In an ironic sense Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of the Watergate Scandal back in the ‘70s put in gear two opposing aspects to journalism: On the one hand, editor in chief Ben Bradlee of the Washington Post courageously ran with the story while threatening to castrate his two young reporters if they got it wrong, which, on one serious occasion, they did. And the NY Times has paid vast sums of lawyers’ fees to keep some of their reporters out of jail rather than reveal sources.
But in recent years newspapers and magazines have shown less and less interest in backing their writers over what they said and how they said it. As someone who once wrote for the Village Voice back in the days when it published both muckraking journalism along with often shocking opinion, I knew that anyone who challenged a writer would be met with an editorial middle finger to whoever dared to sue the paper. Corrections would be made, and that was that.
Today editors are looking for excuses to step away from a writer’s defense, lest an advertiser or reader be offended. In the year before being let go by Esquire Magazine (after 40 years) I was asked not to write anything that might put off readers of its new internet site, to the point where, when I made a crack about bloggers too often knowing nothing about their subject, my article was cut. And when they asked me to critique the wretched show “America’s Top Chef,” episode by episode, I was asked to stop after three segments because I was being too critical.
Of those instances and so many others today where an underpaid freelancer’s writing is toned down or rejected, the real concern is offending advertisers. Back in the 1960s, more than once, Esquire lost $750,000 in ads because they ran a cover offensive to advertisers—after being told it would be.
So when Donald Trump screams about the media being crooked and all liars, what do the media do? They bend over backwards to seem otherwise, reigning in all harsh commentary, insisting their network or political coverage be fair-minded and that there is no bias as Trump suggests. One doesn’t have to be a weasel like Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh to have a strong opinion.
But if there is no bias there is no commentary. Emile Zola knew that, John Peter Zenger knew that, William Hazlitt knew that, Henry David Thoreau knew that. Editors once knew that, too. But, sad to say, editors don’t call the shots any more. They just give reporters a lousy buy-out.