In Praise of Journalism (Media Not So Much)

By now we’ve all seen this tweet.


For those just tuning in, here is Reince Priebus defending the tweet on Sunday. And here is James Fallows in the Atlantic explaining that lies matter because when the government habitually lies, ‘With Such a People You can Do As You Please.’

I imagine we are all tiring of attacks on the media, tiring of talk of fake news, tiring of jokes about alternative facts.  But what are we for?

I’m for journalism.  I’m for journalism because it is a profession that has ethical values at its core.  We stand up for journalism when it adheres to those professional values.  I am committed to paying attention to news organizations that sustain a serious commitment to the professional values of journalism.  “Media” refers to the means, not the content or the ethical commitments.  “News” is just information, trustworthy or not.  I want trustworthy, accurate, truthful, unbiased news.  Hence, I’m for journalism.  In the future, I’m resolved to talk about journalism and journalists when I’m talking about how I come to know the news.  I’ll steer away from the term media, and if I use that term I’ll try to make clear that I’m talking about claims and assertions that do not come from those that honor the professional values of journalism.

There is a Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics.  It has four core commitments, and it has a good deal to say about what each asks of journalists:

  • Seek Truth and Report It
  • Minimize Harm
  • Act Independently
  • Be Accountable and Transparent

Along the same lines, The Ethical Journalism Network has five principles of ethical journalism: truth and accuracy, independence, fairness and impartiality, humanity and accountability.

Some of the news organizations that Trump’s tweet calls out has a stated commitment to journalistic ethics.  You can read them yourself:

The New York Times has a Standards and Ethics Statement framed around three core principles:  Fairness, Integrity and Truth.  “Without fear or favor” is a touchstone phrase the NYTimes has used as its ethical anchor since the paper’s founding.  It also has a 57 page handbook of Ethical Journalism that guides all of its work.

CNN’s parent TimeWarner has a statement of journalistic integrity.  It includes this statement on “comprehensive journalism.”

Comprehensive Journalism.  Our network news brands are leaders in practicing, promoting and defending the highest principles of journalistic integrity.

Much of popular journalism today comes with a political or ideological slant: it aims to win people to a point of view, not necessarily to an understanding of the facts. CNN does not try to appeal to a specific point of view or political constituency. To the contrary, the reporters, producers, editors and writers at CNN aim for comprehensive journalism. In their news coverage, they strive to present the whole story, fairly and completely, so that readers and viewers may come to their own conclusions. And in their presentation of opinion and analysis, they strive to represent a range of viewpoints.

Comprehensive journalism also means that we do not let our financial interests determine the topics we cover. Our reporters, producers, writers and editors cover issues that are newsworthy and of interest to our readers and viewers, not because an issue may be of interest to advertisers.

The American Society of News Editors (ASNE) maintains a website on which you can find the statements of journalistic ethics of most major newspapers.  For example, here is the statements from the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.  I found this statement from The Wall Street Journal to be especially thin on commitment to the core values of journalism.

For news, I trust organizations that have and uphold journalistic ethics.

ASNE doesn’t include the major broadcast networks.  I searched the websites for NBCNews, ABC News and CBS News for statements of their commitments to the professional values of journalism.  Finding nothing, I have written each asking whether they have such a statement.  I’m disappointed.

There are other prominent news organizations not called out in the Trump tweet, most notably Fox News.  Here is the Fox Nation Statement of Purpose.  I know of no other statement of a code of ethics for Fox News.  Notice that the words truth and accountability are nowhere to be found.  And it reads like a political program, not a commitment to journalistic ethics.

The Fox Nation was created for people who believe in the United States of America and its ideals, as expressed in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a community that believes in the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One that believes being an American is an honor, as well as a great responsibility – and a wonderful adventure.

