Just when you thought the state of journalism in this country couldn’t sink any lower, along comes a week like this past one. I’ve been trying not to say this, trying hard for a very long time, but I think it’s become inescapable. It’s time, I’m afraid, to declare journalism dead, and to give it a burial, decent or not.
This is coming from a recovering journalist. I was a practicing journalist for many years, got a hard-earned masters degree in the field, and later went on to teach journalism at the university level. But that was a different journalism. It was before its untimely demise, back in an age when facts and fairness and accuracy and balance all actually mattered. When a journalist’s ethics and credibility went hand-in-hand. Sadly, it seems these things no longer count in this post-journalism era, otherwise known as the Age of Fake News, we find ourselves in.
I’ll concede there are outposts of journalism that still live. But they have become few and far between. If the profession is twitching in those places, it’s certainly not kicking more generally.
There are some things that went down this past week that top all the general level of noise we’ve become accustomed to. Two stories in particular lead me to, at last, pronounce the profession dead. But beyond those stories, I think it’s more the result of a feeling I’ve had in my heart, a heaviness of spirit, that has become inescapable when I see or read most of what passes for journalism today. A chronic feeling has turned acute.
The thing that first put my hand to signing the death certificate was the report carried by BuzzFeed – BuzzFeed! – late last Thursday, Jan. 17, in which it was stated unequivocally, based on unnamed sources, that the President had directed his attorney, the now discredited and sentenced Michael Cohen, to lie to Congress. It would be a pretty big story, I suppose, if only it were true. Which, as it turns out, it apparently isn’t. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last, that a journalist gets something wrong. But that’s not even the thing about this story and how it was treated by others in the so-called profession that initially grabbed my attention and caused me to become so despondent about the state of journalism.
The first thing that struck me was the source of this story. I mean, really, BuzzFeed? We’re supposed to take this to be a serious source for news? That seems ludicrous to me, and then, to my shock and dismay, here were other ostensibly serious journalists quoting the BuzzFeed story as if it were real journalism. One big nail in the profession’s coffin.
In case you can’t tell, I don’t take pop feeds like BuzzFeed seriously. Maybe every now and then a source like that, such as, for instance, the National Enquirer, gets things right, more or less the way a broken clock is right by default twice a day. But overall, this is not a serious source for news. We used to make fun of my grandmother for reading the Enquirer and the Globe, but here were national journalists actually copping to following BuzzFeed and treating it seriously. I think that said as much about the state of journalism as anything.
To prove my point, I took a look at the lead stories on BuzzFeed – just a random sample, mind you, but typical. Here is what they were, in descending order:
- “If You Grew Up Listening To These 24 Songs Then You Are 100% Gay Now”
- “29 Useful Kitchen Gadgets That People Actually Swear By”
- “People Can’t Even With the Announcement Of This Gender Reveal Lasagna” (No, I don’t have a clue what it means, either, but that was the actual headline)
- “Everything You Need To Know About The Drama Surrounding The British Royal Family Making Headlines in New Zealand” (Silly me, I heretofore didn’t think there was anything I needed to know about any drama or anything else concerning the British Royal Family, much less that merits headlines in New Zealand)
- “Trending” – trending, mind you! – “The Entire World Is Obsessed That Americans Drink Out Of These”
- “Get 3/10 On This Quiz And You Know More Than Most About Immuno-Oncology” (That sounded at least a little serious, until I noticed it was “Promoted by Bristol-Meyers Squibb” – that is, paid advertising by the pharma giant, stuck in among the headlines)
- “Congress Wants To Know Whether Matthew Whitaker Talked To The White House About The Special Counsel’s Response To A BuzzFeed News Report”
Now if you look at that last headline and you’re astute enough to decipher it, you’ll see that the story is essentially political propaganda masquerading as news. Dissecting, briefly, the etymology of it, BuzzFeed, relying on unnamed sources, published a story saying something concerning the Special Counsel, the Special Counsel immediately said the story wasn’t true, BuzzFeed stuck by the reporters’ story (more on that in a sec) despite the Special Counsel’s denial, and then the Dems in Congress (portrayed in the headline as “Congress”) jumped on the false story told by BuzzFeed to further their political agenda, and that is what this story is about. Therefore, the translation of that headline is: “Our Sources Weren’t So Hot After All, But It’s Bad For Trump, So We’re Sticking By It, And So Are the Dems In Congress.”
