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Robbins: Journalism takes a hit, and so do we

By Jeff Robbins - | Jun 26, 2024

A publisher, Adlai Stevenson quipped, is someone who separates the wheat from the chaff -- and then publishes the chaff. Significant segments of America believe just that: that the media are in the business of selling "product," no differently than plastic goods manufacturers or car dealerships.

Indeed, an increasingly media-savvy citizenry understands that media companies target their market and then select storylines, headlines and quotes in order to optimize clicks, shares and revenue. For many, the First Amendment is less a vital constitutional guarantee than a protection racket, shielding elites who think they are better than their readers and viewers from liability for false or biased reporting.

A Gallup poll released last October found that Americans' trust in the media has dropped to an all time low. Nearly 40% of Americans say they have no confidence at all in journalists. Less than one third say they have a "fair amount" of confidence or more.

The winner of the award for the media organization that has fallen most precipitously in the public's estimation is likely The Washington Post, which over the last half century has been synonymous with historic reporting. The winner of over 70 Pulitzer Prizes, justly venerated for its courageous publication of the Pentagon Papers and its breaking of the Watergate scandal, it has taken quite a plunge of late. Since the retirement of executive editor Martin Baron in 2021, it has suffered dramatic losses in revenue.

But it has lost more than revenue; its credibility has taken a beating. Baron, an old-fashioned journalist who demanded rigorous adherence to old-fashioned journalistic standards, found that not everyone at the paper was quite as rigorous. The proverbial chickens have come home to roost at The Post, whose new publisher is enmeshed in both legal and journalistic scandal, whose executive editor was recently forced out and whose news coverage has taken some serious hits. The Post's coverage of the Israel-Hamas war has ranged between error-prone and openly skewed, and recent reporting by the Washington Free Beacon suggests why. Turns out that at least six journalists on the paper's foreign desk worked for Al Jazeera, based in and substantially funded by Qatar, which also bankrolls Hamas and hosts its leadership. Asked by the journalist who broke this story for comment, The Post did what one does in such circumstances. It declined to comment.

The Post isn't the only journalistic enterprise to conduct itself in ways that torch the profession's standing. Former New York Times reporters Bari Weiss, Nellie Bowles and Adam Rubinstein are among those who have published first hand accounts of The Times' toxic enforcement of political orthodoxy in the newsroom and a culture that evokes eighth grade cliques. National Public Radio's now ex-editor, Uri Berliner, disclosed the ostentatious liberal bias of the outlet, whose editorial staff consists of 87 Democrats and exactly zero Republicans. "There's an unspoken consensus about the stories we should pursue and how they should be framed," Berliner observed before he was disciplined for making the observation. "It's almost like an assembly line."

Then there's Fox News, which raised corrupt journalism to an art form after the 2020 election, as documented in the litigation that ultimately forced the conservative broadcasting corporation to fork over nearly $800 million to a voting system company it had defamed. Petrified of losing market share to an even more conservative cable station, and knowing that its reporting was false, it repeated Donald Trump's stolen election hokum endlessly -- in order to keep its cash registers ringing.

There can be no joy in Mudville at the self-inflicted damage the media has wrought. For all of the arrogance and the sanctimonious self-aggrandizement of the media, and all of the grounds it has afforded us to take what it dishes out with several licks of salt, the fact remains that we badly need a free and robust press if we are going to persist as a democracy. But the profession is going to have to look in the mirror if it wishes to survive as we have known it.

Jeff Robbins' latest book, "Notes From the Brink: A Collection of Columns about Policy at Home and Abroad," is available now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple Books and Google Play. Robbins, a former assistant United States attorney and United States delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, was chief counsel for the minority of the United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. An attorney specializing in the First Amendment, he is a longtime columnist for the Boston Herald, writing on politics, national security, human rights and the Mideast.

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