The opening minutes of the season seven premier of Showtime’s “Homeland” shows main character Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) watching a television newscast reporting the story of a journalist who’d been arrested for refusing to reveal the name of a confidential source who had leaked classified information.
The episode takes place in a United States where a paranoid, authoritarian president has ordered the incarceration of hundreds of innocent people in retaliation for an assassination attempt that occurred while she was president-elect in season six.
Was this arrest of a journalist fiction? Yes. But is it plausible in today’s real world? Absolutely.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced last August the Department of Justice was reviewing Obama administration rules that strictly limited the federal government from compelling journalists to reveal the sources of secret information. On multiple occasions since then he has refused to reassure Members of Congress and the public that his Justice Department won’t target journalists during its investigation of leaks.
And, of course, we live in a political and ideological ecosystem where attacking responsible journalists – with words, tweets, and even physically – has become a new normal for too many people.
Now there’s this. As first reported by Politico.com, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-California), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee – which is conducting one of the investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election – has launched what the publication calls an “alternative news site.”
I guess if Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway can have “alternative facts,” it’s appropriate for the chairman of a powerful congressional committee with oversite of the executive branch to have “alternative news.”
Nunes’ website – The California Republican – is “a site that bears the superficial trappings of a local news outlet but is funded by [Nunes’] campaign committee,” writes Politico’s Michael Calderone. Its Facebook page lists it as a “media/news company” and describes the site as “delivering the best of U.S., California, and Central Valley news, sports, and analysis.”
In reality, The California Republican is an outlet for Nunes’ own version of events. He is, remember, the person, who, with President Trump’s permission, recently released a controversial memo, the detractors of which say was designed to discredit the FBI’s investigation of possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Nunes is on record as alleging it was the Hillary Clinton campaign, not Trump’s, that colluded with Russia.
The hullaballoo surrounding the memo has made Nunes no fan of responsible, fact-based journalism. But he has found plenty of conservative opinion media superpowers to help him share his view of the world.
On February 5, riffing on The Washington Post’s famous credo, he told radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh, “Democracy does die in darkness. The problem is the darkness is emanating from the mainstream media themselves. I mean, they refuse, they absolutely refuse to cover the truth. They don’t want to cover it.”
On that same night, Nunes, appearing on Fox News Channel’s “Hannity” program, said this of “the mainstream media” to host Sean Hannity: “It’s embarrassing. It's absolutely embarrassing. I mean, I'm almost flabbergasted because I thought, at least, there would be some ounce of credibility left. But there really isn't any.”
The California Republican website consists largely of content curated from conservative-leaning publications, but occasionally throws in commentary of its own, such as in a piece headlined “The Russians are everywhere…and nowhere,” in which it describes reporting in The New York Times as “drivel.” In another piece, “CNN busted for peddling fake news AGAIN!,” the site says CNN has a “quickly-emerging fake news legacy.”
It would be naïve to think that Nunes is the only politician who will establish partisanship-posing-as-journalism apertures. Another already has. Remember “Real News,” sometimes called “Trump TV,” launched last August? At the time, RTDNA’s Voice of the First Amendment Task Force said it “appears to be an effort by President Trump and his supporters to promote their accomplishments while discrediting the work of responsible journalists.”
It’s still around, and Commentary Magazine Associate Editor Noah Rothman tweeted in reaction to the Politico story about Nunes’ website, “In the very near future, presidential campaigns will launch along side their own ‘news’ organs, and we need to be prepared for that.”
Rothman is right. We should also be prepared for even more anti-responsible journalism venom from politicians at all levels. Some campaign consultants have urged their 2018 congressional candidates to target the media at every turn because it worked so well for President Trump two years ago.
And look for the president himself to double down on his “fake news,” “enemy of the American people” bile. AXIOS’ Mike Allen and Jonathan Swan report that President Trump’s “real plan” for 2018, according to “a source close to the White House,” is to “[look] for ‘unexpected cultural flashpoints’ – like the NFL and kneeling – that he can latch onto in person and on Twitter. …[He] ’is going to be looking for opportunities to stir up the base’.”
I would bet money that one of those “cultural flashpoints” will be the traditional news media, especially particular news organizations and journalists who report facts the president doesn’t like or finds inconvenient as members of his political party try to retain control of Congress.
This seems like a good point at which to remind you that the only antidote to attacks on journalism is more and better journalism. It is also a good time to remind you that we as journalists must do a better job of helping the public understand why responsible journalism is essential to their daily lives.
A good way to start doing that – or to do that more effectively – is by being transparent with your viewers, listeners and readers not just about the stories you cover but about how you cover those stories.
Another mechanism is accountability. As the RTDNA Code of Ethics states so well, “Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.”
As I wrote just before New Year’s Day, while 2018 will be a tough year to be a journalist in the United States, it will also be a year in which it has never been more important for journalists to hold the powerful accountable.
After all, as AXIOS’ Allen and Swan write, “Trump will be more Trump this year.”