As a writer who spends a good deal of time and energy sharing public commentary, I suppose I should be thankful that mainstream media is terrible since a significant number of my posts are critiques of why and how mainstream journalism is a dumpster fire.
Narrowly, edujournalism and, broadly, journalism fail us because of traditional norms of the field (what I have criticized as both-sides journalism) and the corrosive influence of market forces (what I have criticized as press-release journalism and crossing the Bigfoot line).
Here, I want to address a third way mainstream media journalism fails us—an essential flaw, like both-sides journalism, that grounds journalism in seeking and relying upon sources as the primary evidence of the field.
As a writing teacher, I have been for years teaching students a wide variety of approaches to citation among different disciplines. A key lesson of that process is to examine those differences for the norms of citation as opposed to evaluating whether or not typical academic forms of citation are better than the seemingly lower threshold for journalism.
For example, we examine and then the students practice the use of hyperlinks for online public writing as well as focusing on interviewing, quoting, and paraphrasing from sources.
It is at the last norm of journalism that we can identify why mainstream media journalism does and will always fail us.
For example, the recent controversy over comedian Michelle Wolf’s routine at the White House correspondent’s dinner serves well to highlight how mainstream media journalists are part of the celebrity class in the U.S., and thus, are covering politicians with a default expectation of civility that trumps serious critique—notably the persistent argument by journalists since the election of Trump that journalists should not directly confront politicians as liars.
Mainstream media journalists, many women and some among the often slurred “liberal media,” have robustly criticized Wolf for her tone and material (framed as personal attacks), defending in effect a pair of serial liars—Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her boss, Trump.
This sort of hand wringing as respectability politics at the exclusion of genuinely deplorable behavior is a perfect snapshot of almost everything that is wrong with mainstream media: Journalists who believe confronting a liar is worse than being a liar, confronting a racist is worse than being a racist.
This journalists’ norm of civility provides cover for Trump’s daily offensive language and behavior because the practical result places the status of president in front of the need to expose lies and bigotry. As Arwa Mahdawi confronts:
What’s more, urging Wolf to apologize for what should have been an uncontroversial joke sends an incredibly dangerous message. It suggests that it’s not OK to criticize the president and his people. And it lends credence to Trump’s repeated claims that the mainstream media is out to get him.
Similar to the both-side approach to all topics by journalists—who refuse to take stands on the credibility of any sides—this call for civility exists because journalists, especially White House correspondents, are bound to creating and maintaining personal relationships with their sources; and thus, just as journalists will take no stand on the credibility of sides, they choose to remain deferent to the status of elected and appointed officials regardless of the ethical character of the people in those positions.
All in the name of access.
In the end, we may be witnessing how the political and media class in the U.S. have become fully parts of the celebrity class.
Mainstream media journalists are peers of elected and appointed officials, and neither are bound to the principles of democracy, the public, or the public good.
Mainstream media are no longer covering politics because politics and mainstream media have joined together to be sidekicks in the ever-expanding reality TV monstrosity that is enveloping our would-be democracy.
Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Maggie Haberman are playing their dutiful roles, sort of a good cop/bad cop routine with far too much wink-wink-nod-nod, and cannot, must not be bothered with the truth.
This real-life dystopia is far more chilling than The Stepford Wives and should make one pause, as Wolf did, to see how The Handmaid’s Tale is not mere speculation.