December 2, 2018

CHANG | Inciting Anger isn’t your Job, Political Journalists

Print More

Political journalists aren’t acting responsibly. I think it’s gotten worse since the beginning of President Trump’s term in 2016. The roughly partisan split of journalistic outlets, at least partially hewn by the election of a black president and thrown into sharp relief by backlash to said black president, isn’t backing down. As a result, this sentiment bears repeating: political journalists must adhere to standards that eschew the scoop-based big headline reporting in favor of responsible journalistic practice.

On Oct. 30, just a week before the Nov. 6 midterm election, Axios published a piece titled “Exclusive: Trump targeting birthright citizenship with executive order.” The interview sparked a political firestorm after the media magnified the ridiculous Axios claim to rile up both the open borders and nativist bases. Only a few outlets figured that on a factual level, constitutional scholars agree that the president can’t change the 14th Amendment through executive order.

Axios’s headline-stealing interview had two major problems. First, it featured star reporter Jonathan Swan egging the president on so Trump would continue clarifying his planned executive order. Swan barely attempts to correct the president’s false sense of facts, only saying that “it’s very much in dispute” whether birthright citizenship can be ended without a constitutional amendment. Instead, Jonathan Swan gleefully ignores the president’s incorrect claim that the United States is the only country with birthright citizenship.

Second, Swan’s interview is a barely-concealed attempt to hype up the Axios model of snippets of insider information and the outlet’s upcoming show on HBO (definitely saw that coming … not). Indeed, the first paragraph of the Axios article ends in an advertisement for the show. The video released on their website is one minute and eight seconds of pure clickbait of President Trump satisfying the deepest fantasy of nativists who believe this country is “too nice to illegals” while simultaneously sparking fury in hardcore liberals who are most anti-Trump on immigration. A smart business move, though, doesn’t equate to smart journalism.

One line in particular sticks out as an example of irresponsible “access journalism” — compromises given in exchange for more media time with a celebrity — that relies on the same group of insiders. The president expresses surprise that Jonathan Swan knows about his plan to end birthright citizenship with an executive order, saying “Jonathan, I’m impressed.” On the spot, Swan attributes his knowledge to a “good guess.” But the Axios article explains the lead comes from cooperation between Axios on HBO and the White House Counsel “behind the scenes.” And although Axios claims to be focused on a reader-first model that breaks down the news into brief and digestible bits, this sort of journalism shifts away from an information focus and into irresponsibility.

I don’t know the exact decision-making calculus that made the president sit down for an exclusive with a center-left organization that’s smeared him in the past, but journalistic objectivity wasn’t a key goal of Axios going into the interview.

Then, there’s the Acosta business. After a Nov. 7 press conference where CNN reporter Jim Acosta continued to question President Trump about the migrant caravan after being dismissed, Acosta’s press credentials were briefly revoked before a district court judge ordered the White House to restore the press pass on Nov. 16. I need to preface this by saying that Acosta’s hard pass press credentials shouldn’t have been revoked. In fact, I enjoy watching his sharp-tongued reporting and on-screen camaraderie with Wolf Blitzer. The president is and has been hostile and unfair to the press, especially CNN and other left-leaning news organizations. That behavior from the president is outrageous and should never be supported. The press is not an enemy of the people.

But goodness! Jim Acosta could chill a little. The Nov. 7 Acosta-Trump clash wasn’t the first time the two had locked horns. Acosta has notably shouted questions during the president’s speeches and the White House Easter Egg Roll. He often refuses to yield the microphone, instead continuing to ask (or yell) questions.

While the president deserves to be asked difficult questions and the First Amendment guarantees Acosta to ask whatever questions he wants, Acosta isn’t the only reporter at the White House press conferences (even if he’s the most outspoken). By continuing to play what Politico columnist Jack Shafer calls “the preening, self-aggrandizing, sanctimonious reporter,” Acosta is only playing into the “evil press” hate narrative that Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and President Trump continually use to justify their actions to limit the freedom of the press. This kind of “here we go again” belittling of reporters like Acosta is what excites rah-rah base voters and encourages the White House’s self-righteous indignation when dealing with the press.

Journalists shouldn’t give the White House opportunities to demonize the press corps as a whole because we are too rude. Or because they don’t follow rules they followed under a different administration because of partisanship. In the case of Axios, commitment to objectivity — or at least facts — shouldn’t be given up in favor of access and scoops. Both Acosta and Axios are two sides of the same coin of irresponsible journalism that seek to gain retweets instead of seeking stories and well-reasoned opinions. Political journalism must seek a fairer approach at all levels, from the college paper columnist (oops, that’s me, and I hope I follow my own advice) to the star reporter at a major news outlet.

Darren Chang is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. Swamp Snorkeling runs every other Monday this semester. He can be reached at dchang@cornellsun.com.