• Category: Latest News
  • Written by Rick Ellis

Political Journalism's Confederacy Of Cowards

I've been a journalist pretty much my entire adult life. I've covered local planning commission meetings where I was the only person there other than the commissioners. I've written for newspapers big & small, a few magazines and I've worked at a variety of digital news organizations of all sizes since the mid-1990s. I bristle when I hear critics whine about "fake news," because I know that more often than not when they say "fake" they really mean "news that doesn't fit my worldview." I love being a journalist and even when I've done other things, I've always freelanced on the side. It's as much a part of who I am as my childhood or my irrational fondness for a Gyro & fries. 

But I am also realistic about journalism's shortcomings. One of the dangers of being a journalist is that you get sucked into the world of the people you're covering. Losing your way doesn't happen overnight. It begins with being friendly with the subjects you cover, because you know becoming their friend is the easiest way to get them to open up. And as you become friendly you start moving in the same social circles, meeting each other significant others & swapping pictures of the family dog. At some point, it's easy to start rationalizing the moral shortcuts you're taking, especially if you're a reporter covering politics in D.C. 

You see bad behavior and shrug it off with "that's just the administration policy, that's not what good ol' Bob thinks." You worry about access to sources, since your job increasingly depends on having a pipeline or two into the party that is in power. You don't want to stand your ground because that might damage your friends and besides "I'm still going to be as hard on them as ever in the future."

No one sets out to be a coward. Cowardice sneaks up on you in a hundred small steps until you find you can rationalize behavior in yourself that you'd loathe in others. One of the hardest things in the world is to make the tough decision when no one else is watching. Doing the thing that is right, even if it hurts you in the long run.

The Trump White House held the annual pre-State Of The Union lunch for top national news anchors on Tuesday. This off-the-record lunch is a long-standing tradition that goes back a couple of decades and its useful for journalists who are able to have a more free-flowing conversation with the President and other administration officials.

But this year, the White House decided not to invite CNN's Anderson Cooper and Wolf Blitzer, apparently due to President Trump's long-running feud with the network's coverage of his administration. From what I can tell, it's the first time any White House has purposely snubbed one of the major news networks & it comes just after the State Department dropped an NPR reporter from an upcoming trip with Mike Pompeo.

Any reasonable group of people in any other industry who found themselves in a similar situation would politely decline to attend the lunch. "I'm sorry, I can't attend the free company lunch at Applebee's if you don't invite Angie from the night shift." No matter the industry, most people realize that once the powers that be start picking off people, no one is safe. You have to stand up to bullies the first time something happens. Waiting until they get around to you isn't just moral cowardice, it's the dumbest form of tactics.

And yet, not one person appears to have declined the opportunity to attend the White House lunch. Pictures from before the lunch show a range of participants including anchors from ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC & C-Span (the photo above came from a now-deleted tweet from C-CPAN's Howard Mortman). In a year when each of the major news networks have been attacked by this White House, at a time when conservatives scream "fake news" at any perceived slight, we get to witness just what these networks think is worth fighting for. 

I suspect the networks and individual anchors will argue the access is helpful & that if they boycotted the lunch they would be at a journalistic disadvantage compared to those networks that decided to attend. I say that I suspect what they would argue because despite the efforts of myself and a lot of other journalists to get a comment about the event from the networks and/or anchors, no one is saying anything.

Anchors like Chuck Todd can spend the next year whining about how unfair the White House is being to journalists and how he and his fellow anchors are just trying to do their jobs. But we viewers also now know that when it comes to taking the smallest step to protect fellow journalists, most network news anchors are more than willing to trade access for ethics. 

And that, my fellow journalists is part of the reason why so many people have trouble believing you'll do the right thing in your reporting.

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