Letters from our readers: Covering Trump, WSJ, Amal Clooney, and the Oxford comma

Here is a selection of emails and Facebook comments we’ve received since March 1. Please send correspondence to letters@cjr.org, along with your name, address, and any relevant affiliation.

White House reporting through the Gateway Pundit looking glass

I was dismayed by the overall tone of the piece by David Uberti on the panel I participated in with two of my colleagues from the White House Press Corps. While Mr. Uberti may have characterized my contributions as “dull jokes,” they were in fact responses to (a) a question about whether I worried that my personal reputation would be hurt by my work at Sputnik and (b) a joke someone else made,implying that Russian was “[my] favorite language.” In a subsequent email exchange, Mr. Uberti expressed regret that I was not able to make more of an affirmative case for my publication’s presence at the White House. I’d like to take the opportunity to do that now.

While many people in the American journalism community are concerned about a Russian-owned and state-sponsored news outlet like Sputnik having a presence at the White House, the truth is that the United States is actually one of the only countries in the world without an inward-facing state-owned news agency (Voice of America is state-owned, but does not broadcast inside the US). That said, regardless of ownership, a state-owned news agency is still a news agency. The journalists I work with at Sputnik’s Washington bureau are just journalists. Most of Sputnik’s writers are Americans who have chosen journalism as a profession, and we do our job the same way we would if we worked at Reuters, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The New York Times, or any other media outlet. We report the truth as it happens, quickly, but above all, accurately. The difference between those reporters and us is that we have the responsibility to look for an alternative perspective to tell the Untold—which is in fact Sputnik’s mission statement. With 14 million subscribers reading our content on social media alone, it seems the American public is as hungry for an alternative perspective as we are to provide it.

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I cannot speak for my entire news organization, and I can’t speak for my co-panelists either, but when it comes to so-called “alternative media,” I would urge the journalism community to take a hard look at the content a media organization puts out before making judgments based entirely on who owns it. Some of us may disappoint and even disturb you, but some of us may surprise you. When it comes to our coverage of Donald Trump’s White House, it is my sincere hope that I and my colleagues will do the latter.

Andrew Feinberg
White House Correspondent
Sputnik News

Spare the indignation: Voice of America has never been independent

I worked at Voice of America nearly as long as Dan Robinson did, serving as correspondent in Islamabad and Bangkok and as National Security Correspondent. I have the greatest respect for his work and his professionalism, but his “move along, there’s nothing to see here” (or “just lie back, relax and accept it”) attitude towards the increasing politicization of VOA is deeply misguided.

Despite his assertions that “VOA has never been truly independent,” VOA has enjoyed considerable autonomy. The battle for that freedom was hard-fought. There was great pressure put on VOA by the Nixon administration over Watergate and Vietnam, which VOA resisted. The 1976 Charter—which Robinson mentions near the end almost as an afterthought—was passed after that specifically to prevent political interference. It was thought then, and remains true today, that any suggestion of “messaging” or an agenda would compromise VOA’s credibility. The Broadcasting Board of Governors (modeled after the board that oversees the BBC) was created specifically to create a bipartisan firewall after the US Information Agency was abolished. (Even Edward R. Murrow, when he was director of the United States Information Agency, wanted to make VOA more like the BBC.)

The Obama “reform,” an initiative by Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), really undercuts the Charter and puts VOA’s credibility at risk. In 2014 VOA journalists rose up as a group to object to the original bill’s proposed language that would have required VOA news copy and broadcasts to “promote” US foreign policy positions. The pushback was so strong that the offensive wording was dropped. (The bill itself, for which Royce marshaled bipartisan support, was passed by the House, but never made it to the Senate.) In 2016 Royce and his allies put new language in 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, which President Obama signed.

