Features Australia

Democracy dies when the media lies

The descent into post-journalism

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

17 April 2021

9:00 AM

Non-Americans have been aware for some time of the biases of the major US media on foreign policy, from the Iraq war to the Ukraine crisis. The rot has spread into coverage of domestic US politics.

In the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 survey, 56 to 59 per cent of people in 27 countries said journalists, governments and business leaders deliberately mislead people with false information and 59 per cent believe that news organisations are more concerned with promoting an ideology than informing the public. Trust in traditional media declined 8 points to 53 per cent and fell to 35 per cent in social media. CEO Richard Edelman commented: ‘media sources are seen as politicised and biased. The result is… increased divisiveness’. Most Americans ‘find the political and ideological polarisation so extreme that they believe the US is in the midst of a cold civil war’. The US was among 13 countries with a net trust deficit in the media, with only 42 per cent trust (Russia was the worst with 29 per cent).

Contemporary reporters crave narratives and curate facts to craft stories, as in the smearing of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis by CBS 60 Minutes on 4 April. Sharyn Alfonsi accused DeSantis of running a ‘pay-for-play’ scheme by awarding Florida’s vaccine distribution tender to the Publix grocery store chain that had donated $100,000 to his election campaign. They edited out DeSantis’ clear rebuttal of the charge and spliced together different parts of his answer to give a misleading impression. Florida Division of Emergency Management head Jared Moskowitz, who had led the design and execution of the plan, posted an angry tweet calling out the CBS narrative as ‘utter nonsense’ and ‘absolute malarkey’. Mayor Dave Kerner of Palm Beach County, also closely involved in the vaccine rollout, said the Publix narrative was not just ‘bad information’ but ‘intentionally false’. Both Moskowitz and Kerner are Democrats. DeSantis himself – calmly, professionally and with an impressive command of facts at his fingertips – ripped apart the 60 Minutes narrative in an appearance on the Tucker Carlson show. Keep an eye on him for a presidential run in 2024.

Donald Trump’s alleged collusion with Russia in the 2016 election, rooted in the refusal to believe that the manifestly flawed tycoon could beat über-credentialled Hillary Clinton, proved a nothingburger despite exhaustive investigations. The mainstream media (MSM) ran the story endlessly until the Mueller report failed to substantiate it. Yet in a Reuters/Ipsos poll in 2019, 48 per cent of Americans believed the collusion narrative. It sucked the oxygen from Trump’s presidency and damaged US domestic and foreign policy. But the MSM ignored compelling evidence that Joe Biden being vice president (VP) was the key to son Hunter’s lucrative consultancy earnings from a crooked Ukrainian energy company despite zero experience of Ukraine or energy. This cannot be explained other than as a bribe to gain access. Two weeks before the election, the New York Post broke a major story that corroborated many of the murky allegations and directly implicated Biden Sr., contradicting his key earlier denials. Again the rest of the MSM simply suppressed the story and Twitter even banned the NYPost’s account for a while.

In 2018, Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh was subjected to a character assassination based on evidence-free allegations of sexual assault as a school-going youth in the early 1980s. The MSM gave prominent and extensive coverage to wild and lurid allegations with no effort to first verify the claims. Last year Tara Reade alleged an assault by Biden in 1993. Her charges were more recent, more specific, against someone from the same political party, with contemporaneous evidence of having discussed it with others, and involved a Senator, now running for the nation’s highest office, misbehaving with a junior aide. In the Kavanaugh case, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams tweeted: ‘I believe women’. After the Reade allegations, she said: ‘I believe Joe Biden’. The MSM covered the story fewer times, less prominently and extensively, for a shorter period and with more attention to due process. By her own plentiful public statements and aggressive questioning of Kavanaugh during Senate confirmation hearings, Kamala Harris is now VP to ‘a serial sexual abuser’.

Coronavirus has produced a ‘blizzard of bogus journalism’. The media went after countries (Japan, Sweden) and states (Florida, Georgia, Iowa, South Dakota) that refused to lock down, while lavishing praise on Andrew Cuomo’s performance in New York. Cuomo is now in serious trouble with multiple potentially criminal investigations for lies, false statements and cover-ups. YouTube has removed a video of a US Senate committee hearing, and of the roundtable discussion by DeSantis with Trump’s Covid adviser Scott Atlas and the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, all highly credentialled experts and despite Florida’s demonstratable comparative success among US states on most key pandemic metrics based on their advice.

The New York Times has seen the defenestration of senior staff trapped in the purity spiral of internal thought police bent on punishing viewpoint diversity. Editorial page editor James Bennett was pushed out for publishing an op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton on the Black Lives Matter protests. Opinion editor Bari Weiss left after being subjected to unrelenting hostility from colleagues for curating a diversity of views. Veteran science reporter Don McNeil was fired because he used the triggering ‘n’ word in an entirely appropriate context of discussing its sensitivities when a school student raised it during an educational field trip. When in-house columnist Bret Stephens wrote a critique of the McNeil cancellation, it was vetoed by publisher A.G. Sulzberger and published instead in the NYPost. The resignation letter from Weiss was particularly withering in saying that Twitter, which ‘is not on the masthead’ of the paper, ‘has become its ultimate editor’. The Washington Post corrected a January story that had accused Trump of pressuring Georgia officials to ‘find the [election] fraud’ used in the second Trump impeachment. Martin Gurri writes of ‘the prosecutorial school of post-journalism’ aiming to produce ‘angry citizens’. ‘Democracy dies in darkness’ says the WaPo masthead. Maybe it should be changed to ‘Democracy Dies When the Media Lies’. Once a tautology, ‘inquisitive journalism’ is now an oxymoron to the cost of its own credibility and of democracy.

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