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How Trump broke the media

March 30, 2019 GMT

I have long maintained that the armpit of journalism is generally found in the sports section. Most sports journalism is filled with hype, grudges, guesses, preening and opinion masquerading as fact — without any accountability.

The reason for most of the aforementioned is that there’d be a lot less of sports journalism if journalists just stuck to the facts. The reason for lack of accountability is that almost every sports journalist would be out of a job if their NCAA bracket, criticism of an 18-year-old kid who subsequently becomes a star or mock draft were actually scrutinized and evaluated against even an extremely modest standard of accuracy.

The discerning reader will doubtless see where this is going. My biggest problem with sports journalism is that it’s a window into the future (if not the present) of news journalism. Television news, especially cable TV news, is in worse shape than print or radio but it all appears to be headed in the wrong direction. The only thing that seems to be in doubt is which medium will hit bottom first.

For decades I have worried about the manner in which competition drives media outlets to attempt to outdo each other with “breaking news.” Though I normally view competition as a good thing, I do not in this particular context because it frequently has the effect of elevating rumors to the level of facts. Competition also encourages jumping to conclusions and discourages fair, factual evaluation of complex issues.

I’ll get to Trump and the Mueller Report in a bit, but first I’d like to take a look at something that should have served as a cautionary tale to the media but did not — the Duke Lacrosse scandal.

In March 2006 an African-American woman, Crystal Mangum, accused three white Duke University lacrosse team members of rape. Despite the fact that nearly everything about Ms. Mangum’s story begged for scrutiny her allegations fit with a popular narrative that privileged white men are the bane of human existence and the root of all evil. Media coverage did nothing to ameliorate the rush to judgment despite the distinct lack of evidence backing her accusation.

In the fullness of time the lacrosse players were found to be innocent. Ms. Mangum is currently serving time in prison for an unrelated murder — the latest in a long line of criminal misdeeds. Yet not a single member of the commentariat was ever called to task for getting this story wrong. A DA was disbarred, heads rolled in law-enforcement and educational circles, but not a single talking head got lit up. Accountability in the media is evidently not all that it’s cracked up to be.

There was exactly one prominent member of the media who resisted the rush to judgment in this case — Dan Abrams of MSNBC. The fact that few of you have probably heard of Mr. Abrams, while many of his less-restrained colleagues have gone on to fame, is yet more evidence for the proposition that in the media being right is less important than creating a sensation.

Now to Trump. Perhaps the greatest damage that Trump has wrought on our country is wrapped up in the disrespect that he embodies and engenders in others towards the institutions upon which our democracy depends. Diplomacy, the rule of law, fairness, ethics, governing for the good of the country, separation of powers — the list goes on and on. It’ll take decades to sort it all out after Trump is gone.

But worse is the way the Trump has broken the media — and the way in which mostly they walked right into it.

I think that most newspapers (outside of their editorial pages) have acquitted themselves a little better than the rest of the media in covering Trump. But the cable TV networks, in particular, really need to learn something from getting clocked by Trump. The panels of TV experts who opined endlessly and almost universally predicted indictments of Trump and close associates were wrong. And they are still shooting in the dark with all of the hand-wringing about Attorney General William Barr’s perceived bias without having actually read the Mueller Report.

It’s no secret that I do not approve of much of anything that President Trump has ever done. He would not be welcome in my home under any circumstances and that is not something that I can say about any other president in my lifetime all the way back to Eisenhower. But that’s a far piece from thinking that he’s guilty of treason — especially without any proof.

The sooner the media eschews “breaking news,” jettisons political operatives (sticking with actual experts) when trying to flesh out a news story and concentrates on what’s going on instead of telling us what to think about it the quicker they can get back on the path to respectability.

It’s less painful for everyone if they manage to halt their own descent than to bounce, with a resounding thud, off the bottom of the well.

Associated Press and Idaho Press Club award-winning columnist Martin Hackworth of Pocatello is a physicist, writer, consultant and retired Idaho State University faculty member who now spends his time happily raising three children, llama farming, and riding mountain bikes and motorcycles.