This is a place for people who believe we live in a great country, a welcoming refuge for legal immigrants who want to contribute their talents and abilities to make our way of life even greater. We believe we should enjoy the company and support of each other, delighting in the creativity, ingenuity, and work ethic of one and all, while observing the rules of civility and mutual respect and, most importantly, strengthening our diverse society by striving for unity.
The Fox Nation is committed to the core principles of tolerance, open debate, civil discourse, and fair and balanced coverage of the news. It is for those opposed to intolerance, excessive government control of our lives, and attempts to monopolize opinion or suppress freedom of thought, expression, and worship.

We invite all Americans who share these values to join us here at Fox Nation.
Addendum.  Worth reading is Bret Stephens’ Daniel Pearl Lecture at UCLA, Don’t Dismiss President Trump’s Attacks on the Media as Mere Stupidity.  Stephens stands up for intellectual integrity, but because he is a journalist working for Time Magazine, celebrating a courageous journalist,  I wish he had said more about journalism.  James Fallows gives Stephens a shout-out in his piece while noting that he and Stephens agree about little else.  (Fallows also has links to quite a number of other splendid pieces on why truth-telling and journalism matter.)
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Worries and Dissents 17.2.20

On the dissents front, here’s a piece from Commentary by Nicholas Eberstadt that aims to support the Trumpian view that things are less well off (more chaotic) than ‘those in the bubble’ say they are.  Our Miserable 21st Century.  One snippet:

The abstraction of “inequality” doesn’t matter a lot to ordinary Americans. The reality of economic insecurity does. The Great American Escalator is broken—and it badly needs to be fixed.

Eberstadt points to a good deal of economic insecurity.  If we have a different diagnosis of what’s wrong and what’s right with this country, here’s an assessment we need to address.

On the worries front, in One Press Conference, Two Audiences, Conor Friedersdorf reminds us that not everyone experienced last week’s lunatic press conference in the same way.  Many saw it as a triumph.  He asks:

Can conservatives or libertarians or liberals pierce the bubble? Are they even trying?

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Does Trump Have Dementia? Do We?

A friend writes, “Just curious about your take on whether Donald Trump has early onset dementia.   Have you been writing about that?”

Well that’s a question I can’t answer; I just don’t know.  But I also am not sure I’m too interested in it.

I liked a recent NYT piece from a psychiatrist who said he wasn’t interested in diagnosing Trump from a distance. He reminded us that people can do bad things for all sorts of reasons.  “The antidote to a dystopic Trumpean dark age is political, not psychological,” he said.  Not medical, either, I’d add.

Because the need is political, I’m looking for organizations to work with politically in a thoughtful and strategic manner.

Back before the inauguration, as I decided I’d turn The Observatory blog more towards the general political situation, I wrote a piece about my commitments in the Trump era.  Those commitments started with the observation that Trump is unfit by character to be President, and that this could not/would not change.  I reached that conclusion on what he has done over the whole of his adult life.  That’s a book we all can read.

A consequence I draw from this observation is not to pay too much attention to what Trump says, and not even much to what he does.  More important is to pay attention to those who enable him: the Republican leaders in Congress and his lead appointees.  No one suggests they have dementia or serious mental illness, but Trump can achieve nothing without their active efforts.  I’m going to pay attention to those enablers.

Trump is a dark circus: always has been, always will be.  Bannon, Preibus, Ryan, McConnell, the deplorable cabinet appointees, and behind them the moneyed interests they serve: they’re the real danger.

Each morning I wake up to this realization: Republicans won the Presidency and the Senate in 2016 because they did a better job of mobilizing their base of supporters than Democrats did in turning out their supporters.  What does that say about us, the American people?  What led us to do such a demented thing?

Imagine Trump removed from the Presidency today.  With President Pence do I feel more optimistic?  It’s a different situation, but not a better one.  It might be the beginning of an even longer nightmare.

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The Origins of Polarization

I have a letter in today’s New York Times objecting to a David Brooks account of how we came to have polarized politics — if that’s the proper way to look at it.

