Every day it seems harder to distinguish where the line is drawn between muckracking and investigative journalism. That question was raised recently as news broke that Virginia politicians were mired in blackface scandals and sexual assault allegations.
No sooner had Governor Ralph Northam been implicated by a racist photo unearthed from 35 years ago then his potential successor, the state’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, had to deny a woman’s claim that he’d sexually assaulted her in 2004.
As the saga has unspooled, America and especially voters in Virginia—a state with a pronounced racial history—have been left assessing whether these politicians, both Democrats, should remain in office. Others have mulled the role journalism did—or didn’t—play in all of this.
For it wasn’t a local paper or major investigative newsroom that got the scoop, nor was it a prominent conservative or more right-wing media player like Fox News or Breitbart. Rather it was Big League Politics, a relatively obscure pro-Trump website that broke the story and drove all other media into a frenzied catch-up.
Big League Politics’ political hue led some to claim that criticisms of the Democratic politicians were politically motivated. But that soon became a moot point amid the chorus of senior Democrats both in Virginia and Washington calling for Northam and Fairfax to resign.
“The story’s origin doesn’t change it being a good thing in terms of accountability,” says Monica Chadha, a professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. “And if this type of revelation comes from smaller independent media or from local news, that can help keep mainstream media on its toes—in some ways those types of sites hold bigger media accountable, it’s a good thing.”
Indeed, many have been left wondering how mainstream media missed the photo’s existence for so long, and what the omission says about the Fourth Estate as a pillar of democracy.
“I’m astonished no reporter did enough digging into Northam’s background to find this when he ran for governor,” says Walter Robinson, editor at large for the Boston Globe, who led the team that revealed the local Catholic Church’s sexual abuse scandal (dramatized in the Oscar winning film Spotlight). “I’m disheartened by what his getting elected with this photo out there says about the state of journalism, and about the ability of editors to assign sufficient reporters.”
Google and Facebook have been singled out for killing local newspapers—and consequently damaging American public life—by sucking out advertising revenue, more than $60 billion in 2018, it’s estimated. That money once supported local reporters all over the country covering the likes of town council meetings, zoning changes, and state capitols.
“What’s happened everywhere is that newsrooms have been hollowed out by financial troubles,” Robinson says. “Now no one has the time to do the deep background checks that the public are owed.”
The result is decisions that are made in the dark, a loss of engagement with local civics, and a general sense of frustration towards politics and public life.
On the other hand, some have noted how the country’s present polarized moment could be said to be boosting accountability journalism, both relating to public figures and to thorny societal issues that might otherwise be glossed over.
Regarding how Northam’s photo came to light, it was reported that someone from his medical school cohort appeared to have tipped off Big League Politics. This had been done in response to Northam’s comments during a radio interview the week before regarding a state bill aimed at increasing access to third-trimester abortions.
Abortion is clearly one of the country’s most divisive issues, with many Americans falling on one side and many on the other. But often mainstream media coverage doesn’t reflect that range, presenting the abortion issue simply in terms of it being a woman’s right, impacted by no other relevant complications.
Northam’s photographic faux pas inadvertently drew more media attention to, and discussion about and pushback against, the third-trimester abortion bill. This was evidenced during a PBS NewsHour panel on February 1 that featured syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
“Frankly, I was a little more appalled by his comments earlier in the week about letting babies die on tables when they’re born in late-term abortions,” Brooks said. “And that was sort of what got this ball rolling. And so I would say, these are two events that I find morally incomprehensible.”
So in this instance, political polarization may have increased journalistic accountability by driving conservatives against Northam. But at the same time, there is a sense that the extent to which American politics has become polarized has also diminished actual accountability, as previous scandals involving the likes of Montana Congressman Greg Gianforte, Iowa Congressman Steve King, and even President Trump have illustrated, with the likes of party loyalty—or loathing of the opposition—overruling all other considerations.
The relentless whirl of social media feeds into all this, again in contradictory ways. It can be harder to keep the spotlight on a story that is subsumed into the next social media uproar, though at the same time social media is all about dispensing death by a thousand tiny spotlights.
“There’s always been skeletons in everyone’s closet, but it used to be that if something became an issue, often you did and said something, and then it faded away—but the intensity of social media keeps it in front of us more,” says Edwin Battistella, a linguistic and writing professor and author of Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology.
“There’s also a sense that something has been lost when it comes to responsibility,” Battistella says, “compared to before, when you had those like Ronald Reagan accepting responsibility in the aftermath of the Iran-Contra scandal, now public figures seem less willing to take it, while the public are less willing to let the issue go.”
These sorts of frictions are nothing new. Nearly 100 years ago, the likes of heavyweight public intellectuals such as Walter Lippmann and John Dewey were addressing conceptual problems concerning democratic society and journalism with the advent of new communication and media technologies—back then, international radio traffic, as well as telegraphy and telephones.
“Media has power,” Chadha says. “And anyone who holds power should know it is a privilege and recognize that they should wield it wisely.”
James Jeffrey is a freelance journalist who splits his time between the Horn of Africa, the U.S., and the UK, and writes for various international media. Follow him on Twitter @jrfjeffrey.