It’s dirty, but journos should welcome oppo research
This week, the New York Times reported that allies of President Donald Trump have started collecting “opposition research” on journalists, dredging up old tweets and other materials to embarrass reporters who embarrass Trump.
You can read the Times’ full story here: https://tinyurl.com/y2lol5xs.
Meanwhile, Jack Shafer, media critic for Politico Magazine, shrugs off the news and bites at the Times for putting the story on Page 1. He likens the work of the president’s allies to that of longstanding media watchdogs such as Media Matters and Accuracy in Media (read Shafer’s column here: https://tinyurl.com/y5or2hk6).
Shafer is right, but for the wrong reasons.
The Times reports that no one at the White House was aware of the muckraking work of the president’s allies, and that neither the White House nor the Republican National Committee is coordinating or funding the effort.
Still, there’s something very smelly about close friends of the sitting president of the United States investigating the free press for the sole purpose of retribution for legitimate White House coverage. The whole campaign seems intended to intimidate journalists from doing their work.
That’s very different from private media watchdogs demanding accurate reporting and sniffing out hypocrisy, even when that work is done by organizations with an admittedly partisan bent, such as the liberal Media Matters.
And the Times was right to put the story on the front page. If it turns out there’s any coordination with Trump, his campaign, or the Republican Party he runs, that would mean the man sworn to uphold the Constitution is taking active steps to hinder the First Amendment-protected work of journalists. Ask Richard Nixon what that means.
Still, Shafer is right about one thing: Journalists should welcome the digging.
I have long said journalists can’t demand transparency without being transparent themselves, and can’t hold people accountable if we don’t subject ourselves to accountability.
We are private citizens working for private companies, but we do our work on behalf of the people, and trust is our currency.
But it’s hard to trust people who demand to know everything about you — even if it’s for legitimate purposes and the right thing to do — if those people won’t reveal anything about themselves or their work or get defensive when you ask them to show their cards.
My mother told me integrity is the most important virtue to uphold. And my seventh-grade math teacher, Mr. Hicks, gave me the phrase that I now tell my son: Integrity means doing what you’re supposed to do, even when no one’s looking.
Media companies do a good job addressing integrity in their ethics policies. If you want to work for a newspaper, you don’t get to donate to or work for a political campaign, put a campaign sign in your yard, or tweet support for one candidate or issue over another, even on your private social media. You don’t get to write about companies in which you own stock or organizations for which you volunteer. All those Wisconsin journalists were right to be fired years ago after they signed the recall petition against then-Gov. Scott Walker.
But journalists ought to be held accountable, too, for the things they said and did before they were subject to their outlet’s policies. Before anyone was watching.
If you’re going to write a story questioning whether Donald Trump is a racist, the public has a right to know if you tweeted anti-Semetic things years ago (one of the first scoops of the president’s allies). If you’re going to report on LGBTQ issues, the public has a right to know if you once used homophobic slurs in a tweet (as did a CNN correspondent, the president’s allies unearthed).
Journalists ought to be held to a higher standard, and they ought to act accordingly.
That’s why, shortly after I put a story about Alpena Township Supervisor Nathan Skibbe’s drunk-driving arrest on the front page early in my tenure here at The News, I told my staff and my readers I would fully expect to be on the front page, myself, if I were arrested for a similar crime.
I think the work of the president’s allies is dangerous as a First Amendment issue, but is ultimately laughable. Rather than directly addressing whatever presidential wrongdoing the media uncovers, they want to shoot the messenger.
A fact does not become any less true if it is reported by a scoundrel. Case in point: It was partly the testimony of prostitutes and pimps that brought former Ingham County prosecutor Stuart Dunnings III to the attention of police.
The prosecutor still went to jail for soliciting prostitutes.
In my mind, all the dirt in the world doesn’t make a lick of difference to a provable fact about the president, but the public has a right to all the information they need to make that determination for themselves.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.