To the Editor:

Re “Bonhoeffer, Benedict or Ford” (column, Feb. 14):

David Brooks seriously wounds our national civic understanding when he writes, “The baby boomer establishment polarized politics, lost touch with the voters and paved the way for Trump.”

What, in heaven’s name, is the “baby boomer establishment”? The generation that was born in the years after World War II came of age politically through struggles to advance civil rights, end a stupid, imperial war, promote the equality of women and men, and bring an end to poverty.

The mistake of those who fought for these causes was to underestimate the fury of the backlash from moneyed interests to roll back those gains and to insist on establishing a new Gilded Age of war, inequality and rights denial.

That backlash alone is responsible for our polarized politics. Does Mr. Brooks think it wrong to insist on full civil and political equality for all citizens and to insist on an end to ruinous imperial adventures? Since when is standing up for peace, liberty and equality polarizing?


Topsham, Me.

The writer is president emeritus of Earlham College.

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Regulatory Rollback

This week, the Trump circus with all its chaos and dysfunction blusters on.  The public mind has changed its focus from the Muslim ban executive order to the revelations about Michael Flynn that have now led to his dismissal resignation dismissal.  In ring three is the withdrawal of Andrew Puzder as nominee to be Secretary of Labor.

Meanwhile across town, out of the headlines, the Republican Congress is going about its work.  In the House, that means a hurry-up action on deregulation.

“Deregulation” can have a nice sound to it: when it is an effort to free us from harmful or needless restrictions imposed by bureaucrats.  But regulations can often protect us from fraud, corruption, poisoning or environmental pollution.  When those are the regulations being deregulated, then “deregulation” means harm to the health and welfare of ordinary people — and to the nation as a whole.

While the Senate has been occupied in recent weeks with confirmation hearings and votes on so-called President Donald Trump’s cabinet nominees, the House of Representatives has been quietly doing its part to roll back valuable regulations.  And these are being done on party-line votes, all the Republicans voting for “deregulation,” and all the Democrats voting against — that is to save the rule, standing up for ordinary citizens.

It’s not just up to the House of Representatives.  Sometimes both the House and Senate have to agree to end a regulation and the President has to sign the legislation as well.  Sometimes the President can “deregulate” by Executive Order.  Standing in the wings and orchestrating this wave of “deregulation” stand an army of lobbyists for wealthy interests, many of them connected to and paid for by the Koch Brothers.

On February 4, the New York Times published G.O.P. Hurries to Slash Oil and Gas Rules, Ending Industries’ 8-Year Wait.  It’s a story about a memo prepared by the Koch-funded “Freedom Partners”  that sets out an agenda for swift regulatory rollback, much of it to benefit oil and gas companies.  “The document carried the title “A Roadmap to Repeal,” a concise list of Obama administration environmental regulations that a Koch brothers-backed group was pressing President Trump and Congress to quickly reverse after Inauguration Day.”

The Times placed a copy of the memo on-line, with annotations showing what items on the list have been accomplished to date and by whose doing.

The early items accomplished include House votes using the Congressional Review Act which allows the two houses of Congress to reverse a new regulation by simple majority vote and the President’s approval so long as they act within 60 days of the publication of the rule.  Congress and the new administration are in a rush to un-do as many Obama-era regulations as they can.

Where did the Congressional Review Act come from?  It was passed by Congress as part of the Newt Gingrich Contract with America in 1996, and signed into law by President Clinton because it was part of an omnibus budget act.  In the Obama years, the Republican Congress failed to roll back some regulations because they could not find the votes to override an Obama veto.  Now Republicans control both houses of Congress and the Presidency, and they are following the Koch playbook.

I won’t try to enumerate all the “deregulation” moves already approved by the House under the Congressional Review Act or the “deregulation” moves encompassed in presidential Executive Orders, but we should note that these efforts are taking place across a range of fronts.  Some highlights:

Withdrawal of the Fiduciary Duty rule that protects ordinary people (retirees, for example) from predatory practices of investment advisers seeking to enrich themselves rather than benefitting their clients.

