherwise?

The relevant distinction is not between journalists who have opinions and those who do not, because the latter category is mythical. The relevant distinction is between journalists who honestly disclose their subjective assumptions and political values and those who dishonestly pretend they have none or conceal them from their readers.

I actually find a lot to agree with in both of those points of view. But each of these journalists has demonstrated that there are weaknesses to seeing the field of journalism through only their own lens. As Greenwald goes on to point out – it was a failure of objective journalism that eventually led Bill Keller to have to apologize for the way the New York Times covered the lead-up to the Iraq War. They pretended to be objective while swallowing an awful lot of shoddy “evidence” that was simply lies dressed up as facts. Perhaps that is at least in part based on the fact that many of those who pretended to be objective were actually in favor of the war.

When it comes to the kind of thing Krugman wrote about, Josh Marshall was pretty bold in identifying the issue.

The first is that the Times had a decades long institutional issue with the Clintons. There’s no other way to put. It goes beyond single reporters and even individual executives editors. Why this is the case I’ll leave to biographers and psychologists. But that it is the case is obvious from reading a quarter century of their reporting on the topic.

As I wrote previously, that is the kind of narrative that requires factual evidence…the kind Martin wrote about yesterday as well as Krugman himself. But I am also reminded of the NYT reporting last summer in which reporters relied on a source suggesting that Hillary Clinton was the target of a criminal investigation over her emails. Most of that story had to be retracted. I’ll leave it to others to document whether that pattern goes back to the days the Clintons were in the White House. Suffice it to say that there is mounting evidence that Marshall is correct in his assessment.

If so, does Greenwald have a point that they should simply state their subjective opinion outright and be done with it? I think that approach is pretty limiting. For example, what if some of the staff and reporters at the NYT admitted that they have an issue with the Clintons. If they simply went on to report from that perspective, how are they any different from Fox News. Beyond that, a couple of years ago Greenwald made an interesting statement about how he approaches journalism.

“I approach my journalism as a litigator,” he said. “People say things, you assume they are lying, and dig for documents to prove it.”

The “they” he assumes are lying tends to be anyone who disagrees with him. So Greenwald locks himself into a feedback loop that only allows for reinforcement of his own subjective opinion. That doesn’t allow any movement or change in opinion when/if the facts contradict what you have already decided to believe.

Since Keller initially brought up the example of a judge in a court room, it reminded me of what President Obama wrote about what he looks for in a Supreme Court justice. His first two criteria were a sterling record and a deep respect for the role of the judiciary. But then he mentioned something that is more difficult to quantify.

But I’m also mindful that there will be cases that reach the Supreme Court in which the law is not clear. There will be cases in which a judge’s analysis necessarily will be shaped by his or her own perspective, ethics, and judgment.

Taking that into the world of journalism, Greenwald is right…”we all intrinsically perceive and process the world through subjective prisms.” It is important to know that about ourselves. It is when we don’t recognize that reality that we can pretend that the world as we see it is actually the world as it is. BUT, we also have to be willing to put whatever conclusions we’ve reached on the table for scrutiny as we examine the facts. That’s where Keller is right…we have to be willing to follow the evidence, even if it means changing our minds and admitting we were wrong.

Those are both pretty difficult things for humans to do. But it is the task of good journalism. We should expect nothing less. It is only when we put the thinking of these two men together that we can have the kind of reporting that actually gets at the truth.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .