Leonard Downie Jr., whose 44-year tenure at the Washington Post included oversight of the newspaper’s Watergate coverage and later serving as executive editor, understood the importance of appearances, even if they weren’t publicly known. Downie declined to vote in elections because he felt journalists had to been perceived as objective and unbiased. It didn’t matter to him if readers knew of his decision.
“I decided to stop voting when I became the ultimate gatekeeper for what is published in the newspaper,” Downie disclosed in a 2004 online chat with his readers. “I wanted to keep a completely open mind about everything we covered and not make a decision, even in my own mind or the privacy of the voting booth, about who should be president or mayor, for example.”
The publisher of the Toronto Star when I worked there in the early 1980s also was concerned about appearances. He fired one of his top and most talented editors after learning the journalist filed for bankruptcy. The filing likely would never have become publicly known, but the publisher felt that journalism was a judgment business, and that included how his editors managed their financial affairs.
My, how things have changed.
Rachael Bade, a Post reporter who covers the House and is a regular contributor to CNN, last week tweeted a photo of her and three smiling colleagues at a holiday celebration captioned: “Merry Impeachmous from the WaPo team.” President Trump, and the media that supports him, immediately pounced, citing the tweet as proof the Post is biased.
Bade insisted that her tweet was “misinterpreted,” saying she and her colleagues were merely celebrating some upcoming time off from covering the impeachment process. I believe her, and therein lies the problem.
America is a deeply divided country, and Trump rallies his base by declaring the media is “the enemy of the people.” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when announcing the Articles of Impeachment, declared it was a “solemn day.”
Yet it didn’t occur to Bade, whose judgment the Post relies on to cover Congress, that a photo of four smiling Washington Post reporters accompanied with a celebratory impeachment pun would make great fodder for accusations of bias. Rest assured, if a Breitbart reporter tweeted a photo of him and three colleagues having a holiday celebration with the caption, “Merry MAGAmous,” media pundits would be thundering Breitbart reporters are white supremacists and declaring the photo was a dog whistle their readers understood.
Marty Baron, the editor of the Washington Post,” wasn’t terribly alarmed by Bade’s judgment. Although he acknowledged on CNN that his reporter’s tweet was “ill advised,” he then went on to play the victim card and said his publication was unfairly being attacked.
“People find it convenient to attack us because they want people to just believe them and not believe any independent arbiter of facts,” he said.
Baron is correct that all people want others to trust them and their beliefs. But he’s on shaky ground implying that the public widely regards the Post as an “independent arbiter of facts.” A Gallup poll in September found that only 41 percent of Americans trust the media. An Investor’s Business Daily survey found that two thirds of Americans believe that reporters promote their own views rather than objectively report facts.
Americans who despise Trump should be alarmed about Breitbart’s growing influence. According to a Vice report, Breitbart’s Facebook engagement metrics since the impeachment hearings began outperformed the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today combined. A Wall Street Journal social media analysis of the first Democratic debate found that the most shared link was to a Breitbart story with the headline: “Fact Check: Democrats Launch Primary Debate by Lying About Trump Economy.”
Breitbart does virtually no original reporting. It’s an aggregator site heavily featuring stories from the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN the staff deems biased or erroneous. The site provides links to support its claims, so readers can verify the veracity of the publication’s arguments.
The linked stories often aren’t as advertised, but the site provides insights as to what Trump supporters are being fed. Breitbart readers live in an alternative universe to the one inhabited by Washington Post subscribers, but they are very much aware of the disdain coastal political and cultural elites have for them and their leader. That’s what drives them.
Trump’s approval rating has inched up slightly since the impeachment hearings began, while public support for his ouster has dropped. Trump haters need to appreciate the reason impeachment arguments fell on a lot of deaf American ears is because a majority of Americans distrust the media people who communicated the arguments. Bade’s tweet needlessly reinforced that distrust.
Downie’s refusal to vote was derided by some in the newsroom, including Eric Wemple, one of the newspaper’s media critics. But the example impacted Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei, two of the most influential Washington journalists working today. The firing of the Toronto Star editor forever put the fear of God in me. Throughout my journalism career, I was careful not to engage in any behavior or activities that would reflect badly on the reputation or objectivity of the newspapers I worked for. In my day, that was a firing offense.
I’m certain there are journalists at the Post who still adhere to the old-fashioned belief that reporters should report the news, not be the news, and didn’t appreciate Bade undermining the perceived integrity of their work with some of the public. But they are clearly the minority. Otherwise, Bade would have already resigned because of peer pressure.
So, for all the Post reporters who implicitly support Bade’s tweet and also enjoying some time off, I wish you all a Merry Impeachmous and a Happy New Year.