Okay, I know what some of you are going to say. BuzzFeed News is a separate part of the operation and is a serious (sic) news organization. Putting aside for the moment that it was BuzzFeed News that broke what is likely to turn out to be a bogus story but won’t retract it, here were the headlines when I looked on this serious “news” side of the house:
- “President Trump Directed His Attorney Michael Cohen To Lie To Congress About The Moscow Tower Project” (Yup, there it is, the story the Special Counsel has said isn’t true, right there at the top of BuzzFeed News’s “news” feed. Even The New York Times has the decency to publish retractions and corrections, albeit buried inside the body of the paper.)
- “Transgender Soldiers Are Terrified And Disappointed After The Supreme Court’s Ruling On Trump’s Ban”
- “Cardi B Clapped Back Against Accusations That Her ‘Twerk’ Video Doesn’t Empower Women In the #MeToo Era” (Pardon my ignorance, but who the hell is Cardi B? And in what obscure way is this news?)
- “The Biggest Surprises From This Year’s Oscar Nominations” (Not among them, I am sure, is that even fewer people will watch the Oscars this year than last, and the one before that, and the one before that, and . . . )
- “The Campaign For A People’s Vote On Brexit Has Descended Into Infighting And Splits” (News Flash: And there is coal in Newcastle!)
- “The Big Design Change For 2020: An Explosion Of Colors Beyond Red And Blue!” (A cross between more thinly veiled propaganda for Dems and a big bunch of “who cares?”)
Okay, now let’s look at the reporters – and one in particular, Jason Leopold – who produced this journalistic masterpiece that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has denied. Leopold, billed as a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and based in Los Angeles, has a checkered past that includes previous false reports, making stuff up as he went along, and even plagiarism (about the worst crime a writer can commit). Salon, after an extended series of unsuccessful attempts to get Leopold to document claims contained in a 2002 story about Navy Secretary Thomas White when he formerly was Vice Chairman of Enron Energy Services, wound up pulling the story and apologizing to readers. I won’t detail the lengths Salon went to to get Leopold to document his reporting, but you can read all about it on the New Zealand site Scoop. Leopold’s rebuttal, which reads like a petulant and self-justifying denial of the facts, is there, too. That, incidentally, also was the story where Leopold was credibly accused of plagiarizing several paragraphs from a Financial Times story.
That wasn’t the end of Jason Leopold’s missteps, either. In 2006, Leopold, again relying on unnamed sources, reported on Truthout.org that Presidential Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove was being indicted on charges related to the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame. The only problem with the story, since taken down by the site, was that it wasn’t true. Columbia Journalism Review called the story “Leopold’s latest addition to his application for membership in the Stephen Glass school of journalism,” a reference to The New Republic writer who just made things up in his stories written over a three-year period with the publication. Further, Leopold’s history includes being fired by The Los Angeles Times for creating a newsroom fracas with a colleague, and the would-be publisher of Leopold’s first memoir, Off the Record, canceling the publication after being threatened with a lawsuit for alleged misstatements made in the book.
Now if the Special Counsel’s denials weren’t enough, and Leopold’s questionable track record didn’t raise questions, public disagreement between the two authors of Thursday’s story about whether they actually viewed the evidence corroborating the allegations cited in the article might have put up red flags. While co-author Anthony Cormier – formerly of The Tampa Bay Times – told both CNN and NPR he had not actually seen the evidence, Leopold later insisted that they had in fact seen the evidence. Is this some minor point that might have been mis-remembered by the co-authors? Not likely. But as startling is what Cormier told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. After insisting in his CNN interview that he was “rock solid” on the story, Cormier told Inskeep, “This is a crime, if it’s true. And our reporting suggests that it is.” What? Full stop. “This is a crime, if it’s true.” If it’s true? What the hell kind of reporting insists something is true when there remains an “if” involved? I don’t know if that would cut it at The Tampa Bay Times, but apparently it does at BuzzFeed. Big nail number two in the coffin.
As if they’re all in an echo chamber, which apparently they are, a slew of Dems in Congress, in tweets and statements, picked up not only on the BuzzFeed piece but on Cormier’s very words, “if it’s true,” and ran with that making assorted threats of impeachment against the President. Quelle surprise!
Wouldn’t all this give an editor cause for concern? Apparently not BuzzFeed’s editors. BuzzFeed stood by the story, and its Editor-in-Chief, Ben Smith, later tweeted on Friday: “In response to the statement tonight from the Special Counsel’s spokesman: We stand by our reporting and the sources who informed it, and we urge the Special Counsel to make clear what he’s disputing.”
