Given all the bad news about the news business, it was beyond heartening to see hundreds of people turn out for a discussion about investigative reporting at the North Carolina Museum of History last Thursday.
The event centered on Stanford Professor James T. Hamilton’s book, “Democracy Detectives,” which tries to calculate the public benefits of investigative reports. But the real star was The News & Observer and its retired ace reporter, Pat Stith, whose decades of work saved many lives and millions of dollars while sparking new laws and, ahem, personnel changes.
As a newsperson I felt exceedingly proud of my paper and my profession.
As a conservative, however, I felt diminished and disheartened by some of the conversation, which, I believe, helps explain my industry’s woes.
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It began when N&O Executive Editor John Drescher noted in his introductory remarks that “the president of the United States has declared us [the press] an enemy of the people.”
During the next hour Hamilton, Stith and at least one other reporter also quoted Trump’s comment. By the end, it was all I could do not to stand and declare, “He’s not talking about you.” I would be surprised if Trump has ever read The N&O (his loss) and astonished to learn he has the Old Reliable in his crosshairs. His target is the Washington press corps, whose coverage of him has been relentlessly negative. To suggest otherwise is unfair and misleading. It violates one of journalism’s first duties: to put words and deeds in context so readers can understand them.
This reflects a disturbing pattern in the coverage of Trump. Reporters take his every word literally, interpreting each in the harshest light, while engaging in a Talmudic search for nuance in every utterance of Democrats. They don’t like or trust him – the vast majority certainly didn’t vote for him. They see him as a danger and themselves as defenders of the realm.
Now, a caveat. I know many of my colleagues will disagree sharply with my observation. They honestly believe their coverage is fair, and that his open-ended attacks smear the entire Fourth Estate. They’re kidding themselves. Decades in the news business have shown me that for all their professionalism, journalists are not immune to the hyper-partisanship infecting our society.
It’s why many of them consider CNN, NPR and the New York Times the gold standard while I believe they are betraying journalism.
I know I’m right, but concede they have reasons for their beliefs. Most of them, however, don’t give my views the same credit.
This was symbolized by another common refrain among panelists and audience members on Thursday: that journalists simply print The Truth. Translation: If you don’t like what we write, you don’t like the truth. When did the press become the Pope? What hubris!
As a conservative, I find most of The N&O’s coverage to be fair and balanced. But when it tilts, it is almost always to the left. For example, the wall-to-wall coverage of HB2 strikes me as completely out of whack with the law’s actual scope. How many negative consequences have resulted from this relentless spotlight?
Recent front-page headlines properly noted some local programs that might be trimmed by Trump’s budget. But there was little discussion about the need to cut something to address our $20 trillion dollar national debt.
Coverage of the push to make UNC-Chapel Hill a sanctuary campus and Durham’s decision to suspend traffic stops near schools with many Hispanic students has given short shrift to those who believe we should enforce our immigration laws.
Again, I know that paper can defend its coverage – and it has a long track record of exposing Democrat corruption. But that doesn’t address the fact that so many conservatives feel their views and voices are not vigorously represented in the paper’s coverage. Sure, the left also complains, but not nearly as much.
During his remarks Drescher made a spot-on observation: “Much of the public is either hostile or indifferent to us, and I’m not sure which is worse.”
It is long past time to take that seriously.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane can be reached at jpederzane @jpederzane.com.
Correction: An earlier version of this column referred to the nation’s $20 trillion deficit. It is the national debt.