Politics

Media Further Dilutes Standards in Thirst to Tarnish Trump

Liberal reporters revolt when NYT public editor criticizes aggressive tweets aimed at president-elect

In the pursuit of Republican President-Elect Donald Trump, the mainstream media is now demanding that new rules apply.

The old rules — that journalists need to be fair and balanced while seeking out the “other” perspective — have to be pushed aside.

“There’s a kind of dangerous hubris in that.”

The highest pursuit now is the so-called truth. And that means reporters covering Trump should not only be able to make snarky and sometimes mean-spirited tweets aimed at Trump (and his family), they should revel in their insurgent war against a dangerous president.

In short, they should add a pinch of Bill Maher to their journalism recipe. At least that’s the apparent argument some “straight news” journalists at respected institutions are making after The New York Times got a well-deserved rebuke from their public editor, Liz Spayd.

A public editor is usually the readers’ advocate, and also works independently of the newsroom and top leadership. He or she writes columns about journalism ethics, readers’ complaints, and, of course, perceived bias.

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On Friday night, Tucker Carlson interviewed Spayd on Fox News’ “Tucker Carlson Tonight.” Spayd was remarkably candid when asked about some of the tweets sent out by reporters covering Trump. Some of the tweets could easily be described as critical, and some as nasty.

One tweet came from one of The Times’ top investigative reporters, Eric Lipton, who took offense that Ivanka Trump’s company noted she had worn a bracelet while being interviewed with her father, the president-elect.

Lipton didn’t just note the incident. Lipton tweeted on Nov. 14: “White House as QVC. It has started.”

Carlson asked about that tweet, as well as some of the tweets from Times reporter Michael Barbaro. Spayd said some of the tweets were “over the line” and should have been met with “some kind of a consequence.”

The fact Spayd made her comments on Fox News riled her critics even more.

Calls for Spayd’s head soon followed. Keith Olbermann called for her to resign.

“This editor appears to be from 1987 or earlier. Sorry — get in the game or get out #resign,” Olbermann tweeted Monday.

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But Carlson and Spayd rightly see Twitter as a window into journalists’ motivations.

And the problem with Twitter is that aggressive use of it violates many norms that straight-news journalists and media professors have long valued. Two of those values are fairness and balance.

“I agree with everything Liz said on Carlson’s program,” said Paul Farhi, the media reporter for The Washington Post. “Reporters who want to be perceived as fair, objective, and neutral in their mainstream media roles shouldn’t take sides — or be perceived as taking sides — on social media. Period.”

Farhi’s take is the old-fashioned standard — one that was once so intensely practiced by the reporters of The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, CNN, and so many other large news institutions.

So why do some reporters jump on Twitter and proceed to trash-talk people they are covering?

One reason is that Trump is viewed as beyond political norms. Many journalists believe fairness can only go so far. They may ask, “Was World War II correspondent Ernie Pyle totally fair to the Nazi regime or the Japanese empire?”

This excuse only works, however, if the president or politician is truly as bad as Hitler or Tojo.

Tucker Carlson, the former editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller, said reporters often go into stories with a preconceived notion of the truth. They know the truth, and then proceed to report the story as its fits their worldview.

“There’s a kind of dangerous hubris in that,” Carlson said on Tuesday, during a call with LifeZette.

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Carlson defended Spayd, the former managing editor of The Washington Post, and said he felt better about The New York Times knowing she was their new public editor. Spayd is now being punished for being honest and direct, Carlson said.

Spayd walked back her comments in Politico on Tuesday, saying she should have held back some criticism. “But I stand by my view that journalists should be careful, sometimes more careful than they are, with what they say on social media,” Spayd told Politico. “That includes how it can be interpreted.”

Farhi said a reason that journalists like Twitter is to gain followers. But that’s no excuse, he says.

“Everyone wants to build his or her ‘brand’ via social media,” said Farhi. “But it’s up to journalists and their editors to set and enforce firm standards about what’s acceptable. Too often, they don’t.”

But it’s truly gone beyond that. Jonathan Alter, the MSNBC contributor and Daily Beast analyst, made the jolting claim that fairness and balance should come in fourth place on a list of journalism priorities.

“Clearly [Spayd] has no clue that job of journalist is truth first, then accuracy, fairness and balance 4th. Outrageous,” tweeted Alter on Monday.

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When asked about Alter’s list, Farhi said, “That’s his opinion. I have a different one.”

meet the author

Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.

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