Backgrounder: Bye-Bye Robert Redford

January 23, 2019

“The narrative was right, but the facts were wrong.” — Columnist Evan Thomas on learning of the innocence of the Duke lacrosse team

by Craig Ladwig

Perhaps the national media never really believed that a four-minute video clip showed overt racism by MAGA-hat-wearing southern teenagers. Maybe it didn’t care whether the killing of a seven-year-old black girl in Houston was by an imaginary white man in a hate crime or simply a routine gang-related homicide. It may not even dislike Donald Trump, personally that is.

It simply doesn’t know how else to act.

This, please know, is worse than bias or even professional dishonesty. It means the collapse of an institution that the Founders considered critical to our liberty. It also is a puzzle, for why would the journalist elite continue a method whose end result leaves them shot in the foot time after time.

In answer, some of us are taken back to 1976 when the new journalism began, settling down in our theater seats as callow j-school graduates to watch Robert Redford in “All the President’s Men.”

The plot line, you will recall, was not a who-done-it. Rather, the villain was known from the first handful of popcorn. The tension of the story line was created around whether the young hero journalists in pursuit of ultimate truth would be squelched by the powerful and privileged. The “facts” that allowed our heroes to prevail were not the product of journalistic character or technique. They were delivered deus ex machina from off stage by shadowy, anonymous and unaccountable figures.

And that, pretty much, has been “journalism” ever since. It is as Seth Baron wrote recently in City Journal: “The Covington High School brouhaha reminds us that the media have precast the meaning of every story.” That is, Robert Redford, facts be damned, must always get his man.

So it doesn’t matter whether the target is a U.S. president in the White House or a 15-year-old schoolboy from a small town in Kentucky as long as the subject can be cast as an unworthy recipient of power and privilege. Ambitious journalists today, you see, consider their job solely to bring such people down — whatever it takes.

They cannot help themselves; it’s all they know. And ironically, it has destroyed their profession, or at least changed its definition beyond historic recognition. Readership, viewership, market penetration, however you want to measure it, are on disastrous downward spirals. Even Gannett Inc., the pluperfect model of this new journalism, is being eyed by vulture capitalists who would sell it for parts.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Journalism can be restored to what it was before the Redford romanticism took hold, returned to providing a source of perhaps mundane or even ugly but trustworthy information for free citizens trying their best to determine for themselves political direction and public policy.

Toward that goal, we would rethink New York Times Co. vs. Sullivan, the 1964 Supreme Court case that established the “actual malice” standard. The effect of the ruling was that as a practical matter no official or public figure could sue for damage when wronged. He must first prove that the publisher of the statement in question knew it was false or acted in reckless disregard of its truth or falsity — a difficult if not impossible hurdle.

Those who have forgotten what journalism looked like before are referred to “Central Ideas in the Development of American Journalism,” Marvin Olasky’s indispensable resource on the topic.

Olasky begins by noting that journalists from the l7th through l9th centuries invented much of what we associate with admirable journalism: “A sense of purpose, a willingness to oppose arrogant rulers, and a stress on accuracy and specific detail.” He dubs this the “corruption story.”

A countervailing journalism or “story,” the precursor of the Robert Redford method, arose with Horace Greeley and Joseph Pulitzer. Olasky explains that they believed man is naturally good but is enslaved by oppressive social systems. He called this the “oppression story,” in which problems arise not from personal corruption but from external influence. If man’s environment is changed, its thinking goes, then man himself changes, and poverty, war, and so on, are no more. Olasky’s conclusion:

“This change affected not only story content but reporters’ methods. Corruption story journalists tended to have limited personal agendas because they emphasized personal transformation rather than social revolution. Oppression story journalists, who came to dominate the most influential publications in the 20th century, believed their own work could be the breakthrough to a better world. As the great ends of oppression story journalism — peace, justice, freedom — began to seem attainable, means began to be negotiable.”

With that and a nod to Kurt Vonnegut . . . so it goes.

Craig Ladwig is the editor of the quarterly Indiana Policy Review.


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