Last week was a bad one for the media. First there was the BuzzFeed bombshell alleging President Donald Trump had instructed his former attorney, Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress, the smoking gun that signaled the death-knell for the administration. Except it was not.
Then there was the incident in Washington D.C. in which high school students visiting from Kentucky were accused by the media and others in the public of harassing an elderly Native American man, resulting in a media outrage that escalated to threats of violence against the boys and their families. Except, as even CNN was forced to concede, there was far more to the story.
Sure, the media routinely publishes and reports news with less than all the facts. The problem is that the BuzzFeed story and the riff-raff surrounding the boys from Kentucky have serious consequences for all parties involved.
In the former, a news company accused the president of a clear-and-obvious felony and impeachable offense without offering a shred of evidence, other than the word of anonymous law enforcement sources (who committed a serious infraction by divulging details on an ongoing investigation). Meanwhile, reaction to the incident involving the high schoolers has resulted in a litany of abuses against the students and their families.
Reaction on social media, including from those who work in the news, is disturbing. Mobbing and casually calling for violence appears to be the norm nowadays, even if the target of outrage happens to be a minor.
All this is occurring at a time when the media, despite being a largely private venture, has elevated its own sense of social importance, with The Washington Post’s adoption of “Democracy Dies in Darkness” as its motto being a prime example. In the Trump era, journalists are all but convinced they are, in fact, at the public’s service and the protectors of democracy in the same way soldiers are. In all their self-aggrandizement and pontificating, however, the media seems to have missed the core tenet of legitimacy as a public institution: trust.
Americans Just Don’t Trust You Any More
Americans generally lack trust in their institutions and leaders, the news media being no exception. A deeper examination of opinion polling also reveals partisan divides, which is also problematic—how legitimate is a public institution if political beliefs are the fulcrum upon which credibility hinges?
The one institution the public admires and trusts across the board is the military. Why? There are many reasons, but perhaps one is that the armed forces are viewed as an unequivocally non-partisan institution. There are strict rules and regulations governing the expression of political views and participation in politically motivated activities.
While troops are not discouraged from exercising their rights, they are taught to be more sensitive about when, where, and how they share their views, or whether to share them at all. As one anonymous active-duty naval officer recently remarked regarding a conversation with his barber, “I keep my mouth shut when it comes to politics for one reason: that barber has to trust me.”
It is not just the military that maintains this ethos. Other public institutions do as well. Sometimes, they fall short. A fire station in Sydney, Australia was recently forced to apologize for altering their sign to read, “House fires are toxic, our masculinity isn’t.”
That was the fire station’s response to the now-infamous Gillette advertisement tackling “toxic masculinity.” The fire station’s apology was an attempt to placate the outraged, in large part by effectively switching their stance on the matter.
Although the fire station went too far in apologizing for insufficient “wokeness,” it was still very much in the wrong. As in the military, the public places a great deal of trust in firefighters and police officers, partly because they are viewed as non-partisan and expected to remain above the fray.
There is a time and place for everything; the business of saving lives is neither. Trust that those charged with such serious commitments will always do the noble and right thing can be easily undermined if those servants become perceived as partisans of the culture wars.
Partisanship Breeds Distrust
Journalists, of course, are neither soldiers nor firefighters. The firehouse incident in Sydney will likely eventually blow over and the public will continue to call its firefighters for help. The point is that public institutions live and die with trust, and that can trust can be eroded over time, with no telling which straw is the one that breaks the camel’s back.
With the culture wars contaminating nearly all aspects of society, it is more important than ever that public institutions recognize that trust is not an entitlement. Like respect, it must be earned and maintained.
How can the media earn and maintain trust on a non-partisan basis? Apologizing would be a start. Words have consequences, and reporting is a conscious decision. With great power comes great responsibility. Inaccurately reporting a story that results in death threats against teenagers and their families may not be illegal, but it should serve as a startling reminder of how much power the media wields.
Journalists cannot and should not be given a pass simply because they reported what they believed was true. They must be held to a higher standard, particularly in an era where damning narratives can be easily constructed through bias, selective reporting, dubious sourcing, and snippets of video.
Wait, There’s More
More importantly, the media must serve itself a slice of humble pie. No public institution, be it the military, public safety, or otherwise, is a sacred cow, and neither is the media. Whether from a private citizen or a public official, criticism of the media is not an “assault on the free press.” Part of building and maintaining trust is the willingness to take hits, even while believing oneself to be right or to have done nothing wrong.
Taking hits means allowing others, particularly those who feel wronged, to give you a sense of their anger and sadness, while refraining from responding defensively. It means not making excuses or shifting blame onto others. Taking hits is not an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgement that words and deeds have consequences and accepting, however symbolically, the great responsibility that comes with serving on behalf of the public. Perfection might be too much to expect of the media, but prudence, professionalism, and dignified conduct are not.
If the media truly sees itself on the level of those who serve and protect us, then they must abide by the same principles. It is on that level where responsibilities must prevail over rights. Prudence, professionalism, dignified conduct, and a willingness to take the hit—these traits, to adopt a quote from famed NASA Flight Director Gene Kranz, are the price of admission to public service.