Journalists are supposed to live outside their beats, the areas they cover every day and write about.
This objectivity is essential for being able to tell the stories the public needs to know. And practiced consistently, it wins access into places most people will never see and can even garner respect from the gatekeepers and those who work behind those gates.
There’s a point, though, where being “objective” is less a professional obligation and more a convenient excuse from telling uncomfortable truths. I worry too many in the corps of reporters who cover our politics are taking the latter option.
I have written before about my distaste for reporters who sit on important news so they can leverage that information into book deals. That continues unabated with the release of “This Will Not Pass: Trump, Biden and the Battle for America’s Future.”
This “shocking, definitive account” by a couple of New York Times political reporters promises to give the inside story of the tumultuous aftermath of the 2020 election, including the Jan. 6, 2020, assault on the U.S. Capitol.
When Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Donald Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the attack, he was speaking after the Senate had already acquitted the former president in his second impeachment trial. What felt like lip service in February 2021 would have felt like something altogether different if Jonathan Martin, one of the new book’s co-authors, had reported what McConnell said to him in the insurrection’s immediate aftermath.
“I feel exhilarated,” McConnell told Martin the night of Jan. 6, “by the fact that this fellow finally, totally discredited himself. … He put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. Couldn’t have happened at a better time.”
What a bombshell a comment like that would have been. And Martin knew it. Which is probably why he didn’t report it then, but saved it for a book released a year and half after the fact. After Trump was acquitted. An acquittal McConnell voted for.
Last week, the political news site Politico published “The Rise and Fall of the Star White House Reporter.” The story bemoaned the loss in prestige of covering the president, quoting insiders upset over reduced salaries, lower ratings and, of course, fewer chances at book deals.
The culprit? The Biden administration’s professionalism. There are few leaks, few controversies and fewer gaffes by the current leader of the free world. Compared to the freewheeling, coke-binge climate of the previous administration, the current White House is, in a word, boring.
Hopefully these reporters were able to drown their sorrows at last Saturday night’s dinner put on by their White House Correspondents’ Association. That institution in and of itself is problematic. The notion of haha-ing and heehee-ing with the people you cover professionally seems like a willful abandonment of objectivity.
Much better was a package of stories posted earlier the same day on NYTimes.com featuring analysis of Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s juggernaut nightly show. In uncharacteristically blunt terms, the piece describes the broadcast as likely “the most racist show in the history of cable news.”
Using his own words, the package features soundbites of Carlton’s constant framing of the news as “they” versus “you,” a constant fear state of “them” colluding to take away what is “yours”: your guns, your money, your rights, your freedoms, your country. Who are “they”? Any number of a revolving set of targets, from Democrats to minorities to feminists to Black Lives Matter to even members of the Republican Party “ruling class.”
“They” all hate America, Carlson warns. “They” all hate you.
The package comes up just short of brilliance – a lengthy and unnecessary biography is pro forma for the Times of this era – but it is strong stuff, keenly reported and smartly presented.
We used to call news like this broccoli or spinach: you don’t like the taste, but it’s good for you.
Now many outlets insist on adding a spoonful of sugar to every piece, creating a false equivalence between balance and needlessly including perspectives that are often biased or simply not true.
At all levels, political reporters should consider whose favor they are trying to keep and whether it’s worth the loss of their integrity.
Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.