One of us begins each morning sipping a perhaps stereotypical cup of espresso at his local Cambridge café while perusing the New York Times and the Boston Globe, among other newspapers. He has kept to this program for over four decades. During this time, he has noted a gradual erosion of the long-time journalistic standards of the Times and the Globe, a process which has noticeably accelerated since the 2016 presidential election.
The media’s coverage of the first year of the Trump presidency has caused a drastic escalation in growing partisanship. It is no longer even surprising to take note of how these once essential and reliable national and regional “newspapers of record” have taken to mangling and transmogrifying facts into partisan narratives. Examples from the past few months will make the case:
1. Take the Boston media’s coverage of the August 19th free speech rally in the Boston Common. In the aftermath of the violence in Charlottesville that left a young woman dead, the Boston Globe and Mayor Marty Walsh teamed up to imply the organizers of the Boston rally were white supremacists and neo-Nazis. Globe news reports repeatedly referred to the “free speech” rally, using quotation marks to make an editorial point in what should have been a straight news story. John Medlar, the group’s spokesman, pushed back, saying his group denounced “the politics of supremacy and violence”. But the progressive media’s narrative stuck. Walsh told the Globe: “You can have your free speech all day long, but let’s not talk about hate, bigotry, and racism.” So, on the day of the planned rally, 40,000 counter-protesters enveloped the Common, and on the bandstand stood the rag tag group of 40 or so rallygoers. It is difficult to understand how it was that free speech prevailed, as much of the media claimed. The facts demonstrate that free speech was a victim of the whole operation. For one thing, the rally was cut short as attendees feared for their safety. And, in any event, neither the media nor the counter-protesters were allowed by the Boston Police Department within hearing distance of the speakers, so no one knows for sure whether all the speakers were bigots or, as the rally organizers claimed, free speech enthusiasts who abhorred violence. The Providence Journal noted in a news report that the rally organizers “mixed speakers from the political fringe”, including a “Bernie Sanders progressive”, the leader of Rhode Island’s Healing Church, and some “American nationalists,” yet still dubbed it a “conservative rally”. In an editorial declaring the day a success, the Globe continued to refer to the rallygoers indiscriminately as “far-right” with “links to white supremacists”. The Globe editorial board did not seem to be too bothered by the fact that the press couldn’t report on the speakers (it addressed this only briefly near the end of its editorial).
2. Citing an internal DOJ job posting, the New York Times reported, in August that the Trump administration was gearing up to sue universities “over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants”, even though, as the article finally states a few paragraphs later, “the document does not explicitly identify whom [DOJ] considers at risk of discrimination.” The absence of facts notwithstanding, the Times inferred that the Administration intended to usher in a sweeping policy change: “the phrasing [the document] uses … cuts to the heart of programs designed to bring more minority students to university campuses.” It turned out the job posting was seeking attorneys to investigate an unresolved citizens’ complaint filed during the Obama administration alleging that Harvard’s admissions policies discriminate against Asian-Americans.
3. The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election has provided ample fodder for the media to attack Trump since the day he was sworn in. One example among a daily stream of propaganda parading as news as well as opinion: Anne Applebaum, the Post’s foreign affairs columnist, penned a breathless piece on September 8th, almost two months before the indictment of former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort on money laundering and other charges unrelated to his work on the campaign, with the tantalizing, and confidently predictive, headline: “The case for Trump-Russia collusion: We’re getting very, very close.” Applebaum posited that Trump’s electoral victory was due to such “collusion.” She so theorized without so much as mentioning, much less questioning, whether the election result might be at least in part attributable to Hillary Clinton’s abysmally poor campaign, coupled with then-FBI Director James Comey’s bizarre announcements just before the election that he had re-opened, then re-closed, the “email” investigation of Clinton. Applebaum tosses off one condemnatory assertion after another, admitting that each “is a piece of the story that we don’t know.” But such self-admitted ignorance does not stop her from positing the existence of a conspiracy between Trump’s camp and the Russians to steal the election from Clinton. “Perhaps” the Russians “behind the fake ‘American’ accounts” knew how to target posts of “conspiracy theories on Facebook” to undermine Clinton. Or “perhaps” the Russians “just happened upon broad networks of people who were willing to click on their conspiracy theories and pass them on?” Or perhaps, Applebaum darkly suggests, “they had some help.” And “another piece we don’t know,” she added for good measure: Was Trump’s resort to the same conspiracy theories touted by the Russians “coincident” or the result of “coordination”? In her coup de grace, Applebaum continues: “[A]s I’ve been writing for months, Trump’s sympathy for Russian President Vladimir Putin, a cynical and vicious dictator, should, by itself, have eliminated him from U.S. politics.” All of this “circumstantial evidence of Russian collusion with [Trump’s] campaign is already available,” concluded Applebaum. “And,” in an apparent tip of the hat to special counsel Robert Mueller, “direct evidence is getting very, very close.” By the end of the piece, the reader can envision the cracks forming in the walls of the House of Usher.
