U.S. President Donald Trump claims that all negative stories are fake news.
The media indignantly responds by casting themselves as pursuers of nothing but the truth. They are, in their view, shining light in the darkness.
Then, as with CNN and ABC News last week, the media egregiously oversteps, rushing to breathlessly report anti-Trump bombshells that spectacularly blow up in their faces mere hours later. So Trump claims vindication.
And on it goes.
While the intensity of this controversy may be new, the fundamentals aren’t. News reporting has always been susceptible to allegations of spin and slant, cherry-picking and calculation.
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When I was a child in Ireland, everyone knew that the two main dailies were aligned with different political parties. And when I came to Toronto in 1965, it was common knowledge that the Star was Liberal and the Telegram was Conservative. Depending on which you read, you’d get a different perspective on the news.
The major American media, however, habitually claim to be above any partisan leanings. Instead, they’re tough-minded, skeptical journalists dedicated to giving you the whole story regardless of where the chips fall.
That, though, isn’t entirely true. Putting current controversies aside, let’s look at a couple of examples from the not-so-distant past.
To be played by Tom Hanks in the forthcoming movie The Post, Ben Bradlee worked for Newsweek during John F. Kennedy’s administration. Back then, Newsweek was a heavy hitter in the American media environment and Bradlee’s friendship with Kennedy gave him an insider’s access.
But that access wasn’t always used to pursue the truth, particularly if such pursuit would have embarrassed Kennedy. In fact, you could say that Bradlee was protective of his presidential friend’s interests. A couple of anecdotes from his engaging 1975 memoir Conversations with Kennedy illustrate the point.
When the Bradlees dined with the Kennedys on the evening after the 1960 election, the president-elect recounted his telephone call the night before with Chicago Mayor Richard Daley. As the crucial state of Illinois hung in the balance, Kennedy quoted Daley as saying, “with a little bit of luck and the help of a few close friends, you’re going to carry Illinois.” In light of the subsequent controversy over the honesty of the result, Bradlee said he “often wondered about that statement.”
And at a private party during the 1962 steel pricing controversy, Bradlee heard the president and his brother – Attorney General Robert Kennedy – entertain the guests by recounting how they’d tapped the telephones of steel industry executives and turned the Internal Revenue Service loose on the executives’ tax returns.
Bradlee heard a suggestion of possible election fraud and boasting about illegitimately using the levers of government to harass political targets.
But he kept quiet.
However, as executive editor of the Washington Post in the early 1970s, Bradlee was gung-ho about pursuing Richard Nixon’s Watergate sins.
Clearly, telling truth about the powerful was a selective exercise.
Then there was Walter Cronkite, once described as the “most trusted man in America.”
In his role as anchor of the CBS Evening News (1962 to 1981) and host of coverage for special events like the moon landings, Cronkite projected an avuncular amiability and an aura of unimpeachable integrity. His nightly sign-off, “And that’s the way it is,” was calculated to reassure millions of viewers that they’d heard the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
Cronkite, however, could be less than entirely straight with his vast audience. Rather than just reporting the news, he could be a surreptitiously active participant in attempting to shape it.
Following a visit to Vietnam, Cronkite sought a private meeting with then Sen. Robert Kennedy, in which he urged Kennedy to challenge President Lyndon Johnson for the 1968 Democratic nomination. Having personally turned against the war, he was determined to do what he could to end it.
And that was his prerogative. But while continuing to report on Vietnam and presidentially-related stories, Cronkite didn’t deign to tell his audience that he’d shifted from observer to active player.
Of course, none of this means that Trump is necessarily – or even often – right when he rants about fake news. Just don’t fall for the myth of the dispassionate news media either.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit. For interview requests, click here.
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