Just about three years ago, in the last wild weeks before the 2016 presidential election, I wrote a column for this space that never appeared.
I’m moved to excavate that lost column’s theme in the wake of last week’s renewed angry crossfire over U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh and his alleged drunken misdeeds as, it seems, a boozy party boy in high school and college days.
The Kavanaugh conflagration throws light as well as heat, at least in the sense of illuminating a number of important ways American civilization seems to slipping toward decline.
The burden of my stillborn 2016 piece was a worry that Donald Trump’s “preposterous presidential candidacy” was “proving to be a kind of stress test for America, revealing just how far certain unhealthy tendencies — which were already well advanced in the nation’s social/political innards — could go if someone applied the right pressures.”
I continued: “The institutional weakness of our political parties to resist radical hijackings; the normalization of vicious, dishonest and extreme political rhetoric; the unbridgeable cultural divide between elite and working-class America — none of these are new developments. But Trump has shown how they’ve grown while we were barely watching.”
And so it was, I concluded, “with the reincarnation of the old-fashioned, unashamed partisan press — the death of supposed neutrality in journalism. It’s a decades-long trend, this loosening of journalistic voices, and not all bad — but it’s rather abruptly become rather complete. ... The American press — or at any rate vast portions of it — is waging a kind of total war against Trump, abandoning traditional boundaries of impartiality to crusade against his election with an almost universal apocalyptic contempt that seems unprecedented.”
When I wrote those words, of course, I didn’t actually expect Trump to get elected. I figured the anti-Trump press fever would break after his defeat — leaving, I feared, some damage to the profession’s credibility, but not raging on in full fury.
Yet before the column could even run, Trump’s disgraceful “Access Hollywood” recording surfaced, with him boasting about grabbing starlets’ private parts. The Star Tribune Editorial Board had had enough, and promptly published an unprecedented banner editorial calling for Trump to drop out of the race a month before Election Day.
For my part, I pulled my column — entirely of my own volition. It just seemed an awkward moment to publicly fret about the press overreacting to Trump. After all, he wasn’t going to win or anything …
Well, the “stress test” has continued. Some American institutions have performed reasonably well — the courts, say. Others — Congress, law enforcement agencies — have stumbled along, with shaky and shady moments, but have not collapsed. There has been good journalism, too, including in this paper and on these pages.
But the reemergence of a more partisan press (again, at least in many places) — the virtual repudiation of impartiality as an ideal where anything Trump-related is concerned, the blurring of lines between news and opinion, fact and interpretation, and a careless loosening of verification standards everywhere — has gone rather far.
Trump, of course, labels all unhelpful journalism “fake news,” a “hoax,” the product of a “witch hunt.” Usually all that is a lie.
But while the press is not the “enemy of the people,” it has too often, these last few years, become its own worst enemy — doing more with grandstanding extravagances to call its own integrity into question than Trump’s humbug ever could.
The renewed attack on Kavanaugh by the New York Times seems a case in point. Essentially, in a “news analysis” piece published on its opinion platform, drawn from a new book by two news reporters, the paper revisited an allegation first aired, but not formally investigated, during Kavanaugh’s bitter confirmation hearings a year ago — an allegation Kavanaugh denies that he aggressively exposed himself to a woman at a drunken party at Yale 36 years ago. The new revelations are that the reporters found a number of people who heard about the incident back then.
More provocatively, as the Associated Press reported, “the authors said they’d uncovered a similar story involving Kavanaugh” — an incident a former classmate had told the FBI he’d witnessed. But he “would not discuss it with the authors.”
Embarrassingly, as AP described it, “After the story was posted online but before it was in the print edition, the Times revised the story to add that ... the woman supposedly involved in the incident declined to be interviewed, and that her friends say she doesn’t recall the incident. While an editor’s note pointed out the revision, it did not say why those facts had been left out in the first place.”
Incompetence would be the only generous explanation, so let’s go with that. The larger trouble may be that the discipline of verification, including standards for the use of hearsay and anonymous sourcing, collapsed in Washington beltway journalism long ago, and under the Trump stress test they appear to have vanished without a trace where claims harmful to this president are concerned.
Add the fury and haste of social media and the results can become simply bizarre. The Times also apologized last week for what it called an “offensive” tweet, sent out under the opinion page account promoting the new Kavanaugh story. It read: “Having a penis thrust in your face at a drunken dorm party may seem like harmless fun. But when Brett Kavanaugh did it to her, Deborah Ramirez says, it confirmed that she didn’t belong at Yale University in the first place.”
We’ve passed through the looking glass here. What kind of person could possibly consider an unwelcome penis thrust in the face to be “harmless fun?” Not the crime of the century, perhaps — but “fun?”
And what had become of the cultural milieu at Yale that would allow anyone to conclude, in the alternative, that being subjected to such a display showed one “didn’t belong” at one of the western world’s greatest institutions of higher learning?
The Times says it is “reviewing with everyone involved” how that looney-bird tweet came about. Why not? What’s one more investigation among friends?
Continued probing of Kavanaugh’s past may be justified. But for the sake of our profession, it’s the kind of story that should be pursued with stricter-than-normal professional discipline — not with the kind of reckless journalistic swagger that’s become too common in the Trump era and is far from harmless fun.
D.J. Tice is at Doug.Tice@startribune.com.