The Decline and Fall of Journalistic Integrity
By Matthew Hausman, J.D.
The decline of American journalism has been realized by reporters and editors acting as partisan foot soldiers instead of watchdogs. This is not the free press envisioned by the Founding Fathers or taught by my journalism mentor.
Media collusion has always been essential for enabling authoritarian government and dictatorial rule. Historically, state-run media systems have been used to disseminate propaganda as news, control the flow of information, and quash dissent, whether in Nazi Germany, the former Soviet Union, communist China, or the Islamic Republic of Iran. Though the US Constitution contemplates a free press to safeguard against governmental excess and tyranny, journalists abdicate this role when they engage in political activism through lobbying and selective reporting.
It is common today for reporters to manipulate news to fit their politics, disparage opponents, and belittle those who dare to expose their biases. Partisanship can influence reporting to such a degree that news frequently resembles state media – or public relations copy. And for all their handwringing about how conservatives and Republicans supposedly threaten democracy, it is US mainstream journalists who censor speech they find disagreeable, undercut the Constitution by misrepresenting its contents, and discourage voter choice by suppressing news that is unflattering to liberal Democrat candidates, e.g., stories of Biden family corruption that were downplayed or ignored during and after the 2020 election.
This was not how I learned when I started in the business more than thirty years ago.
When I began writing in the 1980s, I worked for Vernon Merritt, III, a southern gentleman born and raised in Alabama and an acclaimed photojournalist during the 1960s and 1970s. We met when he was publishing science and medical news magazines, but he made his reputation covering the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War for Life Magazine and other publications. Vernon was a gifted photographer responsible for some of the most iconic magazine covers of that era. He was also an exacting editor and generous mentor.
The sociopolitical turbulence of those years turned journalism into an activist profession by encouraging reporters to inject subjective viewpoints into their reporting. Exponents of the “New Journalism” as defined by Tom Wolfe and others borrowed literary devices from fiction to infuse stories with personal perspective.
Vernon taught me to resist such trends and instead report factually. Opinions were fine for the editorial page, he said, but they should never affect the presentation of news. Though reporters as individuals may have idiosyncratic beliefs, the traditional standard was always to set opinion aside and report as accurately as possible.
But neutrality became passé as editorial standards bowed to social activism.
Vernon was older than me but despite our age difference we developed a close friendship and discussed many things – from literature and history to religion and baseball. We eventually got around to the Arab-Israeli conflict, though he was initially reluctant to broach the subject. One day, he said to me in his mellifluous Southern accent, “Lad, I have a question, but I don’t want to offend you.”
After I assured him he couldn’t offend me, he asked me why certain Jewish writers and activists he knew from the ‘60s seemed to turn against Israel after the Six-Day War. He couldn’t understand how they could be hypercritical of Israel while ignoring the belligerence of Arab nations that had launched several genocidal wars against the Jewish state and persecuted their own citizens. Likewise, he asked how they could so readily endorse a competing national narrative that repudiated the Jewish past and advocated Israel’s destruction. The more we discussed Jewish history, the less sense it seemed to make.
And this started a dialogue between us that lasted until his untimely death in 2000.
In answering his initial question, I explained that many journalists he knew were probably motivated by the politics of the day more than journalistic objectivity. When their political agenda adopted the Palestinian cause, they proceeded to falsely portray Israel as colonial and Jews as strangers to their homeland, using their media platform to advance revisionist claims over objective history.
I also explained how maligning Israel was natural for a press that harbored anti-Jewish bias long before Israel’s independence – as indicated by its shameful Holocaust coverage during World War II. He hadn’t known that the New York Times and other newspapers downplayed the Nazi genocide – often burying news of atrocities on the back pages or neglecting to mention the targeting of Jews. Or that Jewish activists who sought to raise awareness of the Shoah (e.g., Hillel Kook a/k/a Peter Bergson) were regarded as obstreperous rabble-rousers by both the press and President Roosevelt’s liberal Jewish acolytes, who defamed and slandered them.