Yes, the BBG firewall could be porous, and individual members have tried to exert influence.  And, yes, no question that there was and is serious mismanagement. The term “dysfunction” has been used, and it is not wholly inaccurate, but the board was—however flawed—a bipartisan check on unilateral executive or congressional politicization of VOA’s journalistic function. The new legislation concentrates power in a single “chief executive officer” picked by the president, subject to Senate confirmation, and serving at the president’s pleasure. Is his or her loyalty to the credibility and integrity of the journalistic product? Or is it to his or her political masters in the White House? So there is a genuine and legitimate concern—not “hysteria,” as Robinson and his associates of the rabidly anti-VOA blog “BBG Watch” like to label it—about a politically appointed “broadcasting czar.”

I have said repeatedly (including in my own CJR pieces) that there is an inherent institutional schizophrenia in being a government organization that is also a journalistic organization, but the BBC World Service (which is directly funded by the British Foreign Office) is able to avoid “countering extremism” desks and keep its journalistic credibility high.

There is little question that VOA is being increasingly pushed into a propaganda role. You can counter disinformation simply through accurate, thorough, and balanced reporting. But when you create “countering extremism” desks in a new operation you are crossing a line from journalism into advocacy.

That’s why current and former VOA journalists are concerned about, and deeply opposed to this transformation of VOA. It is not “hysteria.” It’s a matter of integrity, pride in the craft of journalism, and sorrow at political efforts to cheapen that craft. Even though, as Robinson notes, “every two weeks they accept government paychecks,” VOA’s writers, editors, and correspondents remain committed journalists, and hew to journalistic standards, no matter who signs the paychecks. If the government wants more “messaging” and advocacy, that is officialdom’s call. If that is to be the case, then it should stop trying to peddle the resulting product as journalism. It is a disservice to VOA’s employees and listeners, and to the craft of journalism.

Gary Thomas
Senior Correspondent, Voice of America (ret.)

Breitbart editor slams mainstream media in Pulitzer Hall

Okay. Give Breitbart a seat at the table for now. It will never be able to complete with the MSM on issues of substance. Breitbart should enjoy the ride because it will not last. Certainly not more than four years, or until Trump is escorted to the door.

Mel Myers

Columbia University is undermining journalism by inviting this propagandist. This is not open mindedness; it is a craven failure to protect and promote real journalism. I am so disappointed in my alma mater.

Julia C. Mead

When you give people like [John] Carney a platform, you are encouraging readers to equate this type of reporting with real journalism and you do a disservice to the profession.

Gloria Watanabe

CJR? Normalizing Breitbart? You should be ashamed of yourself. Unbelievable.

Ann Savage

Accusing others of what you do first, is an old and tired tactic. Pedantic distractions. Your bodacious spin won’t wash with intelligent people. You will soon be sinking, as the yellow journalistic fishwrapper you are, Breitbart. Enjoy your 15 minutes.

Marianne Donnelly

A recipe for journalism that works

Kyle Pope overlooks an important option for funding journalism: taxation. We wouldn’t dare have for-profit police or for-profit courts. Many people believe for-profit health care is immoral. Why should we accept for-profit journalism or accept that there is a market solution to funding it?

One business model that Pope does endorse is “the partisan press,” but that introduces bias and further bifurcates the alternate realities experienced by liberals and conservatives. The same criticisms apply to journalism funded by wealthy benefactors.

Government is needed to provide the common good precisely in cases for which the market system can’t deliver. Indeed, the founders of the country recognized the special role of the press and subsidized it via the postal system.

Of course there’s little chance republicans would agree to spending tax dollars on journalism—they already want to eliminate funding for NPR. Given the importance of the press for democracy, it’s time to advocate for tax-funded journalism with a wall protecting journalists from political meddling.

