DANIEL VAUGHAN: The media’s lost credibility is a choice

September 22, 2019

Hollywood and the press both deliver messages to society as a means of communicating their disapproval of the government.

For instance, the news media fell over itself in worship for the film The Post in 2017. The movie depicted The Washington Post‘s leak of the Pentagon Papers regarding U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which hurt Richard Nixon politically. And in the Trump era, this how the media sees itself: it is once again thwarting the Nixon of its time.

In 2005, Hollywood released another movie, Good Night, and Good Luck. Written and directed by George Clooney, the film told the story of a famed newsman, Edward R. Murrow, and his battles with U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy during the height of the “red scare.”

The timing was also no coincidence: America was at the height of both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and this was Hollywood’s way of announcing that it and the news media were opposing the “evil” Bush administration.

Indeed, the press has long pushed its own ever-increasing sense of self-importance. But that arrogance only holds up if it has been earned.

Political scientists long ago referred to the press as the fourth estate. In medieval times, the other three estates of power were the clergy, nobility, and commoners; in the modern American era, the other three estates of power are the legislative, executive, and judiciary branches of government. The press, theoretically, provides an outside check on all of these powers — which is why freedom of the press is explicitly laid out in the Bill of Rights.

Edward R. Murrow himself described the duty of the press tactfully: “To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful.”

Following that formulation, if the press has lost its credibility (and all polling data suggests that it has), then there must be a problem with the truth.

But the press doesn’t see this problem — and movies like The Post and Good Night, and Good Luck make that clear. The media is drinking their own Kool-Aid, and leaving an increasingly polarized world without a credible press.

Nowhere are those Kool-Aid stains more evident than in The New York Times’ most recent smear against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.

The Times published an excerpt from a new book about Kavanaugh, written by Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly. The article, which contained a new allegation against the sitting Supreme Court justice — who already went through one of the most tumultuous nomination hearings in history — should have been front-page news.

But it wasn’t.

And that’s where the problems begin for the Times and this story. Vanity Fair reported that the piece was pitched for front-page news, but the news editors decided there wasn’t “enough juice” to run it in the News section — so they passed it off to the Opinion section.

Why do that? Liability.

If they air something they can’t prove, they open themselves up to defamation charges. But given all that, they still decided to run it.

Indeed, last fall, they had two journalists out in the field trying to prove that Kavanaugh was the person Christine Blasey Ford described, but the Times came up with nothing. In fact, recent reporting suggests they found the opposite: Ford’s best witness during the Kavanaugh hearings was her old friend, Leyland Keiser, who now rejects Ford’s story.

And as for the new allegation — the alleged victim herself apparently has no memory of the alleged incident, a fact that was conveniently left out of the Times‘ latest “opinion” piece.

That led to an embarrassing editors’ note on the Times‘ part, while its journalists ran around defending themselves, blaming their editors, and even devolving to attacking Fox News and conservatives for pointing out the Times‘ own glaring deficiencies.

Watching The New York Times defend this story is like watching Baghdad Bob tell everyone that nothing was wrong in Iraq while American bombs exploded in the background.

This brings me back to Murrow: his attacks on McCarthyism had truth to them, which gave him credibility. The Pentagon Papers leaks revealed how Kennedy and Johnson got America into Vietnam and all the failures and lies that were told along the way. There was a real story there, based on hard evidence.

But there is no evidence in the Kavanaugh story, just a tightly spun narrative. It seems the media has shoehorned each and every fact into that narrative, even if the facts point the opposite way.

If that’s the case, then you have a fourth estate that not only lacks credibility, but lacks the persuasion and believability to report the truth. What’s more, the audience is right to mistrust the media. There’s no truth for the public to take home.

And if all that is true, then all the myths the media has built for itself are gone. Professional journalists don’t have much more use than your average aggregation site or blog.

If you want a more powerful fourth estate that serves as a check on government at all levels, then you have to have a media pursuing the truth. If they don’t, we’re going to continue watching this whole cloth implosion of credibility and the cultural importance of news channels and newspapers.

But if objective media completely implodes into oblivion, they’ll have no one to blame but themselves. It’s not Donald Trump or Brett Kavanaugh forcing them to lie and invent narratives. The decline is a choice.

Goodnight, and good luck, press.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.