After Trump won in '16, the media promised to do better covering America. How hard did they try?
By Gary Abernathy
Media’s promise to do better after 2016 largely forgotten
After Donald Trump’s victory in 2016, most mainstream media leaders promised to do better at understanding and representing Americans who had obviously fallen off their collective radars. On the opinion side, a few pages added voices (I enjoy contributing to the Washington Post) but on the news side — after spending a few months producing a plethora of stories identifying how and why large swaths of the electorate were under-represented — it’s been a case of one step forward, two steps back.
Liberal bias against middle America shows up most often in reporting about covid, guns and issues of gender identity. It’s in the heartland that resistance to covid lockdowns, mandates and masks was most evident, but most reporting was highly critical of pushbacks to those things.
On the gun debate, again it’s in middle America where a strong belief exists in the right to buy and own guns, but most mainstream media stories are without question in favor of more gun restrictions, rather than striving for a balance to reflect that Americans who embrace gun ownership — including the right to own a semi-automatic weapon — are just as appalled at recent massacres as anyone else. They just believe that the people who carry out the massacres are responsible, not the guns.
And on LGBTQ+ issues, the traditions and religious beliefs of middle Americans can be respected much more than is currently evidenced in most reporting. Holding evangelical Christian beliefs — or the beliefs of other conservative religions — does not equate to being ignorant or hateful. (Add: Except where violence is carried out, something everyone should condemn, and which would certainly qualify as hateful.) For example, believing there might be something wrong with taking kids to drag queen shows is not exactly a concern that should be considered somehow bigoted or narrowminded.
The biggest divide continues in reporting on Donald Trump. The fact that Trump remains beloved by tens of millions of Americans is reason enough for the media to do a better job of reflecting that fact — not just in nodding to it by reporting polling, but by reporting on Trump and his followers in ways that aren’t insulting or demeaning toward them. Leave the condescension for opinion writers. Show respect for Americans who continue to support Trump. Ignore calls for the media to begin reporting on Americans who support Trump, and the entire Republican Party, as some movement representing a threat to democracy. It is not. It could just as easily be argued that the far left liberal and socialist influences in the Democratic Party threaten democracy.
Trump’s refusal to concede to Joe Biden, and his part in triggering the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, disqualify him from my further support. But that’s just me. Others are completely entitled to feel differently, just as I’m entitled to try to change their minds. But the overwhelming majority of Trump supporters are good, honest, hardworking, patriotic Americans who should be reported on with dignity and respect. Yes, there are serious issues at play — but demonizing, belittling or insulting people is too often evident in too many stories.
The biggest step back since 2016 — and something that destroys the credibility of media outlets that do it — was the decision to begin calling people liars, starting, of course, with Trump. I strongly disagree that Trump lied more than most politicians — and no one will ever prove it either way since his were the only lies actually being tabulated one by one — but even if he did, allowing reporters to say so in their stories instead of quoting someone else saying so has made the mainstream media seem even more biased than ever before, which is saying a lot when talking about liberal bias that has existed for decades.
The practice has spread, almost entirely in discussing Trump and his supporters. Seldom do we read of a Democrat “falsely claiming” anything — and that’s not because they’re so pure.
A perfect example is an Associated Press story from yesterday, headlined in The Hill, “GOP commission refuses to certify New Mexico primary vote.” Let’s take just one paragraph about the Dominion voting machines, which is all that’s needed to make the point:
“Dominion’s systems also have been unjustifiably attacked since the 2020 election by people who embraced the false belief that the election was stolen from Trump. The company has filed defamation lawsuits in response to incorrect and outrageous claims made by high-profile Trump allies.”
That’s not a quote from someone interviewed by the reporter. That’s just the reporter’s own voice and writing in what is presented as a straight news story — not opinion, not analysis. When journalism mattered more, an editor would have done this:
“Dominion’s systems also have been
unjustifiably attacked since the 2020 election by people who embraced the false belief that the election was stolen from Trump. The company has filed defamation lawsuits in response to incorrect and outrageous claims made by high-profile Trump allies.”
