If there were any doubt left after 2016 as to what too much of the mainstream news media in America has become, it most certainly has been erased in 2020. Too often, many in my industry have revealed themselves as little more than propaganda tools for dueling political sides, no longer reporting the way journalists once did. We compete for the latest anonymous “scoop,” scandalous rumor or unsupported accusation. We pounce on the supposed “bombshell” du jour and hype it on the news, accompanied by endless round robins with political operatives. Many of us don’t even bother to find and report on stories that powerful people and interests aren’t pushing.
To do this, too many of us have abandoned basic tenets of journalism. We ignore the suspicious timing of the handout “leaks” or scandals — as if nobody notices. We fail to explore or disclose sources’ motivations or conflicts of interest — as if nobody wonders about them. We don’t even pretend to assess the true news value of the “bombshell.” We’re simply happy to be of service to the propagandists; we invite them to use us, and our superiors reward us with admiration. Many of our peers either repeat the reporting, seek to confirm it using equally dubious methods or discredit it. Rarely do we step back and consider that the whole drama is being orchestrated by political puppet masters who count their successes by the number of news stories they generate.
In researching my latest book, I determined that this is happening in 2020 because, above all, too many of us utterly failed to examine and correct what arguably was the biggest case of journalistic malpractice in recent times: the widespread misreporting on the failed Trump-Russia collusion narrative. Everyone from The New York Times to the Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, to former CIA Director John BrennanJohn Owen BrennanStill in the game: Will Durham's report throw a slow curveball at key political players? UFOs are an intriguing science problem; Congress must act accordingly How transparency on UFOs can unite a deeply divided nation MORE to former special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerSenate Democrats urge Garland not to fight court order to release Trump obstruction memo Why a special counsel is guaranteed if Biden chooses Yates, Cuomo or Jones as AG Barr taps attorney investigating Russia probe origins as special counsel MORE ultimately acknowledged that many investigators and media took the wrong fork in the road. Yet we spent almost no time or energy examining how we could have been so blind, so wrong. We didn’t bother to dig into who was behind the bad information, illegal leaks, slander and libel, intelligence abuses, and destruction of evidence — the sorts of pursuits that used to make journalists want to get up in the morning and work late into the night.
Here are 12 things that the news industry should have done between 2016 and now:
- Commissioned an independent, professional examination of any reporting mistakes and the reasons behind them;
- Issued corrections and, when warranted, apologies regarding any false reporting and implications;
- Conducted a thorough investigation of who, if anyone, was pulling strings and feeding false information and reported the findings;
- Pledged not to be a tool for the propagandists’ smear tactic of getting secondary news outlets to publish rumor, innuendo and irresponsible journalism in order to convince legitimate news organizations to cover the questionable story to get “reaction”;
- Returned to standards regarding anonymous sources — using them primarily to gather on-the-record information from others or only as a last resort to report an important, legitimate story, specifying as much as possible the type of people they are and why they cannot be named and disclosing any of their potential conflicts of interest;
- Stopped relying on sources who have provided false information and removed from the ranks of experts, contributors or sources those who promulgated false information;
- Covered both sides of the story, whether we agreed with a side or not;
- Held or killed a story that didn’t check out or lacked documentation;
- Confined political advocacy to the opinion pages;
- Attributed allegations and claims rather than pretending to know with certainty things we cannot know firsthand;
- Avoided temptation to form conclusions based on preliminary claims, evidence or information; and
- When conducting and reporting on polls or consulting political analysts, contextualized their past performance in terms of accuracy.
We know that many voters are disgusted by politics and politicians. Yet many of us in the media have blindly embraced a role as political tools and mouthpieces. It explains, at least in part, why confidence and trust in the media continue to fall.
Sharyl Attkisson (@SharylAttkisson) is an Emmy-winning investigative journalist, author of the upcoming “Slanted: How the News Media Taught Us to Love Censorship and Hate Journalism” and the New York Times bestsellers “The Smear” and “Stonewalled,” and host of Sinclair’s Sunday TV program “Full Measure.”