Okay. That was one of the two stories this past week that led me to declare journalism dead. The other is the story, such as it is, of the standoff between the kid from Covington, Kentucky, and the Native American guy originally from Nebraska. The incident actually took place last Friday, Jan. 18, but it was only after a video of the standoff went viral that the story took off, and the reportage (again, sic) this week has been rabid.
When I first heard this story at the beginning of the week, my initial reaction was, “Why are we supposed to care about this?” If this had happened anywhere else except in Washington, D.C., and in any time other than the one in which we live, it probably wouldn’t even have made the local news. I was gratified to hear someone else – I regret that I don’t recall who – on the radio ask the same question, “Who cares?”
Well, apparently lots of people cared. Not enough to actually get the facts straight, and that includes most in the national media, but they cared. After all, the story – at least as it was perceived – had all the hallmarks of what I’m afraid has come to make stories considered newsworthy in this age of post-journalism: Racism, angry confrontation, demonstrations, and – more than anything – Trumpism v. anti-Trumpism. The media was all over the story: Angry kids wearing MAGA – “Make America Great Again,” the Trump motto – hats confront Native American elder near the Lincoln Memorial. They are in his face, ready to tear him apart, a bunch of racists who hated blacks, Native Americans, anyone except white Americans. They came to Washington to oppose abortion (labeled, in PC terms, “a woman’s right to choose”), and now they were spreading their racism by getting in the face of this poor Vietnam vet.
The only problem with the story was . . . it wasn’t true. But that didn’t stop a maelstrom of national debate, name calling, accusations, death threats, and who knows how many millions of dollars of air time from being dedicated to it. And, as much as we might wish it would just go away, we’re probably going to be hearing about this story for days, even weeks, until something more scintillating comes along to displace it. And then it will just disappear.
Even in an age of biased media, this story stands out for how one-sided the media coverage of it has been. Whether it is CNN, MSNBC, or just about every other news outlet, the only side of the story that was told for days was that of Nathan Phillips, the Native American man. It was as if there was no other version of events. Even CNN’s URL for the interview with Nathan Phillips – still up as of this writing – gives a hint of the bias:
I was especially distraught to see stories carried in USA TODAY, written by reporters with Gannett’s Cincinnati Enquirer local newspaper, that were entirely single-source stories, quoting only Phillips, without even an apparent attempt to contact Nick Sandmann, the Covington Catholic High student facing off against Phillips in the actual incident. I used to work for Gannett at the paper, TODAY, now FLORIDA TODAY, that served as the model for USA TODAY, and even though Gannett, even then in the 1980s, was not the paradigm of journalism, I don’t think single-source stories on such a controversial topic would have been acceptable to my editors. But today they are. And the whole country gets to read them.
If you haven’t been in a coma the past few days you know of the death threats made against Sandmann and the other students involved. You know how they have been accused of being racists, how Sandmann “got in the face” of Phillips, how the students chanted “the wall, the wall,” how everyone from members of Congress to state representatives to the usual gaggle of Hollywood celebrities put out terribly nasty tweets critical of Sandmann. One so-called journalist wished the kids would die (he got fired). It didn’t help that the Catholic Diocese of Covington piled on with criticism and threats against the Covington students before they had the facts, either. That’s the kind of age we live in, being first counting more than being right, with the kind of moral righteousness that might otherwise be seen as the less-than-desirable quality of being holier-than-thou.
But if you watched the full video of what went down, you would have seen that the account given by Phillips wasn’t at all accurate. You would have seen Sandmann, smiling silently, facing a man banging a drum in his face, and periodically signaling to this classmates to cool their antics, and those same classmates, most just kids, not even old enough to grow facial hair, being, well, kids.
And if you just paid attention to the national media, you also might not know that the Native American group, some 50 individuals led by Phillips and his drum, attempted to disrupt a mass being held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington on Sunday night. Or that Nathan Phillips has a violent criminal record, including assault and jail break, or that he never served in Vietnam (a fact you might have picked up on by his carefully nuanced statements about his service, but not by the banners run across the screens of CNN or the questions of TV interviewers). And you certainly can be excused for not knowing about the group that may be the real racists involved in the subject incident, the Black Hebrew Israelites, whom the students said were shouting hateful things at them before the incident involving Phillips took place. Though, if you follow TMZ – another prime example of the state of journalism in 2019 – you might have learned that the venerable Phillips has turned down Sandmann’s invitation to meet and talk things out. Oh, and if you want to see that it’s not just journalism but the state of the readership that has gone down the toilet, just read the comments on that piece. I mean, why bother? All in all, a third nail in the coffin of journalism.
Thus ends a helluva week and, with it, a formerly venerable profession. RIP.