Rollback of a range of environmental protections such as a regulation protecting streams from harm by coal-mining activities.  Also beneficial to coal and oil companies: rollback of a rule requiring them to disclose payments (read bribes and kickbacks) to foreign governments.

Various regulations of the Department of Education.

Various regulations of several agencies bearing on permitting and regulation of domestic manufacturing.

Not that all regulations are a bad idea to the Trump/Republican government.  The Trump administration was quick to reimpose the Mexico City Policy that forbids any U.S. funds from going to organizations anywhere in the world that do anything to support abortion.  The policy has the perverse effect of increasing unwanted pregnancies and also increasing the number of abortions worldwide.

Certainly the circus of the Trump administration is tough to avoid (think Flynn, think Puzder, think Sean Spicer press conferences, think tweets).  But there is lasting damage being quietly done on the regulatory front.


Added 17.2.17: In the litany of regulatory rollbacks, I neglected to mention the internet/telecomm front where Ajit Pai, the newly appointed head of the Federal Communications Commission, has “fired up the weed whacker” against net neutrality and other consumer protections in on-line environments.



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Worries and Dissents 17.2.3

From time to time I want to link to intelligent worries I come across, and also to interesting dissents from the way I see things.

While the Trump administration continues careening through its first weeks, David Brooks focuses on the Republican party members in the Congress who are standing together to support Trump’s initial actions, sometimes by staying silent, sometimes by taking active steps.  The Republican Fausts, he calls them, warning that they, too, will bear responsibility for the wreckage he creates.  He writes

The danger signs are there in profusion. Sooner or later, the Republican Fausts will face a binary choice. As they did under Nixon, Republican leaders will have to either oppose Trump and risk his tweets, or sidle along with him and live with his stain.

Will Republicans in Congress stand up in opposition?

An even starker worry comes from Paul Gowder, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Iowa.  He worries (in the Niskanen Center blog) about The Trump Threat to the Rule of Law and the Constitution.  I hope he’s wrong, but it is a bracing read.  Here’s the last paragraph:

Unfortunately, we have much more than a small sign. We have a president who maintains a private armed force, who has sidelined the politically accountable security services, who has perpetuated frivolous allegations of multimillion-perpetrator voter fraud in an election he won, who has engaged in extended ethno-national and religious scapegoating, who has encouraged violence from his supporters against his opponents, who has threatened to imprison his electoral opponent, and who happens to be a billionaire with countless undisclosed financial entanglements and obscure resources. He may have already ordered executive branch officials to disobey court orders. At the very least, subordinate officials have disobeyed the courts in the name of his prior orders. The time to act is now, while we still can.

Tempering these strong worries is a more mild one from Ross Douthat.  In How Populism Stumbles, he predicts that the Trump administration will bring its own downfall.

But what we’ve watched unfold with refugee policy suggests that chaos and incompetence are much more likely to define this administration than any kind of ruthless strength.

I suppose Douthat may be right, but as with Brooks and Gowder, I believe we face a deeper, more substantial threat, one that will ask for vigilance and a willingness to act from each of us.


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Worries and Dissents 17.2.1

From time to time I want to link to intelligent worries I come across, and also to interesting dissents from the way I see things.

In A Third Way in the ‘Respectability Politics’ Debate, Conor Friedersdorf  has interesting thoughts about the style of opposition work most likely to effective in coming months and years.  Its subtitle signals the thrust of the piece:  “Opponents of President Trump can achieve a lot through empathy and loving engagement.” Just ‘saying no’ won’t do it.  We are going to have to engage Trump supporters in ways that resonate positively with them.

Periscopic has put together a striking visualization titled One Angry Bird that displays (using feathers imagery) the emotional arcs of the past ten U.S. presidential inaugural addresses. Seen in comparison, Trump’s inaugural address is a distinct outlier.  (Periscopic describes itself as “a socially-conscious data visualization firm that helps companies and organizations promote information transparency and public awareness.”)




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