Responsible journalism won a key battle in Alabama.
But the war is far from over.
Journalism won in Alabama not because a Democrat defeated a Republican in the December 12 special U.S. Senate election. Rather, it won a battle in Alabama because voters rebuked a candidate who spent much of the final weeks of the campaign targeting what he called “fake news” reports about credible allegations of sexual misconduct.
There were many other factors in the highly contentious campaign, to be sure. But one cannot deny that Judge Roy Moore’s near-constant lambasting of the Washington Post and key backer Steve Bannon’s labeling of the news media as “the opposition party” at an election-eve rally just did not resonate with a plurality of voters in a state that voted for candidate Donald Trump – now the nation’s media basher in chief – overwhelmingly in 2016.
It was the Post that broke a story several weeks before the election in which a woman claimed Moore sexually assaulted her decades ago when she was only 14 years old and he was 32. Shortly after the story was published other women came forward with similar assertions.
Moore and some of his key supporters accused the Post, and other media outlets that reported the stories, of paying the women to fabricate lies about him. The Moore campaign barred Post reporters from its election night event.
Prior to the outcome of the Alabama election it had been a rough few weeks for national news outlets, with a handful of big errors by major news organizations, after which – individually and collectively – they were labeled as “fake news” by President Trump and his surrogates, and weaponized by people who say they don’t like the mainstream news media to bolster their assertions that reporters fabricate news about the president.
ABC News suspended correspondent Brian Ross for four weeks after he erroneously reported that then-candidate Trump had personally asked Michael Flynn to reach out to Russia during the campaign. CNN promptly corrected an error in a report about the date on which Trump and his eldest son had received a WikiLeaks encryption key giving them access to hacked Hillary Clinton campaign emails. A Post reporter quickly corrected an incorrect tweet depicting the crowd size at a presidential rally.
In normal times, the manner in which the “offending” news organizations dealt with their errors would, perhaps, bolster trust in the news media, because they serve as textbook examples of how responsible journalists promptly correct their errors and hold those responsible accountable. David Frum, senior editor at The Atlantic, made that very point on the December 10 edition of CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”
These are not normal times, however. Mr. Trump called for the Post to fire the reporter and tweeted that “fake news” was “a stain on America.”
According to a recently released Poynter Institute study, more than 60% of respondents who self-identified as supporters of President Trump believe his infamous claim from earlier this year that journalists are the “enemy of the American people.”
Clearly, the president’s nearly constant labeling as “fake news” responsible fact-based journalism that puts him in a bad light or that he finds inconvenient to his agenda is striking a chord with his political base. Watergate era journalist Carl Bernstein told CNN that America is currently in a “cold civil war” in which a significant segment of the population no longer believes news outlets that don’t reflect their preconceived notion of what the truth should be.
There is no reason to believe that many supporters of the president and Moore have changed their minds because of the outcome in Alabama. In fact, the White House seems as emboldened as ever to treat reporters with disdain and, occasionally, to threaten to withhold access, as CNN’s Jim Acosta said Press Secretary Sarah Sanders did to him December 12.
I have written before that the Alabama senate race was a preview for the 2018 midterm election cycle. Campaign consultants, much as Moore’s did, are encouraging their candidates in Senate, House and even local campaigns to attack the media because it worked so well for the president last year.
Also, there’s been no let up in public hostility toward the news media. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, of which RTDNA is a founding partner, 36 journalists have been physically assaulted so far in 2017.
As CNN chief Jeff Zucker famously told his newsrooms earlier this year, this is the time for journalists to play “error-free ball.” As POLITICO’s Michael Calderone noted earlier this week, The New York Times and other outlets have adopted the same mantra. Calderone also noted, quite correctly, that rebuilding trust with the public will not be easy.
Still, as I and others have said many times these past several months, the only antidote to attacks on responsible journalism is more and better responsible journalism. By “responsible journalism,” I mean, among other things, keeping your heads down and digging until your stories are solid factually. I mean promptly correcting any errors and holding those in your newsrooms who are responsible accountable. I mean never stop fulfilling your Constitutionally-guaranteed duty seek and report the truth.
Long after the Alabama Senate campaign has left the daily news cycle, and long after today’s red hot vitriolic political and ideological climate begins to cool – and the eternal optimist in me believes it will – reporters will still be committing flagrant acts of responsible journalism that serve their communities.
In the meantime, don’t back down. And don’t give up.