SAN DIEGO – Americans sense that Big Media is a big mess, but they can’t put their finger on why that is.
Memory takes me back to August 1997, when I arrived in Phoenix to start my first full-time newspaper job as a general assignment reporter. I was greeted by the managing editor, an old-school journalist who spelled out the rules of the profession and made clear what he expected from me.
If I had any conflicts – like being too friendly with local politicians or the people I was writing about – I had better make that known to him, and readers, so they could take into account any possible bias. If I wanted to be a columnist one day, he said, I could apply for that job. But, for now, as a reporter, I was supposed to keep my opinions to myself. Above all, he stressed, while the job would afford me some notoriety, I should always remember that I was there to cover the story – not to become the story.
Those days are gone.
Now, if you’re a newspaper reporter sent to cover a riot, and you wind up getting arrested, you’re likely to pop up on the Sunday shows opining about police-community relations, sign a book deal and host a podcast.
As I’ve noted, too many journalists – especially in the New York-Washington corridor – have stopped being referees and entered the arena as combatants. They’re pushing an agenda, showing their partisan bias and wearing their hearts on their sleeves. They take personally any attack on the companies they work for by politicians, and they respond in kind.
Remember when CNN’s Jake Tapper stepped out of his anchor role to scold President Donald Trump for criticizing the network? Tapper and other journalists need to stop seeing Trump as their nemesis. It’s clouding their vision of what is and isn’t news.
So where did this start? I think it was when media companies – in a bid to turn their high-priced talent into celebrities – began encouraging reporters and anchors to become performers. Suddenly, journalists had to blog, express opinions on TV, and send out witty and sarcastic tweets about public officials and the issues of the day. Meanwhile, television and radio hosts got way too comfortable with inviting reporters on their shows to talk about their stories (which is fine) and then turning around and asking those reporters for their opinion about the subject matter (which is not fine).
All those opinions floating around from people who aren’t supposed to express any opinions has understandably made readers and viewers suspicious about what they’re taking in.
Worse, the incentive structure is all messed up because those who break the rules are – rather than being taken to the woodshed – often rewarded with better jobs.
Case in point: Political reporter Glenn Thrush, who has a knack for failing up. He had a starring role in the John Podesta emails released by WikiLeaks last year.
In April 2015, while working as chief political correspondent for Politico, Thrush sent an inappropriate series of emails to Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. In one, Thrush told Podesta that he was working on a fundraising story, and helpfully offered: “Can I send u a couple of grafs, OTR 1 / 8off the record 3 / 8, to make sure I’m not f––– anything up?”
Normally, for a journalist, this would be a good way of f––– up your career.
Podesta responded: “Sure.” Thrush then wrote back with an even sweeter offer, saying: “Because I have become a hack I will send u the whole section that pertains to u.”
Thrush is right about being a hack, but he was wrong to offer to send his story over to a source for pre-clearance. He must have sensed as much, which is why he told Podesta: “Please don’t share or tell anyone I did this.”
Yes, because a journalist would never want the truth to come out.
Thrush should have been fired by Politico. Instead, he got a promotion of sorts when he was hired by The New York Times to cover the White House. He also got a contributor deal at MSNBC. In his new role, @GlennThrush recently tweeted:
“Any debate about civility in politics begins with Trump. No one has degraded discourse more, while embracing the fringe. Fact, not opinion.”
You heard the hack. Fact, not opinion. As if, at this point, any of us can tell the difference.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.