After a week in which Buzzfeed published the false claim that Donald Trump told Michael Cohen to lie to Congress and a tsunami of inaccurate reporting smeared a bunch of high school kids in MAGA hats, it’s time to ask: what happens if political journalism can’t snap back from its current state of tabloidization?
Journalism is the only profession mentioned in the Bill of Rights. The Founders assigned it a specific role to ensure that citizens would be able to carry out informed debates. Yet over the last two years, serious political journalism has all but been pushed aside in a rush towards tabloidization. The goal of this is to do away with Trump, not by honest persuasion but by any means necessary.
The justification is that America is on the precipice of 1933, and so running Trump out of office is a moral duty. Trump is a Nazi; the red MAGA cap is the new Klan hood. Under such dire circumstances, the media can no longer risk letting both sides be heard (now known as “giving them a platform”) or chance unbiased reporting that might inadvertently make Trump look good. Some journalists seem to believe they were partially responsible for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Others live in fear that some scrap of truth might accidentally abet more Charlottesvilles. The new standard is tabloid-level journalism, so every story can be a Fruity Pebbles sugar high serving the cause. Objectivity is #collusion.
Classic tabloids like the National Enquirer run Elvis-is-alive articles, announce miracle cancer cures, and traffic in outrageous celebrity gossip. Sources are anonymous, conclusions spoon-fed, headlines bombastically out of line with the text. It’s okay in its place, because absent a few blue-haired old ladies in what used to be called the beauty parlor, no one really believes the stories. We’re spectators at a magic show where we know no one is actually sawed in half but it’s fun to be fooled anyway. The problem is when ostensibly real news becomes tabloidized.
The most recent example is Buzzfeed’s claim that documentary proof exists that Trump ordered his attorney (whom the media by common agreement libelously calls a “fixer”) to lie to Congress about the Moscow Project. Tabloids use assumed narratives and prejudices—a miracle cure could save mom if only Big Pharma would get out of the way. In this case, the narrative chain is that Trump wanted to build a hotel in Moscow, so the Russkies helped him win the presidency so he’s now their asset so it all has to be lied about so Trump has to be in on it.
Lack of actual evidence has held back Russiagate in all its metastasizing forms for over two years. Enter Buzzfeed, which set the hook with something new: its mystery sources saw the evidence that Trump told Cohen to lie. One of the Buzzfeed authors, albeit one with a history of plagiarism and misreporting going back years, kinda sorta maybe said he personally saw it too.
Same as with the miracle cure, to any objective person, Buzzfeed’s story was too good to be true: a literal paper receipt for perjury! Trump can’t lie his way out of that! He’ll be out of office as fast as the paperwork can be processed! Impeach the MF!
Legacy prestigious media outlets such as The Washington Post and The New York Times picked up the story, having learned how to hide behind the thong of appending “As reported by Buzzfeed…” after which for all they care they can headline The Earth is Flat! at no reputational risk to themselves. In 2019, they are no longer responsible for what they (re)print.
Congressman Jim Clyburn spoke for the media and his fellow pols when he said, “I don’t think that my Democratic friends are in any way rushing to judgment because they qualified right up front, ‘If this is true.’ When you preface your statement with ‘If this is true,’ that, to me, gives you all the cover you need.” One imagines with horror those words chiseled on a journalism building Clyburn funds at his alma mater.
The only problem is that Buzzfeed’s story wasn’t true. It was shut down by a statement from the special counsel’s office in less than 24 hours, the first such rebuke ever issued (though to be fair, James Comey also stated that some New York Times reporting on Russiagate was wrong). The media in both instances characterized being told it was wrong by the definitive source it otherwise deifies as just a “dispute,” “pushing back,” a “controversy.”
Buzzfeed’s reaction included a clumsy jujitsu of challenging Mueller to tell them exactly what he thought was inaccurate. They perhaps understood that in the tabloid world, truth has a viral-length expiration date, that truth is only what people are willing to believe anyway, including that magicians really can saw women in half. Falsehoods are just the work of bad sources. All that matters is saying Trump is evil, an end that justifies the journalistic means.
Advocacy journalism, tabloid style, is not about pointing out real wrongs with an occasional correction issued. It is about teeing up tales to support a political goal. Let Buzzfeed open the door for The Washington Post to legitimize the story. Members of Congress then bypass the fuzzy source to cite the name-brand one (“according to sources” becomes “according to the Washington Post”) until Democrats are demanding hearings into what Mueller’s office already made clear isn’t true.
In the same week, a selective short clip of an encounter between some white Covington Catholic high school students wearing MAGA hats, a Native American (whom the media falsely lionized for days as a Vietnam vet), and some black protesters was fanned into a racial showdown, when all it took was for someone to watch the whole recording of the interaction to realize that it was not true.
Or the mass proclamation that conservatives were furious over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s silly dance video when no one was. Or this long list of Russiagate game-changers that weren’t. Or two-years’ worth of false breaking news that somebody in the Trump administration was about to flip, quit, be indicted, get fired, or fire Mueller.
Tabloid journalism for political ends has assumed priority over reporting facts. People are being conditioned to overreact. Name calling is commentary. Prejudice and stereotyping are offensive when aimed left, but allowed when fired by Pulitzer-winning columnists at Trump voters. Headlines can be less accurate than the text. Belief trumps truth. The ends justify the means when attacking political opponents. Too much free speech plays into the hands of the authoritarians. The term “both sides journalism” is a now a negative one. Journalists have convinced themselves that serving up the correct sort of bias is equivalent to serving the nation.
It’s sad that it took Whoopi Goldberg on The View to serve up some measure of truth. She wondered why the media rushed to judge the Covington teens. “Because we’re desperate to get Trump out,” co-host Joy Behar asserted.
Political journalism adopting tabloid standards and practices is a true threat to democracy. As one writer put it, “let’s not underestimate the damage being done…people of all political stripes will acknowledge the important role that free and unfettered discourse plays in the democratic process. By extension, when that discourse is poisoned, so too is the process.”
The Buzzfeed story, followed so quickly by the Covington story, should be a significant moment of reflection, one when the media remember they play a critical role in our system. Yet there have been few denunciations of the misuse of sources, the rushes to judgment, the purposeful dropping of objectivity, the failure to seek out other perspectives, the problem of wrong reporting, the blurring of editorial into news.
No one asks why there aren’t mainstream “sources: Trump is innocent” stories that later need to be walked back. No one demands as much emphasis on corrections as on the original false story. Instead, the standard response to being caught seems to be either to dig in (as with Buzzfeed) or to delete a Tweet or two (as in the Covington mess). It’s as though in the age of the Internet, that makes it so that something never actually happened.
It’s unlikely things will change, especially when this model of journalism is also good in a business where clicks equal dollars. The sad thing is that craven economic self-interest is the least worst explanation for tabloidization. Democracy dies in darkness? It’s in danger in plain sight.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from federal employment and Twitter.