December 9, 2017

Sina-cism: A thankfully modest sunrise for local journalism

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The Worcester Sun’s print debut represents a very modest chapter in the history of American newspapers, and one for which we can be very thankful, for if there’s anything that journalism in America today needs, it’s more modesty.

Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

The Sun’s move to print got me wondering about the state of journalism in America, so I turned to the Columbia Journalism Review, whose fall “Trump issue” carries the one-word title, “Takeover,” with a sub-heading “The year that changed journalism.”

Editor Kyle Pope proclaims that Donald Trump “… doesn’t seem to accept the central role of a free press in a democratic society. That’s never happened in the United States before.”

On the bright side, Pope continues, Trump’s election has forced journalists to grapple with enormously difficult issues, including the appropriateness of discussing the president’s mental health and how journalists should cover race.

“Someday,” Pope concludes, “when history looks back on The Year That Changed Journalism, we’ll all have the great good fortune to say, ‘I was there.’ ”

Maybe not. I see scant evidence that the past year changed journalism very much. But it did make clear that many journalists are political partisans whose inability to cover the 2016 campaign properly helped elect Trump, and whose continuing refusal to engage with this administration seriously may help Trump achieve his agenda.

In my November 2015 Sun column reflecting on then-candidate Trump’s rally in Worcester, I offered no predictions, but neither did I insult him. I simply reported on the event. I first read Trump’s “Crippled America,” enumerated several of his policies, and listened carefully enough to enough of his supporters to warn the media and the left: “If his rise causes you to question the intelligence of the American electorate, you are misjudging matters.”

The media continues to misjudge. The Columbia Journalism Review’s “Data” feature, by Regina G. Lawrence and Amber E. Boydstun, analyzes 1,518 news stories, blog posts and opinion pieces from The New York Times and The Washington Post that covered “key Trump campaign moments.” It concludes that 21 percent portrayed Trump as a clown, 54 percent cast him in a negative light, and only 8 percent in a positive light. The New York Times had Hillary Clinton’s chances of victory at above 90 percent until the campaign’s waning hours.

“The establishment press,” Lawrence and Boydstun declare,“simply could not reconcile its cognitive dissonance — not only about whether Trump might win but also about the very premise of the question. Throughout the campaign, the press never figured out how to portray the sheer unbelievability of Trump’s quest for the White House.”

True enough, but the relevant point for the current state of journalism today is that journalists spent so much time trying. And it is evident by the end of Lawrence’s and Boydstun’s article that many reporters are still trying.

They conclude that “today’s watchdog journalists need to treat entertainment not as a sideshow but as a powerful vehicle for real political messaging,” and that “in the age of the anti-hero, from Tony Soprano to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, just because we are repulsed by entertaining figures doesn’t mean we won’t vote for them.”

Again, both points are obvious to any journalist with even a passing acquaintance with history — think Nixon and Reagan. The real question is whether journalists so informed are going to continue to treat readers to endless variations on their personal feelings about a president they dislike, or are going to actually cover the news.

The media’s “Trump as fascist” narrative only demonstrates its ignorance of true fascism. Trump’s puerile tweets and impolitic pronouncements have reporters behaving like puppies chasing bouncing rubber balls, while in the background the man continues to pursue his agenda of curbing the administrative state and filling federal judgeships with conservatives.

Fascism? No, smart politics. If the self-important journalists at the CJR could only get over their fantasy about “the year that changed journalism,” they might realize that 2018, 2019 and 2020 are going to be ordinary years for their profession, calling for budget analyses, interviews, and a lot of shoe leather.

So it is that at this very ordinary time the Worcester Sun offers readers in Central Massachusetts’ leading city one more choice on their media menu. We’re a long way from Washington, D.C., to be sure, and the offerings in these pages are modest enough. But they have the virtue of sidestepping hyperbole, tiresome partisanship, and the delusion that our times demand that journalists man the barricades.

It is a choice, I think, for good old-fashioned journalism.

Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear online every week. Chris will also be regularly featured in Worcester Sun’s weekly print edition, on newsstands Saturday morning.

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