Many years ago, on a PBS series called Ethics in America, Professor Charles Ogletree of Harvard University convened a panel of American journalists who were at the top of their profession and asked them a hypothetical question: If they were embedded with enemy troops and learned of an imminent attack on U.S. forces, would they try to warn their fellow countrymen or would they simply cover the attack as if it were just another story? Peter Jennings, who anchored ABC World News Tonight–and a native Canadian, no less–hesitated for a moment, but then said that he would probably try to sound a warning. In his view, saving American lives was more important than covering the story.
That’s when Mike Wallace, the famed CBS News correspondent, stepped in and said that other reporters would have a different reaction. “They would regard it simply as another story that they are there to cover,” Wallace said. “You’re a reporter covering combat…and I’m at a little bit of a loss to understand why, because you are an American, you would not have covered that story.” In other words, a journalist’s first duty is to cover the news without fear or favor, regardless of the consequences–even if that means people might get killed. Video of the exchange is below:
Once Wallace put it in those terms, Jennings quickly relented and said that he would also allow the attack to proceed–much to the chagrin of the military men who were present. It was a stark moment, but one that illustrated a cardinal rule of journalism at the time: you’re a reporter first, and everything else a distant second. It doesn’t matter how you feel about a story–you put all that aside and cover it, no matter what.
My, how times have changed.
These days, we’re all about the feelings–particularly in journalism, where narrative has all but displaced the facts. Exhibit A: Katy Tur, MSNBC correspondent and former flame of the disgraced Keith Olbermann, whose personality and politics are so odious that even the most leftist news networks won’t touch him with a ten foot pole. For some reason, the suits at MSNBC thought that Tur–who had less experience with politics than your average college newspaper reporter–would be a Jim Dandy choice to cover Donald Trump during the 2016 election. Perhaps it was her sassy persona. Or maybe it was because she looks like the kind of girl John Cusack is supposed to fall in love with in one of those 80s-era teen rom coms. Who knows? But somehow, she found herself at the forefront covering perhaps the strangest presidential election in history, an experience she recounts in her new book Unbelievable.
As you would imagine, Tur goes into great details about her feelings–such as that visceral moment when she realized that Trump had won the presidency:
“The room goes wavy. My stomach churns,” Tur says. “I can feel the bile in the back of my throat.
“I’ve heard him insult a war hero, brag about grabbing women by the pussy, denigrate the judicial system, demonize immigrants, fight with the pope, doubt the democratic process, advocate torture and war crimes, tout the size of his junk in a presidential debate, trash the media, and endanger my life,” Tur continued.
Tur, 33, adds she fears Trump will be in office 27 years from now at age 98 because he’ll find a way to avoid the two-term limit.
“Does anyone really believe he’ll respect term limits? I have a vision of myself at sixty, Trump at a hundred, in some midwestern convention hall. The children of his 2016 supporters are spitting on me,” Tur writes.
Left unexplained is how someone with such nonexistent professionalism can call herself a reporter.
Never mind Mike Wallace allowing enemy troops to fire on American soldiers for the sake of covering a story. With Tur, her objectivity couldn’t even get around the size of Donald Trump’s wanker. Whereas in the past we had journalists agonizing over hypotheticals involving life and death, Tur can only squeal, “Eww! Gross!” and wallow in her book-length emotions for the entire world to see, as if such exhibitionism might offer some form of therapy or absolution for her failure to stop Trump.
If this is what passes for wisdom from Katy Tur, MSNBC might as well have hired Katy Perry.
Even so, Tur’s bosses saw fit to reward her campaign coverage with a coveted anchor spot on MSNBC Live, which pretty much tells you everything you need to know about the news business these days. Rather than promote reporters who prize objectivity above all else, it’s the pundits in disguise who rise to the top–which is what makes Tur emblematic of everything that’s wrong with American journalism. It used to be that you rarely knew how reporters felt about a given issue, because they didn’t want that perception to taint the public’s view of their news coverage. Nowadays, feelings are all that matter–and, like a cancer, it’s slowly killing the profession.
That people like Tur aren’t even bothering to hide it anymore means the prognosis isn’t likely to change.