Trashing the “mainstream media” doesn’t help
“Never argue with a man who buys ink by the barrel.”
So goes the old “Greener’s Rule,” named for the late William I. Greener, Jr., top press aide to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then President Ford in the 1970s (and father of a dear colleague and friend who happens to be Republican).
Trump Nation — the president and his supporters, media and party — nevertheless loves to slam and smear the professional mainstream media, starting with CNN, MSNBC, the broadcast networks, and The New York Times and The Washington Post.
That’s normally ok — journalists can handle criticism; it goes with the tough albeit modestly paid job (average income: $40,000 v. $48,000 U.S. worker average).
But while we’re all doing our part to control the coronavirus pandemic, attacking the mainstream media — as it works to keep us informed and the ever-shifting Trump claims and White House story straight — isn’t helping. In fact, it might make things worse.
Trashing the media when this pandemic broke, calling the coverage a politically motivated hyped-up hoax, caused many in Trump Nation to disbelieve it was real or serious. They in turn spread misinformation that the virus is nothing and went about their normal lives.
By doing so, they may have helped to spread the pandemic.
The mainstream media proved right from the start in sounding the alarm about the oncoming pandemic and impact. Yet some in Trump Nation still attack and accuse it of “sensationalizing,” when it’s impossible to overstate a situation this urgently health, life- and nation-threatening.
Countless reporters, editors, producers and crews are working around the clock, under fraught conditions, to keep the nation informed. Many, including the White House press corps, are risking their health to keep working.
Questioning the mainstream media is fine. Trashing them while watching cable TV from our comfy quarantining couches does not make their jobs any easier.
Let’s also set the record straight about this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad “mainstream media.”
- The term has become an Orwellian right-wing political slur. The mainstream media is not just CNN, MSNBC and the major networks and newspapers the president and his echo chamber sneer at. Fox boasts that it’s #1 in cable news. Cable news is America’s #1 source of information. If Fox isn’t the “mainstream media,” then what is?
- The “mainstream media” is actually a broad spectrum of fiercely competing businesses purveying news, voices and views. It’s up to consumer to caveat emptor and toss the chaff from the wheat. Also, my conservative friends, isn’t competition in the free market of innovation and ideas the solution to everything?
- As a competitive business, beware any media outlet that consistently trashes its main competition. When Fox “personalities” and right-wing media call CNN “fake news,” it’s like Kool-Aid saying Crystal Lite contains rat poison, so drink more Kool-Aid.
- By the way, how can people who rarely if ever actually watch CNN judge that it’s “fake news”? I hope not because they swallow whatever Fox and right-wing competitors say about CNN. Caveat emptor.
- The mainstream media, including Fox, offers both straight, factual reporting and opinion, and try to label them separately. Any discerning media consumer should be able to tell the difference. Tarring the mainstream media broad brush because you disagree with Don Lemon or Rachel Maddow doesn’t sound so discerning.
- Let’s be clear about the difference between the mainstream media and the right-wing media. The mainstream media are trained and tested professional journalists. Many started in college and then at local newspapers or network affiliates covering school and zoning board, fire and police, and local politics, and worked their way up to regional, state and then national reporting. I know this because I did this.
- Mainstream media journalists get their butts kicked all along the way, every day, by their editors, and their editors, and their editors, and by people they report on. Especially if they don’t have their facts completely nailed down, or get them wrong, or slip into assertion. Objectivity is core to real journalism, even if, as flawed humans, bias creeps in. If any case, if you want to slam a profession, it helps to know how it works.
- Then there’s the right-wing media. They’re not professional journalists at all. They’re political polemicists, purveying pure opinion and proud of it. Look it up — many if not most “reporters” or “writers” trained at Koch-funded and other right-wing political groups such as Heritage or Heartland (infamous for claiming smoking doesn’t cause cancer); conservative talk radio or congressional offices; etc. They pretend to be real journalists but of course, without any real experience or expertise, make a mockery of it. Like me trying to salsa dance. Mainstream media tends not to hire writers who trained at the Environmental Defense Fund or other political liberal .orgs.
- No, of course the mainstream media isn’t flawless. But it tries as a matter of mission to own up to mistakes and set things right. When reporters screw up bigly, they’re often fired or resign, and humiliated by the right-wing media. Cherry-picking and hyping honest mistakes to trash the entire profession doesn’t reflect well on those who do it.
- Most of all, the media is supposed to challenge politicians. We all know that’s why the Founders protected the press in the very first amendment.
All to say, if you attack the mainstream media because it’s questioning President Trump, especially for his clownish fumbling of this national crisis, you might have the fundamental duty as a citizen upside down.
True patriots don’t protect even their favorite politicians; they challenge them to do better. To keep him on the right path in this national crisis, Trump needs to be called out when he’s wrong.
So please, stop killing the messenger by attacking the mainstream media. Our health, safety and future as a nation as we struggle together through this unprecedented national emergency depend on it.
Jeffrey Denny is a Washington writer.