Having undergone proper editing, the paragraph in published form would read:
“Dominion’s systems also have been attacked since the 2020 election by people who embraced the belief that the election was stolen from Trump. The company has filed defamation lawsuits in response to claims made by high-profile Trump allies.”
The paragraph above is how reporting was done pre-Trump. It still relates the facts of the story as completely as they need to be told. Fact: Dominion systems have been attacked since the 2020 election by people who believe the election was stolen. Fact: The company (Dominion) has filed defamation lawsuits in response to such claims.
To make sure readers are informed, when possible, about the status of claims, a paragraph can be provided like this:
“Trump and his allies have long claimed voter fraud, either by Democratic Party operatives, election officials or voting machine manufacturers. But numerous court cases and independent investigations have found little or no evidence to back up such allegations, and nothing on a scale that would change the results.”
Today’s journalists insist that because Trump so egregiously lies, and because false information is so prevalent these days, they owe it to their readers to point out when something is demonstrably false or misleading. They are wrong. They simply insult the intelligence of readers, and elevate themselves as the self-appointed “voice of God,” something reporters in previous days were specifically warned to avoid.
Saying something is a “belief” implies by the very word that it’s not a proven fact. The same applies to the word “claim.” When reporters write, as they should, that someone “claims” something happened, or will happen, the word itself implies that it’s not a proven fact. Saying something is an “incorrect” or “false” or “outrageous” claim is not only bad journalism, it’s bad writing, in that a “claim” already means something unproven.
Today, though, reporters are allowed — encouraged — to take it upon themselves to call people — in their own reporters’ voices within the text of their stories — liars, spreaders of false information, or even “outrageous.”
Pre-Trump — in other words, when solid journalism was more prevalent — any reporter trying to sneak in adjectives like “unjustifiably,” “false,” “incorrect” or, especially, “outrageous” would have been reprimanded — especially at the AP, which at one time prided itself on being the biggest stickler for lean and clean writing without bias-laden modifiers or opinions.
The end result of journalists writing under the new standards has not been to make them more trusted, but less, as they seem even more partisan than ever — liberal, Trump-hating reporters writing for liberal, Trump-hating readers. It’s extremely unfortunate, because the world does indeed need reliable information delivered in a straight and narrow fashion.
Biden annoys the world by telling them ‘America’s back’
This was pretty funny.
Biden might be misreading the room. I can imagine some world leader looking out his window, seeing Joe Biden, and saying to his wife with a sigh, “Oh no, America’s back.”
“What’s he want this time?”
“For how long?”
“I’ll ask him.”
“Tell him we have guests from out of town and we don’t have a spare room.“
Covid killing more whites than blacks, but don’t say it
David Leonhardt, a New York Times reporter who has done outstanding writing about the covid pandemic, has taken some heat for his reporting of statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
(Note: The New York Times’ style policy when referring to race is to capitalize Black but not white. I appreciate the Washington Post’s style, which is to capitalize both Black and White. In my personal writing, such as in this newsletter, I stick to the old style of not capitalizing either one. But when I quote from various sources, I usually include the style in which it appears from the source.)
During Covid’s early months in the U.S., the per capita death rate for Black Americans was almost twice as high as the white rate and more than twice as high as the Asian rate. The Latino death rate was in between, substantially lower than the Black rate but still above average… But these large racial gaps in vaccination have not continued — and as a result, neither have the gaps in Covid death rates. Instead, Covid’s racial gaps have narrowed and, more recently, even flipped. Over the past year, the Covid death rate for white Americans has been 14 percent higher than the rate for Black Americans and 72 percent higher than the Latino rate, according to the latest C.D.C. data.
Leonhardt explains in that same piece why it’s sometimes controversial to write any story suggesting that white people might have a worse experience than others on any subject.
