The AP’s ‘straight news’ story that reads suspiciously like an op-ed

It may be the most blatant editorializing I’ve ever seen from the Associated Press … and that’s saying something, since the AP becomes more blatant in its handling of editorialized content in supposed straight news pieces with each passing year.

The story is one comparing the coronavirus pandemic to the Spanish flu pandemic. Here are a few snippets. Judge for yourself: Straight news, or op-ed?

“The ancient common sense of quarantining is back. So is quackery: Rub raw onions on your chest, they said in 1918. How about disinfectant in your veins now? mused President Donald Trump, drawing gasps instead of laughs over what he weakly tried to pass off as a joke.”

“Trump all but declared victory before infection took root in his country and he’s delivered a stream of misinformation ever since. President Woodrow Wilson’s principal failure was his silence.”

“Physicians, though, didn’t always know what they were doing. Medical journals at the time describe a rash of unusual treatments, some in the league of Trump’s amateur theories about disinfectant, blasts of lights and an unapproved drug that has both potential benefits and risks.”

“We have Fauci now — a federal immunologist who has been regarded as the truth-teller in White House briefings, singularly immune to Trump’s positive spin and falsehoods. Plus, we know so much more than people did in 1918.”

I’m not defending Trump’s comments on disinfectants and UV light. Even as they were taken somewhat out of context, they were an example of a president who cannot control his urges to just say whatever is on his mind without thinking through the consequences. Nor am I defending his administration’s response to this pandemic, which has been lacking.

But if the press cannot present those facts without resorting to dropping in its writers’ own take that the president is a lying moron, causing an otherwise straight-news piece to read like something off the opinion page, the press has a problem.

And, as we well know, the press has a problem.

Folks (I’m talking to all of you who do this for a living, as I do), people don’t trust us. By “us,” I mean you, but unfortunately your actions drag me into the fray because we’re all swathed by the same broad brush. We’ve editorialized for so long, trying to tell people what to think instead of presenting the facts and then letting them make up their own minds, that we’ve lost the faith of the eyeballs we need to sustain what we do. We’ve lost credibility because we’ve become crusaders instead of informers. And we’re too busy tripping over our own feet to get out of our own way.

Sure, the advances of technology have been a significant obstacle — people (and, more significantly, ad dollars) moving into the digital realm has cost print journalism dearly … as it has also cost, to a lesser extent, broadcast journalism.

And, sure, journalism will always exist in some form … but it’s going to exist for a lot fewer of us. According to the Pew Research Center, newsroom employment has declined by 23% in the past decade. That’s 1 in every 4 journalists, axed — not counting the jobs lost before 2008, and not counting the jobs that will soon be lost … or the jobs lost in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, jobs that won’t come back.

Technology may be the reason for a lot of those lost jobs, but don’t try to tell me that a lot of the metro daily newspapers that are currently gasping for oxygen and floating to the top of the pool, belly-up, didn’t find their situations complicated by circulation that has been in free-fall. And don’t try to tell me that part of that circulation decline hasn’t been the result of disgusted readers who finally had enough and dropped their subscriptions or stopped picking up copies at the gas station on their way home from work.

I live in the heart of Donald Trump country. Tennessee is deep-red. And my home county is conservative even by Tennessee’s standards. Eighty-five percent of those who cast ballots in my county in 2016 pulled the lever for Trump. You folks stationed in comfy newsrooms in your New York City and Washington bureaus, surrounded by academics and other stuffy elite who look at the huge swaths of red America with disdain, may have a few degrees of separation from fed-up readers … so let me reassure you: they’re sick of your tactics. They’re so sick of your tactics that they don’t even bother clicking on links to your articles much of the time. Or, if they do, they’ll click off nearly as quickly as they clicked on.

America’s free press is not strong … in no small part by its own doing. And a weak free press causes problems that weakens the nation. People who’ve lost faith in the so-called mainstream media anxiously turn to alternative news sources, where misinformation takes root. This is where half-truths and conspiracy theories are fostered. This is where real “fake news” is cooked up … because these readers see you as “fake news” — not because the president told them so; they saw you as “fake news” long before Trump was in the White House, only by a different name — and, consistently, you fail to give them reasons to change their mind.

