In a nation divided into opposing camps that seem to occupy separate realities, is there a role for thoughtful, fact-based journalism?
There is and such journalism is needed, concur Tom Hamburger and John Harris, but the path to retaining and growing outlets to nurture and provide it is far from clear.
Hamburger, winner of a 2018 Pulitzer Prize, is a veteran investigative journalist with the Washington Post and an MSNBC analyst. Harris, a former Washington Post reporter and editor, is a co-founder of and columnist for Politico. Now Washington, D.C.-based, both men have Rochester roots.
On Tuesday, they conferred on topics including the current state and possible future of U.S. journalism and the upcoming presidential election as participants in a noontime Rochester Beacon virtual forum moderated by Beacon publisher Alex Zapesochny.
Armbruster Capital Management, the Burke Group and the Estate, Legacy and Long-Term Care Planning Center of Western NY were presenting sponsors of the event. Bond, Schoeneck & King was gold sponsor.
The speed with which earthshaking events routinely roll by with hardly a pause—racial tensions heating up after the death of George Floyd, wildfires consuming the West Coast, furor over the presidential debates, the spread of COVID-19 through the White House and more—has disconcertingly become a feature of modern life.
In the past week alone, Hamburger noted, revelations by the New York Times that President Donald Trump, a self-described multibillionaire, had for years paid little or no federal taxes previously would have dominated the news for weeks and perhaps sparked congressional investigations. Instead, they were almost immediately swept aside by succeeding events and are now virtually forgotten.
Said Harris: “It’s frustrating to all journalists.”
A polarized climate
Harris used to believe the political powers that be could duck out of the public glare and quietly arrive at compromises that would keep the nation on a forward path. Now, he laments that such comity does not seem possible. Instead, a polarizing tribalism precluding any hint of surrender to those perceived as one’s political opposite has become the order of the day.
Rather than being judged on merit, he said, discussion of problems like Trump’s taxes are viewed “through the prism of which side are you on.”
As an exploiter and exacerbator of existing political fault lines, Trump himself bears no small degree of responsibility for the current state of affairs, Harris believes.
“I do think President Trump has so divided the lines—are you with him or are you against him—that polarization isn’t just a feature of politics as it plays out in the media,” he said. “There’s something very fundamental there. Sometimes people use the word tribalism. That tribalism that marks our politics is actually a feature of the political actors themselves. The most influential people tend to view things in terms of which tribe do you belong to.”
Some news organizations have fed the divide.
Networks like Fox and MSNBC have increasingly relied on biased commentary to pull in viewers, Hamburger said. Meanwhile, political actors, most notably the president, routinely disparage the output of traditionally trusted and less biased organizations as “fake news.”
“It’s possible that there is a historic change in news media,” upending “the notion that news organizations can report the news in a fact-driven way,” Harris concurred. Still, though “you never can achieve perfect objectivity, you can be fair.”
To meet such goals, however, any news organization needs to succeed not just in the marketplace of ideas but in the actual marketplace.
Hamburger cautioned: “The first problem that we face in all news organizations is one of a financial model that will work in an internet era. The old advertiser-based subscription model for print publications is really a thing of the past. This is a dire, dire situation. The first question for all organization is finding a workable financial model.”
A onetime Washington Post national political editor, Harris and a Post colleague, Jim VandeHei, left the Post to start Politico in 2007, setting for themselves a mission of creating a new online model that would hew to core values. The online site has since taken its place alongside organs such as the Post and the New York Times while avoiding partisan bias.
“What we set out to do at Politico was to take the historic values of commitment to fairness and to facts, a sense of relevance and a commitment to hold people in public life accountable,” Harris says. “Those are core values we wanted to vindicate for a new age in which the platforms of journalism and the expectations of the audience were changing. We wanted to vindicate old values in a new age.
“In doing so,” he added, “we wanted to make a distinction between things that are values you can’t compromise on and things that are habits—this is how we’ve always written it; this is how we organize our day. Those aren’t values. They’re just habits and you have to be really ready to discard them, if you’re going to be responding to the audience from an editorial point of view, responding to the marketplace from a commercial point of view.”
Harris distinguishes between two types of journalism: premium and commodity. In the former, news organizations put out a product that draws readers because it offers quality content such as in-depth reporting and analysis they won’t find elsewhere, content that’s compelling enough to move advertisers or readers to pay for it.
In the latter, organizations only need to worry about attracting eyeballs, so popularity alone can bring success. Quality is not needed, and, says Harris, selling commodity journalism grows ever tougher.
“The web and the internet are ruthless in driving down the price of commodity news,” he observed.
The Washington Post has prospered largely because Amazon.com founder and CEO Jeff Bezos, who bought the paper from its previous owners, the Graham family, has largely left the paper’s journalistic standards intact, allowing the Post to continue practices that enabled it to break stories like Watergate while bringing it into the digital age and relentlessly expanding its national readership.
“What Bezos did in his few occasional and somewhat secretive visits to the Post was come in and ask about things like download speed,” Hamburger said. “He was obsessed with it. How quickly after someone clicked on an article or a video would it appear on their screen?”
At the same time, Bezos “did adopt a traditional news owner’s distance from the news-gathering process. We did not feel the hand of Jeff Bezos on the news side.”
Boon for news
An irony of the accelerated news cycle and hyper-partisan political culture, the newsmen agreed, is that those developments have been a boon for national news organizations of all stripes. Sadly, that has largely not been the case for local journalism.
If high-quality local reporting has a future, Harris said, it will follow a path similar to Politico’s financial model, which largely relies on payments from readers. People already are willingly pay for cable and streaming services. There is also a market for premium local journalism, he believes.
“Big events happen, and responsible citizens want to know what’s going on in their communities with professional and enlightened journalism,” Harris said. “To me, the model has got to have a greater reliance on subscriptions. Advertising might continue to be a part of it. Unless you can capture that premium with sponsorships and whatnot, then you’re chasing clicks, which isn’t the way to produce great journalism.”
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.