Donald A. Smith
PhD, Democratic Precinct Committee Officer
Bellevue, WA

Podcast: CJR, BBC collaborate for audio documentary on journalism in America

I listened to your recent breaking news podcast and I have the following comments:

  1. This American Life had a recent episode in which the editor of the Dallas newspaper met with two conservative readers. The two readers did a good job of articulating the bias they saw in the Dallas newspaper’s coverage. The two readers were better than the people that you spoke to in New York because they had specific examples rather than a sort of wild-eyed “the media is biased” approach. I particularly liked one reader’s observation: the newspaper is staffed with liberal reporters who try and correct for their bias, but they have so many blind spots that the corrections fail.
  1. I think you overlooked part of the story. The media wanted Trump to be the Republican nominee because the media, generally, wanted Clinton to win. As a consequence, the media did a lousy job of covering Trump during the primaries. Where was the reporting of Trump’s dealings with shady real estate developers in third-world countries (e.g. a recent article in The New Yorker)? Why are those stories only coming out now? A more charitable explanation might be that the media did a lousy job of covering Trump during the primaries because they never thought he would win. If true, that speaks about some sort of problem with the media particularly once it became clear that Trump stood a chance of winning the nomination.
  1. The media has decided that Trump is illegitimate and that, therefore, the normal rules governing reporting do not apply. The New York Times is particularly bad; The Washington Post is less so. I now read stories that are wholly based on anonymous sources. Stories are filled with editorial asides and language that any conservative properly reads as biased. The media does not do itself any favors when it tries to correct for the “mistakes” of the voters or for its own poor coverage by gunning for Trump. The media should stop viewing itself as part of the “resistance” or the public will be justified in viewing reporters as players in the political process that should not be trusted.
  1. You didn’t touch on how reporters are now trained and how that affects their coverage. I worked as a reporter for a small weekly (then bi-monthly and then monthly) newspaper. I did not restrict my reporting to what I learned on the internet or what I got from a press release.  Many young reporters limit their reporting to practices like repeating what other reporters have said and calling that taking the pulse of voters.
  1. Although I lay a lot of blame at the feet of reporters, some of the blame has to be reserved for editors who write inflammatory headlines that are not supported by the story (again, the NYT is particularly guilty). Instead they skew coverage by biased story selection and do not properly train or correct reporters’ excess.

I did not vote for Trump, but I am a conservative and I can see how and why so many Trump supporters have lost their trust in the media. I have touched on some of the problems above, but there are others. In sum, I think the media needs to – as Pooh would say – go and have a good think.

Sincerely,
Don Padou

I listened to your episode about the media and Trump, and found it quite fascinating. What struck me is something that seems to be overlooked by many, if not all, in the media. That is how the uber wealthy, like the Koch Brothers, have been systematically working to erode the public’s faith in the media and think tanks like the Brookings Institution (not to mention the Ivy League and other universities). It has been quite covert, but steady and constant, and well documented in the book Dark Money by Jane Mayer. She describes how the Kochs and others have been relentless in their efforts; in fact much of the rhetoric we hear today is rhetoric the Koch’s have written/spoken about decades ago. I do not think Trump is what the Kochs expected from their efforts, so there is one small blessing there, but it is clear from reading her work that they are a significant force in the public turning against the “liberal” media. I am wondering if you are familiar with Ms. Mayer’s work and your thoughts about this. I really wish it were discussed more by journalists, although in this day of “alternative facts” I do not think it would change the minds of many people.

Best,
Jami Parrish

When you have a president that gets his information from a clearly 100-percent biased “news” source, positioned as real news, any other actual reality is “fake news.” There are a lot of people who only get their “news” from Fox News. Those people might actually believe him when he says at 6:55 in this video that he is at his all time high in the polls. That is completely laughable because virtually every poll has him currently at his low point for the year and sinking. It is truly a terrifying situation we are confronted with.

Dan Lynch

I enjoyed much of your BBC Documentary on eroding public trust in the media, and I thought you and those you interviewed made many good points. I really hope you do a sequel because there’s a few important points that weren’t covered.