As our discussions evolved, we agreed that blasé acceptance of media bias against Jews and Israel could pave the way for dishonest reporting on other issues and ultimately blur the line between fact and fiction. Consequently, he told me I should write articles and commentary addressing these distortions and inequities.
Commentary based on fact is truthful, he said, but activist reporting reflecting prejudice, assumption, and innuendo is not.
It seems our dialogue was prescient considering how the decline of American journalism we discussed years ago has been realized by reporters and editors acting as partisan foot soldiers instead of watchdogs against political excess and government overreach. As they have come to revel in one-sided hyperbole, they no longer serve the purpose of a free press envisioned by America’s Founding Fathers.
As Thomas Jefferson once wrote, “Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.” Jefferson understood that fulfilling this purpose required the press to remain independent and above government. Today’s mainstream media does not seem to agree, however, and instead views itself as a collective political operative. During the Trump administration, many journalists saw themselves as part of “the resistance” and disingenuously portrayed him as a fascist; and since then, they have continued to be guided by partisan loyalties that impair reportorial neutrality.
Such conduct was not unique to the Trump era but has longstanding historical precedent.
Progressive journalists in the 1930s concealed reports of Stalin’s starvation of the Ukrainian Kulaks, which left millions dead, and regurgitated Soviet propaganda when covering the Moscow Show Trials. They did this to support Stalin. Many of them admired the communist government and suppressed news that exposed Soviet brutality. Though the pro-communist sensibilities of star reporters like Walter Duranty should have been suspect at the time, their stories were generally published without counterbalance.
The problem has only worsened in recent years as the media establishment has become a platform for woke radicalism and anti-Israel propaganda.
For years now, mainstream news organizations have attempted to undermine Israel’s legitimacy with classical antisemitic canards. The ancient blood libel has been updated and restated in press reports of massacres that never occurred (e.g., the Jenin hoax); fictitious IDF assaults on schools, mosques, and hospitals; supposed killings of Arab civilians to harvest organs; and false casualty statistics provided by terror organizations like Hamas.
The same deceptive tactics employed against Israel are now used to besmirch anybody disliked by the press. One need not be a supporter of former President Trump to see how during his administration the media suspended its objectivity, touted fantastic conspiracy theories, and routinized editorial double standards – or that these practices continue today.
Witness the media’s excoriation of Trump for claiming voter fraud in the 2020 election, after it spent four years delegitimizing his presidency by validating a Russian collusion narrative that, as suggested by Special Counsel John Durham’s ongoing investigation and indictments, was actually concocted by Democratic operatives who supported Hillary Clinton. If the media were fulfilling its Constitutional purpose, it would have reported the Russian story objectively and exposed the inconsistencies that debunked its core allegations instead of peddling it as unalloyed truth.
The media’s bias can also be defined by what it chooses to overlook. Considering its preoccupation with Trump’s mental status during his presidency, for example, the failure to report on concerns over Joe Biden’s cognitive abilities would be inexplicable if not for willful ignorance. Biden’s performances at press conferences – where he calls on pre-approved reporters, responds to unanticipated queries with, “I’m not supposed to be answering all these questions,” or simply turns his back and walks away – should be ripe for inquiry. The pushback, however, has been minimal.
One need not love Trump or hate Biden to recognize the disparities.
These are not the signs of a responsible media, and they don’t represent the professional values instilled in me years ago by a mentor I admired and respected. Rather, the deterioration of traditional standards has led to a crisis of journalistic integrity. In today’s toxic media environment, the only cure is for reporters and editors to return to those standards and conduct themselves accordingly, regardless of partisan affiliation.
But I won’t hold my breath.
©Matthew Hausman, J.D. All rights reserved.
This article is courtesy of DrRichSwier.com, an online community of citizen journalists, academics, subject matter experts, and activists to express the principles of limited government and personal liberty to the public, to policy makers, and to political activists. Please visit DrRichSwier.com for more great content.