Something dangerous is happening in the American media.
Jim Rutenberg, a media columnist for The New York Times, recently argued that journalists have no choice but to abandon “normal” journalistic standards in covering Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump because “Mr. Trump is conducting his campaign in ways we’ve not normally seen.” It’s hard to think of a more alarming statement.
Rutenberg’s approach—which many others seem to share—is especially evident in the media when not only Trump, but also Russian President Vladimir Putin is involved. In combination, the two seem specially formulated to prompt journalists to cast aside not only their objectivity, but necessary standards of evidence. One particularly vivid example is a recent article by Newsweek’s former Moscow Bureau Chief Owen Matthews, entitled “How Vladimir Putin is Using Donald Trump to Advance Russia’s Goals.” But we will return to that later.
Notwithstanding Trump’s flaws as a presidential candidate (or, for that matter, Hillary Clinton’s), and without accepting Putin’s troublesome conduct, how can individual journalists simultaneously assert that their work has special value, and deserves social respect, even as they decide when “normal” standards apply and when they don’t? More dangerously, what are the consequences when many journalists simultaneously choose not to apply rigorous standards to their reporting?
If journalists essentially set their own standards, they erase the distinction between reporting and advocacy. Taking that approach to its logical conclusion turns journalism into a collection of one-person campaigns against real and imagined evils, often with little factual basis. Conversely, if a large number of American journalists suspend their standards in reporting on a particular issue, they can warp the country’s public debates and damage both our policy and our society.
None of these observations are new. They are—or should be—self-evident. In his famous account Liberty and the News, which appeared after World War I, Walter Lippmann warned, “the most destructive form of untruth is sophistry and propaganda by those whose profession it is to report the news. The news columns are common carriers. When those who control them arrogate to themselves the right to determine by their own consciences what shall be reported and for what purpose, democracy is unworkable.”
Yet the very perils that Lippmann pointed to keep sabotaging American journalism, perhaps most recently in the period before the 2003 war in Iraq. Afterward, The New York Times itself acknowledged that its reporters relied too heavily on information from “a circle of Iraqi informants, defectors and exiles bent on ‘regime change.’” As a result, journalists at the Times and other publications who saw a unique danger from a despicable dictator with fictitious nuclear weapons gave far too little scrutiny to the objectives, potential costs, and possible consequences of a major U.S. war. They failed either to adequately inform the U.S. public or to check government power.
Here we go again.
Russia today presents formidable national security challenges to the United States that often require tough responses. Yet precisely because Russia’s challenges are formidable, U.S. responses should be serious, informed, and effective—something virtually impossible in a climate when attempting to analyze and describe the sources of Russia’s conduct is loudly decried as “pro-Russian.”
None of this prevented Newsweek’s Owen Matthews from attempting to do so in an article attacking Trump and (apparently) individuals or entities whom he found to be connected to the Republican candidate somewhere on the internet. Instead, Matthews commits journalistic sins that defy credulity and, if repeated regularly by others, threaten the foundations of a free society—just as Walter Lippmann warned.
To start, Matthews assailed the Center for the National Interest, this magazine, and the magazine’s Advisory Council Chairman Richard Burt without contacting any of us to confirm what he asserts. The first obligation of any reputable journalist is to give the subjects he is writing about a chance to provide their version of events. Amazingly, Matthews never bothered to do so. Are his editors indifferent to his blithe disregard for fundamental journalistic obligations? Or do they agree with Rutenberg that where Trump, Putin or others they don’t like are concerned, “normal” standards don’t apply?
Next, Matthews draws very heavily on a single source, an article in Politico by James Kirchick. Indeed, he leans on Kirchick to such an extent that he repeats one of his sentences nearly verbatim, stating that “In May 2014, the two institutions held a joint press conference defending Russia’s position in Ukraine.“ Kirchick had written that “In May 2014, the two think tanks held a press conference defending Russia’s position in Ukraine.” But Kirchick, a neoconservative polemicist who has no problem thumping his chest about democracy abroad while simultaneously justifying a military coup at home should Trump be elected president, may not exactly be the most careful or disinterested source.