Reality journalism: Keeping up with the candidates

The coverage of 2016’s crop of candidates illustrates the primacy of subjective, opinion journalism. Do samples culled from publications and websites during the past three months reveal whether or not they propel readers to see the crop of candidates from both parties clearly, or at least more clearly than the veil of objective neutrality permits?

Good Clinton v. bad Clinton

GEORGE SALAMON / Writing about Marie Antoinette, Judith Thurman commented in a 2006 article in the New Yorker that the woman famous for a remark she never uttered (“Let them eat cake”) is “periodically reviled or celebrated.” The same could be said about the media’s treatment of Hillary Clinton since she stepped into the national limelight as Bill Clinton’s wife during his 1992 bid for the presidency. Now that she is campaigning for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, many publications and websites devote much of their coverage to one or the other of these familiar approaches. Recent opinion pieces in the online publications of the liberal New Republic and the conservative Washington Free Beacon provide a sort of “comfort food,” the first for Clinton admirers and the second for Clinton detractors. But neither provides much food for thought based on solid information, history and context.

Charlie Hebdo haunts the media

By GEORGE SALAMON / When Islamist gunmen killed 10 journalists and two policemen in January at the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine firebombed in 2011 for its irreverent cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, media reaction to the massacre immediately after was best summed up by the headline of an article in Reason magazine: “I’m all for free speech and murder is wrong, but…” In much of the media the “but” trumped admiration and respect for the slain journalists’ insistence that religions, along with other institutions and ideas, can and should be mocked and laughed at. Media might want to ask themselves if the “negative liberty” granted by the First Amendment allows exceptions for legally irrelevant categories such as “bad taste” or “bad judgment.”

Clinton courts the heartland

By GEORGE SALAMON / Soon after Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy on April 12 for the 2016 presidential race, Rebecca Traister reported for the New Republic: “So what could possibly go wrong? Everything. Anything. Anything and everything. Hillary Clinton has loomed so powerfully in the American consciousness for so long that it’s hard to remember how delicate, how combustible, how ultimately improbable the project of electing her president is likely to be.” Traister paid too little attention to Clinton’s individual flaws that could propel “anything” and “everything” to go wrong.

In Fox News We Trust — Should Walter Cronkite be rolling over in his grave?

By GEORGE SALAMON / The bad news for liberals and progressives arrived via a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University: Fox News was the news source among broadcast and cable networks Americans trusted most. Fox beat all networks handily, garnering 29 percent as “most trustworthy” among the 1,286 registered voters called between February 26 and March 2. CNN took second place with 22 percent, CBS and NBC tied at distant third with 10 percent each, ABC followed with 8 percent and forward-leaning MSNBC was at the back of the pack with 7 percent. The Washington Post was aghast that “for millions of Americans Fox News is the mainstream media.” Liberal blogs found the poll results “terrifying” and bemoaned the fact that the conservative network, a “Murdoch-owned scream machine” to one blogspot, had become a “ratings juggernaut.” Should Walter Cronkite, icon of liberal or mainstream broadcast news during the 1960 and ’70s, be turning over in his grave?

Wannabe heroics of O’Reilly and Williams

By GEORGE SALAMON / On April 19, 1945 the New York Times published an obituary for nationally known war correspondent Ernie Pyle who “died today on Iejema Island, just west of Okinawa, like so many of the doughboys he had written about…killed instantly by Japanese machine-gun fire.” Pyle, the Times added, had become World War II’s beloved “chronicler of the average American soldier’s daily round, in and out of foxholes in many war theatres.” He had also become the role model for journalists covering a war. After 1945, American reporters pursued that ambition in Korea in the 1950s and in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s. But when Great Britain and Argentina squared off in their 1982 squabble over the Falkland Islands and during America’s first war in Iraq in 2003, government restrictions and censorship made it impossible. Thus reporters’ dreams of heroism on the field of battle or in the field of journalism came to an end. “The age of the war correspondent as hero appears to be over,” Phillip Knightly, reporter for the London Sunday Times, wrote in his book “The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq.” (2004 edition). This is not an excuse for the embellishments of the experiences Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly made to his reporting on the Falkland Islands war or NBC’s Brian Williams to his stint in Iraq, but as context around their original claims, lost in much parsing of the phrases or terms with which they initially described their encounters with the dangers of covering frontline carnage.

Washington déjà vu: ‘Hearts and Minds’ rears its head again

By GEORGE SALAMON / President Obama was unaware of or undeterred by that warning when in a February 18 Los Angeles Times op-ed piece he wrote: “Our campaign to prevent people around the world from being radicalized to violence is ultimately a battle for hearts and minds.” To many American journalists and their audiences the campaign’s more immediate strategy was not voiced in his remarks: stopping ISIS and other jihadist organizations and individuals from killing people around the world. Many had hoped to discover it. Moreover, the administration is faring badly in the media battle against the terrorist organization ISIS, particularly in the social media. The task of leading our battle was handed to CSCC, the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications. This bureaucratic entity has not found ways to compete with the gruesomely bloody materials released by ISIS that immediately go viral. The suggestion that CSCC should expose the nihilistic destructiveness through competitively vivid releases has not yet been acted upon. Our Department of State wallows in goody-two-shoe mini-lectures as responses as well. A day before his op-ed appeared, Department of State spokesperson Marie Harf insisted that a short-term strategy would not prevent the radicalization to violence the president hopes to thwart. Instead, she proposed that “we have to combat the conditions that can lead people to turn to extremism. “We can’t kill every terrorist around the world, nor should we try. How do you get at the root causes of this?…It’s really the smart way to combat it.”