  1. Representation/diversity: There’s been a huge push to make newsrooms more diverse, but as you can see from this Indiana University study from a few years ago, the percentage of Republicans in the media has declined steadily over the years, from about 25 percent in the 1970s to just seven percent today. I think everyone agrees that we need people of different races (and more women) so that the media looks more like America, but what about tackling the Groupthink problem? The seven-percent GOP figure is probably even lower at elite media outlets. Are there any reporters or editors at The Washington Post, The New York Times, etc who voted for Trump? Any at all? If there are, I’m not aware of them.
  2. It’s not just about Trump: Trust in the media declined during the 2016 election, but it has been eroding gradually for many years, mostly among independents and republicans. I’m 44 years old, and Republicans have never trusted the mainstream media in my lifetime.
  3. Fake news: You interviewed a few people who wanted to dwell on Trump’s lies,misstatements, and how much supposedly great reporting the press has done on Trump. Fair enough, but I didn’t hear anyone make the point of how many glaring mistakes have been made, especially since he took office. The Federalist had a list of these which is not at all comprehensive. I think the key issue here is when you have a group of people who despise someone so much, they become willing to believe anything bad about him. We have seen so many cases where a story gets thrown out without the usual vetting and the outlet has to walk much of it back later.
  4. Twitter: All readers/viewers/listeners who suspect that a reporter might be biased can simply spend 60 seconds scrolling down his or her Twitter feed to see the proof. Reporters and editors feel completely at liberty to express their core beliefs on Twitter, and the stuff they tweet and retweet makes it quite obvious what their political leanings are. We’ve seen so many cases of false negative stories about Trump going viral on Twitter—retweeted without any questioning or verifying. The usual standards of journalism have essentially been thrown out the window.

Finally, I appreciate your optimistic conclusion, but I don’t see the mainstream media winning back the trust of Republicans and many independents (like myself) anytime soon. Listen to the woman from the NYT you interviewed. She’s still in denial—talking about how the national polls were right. Large segments of the mainstream media still think that Trump won because of the Comey letter, Russian interference, etc. In short, they still don’t get it.

Dave Seminara

Unpacking WSJ’s ‘watershed’ Trump editorial

The article repeats BuzzFeed’s false claim that Louise Mensch “gained notoriety for tough parliamentary questioning during the News of the World phone-hacking scandal” (BuzzFeed: “gained international attention as a member of Parliament for tough questioning of the Murdochs during the News of the World phone-hacking scandal”).

Whether she gained media fame or not, the idea she was a “tough” questioner of the Murdochs is simply false. Reading the transcript of the evidence session with James and Rupert Murdoch will show you in short order. In fact, many of her questions were very general and did not yield significant information. They were in the rich tradition of MPs on committees using evidence sessions to grandstand for the benefit of the media, instead of actually focusing on the crucial details of the case. Contrast this with the questions asked by the Labour MPs Paul Farrelly and Tom Watson, and you will see what I mean. See if Louise Mensch crops up at all in Hack Attack, the book Nick Davies wrote on how the scandal was uncovered.

Moreover, if she had been the toughest questioner on the committee who had picked holes in the Murdochs’ defence, do you really think she would have been given a column in The Sun shortly afterwards? Or that she would have been made the editor of a new News Corp-funded website—Heat Street, a poor attempt to create a British Breitbart? If there is another example of such employment being given to a tough critic of the Murdochs, I have yet to find it.

Maybe instead of repeating junk about Louise Mensch uncritically copied from another website, you might care to do a bit of investigation into how she came to have such a good relationship with News Corp, which might have alerted you to the fact that she was not, in fact, a particularly “tough questioner” on the committee. (She also ultimately voted against the committee’s report because it was too critical of News Corp in her view.)

Yours sincerely,
Leo Watkins

This is not “Huge.” This is exactly what happens when democracies slowly segue toward demagoguery. Previously supportive conservatives wake up to the fact that the autocrat-in-progress wants to control the place for his purposes. They aren’t traditional purposes. His supporters love this stuff because, not only do they not care what elites think, but also they want to wreck the joint. Look at Duterte. And Putin. And Orban. And Erdogan. And most importantly, look at our white western history.

Rick O’Brien

Once Rupert Murdoch bought WSJ, you knew things were eventually going to change. Now his son, James Murdoch, is taking over. James Murdoch was one of the largest contributors to the Clinton Foundation giving $20 million or so. And Murdoch’s wife works for the Clinton Climate Initiative. This is not your father’s WSJ anymore.

