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We’re now in the “Murrow moment” phase of liberal journalism i.e. journos thirsting to take down Trump, you know, just like Ed Murrow took down big bad Joe McCarthy back in the day.
There is a certain desperate energy to do a Murrow moment on Trump. Now that Trump got elected, it seems the #NeverTrump media is kicking itself for not doing more to turn the juicy but dubious Steele dossier on Trump’s Russia links into a pre-election firestorm.
Time to make amends! And make up for the lost time!
The strategy pretty much boils down to Accentuate the negative / Eliminate the positive / Don’t mess with Mister In-Between all day every day.
Warning: Winning the news cycle against Trump each and every day may cause some regrettable slippage in journo standards.
Like making a complete hash out of the history of NAFTA in order to employ it as a Trump-bashing weapon. That’s what I cover in my Newsbud piece on Trump and TPP, and journos getting history on rewrite to whitewash the political and economic catastrophes NAFTA inflicted on Mexico in the 1990s.
I’m a fan of leaks and investigative journalism. I’m not a fan of skewed reporting designed to take down a public figure, a.k.a. advocacy journalism an exercise which, when not conducted by the parfait knights of the American Fourth Estate is known as agitprop/infowar/*gulp* fake news. Or ratf*cking.
I’ve lived long enough to fart through silk by Mencius’ standard, and I’ve seen enough ratf*cking to be skeptical of the process by which journos demagogue a demagogue. Didn’t see McCarthy, but I saw Nixon. And Khomeini and Gaddafi and Saddam and Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un and Putin and Assad and Chavez and, of course, Trump.
“Burn the witch!” reporting seems better suited to generating moral panics and stampeding public opinion toward a pre-ordained outcome, rather than generating that reasoned focus and debate that, you know, might keep us out of a trillion dollar war in Iraq.
My skepticism is also grounded on the backstory behind the original “Murrow moment”. The takedown of McCarthy is celebrated as the ultimate journo righteous kill—and the model and justification for subsequent exercises in advocacy journalism– but it wasn’t quite a clean hit.
Long story short, journos did not speak truth to power in 1954; they piped agitprop to the people on behalf of a systematic campaign to 86 McCarthy orchestrated by President Eisenhower.
I did a deep dive on Murrow/McCarthy back in December 2015, when the anti-Trump norm-setters in journo-land started trying to police coverage of Trump : Yes, the Press Might Do a Joe McCarthy on Trump; Just Not the Way You Think.
If your preferred method for studying history is George Clooney movies, you might find something new here.
The ethical issues involved in overtly going after a pol with one-sided reporting because he was “a threat to the republic” did receive an airing at the time of the Murrow telecast.
Fred Friendly, Murrow’s associate, was quite frank about the fact that to get McCarthy, they needed to do a hit piece on him, as described in this excerpt from Friendlyvision: Fred Friendly and the Rise and Fall of Television Journalism by Ralph Engelman (Columbia University Press, 2011). Friendly is not at all frank about the key role Eisenhower played in the campaign against McCarthy, perhaps out of solicitude to Ike, who became a significant CBS news partner after leaving the presidency. Ah, journoism!:
“A Report on Senator Joseph R. McCarthy” is a sophisticated hybrid of two genres: objective reportage and public argument. The opening suggest the conventions of journalistic objectivity…Murrow “trails the Senator like a Greek chorus”…linking and interpreting the sequences…Visual clues reinforce the underlying message…In a departure from normal documentary technique, the camera lingers beyond the conventional edit at the end of the statement to reveal awkward or unsavory imagery…some commentators…criticized the program as a dangerous precedent for the use of the powerful visual medium of television for advocacy journalism…Friendly did not dispute the one-sidedness of the program, recalling that he and Murrow were aware that they had “crossed the line into editorial comment”…Reflecting upon the McCarthy program two decades later, Friendly characterized it as an exception to the general rule that broadcast journalists should avoid taking sides. Under extraordinary extenuating circumstances, “where the future of the republic is involved,” an exception can and should be made…Friendly argued that See It Now could legitimately present for public consideration a critique of a senator who had skillfully used for his own ends a press—print and electronic—that reflexively reported his charges without routinely examining their veracity:
And in the final analysis, what if we hadn’t done the broadcast? And supposing McCarthy had triumphed, as he might well have, then where would…those who criticized the broadcast be?…I think we were balancing how what we knew how to do well against what he did superbly well, which is to be a demagogue. And I’m sorry we had to do it that way. But it was the challenge of a lifetime, a desperate moment for the country, and not to have used it because of a series of rules that we would apply to ourselves and that Senator McCarthy would abuse to the ultimate would have made history judge us very harshly.
The legendary See It Now episode is embedded in my 2015 McCarthy/Trump post, so viewers can judge for themselves.
Subsequently, according to Engelman, CBS jefe Bill Paley sidestepped the whole advocacy issue by saying the news programs don’t editorialize but feature or documentary programs did and in those cases CBS delegated responsibility for content and opinon to those “in whose integrity and devotion to democratic principles CBS reposes complete confidence…” and who are “bound by the overriding policies of fairness and balance”.
So you can see where this is heading. The criteria is “where the future of the republic is involved” and the decisionmakers are journos with “integrity and devotion to democratic principles” and “bound by the overriding policies of fairness and balance”.
Who will police the journos blah blah blah. Especially now that Eisenhower’s dead and can’t share his moral compass.
I imagine there are whole courses at J-schools to teach aspiring journos how to recognize the magic moment when it’s time to engage in a righteous ratf*cking of a dangerous pol. Maybe in the case of Trump critical mass was reached when angry and worried journos received the 10,000th gut-churning anti-Semitic or racist tweet from Trump supporters.
If so, can’t blame them too much. It’s easy to advocate for dispassion and objectivity when you’re puttering along on your little blog and not receiving a torrent of abuse, threats, and explicit targeting.
But the bottom line for me is, a license to practice one-sided journalism creates, with alarming frequency, bad journalism. And when one-sided journalism melds with bad journalism, you get journalism that readers simply tune out as just more ratf*cking, not a precious Murrow moment.