The triteness of ‘reckoning’: A Q&A with Poynter president Neil Brown on media coverage of the Mueller report

March 29, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

The Russian investigation is over. Robert Mueller’s report has been turned in. And now we begin another investigation: How did the media do in covering this story? In the past week, media critics, including Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones, have written about what might be a time of “reckoning” for journalists.

But is it?

In this Q&A, Poynter president Neil Brown talks to Jones about this so-called reckoning, if the media was fair and what lessons can be learned.

We’ve heard a lot about this being a reckoning for the media. Do you agree — and how do you feel about that word: “reckoning?”

My first reaction was “reckoning, schmeckoning.” I think the word has become trite and it’s sort of faux lofty to suggest this week’s developments — albeit important ones — should trigger some big internal affairs investigation of the press. Plus overuse of the word reckoning devalues the meaningful societal reflection and action required on issues like #metoo.

With all due respect, the suggestion is really just code for: “You owe somebody an apology.” In the case coverage of potential Russian meddling in the 2016 election and the investigation into whether President Trump and his associates colluded or obstructed investigators, a meaningful assessment is premature. The Mueller report is not actually even out yet.

Hold on a second. Are you saying there’s no room for criticism of coverage or looking at the way the media is perceived?

I’m not arguing we shouldn’t take stock. Every news organization is accountable to its audience to publish accurately and fairly. I’m just saying there’s nothing magical about these initial developments on Mueller’s findings beyond the more than two-year-old narrative about the contentious relationship between President Trump and many in the news media. The issues being kicked around this week predate the Mueller developments.

OK, so we don’t have to call it a reckoning, but let’s go ahead and take stock. The essential question posed this week: Has the media been rooting against Trump and, if so, was coverage shaped by it?

At the heart of the matter is the continued rise in noise and influence from the Pundit Industrial Complex. Punditry and journalism are not the same thing — and often in complete collision. The pundit class is a mix of journalists, former or current politicos, academics or subject experts — many of whom enter the arena (usually TV) to offer their opinions on current affairs. Often what they have to say is not based on original reporting, or even if it is, is presented with a decided point of view or through a partisan prism. That’s different than independent reporting that seeks to surface the multi-sides of an issue.

I’d say 80 percent of the argument about coverage of Trump goes to the unabashed partisanship of various commenters from both the right and left in ways that are deliberately provocative. That’s been going on for years. The latest scorekeeping of whose predictions on Mueller were right or wrong is largely about the pundit class and shouldn’t be confused with questions of journalism ethics or excellence.

The New York Post published a funny “Mueller Madness” bracket — a sendup on the NCAA basketball tourney bracket. It featured quotes from 32 people predicting Mueller would find collusion by Trump and his allies on Russian meddling and even political doom. Thirty-one of the people quoted were either TV or newspaper commentators, former political operatives, academics or entertainers. (Brian Ross of ABC News is not considered a commentator but he made the bracket because the Post said he misreported on the matter.)

And so yes, lots of pundits were rooting against Trump. Lots were rooting for him. As an aside, if you totaled the minutes of time on Fox News and conservative talk radio, the president’s defenders probably had more air time. That’s a guess.

So then what about the other 20 percent? For most of this story, we really had no idea what was going on, yet there was a pressure on news outlets to break news. Did that contribute to this idea that news outlets might have been rooting for a certain outcome?

I think that’s the crux of it. Or at least a lot of it. Whether it’s filling air time on cable, filling space in the paper or filling quotas of social media posts to drive web traffic, I think there’s a real industry-wide problem of selling every incremental development as if it’s a significant scoop or piece of news. The sheer volume — and sometimes offered breathlessly so — creates a drumbeat that suggests we are cheerleading for an outcome. And it undermines the impact of solid reporting or investigative work.

It’s important that news organizations calibrate their coverage and be upfront about what they know rather than suggest big news when in fact it may be non-news. Poynter’s former ethics scholar Bob Steele often talked about “tone” and “degree.” I think those are good words for us to keep in mind — when both are out of whack, consumers of news lose track of what’s real and it contributes to the us-versus-them mood.

But let me be clear about something, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan was spot on when she noted that the Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg and many other news organizations have done some outstanding journalism that has totally informed what we know about Russian meddling and about the business dealings of the president, his family members and his associates. Where would we be as a society without these kinds of disclosures? It’s ridiculous to lose sight of that.

So what lessons can we use moving forward?

When the report is actually released, we need coverage that is complete, filled with context and respects the timelines of the story. Let’s keep the cart before the horse: report the facts before the analysis, don’t add up the political score before laying out the facts for the audience.

And overall, let’s be clear when something is offered as opinion and when it is reported. Meanwhile, consumers of the information have an obligation too: Turn to more sources and be discerning. Not all news sources have the same style or same mission. And above all, consumers must value disclosure of what their officials are up to and reject the ugly notion being pitched by extreme partisans, including President Trump, that journalism is only something practiced by your “enemies.”

It’s OK to disagree or criticize. But to use words like treason and to seek retribution for stories that one doesn’t agree with is offensive and utterly unacceptable in this society.

Comments

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  • The question is being deferred by silly chatter about terms. The question is are news reporters – not pundits or analysts – broadly misrepresenting facts and using “heavy breathing” to convey a sense that events or acts accused of a president are true? The obvious answer is yes and the obvious answer is that Poynter should come down on U.S. media like a judge’s hammer to criticize truly useless and often harmless acts committed as “journalism”. The U.S. media is a business first, a group of ideologues second, and a collection of grand-standers who don’t give a rip about objectivity or validity of reporting. Say it for once in your life. The place is up for grabs!