The Crisis at The Times And That Public Editor Piece

Josh Marshall at TPM:

A good, though rather parodic and extreme example of the kind of both-sides-ism we’re talking about was the spate of headlines which said some version of “Trump, Clinton Trade Charges of Racism” a couple weeks ago. Well, one candidate has openly identified with avowed racists, made racially incendiary remarks and made racism the single most salient theme of his campaign. The other … well, there’s really nothing like that besides Trump saying ‘No, you’re racist.’ This isn’t a moral or ideological judgment. It is, as far as we can ever have it, a factual statement of what’s actually happening. Those are precisely the judgments we rely on reporters to make. These are not scientific, purely objective judgments. But neither are they moral or ideological. They are factual, or factual well within the scope of the kinds of judgements we expect reporters to make.

This is simply one example. But it’s emblematic.

Now why is this? The key to understanding this phenomenon is to see that it is as much tied to publishing and business models as journalistic conventions. This is not meant in the sense that journalists strive for faux balance out of some hunt for clicks or dollars. It’s not nearly so direct or mercenary. The contemporary journalistic concept of objectivity is not only rooted in professional and ideological developments of the early 20th century. It is also rooted in changes in the newspaper publishing industry in the middle and late 20th century. As an increasing number of American cities became single newspaper or de facto single newspaper towns, their financial footing became increasingly based on monopoly ad pricing. This made well-known newspapers very lucrative and consistently profitable businesses since they had de facto monopolies over commercial advertising in specific geographic areas. But it also made their business model rest on being the default news source for all news consumers in their geographic domain. Obviously there were boutique publications and TV. But before the Internet, this major city and even regional newspaper dominance was a huge fact of the journalism profession and the news business – and one many assumed was the normal state of things.

This monopoly or near monopoly framework made reporters – and particularly political campaign reporters – into something more akin to moderators of debates between candidates rather than arbiters of fact, what was happening and what wasn’t. There are many roots of the phenomenon we’re discussing here. I don’t mean to say this is the only one. But a critical and under-appreciated factor is that need for publications to be relevant to all news consumers in a geographical region, whether a major city, a region or the country at large. Of course, that monopoly power – both financial and journalistic – made an institution like the LA Times in its heyday incredibly powerful. But its organizational premise and business model also made it vulnerable to opponents’ accusations of bias, valid or not. That leverage only grew as elements of the monopoly power slipped away. And this distorting prism only became more intense as the country became increasingly polarized along partisan lines.

Thus a complex set of contingent historical circumstances produced a certain concept of journalism and journalistic ‘balance’ or objectivity. But over time, as it became entrenched in news rooms and propagated out into journalism schools, it came to be seen as simply what proper journalism, particularly political journalism, was, ever had been or ever should be.

The upshot was that because of this interwoven mix of journalistic and publishing imperatives reporters were no longer able to treat one candidate as fundamentally different from the other, if that treatment was merited by what was actually happening. Not for ideological reasons. Not for moral reasons. But for factual reasons. Reasons of basic judgment and understanding of context. Trump’s campaign has been so different, so indifferent to clear factual claims, so unbridled that he has frequently put this whole edifice under strain to a breaking point.