February 1, 2019

Playing it down the middle

Journalists are taught to be fair, to be balanced, to report all sides of a story, to report stories down the middle.

But can down the middle actually be a bad thing?

In her latest column, Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan rails against what she calls the “middle-lane approach to journalism.’’ Sullivan writes:

“One of the supposed golden rules of journalism goes like this: ‘If everybody’s mad at your coverage, you must be doing a good job.’

“That’s ridiculous, of course, though it seems comforting. If everybody’s mad, it may just mean you’re getting everything wrong.

“But it’s the kind of muddled thinking that feels right to media people who practice what I’ll call the middle-lane approach to journalism — the smarmy centrism that often benefits nobody, but promises that you won’t offend anyone.’’

I mention this because I recently was accused by some on social media as advocating this kind of centrist thinking. In recapping a recent “Today’’ show interview with the Covington Catholic High School student who had a confrontation with a Native American elder, I felt that interviewer Savannah Guthrie’s criticism from both liberals and conservatives meant she did a good job.

I stand by that. Because criticism of Guthrie was so specific — she was both too hard and too soft on the student — I believe that could be seen as evidence her interview was fair and balanced.

But I wrote that “anytime’’ you’re criticized from both sides on a story, there’s a “decent chance’’ you did your job. This is where I was wrong and Sullivan’s column is correct. If everyone is criticizing you, yes, it just might mean you’re not doing your job well.

As far as this idea of down-the-middle journalism, respectable news outlets that are not mouthpieces for one party or the other (you know who I mean) still have an obligation to strive for impartiality. And, this is particularly important, there’s a difference between reporting the news and offering commentary. The goal for “beat’’ reporters still must be objectivity. It’s the commentary part where news outlets have freedom, yet continue to struggle.

For example, CBS hiring Republican former senator Jeff Flake is supposed to show, one can only assume, that CBS is bringing in a conservative voice. Yet Flake is critical of President Donald Trump. In the end, what is Flake’s role supposed to be if both liberals and Trump supporters dismiss him and he straddles the center line? This is just one example. CBS is not alone in these kinds of hires and CBS is not alone in its ham-handed attempt to appear neutral. This kind of down-the-middle journalism might check a network’s “objectivity” box, but it really doesn’t really serve its audience.

Check out Sullivan’s column. As always, it’s worth your time.

Reading podcasts

You can now read The New York Times’ core podcasts. That’s right: read.

On Thursday, the Times launched audio transcripts for its main podcasts, including “The Daily,’’ its most popular podcast and one of the most listened-to pods in the country. There also will be transcripts for “Still Processing,’’ “The Argument,’’ “Book Review’’ and “Popcast.’’

Sanders’ thoughts on the media

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders speaks during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

In an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said that she sees “a lot of angry faces’’ among reporters at press briefings.

Sanders told CBN News’ chief political analyst David Brody and senior Washington correspondent Jennifer Wishon, “Their sole purpose is to find this gotcha moment, to catch you. Their job is not to get information, which is what the briefing is supposed to be. It’s to trip you up.’’

ASME Next awards

The American Society of Magazine Editors announced Thursday the winners of the fourth annual ASME Next Awards for journalists under 30. The five are:

  • Alex Lau, staff photographer at Bon Appetit
  • Olivia Nuzzi, Washington correspondent at New York Magazine
  • Ernest Owens, LBGTQ editor and online contributor at Philadelphia Magazine
  • Jeremy Raff, producer of Atlantic Studios at the Atlantic
  • Elaine Teng, general editor at ESPN The Magazine

The winners will be honored at the National Magazine Awards in Brooklyn on March 14.

I triple-dog dare ya

Now for your bizarre story of the day — and wait for, by far, the quote of the day at the end.

The Daily Beast reported Thursday that some folks are claiming Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is hiding a secret illness. Or, as the fringe QAnon conspiracy theory suggests, Ginsberg is dead. Former White House adviser Sebastian Gorka put out a tweet that wondered where Ginsberg, 85, is. She has canceled public appearances since undergoing surgery for lung cancer in December. Gorka posted a photo of Ginsberg and wrote:

“Still no sign. 6 days left until Ruth Bader Ginsberg has to make her official appearance at (Donald Trump’s) State of the Union.’’

Now for that money quote. When asked about the tweet, Gorka told The Daily Beast to “go outside and lick a metal street lamp.’’

Temperatures in Washington, D.C. on Thursday were in the teens.

Producer fired for graphic

It’s one thing to think New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is a cheater. Apparently, it’s another to call him that on television — even in Pittsburgh, where Brady and the Patriots are hated by Steelers fans. A local TV producer learned this lesson the hard way when he was fired for a graphic that called Brady a “known cheater.’’

Michael Telek was fired by KDKA-TV for a graphic that was meant to be a joke.

“For the 4 p.m. news, the kicker is usually soft and sweet,” he told Deadspin. “We get these packages that come down from corporate and it was just like, ‘Here are the two teams in the Super Bowl,’ pretty boring. So I wrote the intro about six rings and then changed it up. I mean, it’s Pittsburgh, we hate the Patriots, we hate Tom Brady, so it was a little wink for the fans.’’

KDKA-TV didn’t think it was funny. In a statement, the station wrote, “While fans are entitled to have personal opinions, we a have a journalistic responsibility to provide unbiased reporting. The graphic that appeared Monday violated our news standards.’’

I get the whole “journalistic responsibility’’ jazz, but a firing seems extreme for something that isn’t all that serious. This feels like a news outlet taking an unnecessary stand to prove a point to its viewers, who likely didn’t have a problem with it. KDKA isn’t doing this as a service to its viewers. It’s doing it so it can act pat itself on the back for its so-called “news standards.’’

Anyway, was Telek wrong? Wasn’t Brady suspended for the first four games of the 2016 season for his involvement in “Deflategate?’’

Poynter’s ICYMI headlines:


Upcoming training:


PolitiFact is a property of the Poynter Institute.

Want to get this briefing in your inbox? Sign up here.

Follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
More by Tom Jones

More News

Back to News