In the 1950s when U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy and other legislators, including Nevada’s Pat McCarran, spread stories of communists in government, journalism was their unwitting ally.
Journalism as it then existed played right into McCarthy’s hands. His accusations were reported simply because he was a U.S. senator. Such accusations would not have gotten the same level of publicity if he had not had such an august title. They were reported in simple he-said/he-said fashion, though as often as not, the target was not immediately available to comment and the later, delayed comments received less prominent play.
News analysis and context were considered violations of journalistic objectivity. If a reporter accurately wrote, “McCarthy did not name the 57 alleged communists he claimed work in government,” it was considered a breach of objectivity.
Eventually, journalists became aware of the way they were being used. As a result, the practice of journalism changed. That kind of just-the-facts, uncritical journalism that served one side in a dispute became less common. A U.S. senator will always get big coverage, and the denials or reactions will come later and get smaller placement. So journalism practices evolved to allow analytical reporting so that reporters could scrutinize claims and accusations and draw in additional relevant information that would not previously have been reported. Members of the public got more information that allowed them to make a fuller judgment.
We may now be seeing journalism changing again. Donald Trump’s disrespect for facts and inability to discern facts from fakelore (“What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the internet.”) are forcing journalists to actually say in news stories that Trump statements are false or that Trump is riding for a fall of one kind or another. Samples:
New York Times: “Trump Claims, With No Evidence, That ‘Millions of People’ Voted Illegally.”
Politico: “Trump’s baseless assertions of voter fraud called ‘stunning’.”
Washington Post: “Donald Trump’s bogus claim that millions of people voted illegally for Hillary Clinton.”
NBC News: “Donald Trump Proposes Two Illegal Responses to Flag Burning.”
New York Times: “Ethics Office Praises Donald Trump for a Move He Hasn’t Committed To.”
It looks like the national press is trying new ways to deal with Trump’s way of conducting himself. I doubt any journalist is comfortable just coming out and saying that a major public figure is wrong on accuracy, but Trump just hasn’t left journalists much choice. Reader and viewers sit at home and toxic information washes over them, leading them to reach unfortunate or dangerous conclusions based on foolish falsehoods supplied by their leader. Journalism cannot stand by and do nothing except serve as a conduit.
The truth is that the profession probably waited too long. We have seen other politicians, like Ronald Reagan, who incredibly convinced themselves of false things (Reagan believed he was present at the opening of the Nazi death camps) or that scenes in movies had actually happened. Celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Danny DeVito, Prince Charles, Michael Crichton, Robert Kennedy Jr., Jim Carrey, Victoria Jackson have been pumping bad information into the public bloodstream for years.
It will be interesting to see how this new evolution of the news works. It is also unfortunate that it became necessary.
Dennis Myers is an award-winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.