Former Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan had a piece last week advising her peers that “old-style journalism will no longer suffice,” and therefore news outlets should “be thinking about what coverage serves the public best.”
That sounds like a fantastic idea — but not in the way Sullivan meant it. What she meant is that reporters, anchors, and cable news producers should triple down in their Trump mania by labeling opinions they don’t like as “lies” and, of course, treating every utterance that doesn’t serve their own personal interests as “threats to democracy.” As if they needed to be told.
It’s not unexpected or even new for someone in the corrupted national media to dispense such guidance. But what’s especially irksome about Sullivan is her repeated claim that her own political preferences are synonymous with “what voters deserve and need to know.”
She says that “many media organizations … seem more interested in ratings and profits than in serving the public interest,” which, according to Sullivan, results in the wrong people earning power from voters (i.e. Trump and those like him who disrupt the Washington-preferred social hierarchy.)
If there’s anything interesting about this, it’s that Sullivan won’t just come out and say it. She won’t say that journalists should make it their jobs to ensure that Trump, or similar candidates, never win any office again. Her little tips for that undertaking aren’t even original. She wrote that there should be more “context” in the form of on-screen graphics calling out “lies” or repeated assertions on behalf of reporters that any one candidate has in the past said something unfavorable to the accepted order.
After all, the purpose of Sullivan’s piece in the Post is that she has a new book to sell. If she really wanted to juice the number of copies sold, she might dare just to say it is the national press’s moral duty to prevent anything like 2016 from ever happening again. They all know it, and they all believe it. They simply refuse to explicitly say it in public.
This is as close to it as Sullivan got: “[I]t took too long to moderate our instinct to give equal weight to both sides, even when one side was using misinformation for political gain.”
The irony is that the core purpose of our free press in its modern form is to check “misinformation” by measuring whether it’s supported. But there’s a difference between sizing up facts for their lack of evidence or argument versus condemning any given claim as not only false but sinister.
And we know how it played out over the Trump years. Every word from his mouth was called a lie, even when it was demonstrably neither true nor false because it was an opinion. Just as one example, after Trump said in February 2017 that there was a “very smooth rollout of the travel ban” from some countries with a high concentration of terrorism, The New York Times summoned all of its courage to say: NO, MR. TRUMP, “The rollout was chaotic.”
For whom? The people at the Times who couldn’t sleep that night?
This would be like me stating that Margaret Sullivan looks like one of those handsome Little Critters from the beloved children’s illustrated series, only to be rebuffed by a CBS correspondent. Wrong! She does not look like that minuscule marsupial at all!
At some point, the other half of this country is supposed to have a say, even when it doesn’t fit with the sensibilities of people like Sullivan and her co-workers.
She won’t care though. She knows that this isn’t about journalistic ethics or best practices. It’s about maintaining power.