Journalists are not the enemy, we’re just doing our jobs

Eric Berger is a staff writer for the Jewish Light.

By Eric Berger

It must have slipped my mind that the Washington Post and The New York Times reporters have a secret handshake to let one another know that they are part of the same tribe known as “The Dishonest Media.”

I’m wondering whether I have amnesia or if I was just left off the email chain in which journalists from legitimate news organizations conspire to dethrone President Donald Trump.

If I had immigrated to the United States from an authoritarian country and heard Trump speak, I would think that honest journalism was the stuff of fairy tales.

That’s because he and his team — advisors Kellyanne Conway, Reince Priebus and Stephen Bannon and press secretary Sean Spicer — have framed it as such. When a journalist does accurate reporting that reveals something unfavorable about Trump, it’s not the work of someone trying to inform the public about one of the president’s falsehoods or character flaws — or the downside of a piece of proposed legislation or executive order. Rather, it’s a minion in the Dishonest Media tribe that is trying to stage a coup against the leader of the “alternative facts” crew. 

And that’s dangerous ice for journalists to walk across. If Trump is allowed to bash journalists as though we are one villain carrying a notepad weapon, then he is allowed to be the golden-haired superhero.

It’s up to journalists everywhere to poke holes in this false narrative. 

After the inauguration, Trump claimed that he saw a crowd that “looked like a million-and-a-half people” and “went all the way back to the Washington Monument.” When news organizations displayed photos that showed otherwise, Spicer delivered a tirade in which he claimed “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period, both in person and around the globe.”

Afterwards, Priebus responded to questioning about Spicer’s rant by instead focusing on a Time magazine reporter’s inaccurate tweet that the White House had removed a bust of civil rights hero Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office. (The journalist deleted the tweet and issued an apology.)

“There is an obsession by the media to delegitimize this president,” Priebus said recently on “Fox News Sunday.” “We are not going to sit around and let it happen.”

The key point in considering the gravity of one inaccurate statement versus the other is that the Time reporter is one among millions of journalists. There is only one president.

In an interview with The New York Times last Wednesday, Bannon continued to bash the media. “The media should be embarrassed and humiliated and keep its mouth shut and just listen for awhile,” Bannon said during a telephone call. 

“I want you to quote this,” he added. “The media here is the opposition party. They don’t understand this country. They still do not understand why Donald Trump is the president of the United States.”

I would like to ask the Trump team for an explanation of how this “opposition party” operates. Do journalists sit in the same room, wearing menacing faces and putting their fingers together like Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons”?

That’s not been my experience. In the newsrooms I have worked in, and among the journalists I have met, there have always been a variety of opinions on the state of affairs in Washington and elsewhere. Some people are Republicans. Some are Democrats. Many reporters keep their opinions to themselves and are mysteries. Reporters and editors hear tips and generate ideas for stories. They do research. They interview sources.  They fact check. They make sure a story doesn’t have any holes.

But there are some journalists and news organizations that are better than others. And sometimes, journalists do make mistakes, in which case people point out those errors and the news organizations are forced to run a correction.

And when a journalist makes such a mistake, it’s embarrassing. I know that I and many other journalists often times are nervous before the publication of an important story that may anger some people. What if I got something wrong?

Again, when Trump says something that is inaccurate, it’s one person. When a journalist makes a mistake — or if he or she were to deliberately fabricate something — it’s also one person. Or one person and an editor. The thousands of other journalists aren’t responsible. And usually news organizations that had nothing to do with error take the offending journalist to task.

If the White House administration is allowed to frame journalists collectively as the dishonest or mainstream media, it encourages some people not to trust reputable news organizations and instead seek out obscure blogs that don’t hold themselves to the same standard as the The New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, or other professional media outlets, including the Jewish Light

As is cliché to say, our Democracy depends on a free and open press. While we journalists are not a tribe with any weird rituals — except maybe grabbing our hair if we’re nearing a deadline — in this case, it’s important that journalists everywhere communicate how we do our jobs and dispel the notion that we are acting together to delegitimize the Trump presidency.

Otherwise, it won’t just be the White House telling us to keep our mouths shut.