As the Brett Kavanaugh nomination turmoil rages on, the mainstream press is under fire. And not just from the predictable right.
Jeff Greenfield, the former CBS correspondent, described some of the news media Sunday as slanted against President Donald Trump and Kavanaugh — “a kind of resistance.”
Two Columbia Journalism Review writers deplored the “media bullying” of Christine Blasey Ford, who has accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexual assault.
And the social-media world went on the attack when The New York Times opinion section published (and then deleted) an insensitive Twitter poll on whether Ford was credible.
Some of this criticism is valid and deserves airing.
But to focus on it exclusively is to miss a larger point: Recent journalistic digging into Kavanaugh’s life in high school and college has been impressive, and, overall, the press is performing its crucial watchdog role in a way that citizens should appreciate.
“The last few days of news coverage about Kavanaugh’s past have shown how important and valuable the media can be when it practices old-fashioned gumshoe reporting,” Tim O’Brien, executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion, told me.
The press criticism, from all sides, reminds me of the oft-quoted quip about democracy: “the worst form of government except for all the others.”
So, too, American journalism in 2018.
Let’s pause for a minute to consider where we would be without the mainstream media — the reality-based press, as I prefer to call it — in the matter of Brett Kavanaugh.
The short form is that Kavanaugh already would be confirmed to a lifetime appointment on the nation’s highest court. That, of course, is exactly what some would have liked, their idea of justice well-served.
The longer form is that a great deal about Trump’s nominee would never have come out.
And not just about his alleged sexual misconduct or the misstatements — lies, if you will — that he has made under oath.
Christine Blasey Ford’s complaint would have been swept under the rug, with swift rightward strokes.
Without her reluctant decision to go public in an interview with The Washington Post’s Emma Brown, we would never have heard from other accusers. Not from Deborah Ramirez, who spoke to Jane Mayer and Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker; and very likely not from Julie Swetnick, the client of Stormy Daniels’ lawyer, Michael Avenatti.
Each of these cases has built on what Ford, during Thursday’s hearing, described as the relationship of trust she had built up with Emma Brown, after initially making an anonymous call to The Post’s tip line in July.
What The Post and the New Yorker did is the very basis of good journalism. So is the important reporting from the Times and elsewhere on the extreme limits of the new FBI investigation, as dictated by the White House.
Post Executive Editor Martin Baron’s celebrated description of his paper’s approach to journalism in the Trump era — “We’re not at war, we’re at work” — addresses this point.
I’ll dare to add: It’s not resistance, it’s reporting.
The best work in recent weeks has been the determined and skilled digging about Kavanaugh’s past, unearthing classmates, finding his old pal Mark Judge, and comparing his sworn statement to credible reports from elsewhere. “The fact pattern emerging from that work has raised pivotal questions about Kavanaugh’s character and honesty, which are crucial to forming a view about how well suited he is to sit on the Supreme Court,” O’Brien said.
“You can call it the resistance, but it’s not — I reject that label,” said Susan Glasser of the New Yorker, pushing back against Greenfield’s assertion on CNN’s “Reliable Sources” program Sunday and making the case that the press is doing its job of trying to get at the truth. (Greenfield significantly softened his critique by allowing that the political situation may justify what he perceives as an anti-Trump slant on CNN and elsewhere, not only in covering Kavanaugh but over Trump’s past two years: “It may be that the facts justify it.”)
So here’s where we stand.
If Kavanaugh is confirmed, press scrutiny will at least have let us know what we’re getting: A conservative jurist with all the right credentials who is willing to mislead while under oath, who vents his anger in blatantly partisan terms, and who apparently lacks the judicial temperament required for the job.
If he withdraws, or is voted down, the press no doubt will be blamed for ruining a life and career. That will be not only unfair but ungrateful.
Legitimate journalists and respectable news organizations get things wrong, no doubt.
They make factual errors (and almost always correct them).
They damage their own credibility by blurring the line between opinion and news.
They’re highly distractible.
They’re guilty of tunnel vision, arrogance and groupthink.
Even so, they might be American democracy’s best hope at the moment.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.
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