In the wake of the Parkland school shooting four years ago, a new slogan began to emerge on social media. “Journalism is activism.” Michael Blanding crystallized the premise in an August 21, 2018 article for the Washington Post. Blanding posed the question, “Where does journalism end and activism begin?”
In reading the article, it was no surprise to see a generational split on the question. Older journalists believed that a healthy distance should be kept between the activist class and the newsroom, while younger journalists and journalism students believed the opposite.
The Post painted a sexy picture of Rebecca Schneid, editor of the Parkland High newspaper for her belief that journalism is, in fact, activism. Who would dare argue the point in the wake of yet another mass school shooting? In fact, the point seemed to resonate with many moderates and leftists as basic common sense in the wake of then President Trump’s relentless attacks on a non-compliant media.
In the years since, activist journalism has only become more popular with burgeoning issues such as the #MeToo Movement, the resurrection of Black Lives Matter, talk of election fraud and a quickly transforming international landscape. With social justice causes now at the forefront of our collective consciousness, who could possibly argue that activism doesn’t have a place in journalism? And we’re not talking about mere political punditry, but hard news reporting akin to the Washington Post, the New York Times and digital publications like Slate and the Huffington Post.
The finer point amongst the younger journo/activist class is that not every issue has two sides that deserve exploration or nuance. LGBTQ rights, racial justice, climate change and a host of other progressive causes really only have one side, and that side is the truth. Yet, how easily that mindset can carry us down a slippery slope. COVID-19 is the glaring contemporary example. As Joe Rogan, a podcaster who has recently come under fire explained, things that we accept as basic truths in a given issue have a way of changing over time.
When young people and committed progressives thing of activist journalism, they probably hold a certain image of it in their heads. An idealistic reporter fighting for the oppressed, the downtrodden and the marginalized. Avatars of truth and justice speaking truth to power, given voice to the voiceless, afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. As it is in any other facet of life, the story may start out that way, but as it passes through the conveyer belt of humanity with all of its complexities and imperfections, the end result is usually radically transformed from the initial idea.
Exhibit A: Fox News
Roger Ailes died three months after Donald Trump assumed the presidency, but by then, the Frankenstein monster he had created had reached full strength. Ailes created Fox News in the mid 1990’s as an answer to a media whom conservatives rightly believed were biased against them. Talk radio flamethrowers like Rush Limbaugh to introspective thinkers at the National Review all reached the same conclusion. That is why Fox News found a climate in which it was able to flourish.
FNC grew in stature during the Bush years in a post 9/11 world. Some predicted its demise once Obama took office, but Fox proved to be indomitable now that it had a nemesis in the White House against whom it could chafe. What Ailes didn’t fully realize was how the monster of populism that he was fostering would turn on him at the slightest hint of descent. He found out when Donald Trump came down the escalator on June 15, 2015.
Trump didn’t take long to lash out at Fox. His attacks were leveled against Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who asked him a question that displeased him at a presidential primary debate. According to Kelley’s book, Ailes was in between the proverbial rock and a hard place. He wanted to defend his employees, but he also didn’t want to alienate Trump. As it turned out, he managed to ingratiate himself to The Donald, while Megyn soon left Fox.
Roger Ailes unceremoniously left Fox News on July 21, 2016, over a year before the birth of the #MeToo Movement. Yet, he was a harbinger of things to come. He left due to a series of sexual harassment scandals that plagued the company. His departure did nothing to stop the juggernaut that was Trump. The dye was already cast. Trump won the election and throughout his presidency, he heaped favorable praise on Fox News, particularly on Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity and the Fox Morning hosts.
When Trump lost to Biden in 2020, the folks at the Fox News Decision Desk got into a lot of trouble with viewers because they called Arizona for Joe Biden early. Even though they were proven correct, many fans never forgave them. No one was more infuriated than Trump. It was a dispiriting surprise when Trump went unpunished for his actions that lead to the attack on our nation’s capital, but it was no surprise that people like Chris Stirewalt were let go from Fox due to his role on election night, 2020. Few of us who paid attention were surprised when we recently learned that text messages were flying back and forth between White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows and various Fox hosts including Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham and Brian Kilmeade on January 6. Even though they are opinion makers, they are the faces of Fox News. Fox detractors and casual viewers don’t associate Fox with the hard news wing, represented by quality journalists such as Chris Wallace, Bret Baier and Jennifer Griffin. In the wake of the departure of Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson has taken the place as Fox’s number one spokesman. Carlson has progressively become more and more unhinged over the years. His crowning achievement has been a documentary on Fox Nation, a private platform outside of the cable news channel, which floats the conspiracy trial balloon that January 6th was instigated by the FBI. This is likely the reason why Chris Wallace abruptly departed from Fox and defected to CNN.
How will that work out for him?
Exhibit B: CNN
CNN, once a prestigious and trusted source of news throughout the ‘90’s, is now viewed as the anti-Trump network. From all outward appearances, they have embraced this image. It is no coincidence that their ratings sored during Trump’s presidency, even as their various prime time hosts railed against Trump and all of his excesses. It is also not a coincidence that their ratings plummeted once he left office and lost his Twitter account. To watch CNN, you might think that they didn’t play a significant role in the rise of Trump. Yet, if you think back to the election cycle of 2016, they covered as many Trump campaign rally events as did Fox. They merely took a different angle in their approach, feigning outrage on camera while gleefully watching the uptick in the ratings numbers behind the scenes.