Why haven’t you heard more about the narrowing of Covid’s racial gaps? I think part of the reason is that many experts and journalists feel uncomfortable highlighting shrinking racial gaps in almost any area. They worry that doing so will somehow minimize the problem of racism and the country’s enduring inequities. Certainly, there are important caveats to the Covid story. For one thing, the total death rate remains higher for Black and Latino Americans, because the early disparities were so huge. For another, the unequal nature of underlying health conditions — and access to good care — means that a Black person remains more vulnerable on average to severe Covid than a white person of the same age, sex and vaccination status…
Even with these caveats, the larger story remains: Covid has killed a smaller percentage of Black, Latino or Asian Americans over the past year than white Americans. To deny that reality is to miss an important part of the Covid story.
Leonhardt and the Times are standing by the story, and he’s right that for some reason, too many journalists feel “uncomfortable” following the facts if they imply that there are “shrinking racial gaps” in anything. We claim to want a world of equality, but if evidence points to achieving it in some area, few in the media ever want to acknowledge it.
Jan. 6 hearings: High on old info, low on new viewers
Finally, I’ve written two WaPo pieces so far on the January 6 committee hearings. Neither hearing has provided any new information, but is being reported as though they have, as long as there’s new video with people saying something — perhaps with somewhat different wording — that they were previously reporting as having already said.
Here’s an excerpt from my first piece after last Thursday’s prime time hearing, discussing comparisons between this committee and the Watergate hearings.
The Jan. 6 committee has been frequently compared with the Senate Watergate committee, but there are stark differences. The Watergate committee, made up of four Democrats and three Republicans, included some members who were either allies of President Richard Nixon’s or were at least relatively neutral. Few believed at the start of the hearings that their work would lead to the president’s being seriously wounded, let alone forced from office.
By contrast, these hearings seem overtly partisan. Some pundits praised the strategy of having Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) play a leading role in Thursday’s hearing. She and Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) give the Democrat-dominated committee a “bipartisan” sheen, they claim. But most Republicans likely view Cheney and Kinzinger as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s handpicked GOP substitutes for the Republicans originally proposed by House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.).
After Monday’s hearing, I noted the peril involved in trying so hard to prove that Donald Trump was told that his fraud allegations weren’t plausible, and he therefore supposedly knew he was lying. I also noted that Americans so far aren’t paying much attention.
Thursday’s hearing drew about 20 million viewers. That’s fewer than 1 in 10 adult Americans, according to census figures. It’s a rather paltry audience, considering that the hearing was carried live across ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CNN, MSNBC and other outlets. By contrast, this year’s State of the Union address drew 38 million viewers. One report noted that the hearing outdrew the Academy Awards, but that shouldn’t have been difficult, considering consistently falling ratings for the Oscars and that the ceremony is carried by just one network.
A recent CNN story noted alarmingly that Trump’s standing with Americans has actually risen since Jan. 6, 2021, and he has been outpolling Biden in matchups. Maybe these hearings will slightly blunt Trump’s resurgence, but unless there’s more opportunity to challenge the one-sided nature of the format, it’s likely they’ll be cheered by Trump’s critics and derided by his supporters — with little to change the perception on either side.
It was a little amusing when another hearing scheduled for Wednesday was postponed. I tweeted:
The notion that they postponed the hearing because they wanted everyone to have time to “digest” all the information provided so far was amusing, since virtually everything was already presented — and presumably digested — months ago. The old news is being repackaged and presented in shiny new video formats, and most of the media is playing along and regurgitating it like it’s new.
Jan. 6, 2021, was a disgraceful, embarrassing day for the United States, and Donald Trump is responsible for it — but not in the mastermind, lever-pulling way the committee is trying to make it sound as they seek to crush not only him, but his supporters. That’s where they’ve gone too far.
Talking Jan. 6 hearings with Hoppy Kercheval on ‘Talkline’
Last Thursday, I joined Hoppy Kercheval via Skype on his “Talkline” program on WVMetroNews to discuss the Jan. 6 hearings.
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