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When the Press Is Just as Guilty of “Election Interference”

(AP Photo/Francois Mori)

“As for now, journalists of Goldberg’s type are simply in the electoral interference business; and they just so happen to be doing it from within the United States’ own borders and from beneath the mastheads of once-respected magazines.”

President Donald Trump’s belief that “the press is the enemy of the people” has resonated extensively with his base. Although this has inspired much consternation among the news media’s defenders, a President of the United States admonishing an unscrupulous press is hardly without historical precedent in the United States. Choosing just one example among many, President Theodore Roosevelt (who was largely considered to be an ally to the profession of journalism) used the image of the muckraker to describe writers who focused overwhelmingly on the negative. In doing so, President Roosevelt also conveyed his disdain for “sensational, lurid and untruthful articles.” While I do not personally agree with President Trump’s general assessment of the media (and I also believe that President Trump actually desires a press that is steeped in Roosevelt’s ideas of fairness and transparency), it is so clear that certain media outlets—particularly of the cable news variety—are surely little more than a sworn enemy of President Trump’s. And, underscoring this point, CNN, for instance, is widely viewed as almost explicitly an anti-Trump network. 

Self-professed liberal guardians of democracy at left-leaning news organizations believe that President Trump is a threat to American democracy. Moreover, they claim that in 2016, Russian operatives—working covertly—tampered with the American election process by “harming the campaign of Hillary Clinton, boosting the candidacy of Donald Trump, and increasing political and social discord in the United States.” The hacking that journalists refer to generally describes the use of fake accounts on social media to post divisive content so as to influence public opinion. Now, Americans are being told again by many in the media that the Russians are at it in 2020, as well as that efforts to undermine the presidential election of 2020  are underway. Be that as it may, there is more than one way to tamper with an election: Under the pretense of serious journalism, many unscrupulous individuals in the news media are implementing their own version of election tampering and are “hacking” the electorate by making outrageous claims, with little to no sourcing whatsoever. Perhaps the most striking example of this is Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent piece in The Atlantic, entitled “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers.'” 

This is nothing more than an example of pure propaganda published with bad intent and printed for the political betterment of a journalist’s preferred political candidate. The article, to this point, is replete with preposterous and unverified claims alleging that President Trump holds disdain towards war veterans, who sacrificed their lives for the United States. Goldberg claims that President Trump “canceled a visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery near Paris in 2018” because he “feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain.” Additionally, in Goldberg’s telling, President Trump chose not to visit the cemetery that contained the bodies of “1,800 Marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood” because the cemetery was, in the President’s view, filled with ”losers”  and “suckers.” Since they did not apparently have the wherewithal to survive the battle, President Trump viewed their having died as a personal shortcoming.

Goldberg also asserts that when Arizona Senator John McCain died in August of 2018, President Trump referred to the late Senator as a “loser” and was also furious when he saw American flags being lowered to half-staff. Goldberg further claims that on Memorial Day in 2017, President Trump went to Arlington National Cemetery to pay tribute to first lieutenant Robert Kelly, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2010. While there, according to Goldberg, President Trump turned to John Kelly, who was Robert’s father and then the Secretary of Homeland Security, and asked—referring to those who had died fighting for the United States—“I don’t get it.” What’s in it for them?” (Almost needless to say at this point, of course, this account was not conveyed to Goldberg by Secretary Kelly. Instead, it came from an anonymous source.) 

Goldberg and other journalists who write sourceless fiction like this Atlantic piece structure their work in such a way that reaching their conclusions is only possible if the reader undertakes a series of inferences. For instance, an underlying point in Goldberg’s article is that President Trump did not consider John McCain a war hero because he was captured by the enemy. (This is a view that even some of President Trump’s most ardent supporters would have a problem with.) Invoking this point sets the stage for the reader to make generalizations about President Trump’s views towards all veterans, all the while, ignoring the countless pro-veteran policies his administration has put forward. By also having lent much coverage to President Trump’s past draft deferments—as well as former Defense of Secretary James Mattis’ criticisms of the President—The Atlantic and Goldberg set the stage for readers to be able plausibly to believe the more jarring claim that President Trump allegedly thinks so little of American war dead. By peddling in misleading tactics such as these, Goldberg’s article amounts to little more than a story in a supermarket tabloid. 

Frankly, the American people deserve better, and so does President Trump. Anonymous sources have their place in journalism; however, if a journalist writes a piece without a single on the record source, he should not be surprised when said piece is dismissed as partisan creative writing. And this is all the more true when it is published less than two months before a presidential election. The late broadcast journalist  Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America,” once told an audience at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in 1981 that “anonymous sources should be shunned, except in extraordinary cases, and only with the approval of the board of managers, directors, or the editorial board or whatever.” Cronkite continued, “It would have to be a most extraordinary circumstance to permit an anonymous source.”

Journalism of Goldberg’s form has done much to diminish the once venerable profession of journalism. Americans are no longer able to discern truth from fiction, and this new reality, unfortunately, results in a state of affairs presciently warned against by the aforementioned President Roosevelt in 1906: “To assail the great and admitted evils of our political and industrial life with such crude and sweeping generalizations as to include decent men in the general condemnation means the searing of the public conscience. There results a general attitude either of cynical belief in and indifference to public corruption or else of a distrustful inability to discriminate between the good and the bad.”

Jeffrey Goldberg has been in the journalism world for a long time, yet, sadly, it seems that he has forgotten more about the principles of journalism than most have ever known. That notwithstanding, I would like to remind him of some points that should be so obvious as—under normal circumstances—not even to have to be mentioned: The true job of a journalist is to find truth as best as it can be discerned. And this is true no matter where it resides and no matter the political party it helps or hurts. This is the case no matter the news organization one works for. Sadly, in today’s polarized political climate, this almost seems—in practice—to be impossible. Indeed, at a time when the American military still enjoys tremendous public approval from both liberals and conservatives, it is little wonder why Goldberg would choose this line of attack. However, in the meantime, until Goldberg and The Atlantic make an effort to source their pieces (particularly ones as inflammatory as this one) properly, their brand of journalism might have far more in common with Russian operatives allegedly tampering with an election than it would with, say, how journalism ought to be practiced. As for now, journalists of Goldberg’s type are simply in the electoral interference business; and they just so happen to be doing it from within the United States’ own borders and from beneath the mastheads of once-respected magazines.

Tony D. Senatore graduated from Columbia University in 2017, at the age of 55. He is also a bassist and musician and can be reached at tds2123@columbia.edu. 

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Paul Rich
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Paul Rich

Spot on article by this author. The traditional press has revealed itself to be bought and paid for. There is no depth it will not descend to. Such is life in this age.

L. Traversa
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L. Traversa

While we can all agree that any consumer of news today must be vigilant and do their research to ascertain the validity of the reporting we hear, I disagree with the premise that the media is “election meddling.” Advocating for one candidate or party by criticizing the other is not interference, wether your reporting is accurate or not. I’m sure I don’t have to give examples of false reporting from other publications (Breitbart) or news sources (Fox News) for us to agree on that. Anonymous sources have been a huge part of journalism for a long time. Just because a source does not want to be revealed doesn’t presuppose that their claims are false. Second, the POTUS most assuredly did call McCain a “loser” when discussing his unsuccessful run for president in an interview with Frank Luntz in 2015 and also said “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured”. As far as being pro-veteran, it’s worth noting that the Democrats passed several pro-veteran bills that were summarily ignored by Senator McConnell and the Republicans, as myriad other Democratically passed bills have been. If a president or any representative lies or disseminates false information… Read more »