Newspapermen were rarely whiners. Whining became fashionable only after “journalists” overran newsrooms. The best newspapermen, so the folk wisdom went, were Southerners, Jews and the Irish.
Southerners loved the words and the occasions to tell stories, the Jews for the opportunity to do public good, and the Irish for the bottle frequently slipped into the bottom desk drawer by boosters, lobbyists, public-relations flacks and others up to no particular good.
Such an irreverent formulation was enough to offend everybody, but in the old days no one took offense because everybody knew that nobody would particularly care if anybody did. What a hard, cruel, cold life we all led, with welcome irreverence an only consolation. It was pounded into the heads of every reporter, by an editor highly trained in head-pounding, to be skeptical of everything anyone (especially a lawyer) told them — in the famous instructions to reporters in Chicago newsrooms: “If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out.”
But times change, and only occasionally for the better. The Columbia Journalism Review, published in that citadel of journalists educated to be house-broken, correct in politics and steeped in the grand mission of “improving” readers, relieved itself this week of the sad story of “journalism’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.” The recital was enough to break the hardest heart.
The Review set out a refresher of everything that went wrong, and it was quite a list:
Brian Ross’ disaster of a bombshell report that Michael Flynn was prepared to testify that he had been instructed by candidate Donald Trump to open contacts with Russian officials eager to meddle in the election. Later that day, Mr. Ross corrected himself, conceding that it was shortly after the election that the directive was issued. Big difference. He was taken off the beat for four weeks and the president will be off-limits to him.
Reuters and Bloomberg had to correct their dispatches that special counsel Robert Mueller had subpoenaed President Trump’s personal bank records after The Wall Street Journal reported the subpoenas were for “people or entities affiliated” with the president. Not quite the same thing.
CNN, CBS, and MSNBC all breathlessly reported they had discovered an email that proved the Trump campaign got an advance look at emails hacked by WikiLeaks. The story fell apart when it “emerged,” as the London papers typically put it, that the networks got the date of the email wrong, and it was old fake news when the president first saw it.
Mr. Trump, like all wise presidents, regards the press as an adversary if not an actual enemy, and he’s naturally eager to pounce on anything that smells, even faintly, of “fake news.” So he had a wonderful, terrific, very good, fantastic week. He heard hardly a discouraging word all week. By any definition, his week was uuuuuuge.
Reporters and editors, like everyone else, make mistakes and when the best ones make them they’re obliged to correct them, explain what happened if they can, and move on. But sometimes the mistakes are not really mistakes, but failed attempts to get away with fudging the facts to make a point. The public, which is not as thick as some reporters imagine, notices when mistakes always seem to run to the left. A large part of the public has been persuaded that the media, which is what was once called the press, just can’t get over the results of the 2016 election, and is out to get Donald Trump by any means necessary.
The corrections, reflections, and over-the-top hand-wringing are set out now in everyone’s eye, thanks to a media dishing it out to everyone with a smartphone or a laptop. It’s often not very pretty.
Roy Moore, like Donald Trump, has been established in the media as fair game for piling on. It’s not that he might not invite piling on, but there are rules in the etiquette of piling on. You have to get it approximately right. When an accuser of Mr. Moore presented her high-school yearbook, inscribed with what appeared to be an inappropriate mash note written by him, the mainstream reporters took Gloria Allred’s word for it that the inscription had not been trifled with. She refused to submit it to a handwriting expert.
Several days later, Mzz Allred and her client conceded that well, maybe it had been tweaked a little, with emendations — all very helpful, naturally — and “improvements.” Mzz Allred is a distinguished lawyer, of course, but she was apparently indisposed on the day professors at not one but two law schools lectured the class on the inadvisability of trifling with evidence. Doctored evidence is hard to get past a judge.
The hand-wringers in the newsrooms, complaining that nobody loves them anymore, should worry less about what their critics say about them and spend more time learning their craft. An editor steeped in the art of head-pounding would have told them that.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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