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Our Worthless Media

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I really, really hate NPR. I think it is almost uniformly terrible, at least the political coverage. If they held their political coverage up to the high standards of their cultural stories, I’d feel differently. But it is completely unlistenable. This actually causes some marital tension, as my wife loves it for reasons I can’t get around. I think it might be the soothing voices. Last fall, we were driving to work and she asked if I minded if we turned it on. I said, fine. Immediately, there’s the voice of Steve Inskeep saying, “Welcome to the program, Ken Starr.” I immediately turned it off and won a solid point there that I have been able to use repeatedly since.

Anyway, I hardly have to explain to LGM readers why NPR is bad, or at least I hope I don’t have to do so. But this piece by Keith Woods, NPR’s VP of newsroom training and diversity on why NPR journalists shouldn’t say anything Trump does is racist is depressing and infuriating by equal parts.

Once again, the president of the United States has used the sniper tower of Twitter to take aim at immigration, race relations and common decency. And once again, journalists are daring their profession to boldly call bigotry what it is: bigotry. Enough of the vacuous “racially charged,” “racially loaded,” “racially insensitive” evasions, they say. It’s racist, and we should just call it that.

I understand the moral outrage behind wanting to slap this particular label on this particular president and his many incendiary utterances, but I disagree. Journalism may not have come honorably to the conclusion that dispassionate distance is a virtue. But that’s the fragile line that separates the profession from the rancid, institution-debasing cesspool that is today’s politics.

Wait, what?

It is precisely because journalism is given to warm-spit phrases like “racially insensitive” and “racially charged” that we should not be in the business of moral labeling in the first place. Who decides where the line is that the president crossed? The headline writer working today who thinks it’s “insensitive” or the one tomorrow who thinks it’s “racist?” Were we to use my moral standards, the line for calling people and words racist in this country would have been crossed decades ago. But that’s not what journalists do. We report and interview and attribute.

I am not a journalism purist. I came into the profession 40 years ago to tear down the spurious notion of objectivity used to protect a legacy of sexism, xenophobia and white supremacy. The better ideals of truth telling, accountability, fairness, etc. are what give journalism its power, while the notion of “objectivity” has been used to obscure and excuse the insidious biases we do battle with today.

I’ve been an informed consumer of the media since my days as a paperboy. I read the Times-Picayune as I delivered it, and the distorted view it offered of black and poor New Orleans told me all I needed to know about “objectivity.” We have come miles since then as a profession. But why should I trust that we’re all on the same page with our labels now? Weren’t last week’s tweets racist? Or last year’s? Weren’t some misogynistic? Vulgar? Homophobic? Sexist? The language of my judgment is generous, and they are my opinion, and they belong in the space reserved for opinions.

What’s at stake is journalism’s embattled claim to be the source of credible news grounded in the kind of deep, fair reporting that exposes injustice and holds powerful people to account. It may be satisfying to call the president’s words, or the president himself, racist, given the attacks tweeted from his bully app and so often aimed at our profession. But at what cost?

I know, wouldn’t want to engage at the high cost of telling the truth or saving the nation from a fascist future where journalists are imprisoned or anything like that.

His words mirror those of avowed racists and xenophobes that date back to the birth of this country. Was that moral judgment, my last sentence? I would argue no. I’d call it context, and it doesn’t require my opinion, just a basic understanding of history. That’s an alternative to labels: Report. Quote people. Cite sources. Add context. Leave the moral labeling to the people affected; to the opinion writers, the editorial writers, the preachers and philosophers; and to the public we serve.

We just have to do journalism.

This is just self-serving bullshit. What does “just doing journalism” even mean? It’s pretty clear that for Woods and our other media elites, it means that both sides are equally correct and that journalists should say nothing that imparts any values. But there is nothing in the history of journalism except for the mythology around it that has developed in the modern Beltway that suggests anything about that. There have been great left wing journalists and there are still are today, from Ida Tarbell to Mary Heaton Vorse to Seymour Hersh to so many others. Moreover, I can think that Westbrook Pegler was a complete scumbag and still recognize that he was doing right-wing journalism. The most famous journalists in our history are ones that did take stands–Edward R. Murrow against Joe McCarthy or the muckrakers against the extremism of the Gilded Age or Ida B. Wells against lynching.

I am wondering how much the cult around Woodward and Bernstein after Watergate has to do with this. Woodward especially cultivated this–the moderate Republican power player who took his fame and went all into access journalism that made the media feel realy good about itself without actually accomplishing anything of value, except in Woodward’s case of producing a soon forgotten doorstop every four years.

This is incredibly toxic, especially in times like today, when journalists actually proudly flaunt the fact that they will not tell the truth if it upsets one side. As someone said on ye olde Twitter:

By NPR’s logic, if the President used the N-word it would be improper to label that as racist. You’d simply have to point out that it’s an offensive word to some people.— Extreme Retweeter (@jasoncparrish) July 17, 2019

A couple more points. There is of course a huge exception to this rule and that is Fox News. And yet, do you see a widespread rejection of that right-wing propaganda network, the shunning of these horrible people by other journalists? No, as Megyn Kelly cashes another huge check from NBC for making shows nobody watches. Instead, Republicans say whatever they want on Fox, knowing that the rest of the media won’t really call them out. They laugh at NPR and the New York Times and the Washington Post. They know they are playing these outlets like fiddles. This is how you get the obfuscation of climate change science by paid hacks of the oil industry. This is how you avoid a condemnation of the nation engaging in ethnic cleansing and creating concentration camps on the border. The fact that most of the big journalist class also loves those Republican tax cuts also plays a factor here.

What a shameful era for mainstream journalism. Absolutely shameful. Historians will remember, if any of us still exist in thirty years.

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