The golden age of journalism wasn’t so golden

By Christopher Harper

As it has become increasingly apparent that the media have become political partisans, I started to wonder how neutral the press was during the more than two decades I worked as a reporter.

The more I thought about it, the more I discovered that the media back in the good old days might not have been as overtly political as today, but slanted stories and opinions often made it into the news.

From 1974 to 1995, I worked at the Associated Press, Newsweek, and ABC News in Chicago, Washington, Beirut, Cairo, Rome, and New York. I worked with Barbara Walters, Peter Jennings, Hugh Downs, and many other well-known journalists. I competed against others, including Thomas Friedman, E.J. Dionne, David Ignatius, and many others.

Here’s what I recall about politics in the news back then. During my time in Washington, I watched as the nation’s press eviscerated Jimmy Carter and his team. Carter came from outside the swamp and didn’t fit into Washington culture. Neither did his top aides.

I don’t think Carter was a particularly good president, but the media took him to task on almost everything he tried. I can count on one hand, however, the number of former colleagues who voted for a Republican in the past 40 years.

Almost every reporter during the Iran hostage crisis thought Ayatollah Khomeini had to be better than the shah. How wrong we were!

In Beirut, almost every journalist backed the Palestinians, including me. Jennings had spent much of his early years in the Middle East and had a distinctly Arab tilt. Ignatius did some good work in the Middle East but has since gone off the rails with his analyses.

In Cairo, many journalists supported the peace efforts of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. I wasn’t one of them, but Sadat had an incredibly positive press in the United States. The opposite was true in many Arab states and Europe. Friedman had no understanding of the assassination of Sadat when he covered the story in 1981.

In Rome, I saw Dionne completely botch the story behind the plot to kill Pope John Paul II.

Just as I arrived in the United States in 1986 to work with ABC’s 20/20, Roone Arledge, a legend in television circles, had killed for the program on the sexual exploits of JFK when he was in the White House. Arledge didn’t want to upset the Kennedy clan and one of his top aides who worked with the family.

At 20/20, it was clear that Walters had a distinctly liberal bent, but she didn’t stand in the way of opposing viewpoints. Downs was just an incredibly decent human being.

Not too long after I arrived at the program, I included an interview with Pat Buchanan. I was accosted by a fellow producer who threatened that she would make sure people wouldn’t work with me if I ever had another conservative on the program.

Although the recollections here are merely anecdotal, they underline the powerful, albeit subtle, ways in which the media set an agenda back in the golden years. The political bias may not have been so apparent and so constant, but it was there. I am the first to admit that my biases probably made their way into my stories.

After I left the mainstream media, I wrote a column for The Washington Times for nearly three years until 2015. My former colleagues berated the conservative tone of the columns, including one who described me as “dumb as a boulder.” I was prevented from sharing my columns on a Facebook page for former ABC employees.

Today, I find that nearly all of my former colleagues have a decidedly liberal or leftist viewpoint.

In fact, a large group of ABC News retirees publicly criticized Trump over his attacks on the press. An Obama organizer and former ABC News producer started the petition. See  https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2018/10/25/trump-inciting-violence-nearly-retired-journalists-condemn-presidents-un-american-attacks-press/

I wonder if these points of view crept into their news coverage back in the day. I think they probably did.

Trump and the ivory tower

Nearly two dozen of my former and current colleagues have endorsed a call to eliminate live coverage of President Trump because he “uses [it] as a platform for misinformation and disinformation about COVID-19, [and] they have become a serious public health hazard–a matter of life and death for viewers who cannot easily identify his falsehoods, lies, and exaggerations.”

The call continues: “We ask that no speech, rally, or press conference involving the president be covered live anymore. The risk of passing along bad information and harmful advice is too great. 

“News organizations need to attend carefully to what he says and only share information that they can independently verify. By asking themselves ‘is what he said something we should be amplifying?’ news organizations can offset the damage these briefings are producing.” 

The open letter, which was sent to a variety of news organizations, underlines how out of touch the ivory tower is. 

First, the letter assumes that people are so stupid they can’t possibly understand errors or sarcasm. 

That’s one of the reasons the media and their academic companions have become so distrusted. When Gallup measures the most respected professions, journalists rank near the bottom, way below auto mechanics, lawyers, policemen, and military officers. 

Second, I know two of the leading lights of the anti-Trump movement: Todd Gitlin of Columbia University and Jay Rosen of New York University.

Gitlin, who was called “Todd the God” at NYU when I taught there, is the former head of the Students for a Democratic Society and has been a political organizer much of his life. He opposed the Gulf War of 1991 and the Afghanistan and Iraq wars of the 2000s. He’s called for Harvard to divest from companies that develop fossil fuels or support Israel.

Rosen created a website called Press Think, which has become a darling of academics and press folks and has been a frequent critic of the Trump administration. One of his main collaborations is with billionaire Pierre Omidyar, one of the most significant contributors to the Democrat Party. 

My favorite memory of Rosen occurred one winter break when he opened his office window to hide the smell of his cigarette. He forgot to close the window, which led to the pipes freezing throughout the building and left a colossal repair bill for NYU. If the shoe of absent-minded professor fits, then Rosen definitely should wear it.  

Third, the list of signatories supposedly includes professors of communications, journalism, and media studies. But after a quick look through the online letter, I found partial names, health workers, and members of the public. So much for being an “exclusive” group of knowledgable educators.

I don’t think objectivity, fairness, and balance exist in the media anymore, but I think transparency should play a significant role in the press. 

That’s why I suggest that all of the signatories who teach journalism should make their anti-Trump sentiments publicly available to their students—as I have made my conservative views known. 

More important, I hope my former and current colleagues keep their politics out of the classroom—as I have done for more than two decades.