Trump aside, CNN, along with many other mainstream outlets, fawned over New York Governor Andrew Cuomo shortly after the outbreak of the pandemic in March, 2020. Cuomo was painted as, “America’s governor,” keeping a steady hand at the helm even as President Trump went crazy at his daily press conferences. No one outside of Fox News and a few other conservative sources talked about Cuomo’s scandalous behavior with respect to his shady book deal, his shunting of patients to New York nursing homes and his fudging of the death numbers once investigators became suspicious. No one on or off CNN cared that Cuomo was holding syrupy conversations with his brother Chris, an employee and prominent on-screen presence at CNN. When a woman came forward and accused Cuomo of sexual harassment in December, 2020, it was barely a blip on the media radar.
On August 24, 2021, Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned after a series of claims of sexual harassment were lodged against him. The story was broken by the New York Times, not CNN, and only after the scandal was too big to be ignored.
On December 4, 2021, Chris Cuomo was fired from CNN after an internal investigation showed that he was using his media contacts to dig up dirt on his brother Andrew’s accusers.
On February 2, 2022, Jeff Zucker abruptly resigned as the president of CNN. He claimed that he was engaged in a consensual romantic relationship with an executive and had failed to disclose it in a timely manner. The executive of which he spoke turned out to be Allison Gollust, Vice-President of Chief Marketing Officer at CNN. She also happened to be a former Communications Director for Governor Andrew Cuomo. In light of a lawsuit brought against CNN by Chris Cuomo, we can be sure that many more facts will be unearthed in this case, but it’s not hard to guess where the trail will lead. Zucker, Gollust and Chris Cuomo did their best to use CNN to lionize Andrew Cuomo in the hopes of aiding him to sell more books and possibly to further his future political career.
The handwringing of CNN’s public faces such as Don Lemon, Brian Stelter and Jim Acosta has been predictable and predictably self-indulgent. They claim that Chris Cuomo is the real villain and that the termination of Zucker is a punishment that did not fit the crime. Again, I suspect that there is much to the story that will come to light in the coming months. But more to the point, the unctuous outrage pouring forth from the CNN talking heads is reminiscent of the performative anger that spewed forth from loyal Fox News stalwarts such as Hannity, O’Reilly and Ingraham in the wake of Ailes’ departure. In both cases, it is doubtful that those who trumpeted their disapproval didn’t know what was going on behind the scenes despite their protests of good faith ignorance.
At this point, all two of you who read this may be saying, so what, RyanO? These are two old white guys who misbehaved themselves, got caught and got canned. What does that have to do with the search for truth and justice? If the point isn’t obvious, I can’t do anything for ya.
Both Ailes and Zucker didn’t start out as men in charge of news empires. They started out as young, hungry warriors who wanted to bring their own brand of activism to the marketplace of ideas. They quickly realized that activism starts in grass roots, but real change is brought about through legislation. Legislation is authored by politicians. Politicians are influenced by lobbyists, who are merely professional activists who are lucky enough to profit from their idealism. Politicians are flawed, imperfect human beings who can easily be tempered by a multitude of dark forces. Many of those dark forces are journalists who serve as conduits through which flow mutated ideologies. Often times, that ideology starts out in pure form, but no matter which side of the political spectrum it springs from, it is corrupted by base human drives; greed, lust and envy. One day, these activists suddenly realize that they are sitting atop a major platform with millions of loyal followers. They then realize that said platform can be used to elevate preferred politicians to higher office.
That’s how we find ourselves with living golems like President Trump and Governor Cuomo. A good deal of their success can be laid at the doorstep of activist journalism. When journalism proves popular and results in ever increasing ratings and clicks, it feeds the beast. That beast results in corporate executives crawling into bed with the very politicians against whom they are supposed to be the watchdogs. When certain personalities prove too successful for the suits upstairs to control, you get Tucker Carlson and Chris Cuomo. The journalistic organs they purport to serve are mere extensions of political parties or figures.
If you think I’m engaging in hyperbole, ask yourself why you haven’t heard about the latest kerfuffle involving Black Lives Matter? Did any of you know that the California Attorney General has formally warned the group that they are delinquent in the registration of charitable contributions totaling millions of dollars from 2020? Did you know that other states are launching inquiries into the fundraising practices of BLM? Did any of you notice that the BLM fundraising page has been suspended? If you don’t read the Washington Examiner, a conservative alternative to the Washington Post in the D.C. Beltway, you wouldn’t know it.
Is the investigation of BLM activist journalism, or is it mere hackery? If it is the latter, what constitutes the former? Is there a good kind of activist journalism and a bad kind? My educated guess is that the answer would depend upon which side of the political divide you get your news from. If you hail from the right side of the spectrum, you likely believe that the most successful non-profit advocacy organization currently in existence should account for all of its assets. You probably believe that the public has a right to know what BLM is doing with their money. If you hail from the left side of the spectrum…white privilege, systems of oppression, systemic racism, etc. Yet, if you were to substitute the NRA for BLM, you would see that very spectrum engage in a teeter-totter effect.
“Democracy dies in darkness,” indeed. I’m sure the Uyghurs would agree.
Activism starts with a specific narrative. This is fine as far as it goes. Activists are human beings whose experiences drive them to push for change in the public square. But personal experiences can also result in viewpoint bias, blinding people to all of the variables at play. Good journalists who are interested in fairness and balance should be able to weight those variables in the reporting of a story. When it’s done well, you get quality newshounds like Jake Tapper, Maggie Haberman, Jonathan Karl, Jennifer Griffin and the good folks over at The Dispatch. When it goes wrong, you get Dan Rather and Mary Mapes.
If you’re the right kind of reader, you’ll judge Dan Rather on his entire body of work. If you’re the wrong, kind, you’re one of those suckers who thinks that Robert Redford was convincing in Truth.