The Corner

Politics & Policy

The Trouble With the Newly-Recharged ‘Accountability Journalism’

From the last Morning Jolt of the week:

The Trouble With the Newly-Recharged ‘Accountability Journalism’

Over at the Neiman Journalism Lab, Ken Doctor offers an essay about mutual accountability – the audience holds the media accountable, the media holds the powerful accountable – that runs along fine until we hit this point:

If publishers, editors, and general managers — at dailies, public radio stations, alternative weeklies, TV outlets and emerging digital startups — assert such values, what work will they point to, each week or each day, that fulfills that promise? Those news organizations — The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, The Atlantic, Mother Jones, The Guardian — that have seen a boom in subscription sales have done just that. They’ve done the visible work, and readers have responded.

Er, okay, except… all of those examples are center-left to pretty far left. If you can’t find any publication on the Right that represents the values of good journalism you want to salute, then I start to draw some conclusions about how you define “holding the powerful accountable.”

He continues with this example:

The real-life implications for Americans, given the spate of policy/law changes, looks like it is going to be profound. Especially at the local level (where, let’s remember, everyone lives), health care, environmental, education, and criminal justice impacts should be quite reportable. This week, via NPR’s All Things Considered, I heard the kind of report we need. NPR, in partnership with Phoenix’s KJZZ and Kaiser Health News, produced “Arizona Children Could Lose Health Coverage Under Obamacare Repeal.” In less than four minutes, it made human impacts clear.

The NPR piece does quote a health care policy expert from the Goldwater Institute, but otherwise it follows a really familiar narrative: the good and generous government is giving something to the deserving needy, and bad people want to take it away. Repealing a law that has been largely disliked since its inception is framed as cruel act to a mom who survived ovarian cancer in college.

Perhaps the potential repeal of Obamacare strikes many journalists as outrageous. It’s a free country, and they’re free to come to that conclusion. But what else outrages them?

Did the falsity of ‘if you like your plan, you can keep your plan’ outrage them? Did veterans dying while waiting for care from the VA outrage them? Did the administration’s actions before, during and after the Benghazi attack outrage them?  This isn’t “whataboutism,” allegedly a disingenuous form of changing the subject. This is a challenge to political journalists, that if they saw these other Obama-era scandals as regrettable, but inconsequential snafus, with no larger lesson or meaning… why?

If you see certain other stories of scandal and incompetence as deeply meaningful, and national “teachable moments”, why is that? Hopefully your sense of a meaningful and consequential cause for outrage doesn’t align perfectly with one party’s interests. Ideally, the course of human events will periodically bring you to offer a critical assessment of someone you previously liked or agreed with. (Ahem. Bob McDonnell. Ben Carson. Mike Huckabee.) 

There is desire among President’s most high-profile critics to build a broad bipartisan coalition of permanent opposition to Trump, to minimize his ability to change national policies, and to leave him a legacy as one of America’s least consequential presidents. But is the motivation for that opposition Trump’s deviation from traditional Republicanism, or because of his partial alignment with it?

Trump critics catch my attention when their argument is that he is uniquely troubling in the Oval Office because of his lack of impulse control, his belief in implausible theories, his petty vindictiveness, his crude comments and language, his contradictory statements and persistently ameliorating perspective on Russia.  These critics lose me when they suggest Trump is dangerous because he wants abortion restrictions, border security, Obamacare’s repeal, to cut particular government spending, and for sanctuary cities to start cooperating with federal immigration authorities. Trump is a controversial personality, but that doesn’t mean that everything he does is automatically controversial.