You’re so indignant that a — in your mind — bumbling, race-baiting, hate-mongering president like Trump (or, in his absence, whoever the other conservative politician of the day is, because let’s face it: regardless of how much you’ve convinced yourself that defeating Trump is your life’s work, your real issue is with conservative politics, not with the man currently occupying the Oval Office) still has an approval rating near 50% and a real path to re-election that, instead of pausing to examine how your own actions might be contributing to the current political environment, you double down: trying harder than ever to tell conservative readers what they should think and why they should think it.

You shrug and say these people won’t read your product anyway. You do, because some of you have told me so. But that’s a convenient lie, formulated in your own minds to make you feel better about the current state of journalistic distrust that is so deeply rooted in the American conscience. There was a time when the New York Times was revered by conservatives just as by progressives. There was a time when the AP was regarded as an institution, rather than a laughingstock.

It’s a shame what you’ve become. It’s a shame what we’ve become.

You don’t want to hear these things, I know. I’ve seen the sniffs and the eye-rolls. When one of the leading gurus in the newspaper industry lamented declining circulations on Facebook and I commented that newspapers must regain the trust of their audience by putting aside their own whims and biases, he rushed to delete my comment. We’ve become so adept at ignoring the truth that we’ve turned newsrooms — where everyone’s political leanings and personal biases are usually the same — into echo chambers. And so we fail our readers.

So here’s a news flash: those Americans who trust the mass media are in the minority. As recently as 1976, a whopping 72% of Americans trusted us. Today, only about 40% trust us. Only 13% have a “great deal of trust.” That’s not much more than 1 in 10. Those are dismal numbers — shameful numbers, numbers that are largely our own doing.

These are partisan times. I get that. So how do you earn back the trust of your readers in such polarized times? Here’s an idea: stop taking sides! Stop pandering to one side or the other. We aren’t politicians; we don’t have bases. There are people who would vote for Donald Trump no matter what he did — not even if, as he himself said, he walked into the middle of 5th Avenue and shot someone. Likewise, there are people who would vote for Nancy Pelosi no matter what she did. The press doesn’t have that luxury. We’re one ill-advised story from losing readership. So we only have one option: Fairness. Open-mindedness. Even-handedness. Not everyone will appreciate that, but a lot will. And if we’re consistent, more will.

If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that there is still a craving for information. People want news. Sure, they want it in ways that are most convenient for them — not the ways that are most convenient or necessarily the most profitable for us — but they desire information. What’s wrong with presenting that information in the most straight-forward manner possible, without getting cute and without getting fancy? Believe it or not, most people aren’t stupid and are capable of making up their own minds, without us telling them what they should think — which means that if we insist on telling them what to think, it’s probably because we want them to think like us. And if we’re in this business to crusade rather than to inform — because we want to shape opinion rather than uncovering truth — we’re doomed.

Political opinions have been a part of the mass media for as long as there have been printing presses. It’s why so many old newspapers have “Republican” or “Democrat” in their name. When Jesse James became a folk hero in 1860s Missouri, it was because a single newspaper editor made him so. When public sentiment turned against the Vietnam War, it was because of crusading TV journalists like Walter Cronkite. But, by and large, people aren’t buying our newspaper or listening to our radio newscast or watching the evening news to find out what our opinions are. No one said journalists can’t have opinions. But if we can deflate our own egos enough to see, we might understand that our readers don’t give a rip about our opinions. I’ve written a lot of award-winning editorials, but I’m smart enough to leave my opinions on Page A4 — that’s our opinion page — and present straight news on Page A1. Because every time I check our web metrics, I discover that the stories receiving the most views are the stories that are factual and straight-forward, while the stories receiving the least views are opinion pieces, including my own. Without fail. And that’s hardly surprising.

So that’s where we are. We know the mainstream media despises the president. We know the president despises the mainstream media. No one is asking the media to give the president a free pass. Hold his feet to the fire, but be fair, and your readers will trust you. This sham of an AP story isn’t fairness, and it’s an insult to readers who are looking for real news and not sophomoric claims that the president is engaging in “quackery” and lies. And thousands of hard-working journalists in small newsrooms across America, who don’t command the same platform as you but who are defined — however unfairly — by the work you do, all say the same thing: Thanks for nothing.

Ben Garrett

Ben Garrett is a journalist from East Tennessee. He is publisher of the Independent Herald, a weekly newspaper serving the Big South Fork region of the Cumberland Plateau, with a sideline in website development and digital marketing. He is also an erstwhile blogger.

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