The Press Gets a Needed Lesson in Truth Telling

By Suzanne Fields

January 25, 2019 6 min read

Donald Trump doesn't like The New York Times. Everybody knows that. So when a former executive editor of the newspaper offered a biting criticism of its performance, the president thought he had found a like-minded friend, a colleague in arms who shares his dislike for the newspaper he calls the "enemy of the people," and a purveyor of "fake news."

Jill Abramson's book, "Merchants of Truth," will be published in two weeks, and in it she says the editor who succeeded her didn't want the newspaper to be "the opposition party," but that "his news pages were unmistakably anti-Trump," and "some headlines contained raw opinion, as did some of the stories that were labeled as news analysis."

"Ms. Abramson is 100 percent correct," the president tweeted. "Horrible and totally dishonest reporting on almost everything they write. Hence the term Fake News, Enemy of the People, and Opposition Party!"

Her book of over 500 pages is more complicated than the president's tweet suggests, which she quickly pointed out. But both her observations and the president's tweet illustrate a problem we see daily in the media pursuit of facts. The changing attitude of the media and public attitudes toward the media are the result of both political motives and economic incentives, some obvious and some subtle, which come into play in delivering the news in the age of the internet.

When The New York Times got a "Trump bump" during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, digital subscriptions increased by 600,000 to more than 2 million. It was impossible to ignore an implicit financial reward for running more Trump stories. Stories undercutting Donald Trump were the most rewarding.

The president and his tweets contribute to these Trump bumps in a vicious cycle. He becomes a salesman for his brand of news, pouring content into print, television and digital sites. These recycled tweets, together with a mix of facts, misinformation and disinformation, "go viral," and soon it's almost impossible to make the right distinctions.

The large volume of Trump stories opens issues Abramson raises, noting that when clicks — the act of a reader clicking on a story — becomes the standard for measuring influence for advertisers, it's increasingly difficult to avoid running stories that are mere clickbait. This can be disastrous when gatekeepers are either gone, overworked or inexperienced, putting the public at the mercy of anyone with digital savvy to put out unconfirmed and poorly sourced stories.

There's a media instinct to be first with the story, but there's another responsibility to get it right. Instant news and commentary encourage deep bias and shallow thinking. The BuzzFeed story last week about the president having allegedly instructed Michael Cohen to lie to Congress about the particulars of a building project in Moscow is a good example. So quick were the opinionators, particularly on CNN and MSNBC, to hype "impeachment" with mere factoids and not wait for facts that Mueller felt compelled to shoot the story down quickly.

This incident was soon followed by the story, illustrated by videotape, that 64-year-old Native American Nathan Phillips, said to be a Marine veteran of the Vietnam War, was harassed and threatened at the Lincoln Memorial by a menacing mob of "white boys" from a Catholic high school in Kentucky who were in town for the March for Life. If that weren't evidence enough of evil guilt, the boys were wearing MAGA hats. Prejudice brought out vile and vicious attacks.

Snippets of the short video that went viral urged viewers to believe what they thought they saw. Opinionators armed with virtue on both left and right, and on television, Twitter and across the spectrum of social media couldn't wait to berate the boys, threatening them and their families with physical violence. But then a longer videotape emerged. A group of men who called themselves Black Hebrew Israelites had hurled homophobic and racist epithets at the Catholic students and was the source of conflict. Phillips had told contradictory versions of who he was and what had happened. This turned the story upside-down. The boys left town fully exonerated, but threats against them persist.

The subtitle of Jill Abramson's book is "the Business of News and the Fight for Facts." Looking with dismay at the facts and how they are treated by the old Gray Lady and the broader media, she found a generational divide. Older journalists rigorously trained by no-nonsense editors, and younger journalists who grew up with the internet and disdain editors and gatekeepers, see their jobs differently. Events of last week illustrate vividly that the traditionalists are losing.

The aphorism that "a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth gets its boots on" is true, but it needs an update. Truth can't get its boots on because it can't find them.

Write to Suzanne Fields at [email protected] Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's "Paradise Lost." To find out more about Suzanne Fields and read her past columns, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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