September 26, 2018

Biased Media a Win for Trump

Michael Wolff. Photo by Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Over the past two weeks, the media world has been agog with reactions to the new gossipy tell-all from the West Wing, Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” The book is riddled with errors both small and large, and relies heavily on unverified anecdotes, particularly from former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon. Bannon’s comments have prompted the majority of headlines: He apparently called Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian-backed lawyer “treasonous,” suggested that President Donald Trump was an insane person, and attacked Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump with alacrity. Trump responded in Trumpian fashion: he attacked the book as fake news, and slammed Bannon — rightly — as a self-aggrandizing boor with a penchant for overwrought drama.

But put aside all the chaos regarding Trump — after all, we already knew most of this stuff in a broad way. We knew that Trump wasn’t exactly the “stable genius” he professes to be; we knew that Bannon was a nefarious force motivated to strike down Jared and Ivanka; we knew that the White House seems to function with the force and efficiency of a hamster wheel, with Trump’s itchy Twitter thumb starring as the hamster.

There’s something else more disturbing: the tendency of the media to believe that which they find comfortable, and to disbelieve everything else. The most egregious example came courtesy of Wolff himself, who stated, “If it rings true, it is true.” The meaning of this rather self-serving phrase: If you like what you read, take it as truth. That’s the essence of confirmation bias — the bias we all have toward believing that which confirms our already-decided views. Wolff made that statement to MSNBC’s Katy Tur, who responded, “Congratulations on the book, and congratulations on the president hating it.” Can you imagine such a congratulatory message from Tur to muckraking anti-Hillary Clinton author Ed Klein? Of course not.

Then there was Brian Stelter, CNN’s supposed journalistic ombudsman. Stelter stated, “Wolff’s errors are sloppy, but many Trump experts say the book ‘rings true’ overall. My advice: Read it — skeptically.” Stelter’s own colleague, Jake Tapper, fired back, “Having many errors but ‘ringing true’ is not a journalistic standard. That said, quotes are quotes. And if facts can be ascertained by further reporting as true, that’s also a service.”

But the damage has already been done. Not to Trump — to the media.

When the entire Wolff affair is said and done, it won’t be Trump who emerges worse off.

Trump has been making political hay out of the media’s bias against him for over two years. This week, he’s attacked the media again, suggesting that next week he hopes to hold a “Fake News Awards,” which presumably will come complete with little gold statuettes. The only way for the media to fight back would be with intrepid truth-telling: double-sourced non-rumor-mongering, a real attempt to fight back against confirmation bias. Instead, the media have chosen to run with anonymous sourcing that often turns to dross; they’ve been unable to hide their smiles when the news is bad for Trump, and unable to hide their frowns when the news helps Trump. That lends Trump credibility.

When the entire Wolff affair is said and done, then, it won’t be Trump who emerges worse off. Trump is what we always thought he was: an unstable, charismatic, volatile human being. The media, however, may have blown their credibility in the desire for a cheap hit — and all to promote Steve Bannon’s personal profile. That’s a major win for Trump, not the media that hate him.


Ben Shapiro is a best-selling author, editor-in-chief at The Daily Wire and host of the conservative podcast “The Ben Shapiro Show.”

Good news about bad news

Reporters at the White House on Feb. 27. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Everyone knows TV political journalism failed us during the 2016 campaign.

Everyone knows TV news was clueless about Donald Trump voters and blue states swinging red. Everyone knows anchors let lying candidates roll them. Everyone knows TV coverage hyped the horse race and gave issues the cold shoulder. Everyone knows the cable news default frame for covering controversy is he-said/she-said food fights. Everyone knows local news is all about crashes, crime and fluff. Everyone knows investigative reporting is a luxury local stations can’t afford. Everyone knows down-ballot races are ratings poison.

Well, sometimes something everyone knows is wrong.

