Political reporters need to raise their standards

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Have you ever been in a public setting when someone drinks too much, and suddenly starts saying and doing things that make you — and everyone else in the room — uncomfortable and embarrassed for that person. Maybe you were thinking, “Oh boy! Is he going to be sorry when he wakes up tomorrow morning and remembers what he’s done.”

Increasingly, I feel that discomfort watching reporters at White House press briefings. Except the reporters and the media outlets they represent are never embarrassed by their unprofessional behavior. Too often in America, when reporters act like black flies armed with digital recorders and laptops, who clearly hate politicians we don’t like either, we’re okay with the indiscriminate biting and chewing.

Except, that’s not the role of political news reporters. At least, it wasn’t the role of political news reporters until recently.

Michael Goodwin is the chief political columnist for The New York Post. He taught at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining the Post in 2009, he was the political columnist for The New York Daily News, where he served as executive editor and editorial page editor and led its editorial board to a Pulitzer Prize. Mr. Goodwin also worked for 16 years at The New York Times.

In remarks titled, “The 2016 Election and the Demise of Journalistic Standards,” published in IMPRIMIS (May/June 2017) Goodwin quotes from a column written by a New York Times political reporter.

“If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalist tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?”

Goodwin responds:

“I read that paragraph and I thought to myself, well, that’s actually an easy question. If you feel that way about Trump, normal journalistic ethics would dictate that you shouldn’t cover him. You cannot be fair. And you shouldn’t be covering Hillary Clinton either, because you’ve already decided who should be president. Go cover sports or entertainment.”

Yes, political reporters are human beings and being objective is sometimes hard. But, as Michael Goodwin points out, objective reporting is the job, the “normal journalistic ethics.” When political reporters fell short of the mark and their bias showed in their news stories — that’s where news editors — reporters’ bosses — stepped up and red penciled biased reporting.

Political news reporting from all sides is healthy. I know firsthand how the internet is a forum for a smorgasbord of political news and opinion. I don’t expect normal journalistic ethics from every web source of political news and opinion.

But I do expect normal journalistic ethics from political news sources who tell us that’s what we’re getting in their news stories. At least I used to.

“Political knowledge is not intuitive. It is reached by an exhaustive process of trial and error, of patient accumulation of facts that are judged and studied and pondered over and then placed in their proper perspective. Into it should go a knowledge of the past and of the judgments regarding it which students and philosophers have made,” wrote New York Times correspondent Herbert L. Matthews in his 1946 book, “The Education of a Correspondent.”

Herbert Matthews is a controversial figure, but his point about political knowledge is good. When we have a shortage of students of American, world, or political history working as political news reporters and editors, who see their jobs — their career success — hinging on destroying elected officials, or candidates for public office with legitimate, but different political views — how is that helping Maine? The nation?

And where do we go from here?

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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