Entering a Street Fight Armed with a Newspaper

An interesting puzzle for my friends in journalism. In the process of delivering the Donner Lecture in Toronto this week, the historian and journalist Timothy Garton Ash made three observations about coverage of the Brexit and Trump votes.

First, he bemoaned the almighty power of the Daily Mail under Paul Dacre, whose demagogic and mendacious campaign in favour of Brexit had a demonstrable influence on the outcome. Either the first or second most powerful man in Britain, according to Ash, Dacre and his paper present Brexit as a drama in which lying, “whingeing, “contemptuous,” “unpatriotic,” and “greedy” elites tried to subvert the will of the British people and prevent them from achieving a “great future outside a broken dying Europe.” The Daily Mail won.

Second, Ash criticized the BBC for assuming an equivalence of integrity and reasonableness on both sides of the debate, giving equal time and regard to Leave and Stay forces when the Leave side was continually inventing fact and torqueing arguments. He called this “fairness bias,” and used the analogy of a reporter telling a TV audience, “this man thinks the world is round, and this man thinks the world is flat: you decide.” (I was reminded here of David Frum’s caricature of fair-and-balanced journalism in which an astrologist and an astronomer are given equal air time to debate the influence of the stars on human affairs.) Ash believes that the BBC’s timidity was dictated by a mistaken application of journalistic ethics as well as concern for its future at a time of political and regulatory uncertainty.

Third, Ash was deeply impressed by The New York Times’ unprecedented decision to step down from its pedestal and fight Donald Trump not only on its editorial page but in its news columns, taking the fight to the Republican candidate issue by issue, and going so far as to call him a liar on its front page.

I was on the same side as Ash in both contests. I would have voted to stay in the EU, and I would have voted Clinton (very reluctantly). I have to agree with him on the BBC after its own report accused its journalists of “a lack of appropriate challenge in some output.” But I don’t mind the Daily Mail being the Daily Mail: it is crude, noisy, and simple, and it serves its audience well. And I was disappointed in The New York Times.

It is perfectly honourable for a newspaper like the Daily Mail or the Daily Worker to have a point-of-view in its news coverage. There is more than one way to commit journalism and, generally speaking, I find a mix of fact and argument more bracing than a lot of on-the-one-hand and on-the-other. I can make up my own mind if I accept the arguments, and I seldom trust a single source in any event. But The New York Times I respected for its dogged attachment of the ideal of journalistic impartiality (even though its biases were always evident to those who did not carry its scent). Along with the Wall Street Journal, similarly even-handed in its news coverage, it served to anchor the public conversation. I’m not sure the Times can ever regain that reputation, and I feel journalism is poorer as a result.