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Flashback: WaPo columnist asks, “Could we be wrong?”

by | Dec 30, 2019

By Dave Andrusko

As we approach the end of 2019, I’ve been revisiting some older posts with a mind to updating them. They usually require only modest nips and tucks because (alas in most cases) the underlying anti-life and anti-Trump narratives are the same—or worse!

A while back I wrote a post identifying how even the Pew Research Center—no friend of President Trump—conceded that in the prior year, just 5% of media coverage of President Trump was positive. That was and is astonishing.

The jumping off point for my post was a column written by David Von Drehle for the Washington Post–”Could we be wrong?”—that I found utterly fascinating.

I made it clear from the get-go what this column’s primary focus was —and it was not “have we missed the boat on Donald Trump?” Rather it was both another in the Post’s shameless self-promotion—another 811 words of praise for the newspaper’s hay day via what was then a new movie “The Post” —and a yearning for a quality that had been voluntarily abandoned.

That film starred Tom Hanks as Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as then publisher Katharine Graham. It gave Mrs. Graham her due during the fight over whether the Post should publish “the classified Pentagon Papers despite a court order enjoining the New York Times” from doing the same.

So what does this have to do with us, other than having to endure reading more examples of media preening ? Let me explain.

Von Drehle was celebrating what he tells us was the late Mrs. Graham’s “modesty.” He writes

Modesty ranked high among her winsome attributes. She understood that good journalism is not a romantic sequence of high-stakes showdowns. It is a flaw-specked but sincere effort to learn about the world and reflect it honestly, in little increments, without fear or favor.

Those last few words are a commonplace bordering on cliché. But let’s pause a moment with them. Fearless journalism is not just reporting in the face of adverse power. Another brand of courage is the guts to tell one’s friends that their assumptions may be mistaken. It’s the willingness to push oneself to dig deeper and think harder. To understand bad guys and challenge heroes. To ask ourselves why we think as we do and could we be wrong. [Underlining mine.]

Okay. How about asking yourself, as a Post employee, if it doesn’t borders on the preposterous for the newspaper to adapt the self-indulgent slogan “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” as if somehow the Post is the lone beacon of light holding off the forces of darkness, aka President Trump?

The remainder of Von Drehle’s column was an alleluia to the ideal of “genuine objectivity” which so “many journalists have cheerfully shrugged off.”

Why might “an open, curious, careful mind” not be popular during the entirety of the Trump presidency? Simply because it requires journalists to actually work—to dig– rather using their tweeter feed to snark endlessly.

For readers, Von Drehle told us, “seeing the world in all its mixed-up shades of gray is not necessarily comforting.” What does that mean? That the readership of publications such the Post and the New York Times hate President Trump with such vitriolic intensity, to even suggest he has any redeeming qualities is to speak the unspeakable and invite an onslaught of criticism.

If you think I exaggerate, just read a sample of the (literally) thousands of reader responses in these publications to any story about President Trump, or Vice President Mike Pence, for that matter. The onslaught is savage. On the rare occasion the reporter does not skewer President Trump, he or she will take their lumps.

“With the rise of the Internet and disruption of institutional media, many journalists have cheerfully shrugged off the ideal of objectivity,” Von Drehle wrote. But there is a huge upside to what he calls t he “genuine objectivity of an open, curious, careful mind.”

While readers won’t always like what that produces, “most of them

respect it when they see it. Journalists who strive to deliver it bank credibility in small doses over time, humbly acknowledging their blind spots and errors.

He concluded,

Katharine Graham is having her Hollywood moment because she gave the right answer when history popped its quiz. But her crucial lesson for today is that she asked the right questions: Are we sure we’ve got it right?

Could we be wrong?

My guess is when Von Drehle ‘s fellow columnists and reporters read his piece, they roared with one voice, “No!,” we couldn’t be wrong.

Which is very, very unfortunate. The public’s confidence in institutional media is sinking fast.

The only way that confidence can be restored is to earn it, which includes (to quote Von Drehle) “humbly acknowledging their blind spots and errors.”

Categories: Media Bias