A conversation on Sunday made me vow I’d never again write a critical story about the media. Someone whose opinion and values I greatly respect chastised me for my slew of very negative commentaries I’ve recently posted questioning journalism integrity and practices. “The media performs a very critical function, particularly with Trump as president,” the person said. “You are way too hard on them.”
I agree about the media performing a critical function. Where I have a disconnect is that the media can’t meaningfully perform its watchdog role if the majority of the public no longer trusts or believes journalists, which survey after survey shows to be the case. With more than three decades in journalism, PR, and crisis communications, I know how reporters make their sausages and that too often the ingredients are tainted and mislabeled. I mistakenly thought that calling out journalism wrongdoing was a noble cause.
Reflecting on the Sunday conversation I came to appreciate that a sizable portion of Americans detest Donald Trump with such a vengeance that they’re comfortable with journalism dishonesty if it contributes to the president’s demise – the end justifies the means. Telling people that stories they want to believe are wrong or misleading and that the people delivering those stories aren’t as noble as portrayed in the movies is a futile exercise. I’m reminded of this scene from the movie “A Good Few Men” when a colonel played by Jack Nicholson bellows from the witness box, “You Can’t Handle the Truth.”
Fortunately, things aren’t as dire as I feared. The media’s response to an “essay” in the New York Times’ opinion section this past weekend revealed that many journalists still have a sense of honor and agree that deliberately reporting false or misleading stories is wrong and harms the industry’s credibility. Even in this day and age of squishy journalism ethics and morals where reporters sleep with their sources, delight in the pain of old white men, and issue corrections on dubious stories with the proviso “we don’t know whether the information is inaccurate,” there are still lines not to be crossed.
And every credible American journalist agrees that the Times crossed it.
The essay was adapted from a book by Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly entitled, “The Education of Brett Kavanaugh: An Investigation.” The essay included this revelation: Max Stier, an attorney who was a Yale classmate of Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh, notified senators and the FBI that he saw Kavanaugh expose himself at a Yale party and that “friends pushed his penis in the hand of a female student.” The Times initially promoted the story with this tweet: “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun…,” but subsequently retracted the tweet, then retracted the retraction, and then apologized for the vulgarity.
The disclosure was significant as it seemingly lent credibility to accusations by Christine Blasey Ford, who testified at Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings that she was attacked by the justice when they attended the same high school and Deborah Ramirez, who alleged she experienced sexual misconduct by Kavanaugh at a boozy Yale party. Stier wouldn’t talk to Pogrebin and Kelly but the duo said they confirmed he made the allegations with multiple sources.
The duo also left out a critical fact that the Times was forced to include in an appended “editor’s note.”
The alleged victim of Kavanaugh’s penis attack wouldn’t talk to Pogrebin and Kelly. However, friends told the duo that she has no recollection of any attack. Underscoring the Washington Post’s higher ethical and fairness standards, the newspaper on Monday disclosed it was aware of the allegation a year ago that Kavanaugh attacked a woman at Yale party but chose not to report it because the persons leaking the information declined to identify Stier as the witness and the alleged victim declined to comment.
The conservative media, which routinely flags and documents the Times’ pervasive bias and dishonesty, immediately called out the newspaper’s omission. Surprisingly, even the most liberal media defenders and apologists were quick to pile on.
Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan, who previously worked as the Times’ public editor, wrote: “In these contentious days of bad-faith politics and maneuvering for advantage, the presentation and framing of stories – as well as their dead-on accuracy – are more important than ever. There’s little room for error and not a shred of forgiveness for it.”
Sullivan also said the Times’ tweet promoting its essay “may have set a new insensitivity record for social media from a major news organization.”
Brian Stelter, CNN’s normally “see no evil hear no evil” media reporter, declared the Times needs to “take disciplinary action in the wake of this embarrassing episode.” MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said he could “not believe the New York Times would write this piece” without mentioning the alleged victim allegedly had no recollection of being attacked. NPR’s media correspondent David Folkenflick said the Times’ omission was indefensible.
Most telling of all is this quote from an anonymous “former high-ranking Times figure” that appeared in Vanity Fair:
They played it up pretty big, and I have to tell you: When I first read it, I had no idea it was in the (Week in) Review (opinion section). I tapped on a link, and at the top it said ‘News Analysis.’ And I also didn’t know it was a book adaptation, because I didn’t even get to the end. I get the point of view of the activists. They want the Times to further their agenda, but that’s not the Times’ job.”
The Times essay has led to more reporting and disclosures many of the newspaper’s readers would prefer not to know. CBS News reported that the high school friend Christine Ford said attended the party with her when she was allegedly attacked doesn’t believe Ford’s allegations and that she was pressured with a “smear campaign” to say otherwise.
A disclosure in Pogrebin’s and Kelly’s book is that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg was among the people that Ford consulted before going public. If I was looking for counsel on how to smear someone, Sandberg would be my first choice.
Pogrebin and Kelly played the victim card, saying the critical omission in their story was because of an editor’s deletion. Playing the victim is something the Times does well. In response to a disclosure that a political editor at the Times posted anti-Semitic and racist tweets while in college, the newspaper blamed conservative activists “seeking to harass and embarrass anyone affiliated with the leading news organizations that are asking tough questions and bringing uncomfortable truths to light.”
The Times prepared its readers that more embarrassing disclosures about its editorial staff would be forthcoming. Sure enough, a TV anchor for Newsmax yesterday made public racist, homophobic, and other inappropriate tweets previously posted by someone believed to be a fact checker in the Times’ opinion section.
The Times this past weekend took American journalism to another low. But the near universal media condemnation of the newspaper’s dishonesty served as one of the industry’s proudest moments.