Though journalists face increasing criticism from the public, nonpartisan media organizations must continue to seek the truth through objective reporting, a panel of journalists said March 27.
Even in the face of concerns about reactions from conservative political commentators like Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson, journalists still have a responsibility to provide accurate coverage, according to CNN chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta.
“We’re running for our lives from the conservative, right-wing attack dogs, the Hannitys and Carlsons of the world. We’re worried that they might say something bad about us, or the president might say something bad about us in a tweet,” Acosta said. “We lose sight of the fact that there are all of these people on the left and in the middle of the country who are counting on us to continue to tell the truth and hold their feet to the fire.”
Acosta was joined by Lulu Garcia-Navarro, host of NPR’s “Weekend Edition Sunday,” and Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan. The event was moderated by Doyle McManus, Los Angeles Times columnist and Georgetown’s journalism program director.
About 65 to 70 people attended the event, which was held in the Intercultural Center auditorium. The event was the fifth annual installment in the Salim El-Lozi Lecture Series hosted by Georgetown’s undergraduate journalism program, which invites prominent journalists and scholars to Georgetown to deliver lectures and participate in panels that focus on global freedom of the press and First Amendment issues.
Conflict over news has come to be known as “the war on truth,” according to McManus.
“It’s not a new phenomenon to find a difficult or adversarial relationship between the government and the media,” McManus said. “But we do seem to have entered a new kind of phase, when facts are rarely accepted and when a president routinely excoriates nearly all reporters as enemies of the people.”
Right-wing news outlets purposefully seek to discredit news sources like CNN, according to Acosta.
“We constantly have Breitbart, the Daily Caller and FoxNews.com railing against us,” said Acosta. “I think we’ve developed a thick skin, an alligator skin, where we’ve been able to understand that they’re working us over to see if they can impact our coverage.”
Attorney General William Barr presented a four-page summary of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the Russian interference in the 2016 election to Congress on March 22. His summary stated that Mueller had not found that Donald Trump’s campaign had taken part in a conspiracy to undermine the 2016 presidential election.
Current criticism of nonpartisan news sources has accelerated with the release of Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report, Sullivan said.
“There was a great deal of criticism of journalists,” Sullivan said. “They said, ‘You guys got it wrong. You perpetrated a myth. It was all fabricated.’ And I say that while there were some on Twitter, talking heads, who did fabricate, the serious journalists actually did a pretty good job covering the Russia story. We should hold our heads up and keep doing what we did.”
U.S. adults estimate that 62 percent of the news they consume through newspapers, watch on television or hear on the radio is biased, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. The same study found that 69 percent of U.S. adults say their trust in the news media has decreased in the past decade.
Social media use has contributed to the phenomenon of “the war on truth” by leading people to form increasingly partisan, rather than factual, worldviews, Garcia-Navarro said.
“With the rise of partisan media organizations, with the rise of social media, there’s a cocktail there where it is very hard for average people to distinguish between what is opinion and what is reporting,” Garcia-Navarro said. “You cannot live in a space where you do not take responsibility for who you follow, for the information that you disseminate. You are also editors now, and you have to be part of this conversation. It’s not only on us, the press. It’s on everyone.”
Preceding the 2016 election, both Hillary Clinton and Trump received coverage that was overwhelmingly negative in tone, according to a report from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. The report is based on an analysis of news reports of major news outlets. Candidates’ policy and issue stances received very little attention, which created a biased media environment, according to the report.
Future election coverage that better serves the public should focus on issues that are important to Americans’ everyday lives, according to Sullivan.
“I would like to see the horse race coverage mixed up a bit. I’d like to see more of a citizen’s agenda that looks at what people need to know so that they can cast their votes in the most intelligent way possible,” Sullivan said. “I’d like to let those bread-and-butter interests drive the coverage rather than who’s up and who’s down.”
The public should not be deterred by the conflicts discussed in the panel and should remain confident in journalists and the country as a whole, Acosta said.
“Despite everything that I’ve been through and the better of our company’s been through and what journalists have been through, I still have faith in my fellow human beings and faith in our business and faith in our country,” Acosta said. “I know you’re freaked out, but please continue your faith in the United States of America. I do think we are just going through a difficult time.”