It would be interesting to know what Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward thought of the opening words of the Washington Post coverage of the Watergate impeachment hearings in 1973. If you like to watch grass grow you would have loved the opening yesterday of the Senate select committees hearings on the Watergate and related campaign misdeeds, wrote Jules Witcover.
The correspondent writing in the paper that owned the story and ultimately brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon continued: The investigation doesnt intend to sacrifice thoroughness or when necessary, even boredom for sensationalism, just to hold the TV audience. Forty eight years and two impeachments later, this process and perhaps journalism have not moved on very much. But the expectation and environment for both politics and reporting is radically changed.
It is entirely possible that when unfolding their copies of the Post half a century ago, readers spat coffee across the table with indignation that a dramatic moment in the countrys democracy was being criticised for lack of media appeal but there was no Twitter and no live feedback loop to let Witcover know that. It is also possible that the unimpeachable authority of the press at the time meant this framing of the hearings was accepted without controversy.
The presidency of Donald Trump has been one defined by persistent spectacle and dramatic acts of transgression and rule-breaking. The most dramatic passage of any presidency is however when it is put under existential threat, either by the ballot box or by the process of impeachment. It would not be quite true to say that America held its breath last week at the outset of the first internet impeachment, because that would imply a sense of shared anticipation and expectation. Not only was Trump under close official scrutiny, so was the hectic coverage which has accompanied every second of the administration.
Editors at Reuters and NBC News were not shielded by the barriers of time and distance enjoyed by the Post when it delivered similar verdicts on the first day of impeachment hearings. Reuters headline: Consequential, but dull: Trump hearings begin without a bang, was matched in its lack of self-awareness by NBC News correspondent Jonathan Allen, who wrote that the witnesses lacked the pizzazz necessary to capture public attention. The ensuing critique was savage: Twitter, which sometimes feels like the whole of journalism, lit up with condemnation pizzazz was not the point.
The extended and exhaustingly dystopian media operation of Trumps presidency has been run by the main protagonist like a particularly nightmarish version of the Apprentice. But it is not entertainment. It has caused real pain, danger and death to citizens as many presidencies do, but it has been carried out with a naked agenda of self-interest and constitutional disregard which has shocked all but the elected Republican representatives.
In last weeks hearings, the first witnesses on the stand, William Taylor and George Kent, were serious but their testimony was far from boring. Taylor dropped new evidence, not previously known about, during his sober testimony. The potential effect of coverage that then tells audiences nothing to see here, is interpreted not just as opinion but as irresponsible reporting and editing.
The imperative for journalists now is to not only report events as they happen, but frame them with an awareness of what happens as a result of their reporting. There is no such thing as just a headline, or an incautiously deployed adjective, that will go unnoticed halfway down your copy. Without wanting to criticise already hard-pressed journalists, it is clear that many newsrooms, even the most well-resourced, do not have a strategy for coping with this world of reporting, publishing and amplifying.
At the other end of the journalistic spectrum in America last week, the humble student newspaper, there was another example of how rapidly ethical ground shifts and why the field needs to adapt more quickly.
The Daily Northwestern, a newspaper produced principally by undergraduates, posted an unusual apology for their coverage of a student protest during a visit by former attorney general Jeff Sessions to campus. Following the coverage, students protestors who were photographed and contacted for interviews complained about violations to their privacy from what is completely normal practice in reporting public events. Instead of standing firm, the editorial board of the paper apologised for failing to consider the impact of our reporting, adding: We know we hurt students that night particularly those in marginalised communities.
The ugly again Twitter pile-on that ensued from professional journalists criticising students for failing to uphold the tenets of journalism was as unseemly as it was unnecessary. While by any normal standards of journalism, the paper should not have apologised for constructing the important public record of what happened with perfectly ethical practices the context of this situation made it understandable why they might regret their reporting. These are students who might feel that in Trumps America, being associated with such a protest would endanger their status as residents, risk future job opportunities and even perhaps lead to attacks and harassment. They are perhaps better placed to understand the importance of a piece even in a student paper better than highly experienced journalists who learned their craft outside a hostile media environment.
The dignity of Troy Closson, editor of the Daily Northwestern, in tweeting a thread of explanation and clarification was an object lesson to the much more prominent journalists who had criticised his leadership. Closson, an African American undergraduate, explained (though he should not have had to): Being in this role and balancing our coverage and the role of this paper on campus with my racial identity and knowing how our paper has historically failed students of colour, and particularly black students, has been incredibly challenging to navigate.
The most experienced and the least experienced journalists make mistakes the former should be judged far more harshly than the latter. But we need to take notice of the altered media environment too, and understand what needs to be flexible and what has to remain unbending in the face of hostility.
The discussions that make us more aware of what impact and consequence means for journalism are healthy and will, it is hoped, make the accountability functions of the modern press a better fit for the current environment.
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