President Donald Trump's Jan. 20 inauguration was notable for more than just its small crowd sizes. It was notable because it marked the beginning of the worst year of political journalism in modern history.
On the same day that Trump was sworn into office, a White House reporter claimed incorrectly that the Trump transition team had removed a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. from the Oval Office. Sadly, this erroneous report and a handful of others on that same day breathlessly and unquestioningly parroted by reporters across platforms and outlets proved to be the norm, not the exception, for a year that has seen a dismaying and troubling decline in the quality of political journalism.
To be fair, there has been some good political reporting. Many in the media have also cautioned that supposed Trump scoops should be handled with greater care. But this advice has gone mostly unheeded as an unfortunate number of newsrooms and reporters spent much of 2017 pushing erroneous or flat-out false news reports.
The Washington Post reported on Jan. 26, for example, that the State Department's entire senior administrative team had resigned en masse in protest of Trump. They had not. Later, on Dec. 1, ABC News' Brian Ross reported that Michael Flynn was prepared to testify that, as a candidate, Donald Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians. As it turns out, the referenced directive came after the 2016 election and was part of normal transition procedure.
This brand of bad reporting can be attributed to a disheartening lack of skepticism in a field that prides itself on skepticism. "If your momma says she loves you," the old saying at journalism school goes, "CHECK IT! But if she says Trump just broke all convention by dumping out fish food he was supposed to sprinkle, then RUN WITH IT."
Too many reporters have revealed this year they're willing to believe the worst of this administration. "Too good to check" has never had it so good.
It doesn't help that the president is a fabulist or that his minions indulge his many falsehoods. It also doesn't help that the administration is sloppy when it comes to informing reporters, making it harder to check facts.
But that's no excuse for certain reporters' disregard for the most basic requirements of their profession. By ignoring the rules that help prevent the spread of false information, these reporters are actually advancing the White House's oft-repeated trope that the national press peddles "fake news."
Another factor driving this year's rash of shoddy political journalism: The benefits of becoming a "resistance" performance artist. Certain media personalities are still basking in the warm glow of newfound celebrity for no other reason than Trump petulantly attacked them by name, and they responded sharply and personally as well. Their supposedly brave acts of "resistance" have been rewarded with industry-wide praise. These allegedly brave souls have also been rewarded with glossy profiles, television hosting spots, speaking gigs and book deals. The takeaway from this system of incentives is obvious: Why do the boring work of journalism when you can engage in the immediately profitable business of "resisting?"
The press can do better. It has to.
Newsrooms could use less "Democracy Dies in Darkness" posturing and more fact-checking. News media would do well to recommit to the fastidiousness of verifying and authenticating their supposed scoops. Also, newsrooms would do well to remind their reporters that they are never supposed to be the story. This is Journalism 101.
The prescriptions are simple: "Don't be a hero," dot your I's, cross your T's, check your facts, and source and do the boring work required of good journalism.