Culture

When Did Media Bias Become a Virtue?

A man hands a newspaper to a customer at a news stand in New York (Reuters: Shannon Stapleton)
Liberal dismay about the New York Daily News’ scaling back its front-page campaign against Trump exposes the underside of a partisan press

Nobody expects tabloid covers to be a source of great insight. The two surviving New York City tabs — the New York Daily News and the New York Post — have long used their front pages to make editorial points or just to savage figures their publishers didn’t like, whether the criticism was fair or not. So the fact that the liberal paper — the News — chose to pour scorn and bile on the campaign and the person of Donald Trump throughout the 2016 presidential campaign while the conservative Post was generally supportive of him was not particularly shocking.

What is surprising — and, indeed, ought to shock journalists who care about their profession — is the way the staff of the News, along with other journalists, reacted to the decision on the part of the paper’s publishers to scale back its assault on Trump once he was elected president. They had no problem with their newspaper’s using its front page and news section, as well as their opinion columns and editorials, to bash Trump. But once it decided to tone down the abuse, albeit while still regularly attacking him, the News’ staff didn’t treat this as an example of a newspaper trying to regain at least a smidgen of objectivity. No, they have made it clear — as a feature sympathetic to the paper’s rebels in Politico indicates — that this more measured if still critical attitude toward the president is a sign that the paper has lost its integrity.

That may make sense in the world of mainstream-media journalism, where anything less than open bias against conservatives (or against anyone who offends liberal sensibilities, such as Trump) is not considered objective. But when journalists are exposed in this fashion, it must strike the rest of the country as yet another reason to view the media with distrust, if not outright hostility.

The saga of the News’ journey from all-out attacks on Trump to more-measured criticism isn’t particularly extraordinary. The left-leaning News was all over Trump throughout the campaign. Its implacable hostility was the work of editor Jim Rich, who initially had the support of publisher Mortimer Zuckerman for his stand. But over the course of the year, the paper’s leadership became less convinced of the wisdom of Rich’s decisions. They believed the unrelenting abuse thrown at Trump was having an impact on their circulation. While most liberal publications got little pushback from their position on Trump, the News’ readership is made up of working-class New Yorkers in the outer boroughs of the city who liked the billionaire’s aggressive nationalism and politically incorrect style.

The left-leaning News was all over Trump throughout the campaign. Its implacable hostility was the work of editor Jim Rich, who initially had the support of publisher Mortimer Zuckerman for his stand.

Rich was eventually forced out, resigning in October 2016. Though the decision was ostensibly a dispute about budget cuts, it is believed that Rich’s over-the-top belligerence toward Trump was the real reason.

Rich’s successor, Arthur Browne, is no supporter of Trump, but as the editor told Politico, after spending more than a year depicting Trump as a clown who was a certain loser, the paper needed to reevaluate its strategy. Once he became the president-elect, the News editor felt the paper’s criticism should focus on his policies rather than merely continuing the assault on Trump’s character. He has backed that up with consistently critical coverage and has approved front pages that referred to the president with the following language: “NUTS!” “WAR ON TRUTH,” “BANANAS!” and “POOR BABY!” He even mourned the election result with a “HOUSE OF HORRORS” headline. But that wasn’t extreme enough for the uniformly liberal staff of the News, which longed for more depictions of Trump like the one Rich ran showing him beheading the Statue of Liberty. Politico even came up with some suggestions for insulting front-page headlines. The newsroom was particularly upset when the paper ran a neutral front page about the inauguration. According to News insiders, “the dissent is probably close to unanimous.”

The morale of the left-wing employees of the News and the paper’s meandering journey from hysteria about Trump to run-of-the-mill liberal opposition is not a particularly compelling story. But what is interesting is not merely the bad reviews that Browne’s relative restraint has gotten from his staff but the fact that they think there is nothing egregious about openly demanding that the paper’s coverage be so skewed.

The Trump administration is a challenge for all journalists because of the president’s refusal to play by the normal rules of behavior. His allergy to the truth, bizarre use of Twitter, and belief that he’s entitled to say anything, no matter how awful or false, about anyone who criticizes him make it hard to take the time to be fair to him or his policies. But many liberal journalists’ prejudice is so great that they have come to believe that even a pretense of objectivity is unnecessary. To the contrary, they think that nothing short of coverage designed to ridicule everything Trump’s administration does is required.

But by acting in this manner, they are merely confirming the belief of senior White House adviser Steve Bannon that the media are the real opposition party and, as Trump described it, the “enemy of the American people.” Such sentiments are antithetical to normal political warfare, in which it is understood that even if the press always tilts to the left, it is still a vital element in democracy. But when we read about an entire newsroom revolting because a paper abandons extremism and insult for a calmer form of opposition, it’s hard to argue with Bannon, even if Trump’s statement is an indefensible escalation of the conflict.

If journalists want to know why the public doesn’t trust them, or why some Republicans have given up on the idea of getting fair play from the media, the story of what happened at the New York Daily News provides a concise explanation. When journalists embrace bias as a virtue, they forfeit the respect of their readers.

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