Jim VandeHei tries (and fails) to tell journalists how to regain public trust

How do we eliminate the scourge of fake news, media bias, and distrust of the press? Axios CEO Jim VandeHei thinks he has the answer.

The twice-successful founder of major news organizations, VandeHei is a doyenne of political publishing. If anybody has an answer for what ails our embattled press, surely it is he, and not countless others publishers, columnists, and network presidents who, despite enjoying record circulation, still get all shirty when President Trump questions the veracity of their craft.

Jim VandeHei on Morning Joe (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Like Corker in Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop worrying that journalists are no longer “known, loved, and trusted,” VandeHei is oh-so concerned about the press’s reputation. So VandeHei sat down with students at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, and offered some advice on how news publications can restore their credibility. Thankfully for us plebes, it’s not hidden behind a paywall or one of those obnoxious auto-play video advertisements for MiraLAX.

VandeHei’s advice is fourfold: elected officials must cease using the phrase “fake news”; journalists should be barred from using social media like Twitter; the government should consider regulating social media companies to prevent the spread of misinformation; and, lastly, we should all absorb and contextualize information before offering an opinion on it.

Simple, no? Incanting “fake news” over and over again, even in jest, can instantiate it in the minds of average news consumers, making them cynical and suspicious. And we all have a friend or family member with a tendency of sharing newsy items without reading past the headline.

As for government intervention into the social media market, VandeHei, as if holding the enchanted monkey’s paw, may not understand the full implications of his wish. If the FCC gets in the business of information control on Facebook -- a frightful business on par with cleaning out the Augean stables -- what’s stopping it from doing the same to traditional media outlets? The threat to the First Amendment under such a regime is probably not something VandHei would countenance.

Then there’s the most interesting of his four suggestions: banning reporters from using Twitter, other than to post a link to their own stories. I can’t think of a better ethical protocol than depriving journalists of their most effective tool to gossip, joke, spread rumors, and share rebarbative jabs about their ideological enemies, i.e. conservatives.

The media’s tilt to the left isn’t news. But the extent to which it’s flaunted by journalists at major outlets like the New York Times, The Washington Post, and CNN would be grounds for firing in any other industry interested in objectivity. It would exhaust the space of this column, and possibly the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica, to document every instance of journalistic malpractice on Twitter. But here’s a small sampling: Post reporter Dave Weigel mocking the crowd size at a Trump rally, a snark he later had to apologize for due to its inaccuracy; Alex Burns of the Times sneering at the location and timing of Trump’s speeches; Ben White of Politico referring to the Trump campaign using donor money to purchase books authored by the President as a “scampaign.”

A nigh infinite amount of biased commentary from reporters can be found on Twitter, much of it by choosing any blue-check-marked-journalist at random and taking two minutes to read their feed. And it’s only gotten worse with Donald Trump, who plays the media for publicity like a tightly-strung fiddle. The press’s personal Trump animus reached such a zenith during the presidential campaign that the Times had to send out a memo to all its reporters, urging them to keep their political opinions to themselves on social media. “Leave the editorializing to our colleagues on the opinion side,” pleaded the paper’s standards editor, Phil Corbett.

Bar entry to the confessional cathouse that is Twitter and journalism would receive an instant boost in credibility. It would be on strictly Machiavellian terms: the rest of us would only be deprived of seeing journalists’ candid thoughts. Bias wouldn’t be eliminated; it would only remain hidden, under the shroud of impartiality.

Of all of VandeHei’s ministrations for media credibility, kicking journalists off Twitter is his most personal and punitive remedy, which also makes it his most effective. It’s also exceedingly ironic. That VandeHei found it within his heart to offer sage advice on journalistic ethics is almost too clever by half. Lest we forget, VandeHei is largely credited with transmogrifying journalism into split-second scoop-driven drivel in the first place. He was one of the founders of Politico, the gossipy Beltway blog that made its name producing stories at breakneck speed. Politico is sugary breakfast cereal for honor-roll kids who paid way too much attention to politics growing up and whose dopamine receptors are so dulled that only the flashiest, most pressing news activates them.

The site is credited with cajoling its competitors into emphasizing quantity over quality and speculation over hard-nosed reporting. If you’ve ever wondered why a dozen push notifications hit your phone every day from various news organizations with “BREAKING NEWS” splashed across the screen, you can thank VandeHei.

VandeHei’s C.V. paradoxically puts a great deal of weight behind his recommendations for resuscitating journalism’s trustworthiness. He understands the problem because he helped create it. Still, reporters tend to be such narcissistic ninnies that they’ll probably never forgive him for turning their industry into one only matched in intensity of first responders and doctors. Journalists who are called to wake up at 1 A.M. and write 200 words on the President’s latest tweet aren’t about to take advice from the guy who stripped them of their sleeping hours. They’re more likely to trash Trump on Twitter instead.

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