Those charges aren’t baseless. I could program a YouTube channel 24/7 with clips that make me cringe. But I also can beat the drum for TV newsmen and newswomen who know what excellence is, who go for it every day and who make me hopeful that at a dangerous moment, TV news can countervail against propaganda, paranoia and a president who calls news media “the enemy of the people” and “scum.”

I say that confidently because over the past couple of months, together with a few dozen USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism faculty colleagues, staff and journalists, we’ve been screening the nearly 100 entries for the ninth biennial Walter Cronkite Awards for Excellence in TV Political Journalism.

Pick a knock on TV news — ignoring blue voters turning red, say — and it’s contested by Cronkite entries such as Ask Ohio, a “60 Minutes” report listening to laid-off workers talk about trade, or like the Pennsylvania and North Carolina swing voters profiled on “PBS NewsHour Weekend.” I’m glad it was so hard to narrow down the entries — there’s that much good work to celebrate.

The award’s recipients were just announced. If you want to be optimistic about journalism as advocate for accuracy, an instrument of accountability and a prompt toward civic engagement, check out online what some of these Cronkite winners are up to.

– Jake Tapper, CNN anchor and chief Washington correspondent, tenaciously asking Donald Trump about his comments regarding Judge Gonzalo Curiel: “[Saying Curiel] can’t do his job because of his race, is that not the definition of racism?” Or Tapper fact-checking whoppers in Trump’s and Hillary Clinton’s stump speeches.

– Katy Tur, on the road with Trump for 17 months for NBC News and MSNBC, master of her subject matter and unflappable despite an onslaught by the candidate and supporters he got to taunt her.

– Univision News and Fusion anchor Jorge Ramos’s intimate portrait of a divided America in a chillingly candid encounter with an unmasked member of the Ku Klux Klan, and an interview with a Muslim woman beaten in a Minnesota restaurant.

– Brian Stelter’s essays grappling with post- and alternate-fact media and politics, the assault on truth and the path for journalists to regain public trust on his CNN program, “Reliable Sources.”

– Investigative reporting on Texas’ border war on drugs by KXAN in Austin; on denial of mental health benefits to veterans by WXIA in Atlanta; on the human story of medical cannabis by Sabrina Ahmed at WOI in West Des Moines; on forged voter signatures by Marshall Zelinger at KMGH in Denver; on judicial elections by Brandon Rittiman at KUSA in Denver, whose work also won KUSA a fact-checking prize, the Brooks Jackson award, which went to the Scripps chain, as well. Public station KCETLink in Los Angeles was commended for Val Zavala’s 60-second animated explainers of 17 propositions on the California ballot.

– More than 500 hours of original political programming across Hearst Television’s 32 stations and the E.W. Scripps Company’s 33 stations, a direct consequence of those chains’ executives asking the stations they own to commit resources and air time to quality political news.

In 1972, a poll of voters in 18 states asked trust thermometer questions about a list of candidates for the presidency and statewide offices; Walter Cronkite’s name, a ringer, was included. His 73 percent rating topped the list and led to him being called “the most trusted man in America.” Sure, maybe the competition was lousy. But he earned the public trust they lacked by doing his work so well. Before he said on the air that the Vietnam War was unwinnable, he went to Vietnam, he asked questions of everyone, he saw with his own eyes what was going on, he weighed the evidence, he told the truth — and people, including President Lyndon Johnson, listened.

Since then, sources for news and definitions of news have proliferated. Hostility toward news, never absent, is being stoked to serve a nihilistic itch to blow up the state. The trust thermometer is below freezing. “Public trust in media at all time low,” says the Financial Times about an Edelman poll. “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low,” says Gallup. An AP-NORC Media Insight Project poll finds that “only 6 percent of people say they have a great deal of confidence in the press, about the same level of trust Americans have in Congress.”

It’s always worth celebrating good journalism. But I can’t think of a more urgent hour than this to honor journalists for stepping up to their civic responsibility to face reality.


MARTY KAPLAN directs the Norman Lear Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which administers the Walter Cronkite Awards for Excellence in TV Political Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.