By Paul Wieland
It’s a difficult and surprising assessment to make, but the years of Donald Trump in the White House have benefitted American journalism. For the first time in my life, media outlets specifically point to lies, untruths and inaccuracies without the old bromide of telling “both sides of the story.”
In the mid-20th century I graduated with a journalism degree from St. Bonaventure under the tutelage of Russell Jandoli, a man with the heart of a lion and the soul of decency. Dr. Jandoli taught me (and my fellows) that journalism must be even-handed and fair, the essence of public morality.
That meant telling both sides of a story if there were sides to be reported. It didn’t mean to accept lies and pass them on.
Yet the news business was an avenue of deceit when I was a cub.
I entered newspapers as a general assignment reporter of the Buffalo Courier-Express, a lively daily that expired in the 1980s under assail from Warren Buffett and his Buffalo Evening News. I soon learned that newspapers generally gave public figures a free pass, not reporting their peccadillos or their stupidities; not calling out their lies. Ever. Instead of putting that kind of material in a story, we were urged to “write a note to the City Desk,” where that note would end up in the bottom of a wooden drawer, or if of enough interest, on the desk of Cy King, the managing editor.
Cy loved the inside scoop his reporters provided, particularly the memos that told of drunkenness, infidelity and other loose moral character. There was no such job as an “investigative reporter,” partly because we all were expected to ferret out facts but not necessarily the truth. News coverage may have appeared thorough, but it was often superficial because reporters couldn’t tell the real story.
Newspaper men and women were required to tell both sides without comment on the truth of a story and its participants. I once covered a campaigning pol who tried to set me up with a hooker as a payoff for “a good story.” I wrote that good story alright, except it was about the politician trying to set me up (“My treat,” he said.) My story probably ended up on Cy King’s desk, but it never made the paper. It was just the first of many times when I caught public figures lying but couldn’t get the story in the paper. I wasn’t alone.
Not much changed when I moved up the street to the (then) Buffalo Evening News. That paper had more sacred cows than a dairy farm. Our style book was a lie all by itself. We were to tell a rape story as a “criminal assault.” The term doesn’t even exist in the law.
One congressman in the region lied every time he publicly spoke. It was easy to tag the lies; they were so blatant. Yet not a whiff of his duplicity made it to print. In fact, the News endorsed him for election on several occasions. My decade as a reporter revealed more of the same. Until Donald Trump came along, America’s media operated pretty much that way. Like the three brass monkeys who neither spoke, saw or heard no evil.
Trump’s inaugural week lies first were reported as news, without being identified as lies or untruths. When he was elected, telling “both sides” of the story “fairly” remained a constant among the media, now ballooned to a panoply of sources way beyond print and broadcast. Then Trump’s attacks on journalists as “enemies of the people” helped truth come out. Frustrated and maybe even enraged by Trump’s words, news companies such as the New York Times and the Washington Post fought back. The Post began counting Trump’s lies, and identified more than 22,000 of them during his four years in office. The newspaper reported them in detail, day-by-day and year-by-year.
Trump is not the only public figure hoisted on his own petard. Journalists and editors now skewer liars in the world of business, sports, religion and pop culture by regularly reporting lies and untruths. They will continue to do so. By and large, reporting that identifies lies is now the benchmark of the news business.
It’s a better time to be in the media. Maybe the best time ever, because the shackles of the “both sides” approach have been loosened.
I’m sure there are sacred cows in most news organizations, though I suspect not as many as before Donald Trump. By being the most venal, duplicitous, lying president in our history, Trump shoved the “tell both sides” argument into the dust bin of journalism history in favor of public truth-telling about lies, making our media the best it has ever been.
Author’s Note: How do you know I am not lying to you? Because, like Donald J. Trump, I told you so.
Paul Wieland, a former “enemy of the people,” teaches in the Jandoli School of Communication at St. Bonaventure University.