Tom Markowski

Newsrooms should follow two simple rules for reporting on women’s bodies

Same goes for men’s bodies. Samantha Bee just had to do a big mea culpa because her brand of opinion journalism includes mocking men’s haircuts.

I know the article suggests covering men’s bodies the same as women, but we already do that. Thanks to the tireless efforts of journalists at outlets like Vanity Fair, The Daily Show, and Rachel Maddow, we all know John Boehner and Donald Trump are “orange.” (Don’t make me start dropping links). We also know Donald Trump has “really tiny hands.” We also know which male celebrities are best-dressed, which are probably gay (poor James Franco), and which ones sport “dad bods” (poor Leo).

Stop pretending the obsession with the bodies of public figures is limited to women, and acknowledge that journalism has a “hot take” and “edutainment” problem.

Deome Deome

Unless it’s a medical breakthrough or an integral part of a larger story, making anyone’s body the subject of a story is incredibly low-brow.

Chris Bashaw

It is demeaning and sexist to overlook the power of her speech and the need for such a message. The shoes she has on have no bearing on the message she has. God bless her and her babies. I think she is a fantastic role model for young women everywhere. Wise up New York Times and Daily Mail. I am appalled at that level of journalism.

Norma Wierman

The Final word on the Oxford comma

As a writer I use the Oxford comma for one simple reason: While it may not always be necessary, it is also never wrong.

Hal Millard

Here’s the thing: There is ambiguity in “Parents, kids enjoy snow day,” as it can be read as direct address to parents. Just saying—the root of most writing errors is the difficulty seeing what you didn’t intend.

Marie C. Collins

The issue is not with the comma, but the ordering of the elements. The Oxford comma just trades one problem for another. In a series of three elements, the Oxford comma can make the middle element look like an appositive for the first: He had dinner with his father, Pope Francis, and a nun. The reason the debate never ends is that neither choice is incorrect.

Michael Hewitt

At last, a kitchen-sink letter from a former CJR subscriber

I have been a CJR subscriber for many years, and I have held it as an icon of thoughtful and insightful journalism–until Donald Trump became president. The intent solidarity of the media to destroy his presidency is abundantly clear. He is right, mainstream media has declared war on him. You have declared war on average Americans as well—you have forgotten how to be fair. Too busy chasing made up strawmen. The Russian connections??

Re: Obamacare: In my opinion you all have been worshipping at the Obama shrine to the point that it is almost sickening. Even President Bill Clinton openly stated that Obamacare was a disaster. Yet not one more mention of his statement has been picked up. Instead it is all about the terrible GOP fix and how all the millions of people would be without healthcare. If the media were fair, the fact that Obamacare was failing and why would have been worthy news, but nothing appeared that might have somehow supported the President’s drive to repeal it.

You must know, millions of workers cannot afford Obamacare. These are people without any kind of healthcare. My personal example: My son is employed by a large agricultural company that supplies him (singular) with healthcare; the cost of which covered his family before Obamacare. Now in order to cover his wife and son it would be upwards of $500 per month. He cannot afford it. If you think this is an anomaly you are wrong!

Perhaps you are genuinely in the dark as to why people who voted for Donald Trump did so. If that is the case, you need to look farther into the lives of real people who left the Democrats and left Hillary and the political menagerie of lobbyists, professional politicians, and beltway insiders. Thank God Trump is not a Washington insider! So far the insiders have all but ruined middle class America. No, not just middle class Americans, but America itself. There is no longer respect for truly free speech if it doesn’t sing the liberal left melody. That is true of the media as well.

I have cancelled my subscription to The New York Times, The Atlantic, and now CJR.  We live in the real world. Our local newspaper reflects both sides of an issue. We get all of the news stations including PBS. Once I held journalists in very high esteem. I believed them to be brave, idealistic in some cases, fair, and for the most part, patriotic. I am sure there are still a few that reflect most of those values. Perhaps I’ll stumble onto them someday soon.

Sincerely,
Shirley E. Viall

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.