Monday, May 28, 2018
Opinion

Column: Criticism of the news media takes on a more sinister tone

It sure does get exhausting working for the global corporate media conspiracy.

The hours are horrible (my kingdom for a weekend off). You never know what the puppet masters are going to order up next. (I wish that guy from Mexico, What's-His-Face Slim, would get off my back.) And there's no extra combat pay when, at this point, there clearly should be.

I probably shouldn't joke (and yes, Twitter, that's what I'm doing). The anger being directed at the news media has become dangerous enough that some news organizations are providing security for staff members covering Trump rallies. "Someone's going to get hurt" has become a common refrain in American newsrooms.

At Donald Trump's rally in Cincinnati last week, the crowd met reporters with sustained boos, curses and chants of, "Tell the truth, tell the truth."

It was as tense as anyone had seen it since the candidacy of George Wallace, and yet it was almost understandable given what Trump had been telling them: The news media was trying to "poison the minds" of voters with "lies, lies, lies." All of it, he said, is part of a "conspiracy against you, the American people" that also includes "global financial interests."

The idea that the press is part of some grand conspiracy against the people, presented in such incendiary terms, goes well beyond the long-standing Republican complaints about liberal bias. You'd more expect to hear it from Lenin or the pages of the anti-Semitic publication American Free Press than from the standard-bearer of the Republican Party.

But it is resonating with a large portion of the American electorate. We can debate whether the "corporate" news media is as left-leaning as critics claim. The answer, as I see it, is more than they'll admit to themselves and less than conservatives claim.

But there is little question that it is out of step with Trump's die-hards on the issues upon which Trump won them over, especially immigration and trade. And this tracks across the ideological divide in the mainstream media.

For all their many differences, the right-leaning editorial board of the Wall Street Journal and the left-leaning editorial boards of the New York Times and the Washington Post share the beliefs that global free trade is generally beneficial and that the United States needs to create ways to legalize the undocumented immigrant workforce.

Then there are big attitudinal differences that come from the fact that the biggest American newsrooms are in major cities. "One of the reasons the national media initially missed the rise of Trump was because so much of it is based on the coasts," said Joanne Lipman, editor in chief of the USA Today Network, which Gannett formed in December, in part, to combine the sensibilities of the 110 newspapers it owns.

There also tends to be a shared sense of noble mission across the news media that can preclude journalists from questioning their own potential biases. "The people who run American journalism, and who staff the newsrooms, think of themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan and, culturally speaking, on the right side of history," Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative, told me. "They don't know what they don't know and they don't care to know it."

Dreher lives in Louisiana and has worked at five major city newspapers across the country. He does not support Trump but says he understands why his supporters are so frustrated. As far as he's concerned, mainstream journalists are "interested in every kind of diversity, except the kind that would challenge their own prejudices." Those include, "bigotry against conservative religion, bigotry against rural folks and bigotry against working-class and poor white people."

It's a pretty sweeping generalization. But a considerable percentage of the country believes it. An even larger percentage of Trump's voters do.

No matter what happens on Nov. 8, the notion isn't going away. American newsrooms will be making a big mistake — and missing a huge continuing story — if they fail to adjust their coverage to better illuminate the concerns of Trump's supporters well beyond Election Day. Doing so might begin to build up trust in the news media, which the Gallup Organization reported as hitting a new low in September.

Reporters can make mistakes, become overly chummy with sources and fall into traps that give the campaigns too much power over their reporting. Much as they should resist it, that happens on a bipartisan basis. It is not evidence that the news media is working in tandem with "globalists" and Clinton's campaign to deliver her the presidency.

In the case of the New York Times, Trump has made its largest individual shareholder, Carlos Slim, of Mexico, part of the conspiracy. The newspaper's publisher, Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. — whose family controls the company's voting shares — said in a statement that Slim "has never sought to influence what we report." Previously, I had mostly noticed suggestions of a Slim-Times conspiracy on Breitbart and alt-right Twitter accounts.

In giving those allegations prominence, the standard-bearer of the Republican Party is adding a sinister, false twist to his press criticism that arguably puts the reporters covering his rallies in danger. In effect, he is painting them as traitors.

Now who's poisoning the minds of the electorate?

Jim Rutenberg is the media columnist for the New York Times. © 2016 New York Times

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