Pol­i­tics in Amer­ica feels like Ground­hog Day

The Sentinel-Record - - VIEWPOINTS - Copy­right 2018, Wash­ing­ton Post Writ­ers group

SAN DIEGO — At lunch the other day, a friend — an old Ma­rine who will soon turn 80 — in­formed me that orig­i­nal­ity is dead.

“Noth­ing is new,” he said. “Ev­ery­thing that’s hap­pen­ing now has hap­pened be­fore.”

At the in­ter­sec­tion of pol­i­tics and me­dia, he has a point. The alarmist anti-Trump me­dia likes to say that things have never been this bad.

You know what’s bad? Peo­ple’s me­mories. It’s Ground­hog Day in Amer­ica. It feels like we’ve been here be­fore — even if nei­ther party ad­mits it. When a politi­cian on your team comes up with an idea, we de­clare that no one has ever come up with any­thing this good. When a politi­cian on the ri­val team does any­thing, we in­sist that no one has ever been this bad.

You know what else is bad? The me­dia’s rep­u­ta­tion. In the Trump era, not many folks in my line of work are known for their fair­ness and ob­jec­tiv­ity. The me­dia could re­store much of the pub­lic’s trust by ad­mit­ting that much of what they find shock­ing is ac­tu­ally quite fa­mil­iar.

For ex­am­ple, when re­port­ing on a new trade deal with Canada and Mex­ico that looks a lot like the old trade deal with Canada and Mex­ico, why can’t re­porters make that point — but then fol­low up by point­ing out that repack­ing pol­icy ini­tia­tives is hardly new. They could men­tion that Pres­i­dent Barack Obama did the same thing when he es­sen­tially Xeroxed many of Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s poli­cies for com­bat­ing ter­ror­ism? In fact, fed­eral judges would scratch their heads over the fact that — in de­fend­ing do­mes­tic sur­veil­lance — the briefs from the Obama Jus­tice Depart­ment so closely re­sem­bled those of the Bush Jus­tice Depart­ment.

And, if the claim is that Trump sim­ply re-branded the North Amer­i­can Free Trade Agree­ment with­out chang­ing much of the con­tent, then why not men­tion that Obama did much the same thing when he scut­tled the ed­u­ca­tional law, “No Child Left Be­hind” — and re­placed it with his own ed­u­ca­tional ini­tia­tive, “Race to the Top”? There wasn’t much of a dif­fer­ence. The for­mer pushed ac­count­abil­ity by threat­en­ing to close un­der­per­form­ing schools, while the lat­ter pushed ac­count­abil­ity by of­fer­ing fi­nan­cial ini­tia­tives to over-per­form­ing ones.

Putting all this on the ta­ble pro­vides con­text. In the by­gone days of what we used to call jour­nal­ism, it was con­sid­ered telling the whole story. It was fair. But it was also closer to the only thing jour­nal­ists are meant to chase: the truth.

Con­text changes a mi­nor story from what one pres­i­dent is do­ing wrong into a ma­jor story about what’s wrong with our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

In a more re­cent ex­am­ple, anti-Trump forces heaped crit­i­cism on the Fox News morn­ing show “Fox & Friends” af­ter it emerged that the show’s pro­duc­ers chore­ographed in­ter­views with for­mer En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency ad­min­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt. Pruitt was of­ten given the ques­tions ahead of time, al­lowed to choose the top­ics, and even given script ap­proval.

We learned all this from emails re­vealed in a Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion Act re­quest by the Sierra Club and con­firmed by The Daily Beast.

It was an egre­gious breach of jour­nal­is­tic ethics. Thank­fully, Pruitt is now out of of­fice. But still, all those in­ter­views are now tainted.

Yet the stunt was not ex­actly orig­i­nal. We’ve seen this movie be­fore, where jour­nal­ists get too cozy and give away the store to folks they’re in­ter­view­ing. They go from do­ing the pub­lic good to do­ing pub­lic re­la­tions.

If the me­dia is re­ally both­ered by what the Fox pro­duc­ers did with re­gard to Pruitt, then they should have been just as both­ered at what came out from Wik­iLeaks, in Oc­to­ber 2016, about how Glenn Thrush — then a re­porter for Politico — like­wise broke the rules in cozy­ing up to John Podesta. Ac­cord­ing to emails be­tween the two men, Thrush shared a story pre-pub­li­ca­tion with Podesta and then begged the cam­paign chair­man for Hil­lary Clin­ton not to tell any­one about it. He even called him­self a “hack.”

There wasn’t much of an out­cry over that ear­lier sin against jour­nal­ism. Why not? You know why not.

Fox News Chan­nel says that it is “dis­ci­plin­ing” the pro­duc­ers who cod­dled Pruitt. Thrush wasn’t dis­ci­plined for cod­dling Podesta; he went on to a pres­ti­gious re­port­ing job at The New York Times, which was jeop­ar­dized when fe­male re­porters claimed he had acted im­prop­erly at dif­fer­ent points in his ca­reer.

No won­der the pub­lic has so lit­tle faith in us. What have we done to earn it?

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