Since Applebaum’s prediction that direct evidence of collusion was coming, Mueller has indicted Manafort and associate Rick Gates, George Papadapolous, a former foreign policy aide to the Trump campaign, and Michael Flynn for lying to the FBI about lawful meetings he held with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition. Yet despite the so-far little evidence of “collusion”, the Post’s politics columnist Eugene Robinson declared last week: “We know that President Trump and his campaign either colluded with the Russian effort to undermine U.S. democracy or tried mightily to do so.” And how do we “know” this? Robinson reaches his conclusion based on the following “evidence”: the June 2016 meeting between top Trump campaign officials and a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower, Trump’s July 2016 plea for Russia to find the emails deleted from Hillary Clinton’s private server, Flynn’s discussion with Kislyak about relaxing sanctions President Obama imposed on Russia in the final weeks of his presidency, and then there’s the nagging question of how in the final days of the campaign the Russians “aimed their [social media] propaganda so accurately.” Robinson ends his piece by asking, “If nothing wrong happened with Russia during the campaign, why is Trump so desperate to cover it up?”
The Times (longtime motto: “All the news that’s fit to print”), the Washington Post (which reminds visitors to its website that “Democracy Dies in Darkness”), and the Globe have come to see themselves as the media bulwarks of democracy against Trump and his minions who are often summarily painted as racist, bigoted reactionaries or, perhaps worse, fascists.
This sanctimony becomes laughable when one considers that, according to Gallup, Americans’ trust in the media to report the news accurately and fairly is at an all-time low. Trump noticed and exploited this trend before the media had the time to even ask why such a large swath of the public does not trust it, much less do anything to regain that lost trust.
Of course, the state of the press – and of the nation’s political culture – is no laughing matter. A free press, which citizens should be able to rely upon to report facts objectively and posit opinions fairly, is a vital component of a properly functioning democratic society. That’s especially true under this president, who has dubbed the media the “enemy of the people” and whose volatile temperament is deeply concerning considering the power he has to reshuffle the social and economic landscape and, even, to launch a nuclear war. Another reason this fundamental press function is even more important today than in prior decades: the exploding media landscape. There is so much information – and disinformation – “out there” that one can easily get lost in it or give credence to conspiracy theories propagated in the blogosphere. Democracy might well die in darkness, as the saying goes, without the news media to illuminate the absence of government transparency. And yet, by privileging its own mangled facts to fit a preconceived narrative, by assigning sinister motives to the “other side”, and by following the president down the proverbial rabbit hole, the mainstream press has ceased to be the sane, independent check on government that the American public needs it to be.
There are some bright spots that deserve mentioning. Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker reportedly told his news staff: “We can’t allow ourselves to be dragged into the political process, to be a protagonist in the political fight [with Trump].” Baker warned his reporters to avoid “commentary dressed up as news reporting.” Interestingly, and revealingly, this development came to public attention when the New York Times breathlessly reported the matter on the basis of an apparent leak from someone at the Journal, embodying the assumption that there was actually something wrong with a general circulation daily newspaper editor admonishing the paper’s reporters to work hard to keep their opinions out of their factual reporting!
The notion of reportorial neutrality seems mostly lost on the rest of the media, which in its quest to take down Trump, would do well to consider Pyrrhus’ admonition to his men who rejoiced in beating the Romans in the Battle of Asculum during the Pyrrhic War: “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” Indeed, if Trump is driven from office by either the media or Robert Mueller, the nation will doubtless pay a horrific price. It would sow yet more bitterness in the hearts of a sizeable portion of the American public that draws no comfort from, and surely does not support, the progressive news media nor the progressive politicians the media have supported, often blindly, for so long. If Americans are ever to come together and co-exist in a democratic republic, truth and fairness are first going to have to reassert their primacy in American political life. The media needs to deprive the President of any legitimate ground to criticize it as “fake news.” This is best done by avoiding reporting partisan and rank speculation as fact – by avoiding, in other words, purveying fake news.
(Harvey Silverglate is a criminal defense and civil liberties lawyer and regular WGBH/News “Freedom Watch” columnist. Nathan McGuire, a Boston College Class of 2016 graduate and an editor of the BC undergraduate newspaper The Heights, is Silverglate’s research assistant.)