New York magazine has an infernally long but rewarding story about everything wrong with the media today. Based on interviews with more than 40 journalists, the article gives 53 reasons, with examples, of how the media screw up.
If you are insufficiently depressed, it’s worth a look. Even if you aren’t, you might take a moment to skip down to No. 29, under the heading “Whoever the subject, the press can be cruel.” Marin Cogan describes traveling to Montana to interview former Gov. Brian Schweitzer, then a bit of a national media darling with possible presidential aspirations.
But in the course of interviews with Cogan, Schweitzer dropped a couple of unfortunate expressions. In a discussion of National Security Agency surveillance, he described U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., as “standing under the streetlight with her dress pulled all the way up over her knees, and now she says, ‘I’m a nun,’ when it comes to this spying!’” Describing Eric Cantor, former House majority leader, Schweitzer said his “gaydar was 60 to 70 percent.”
Schweitzer almost immediately backed off both gaffes but, Cogan writes, “I included both quotes in my otherwise positive profile because they were splashy, funny, impolitic, and a little bit offensive.” She also knew they would attract wide attention, which they did, and Schweitzer quietly backed away from the national scene.
This leads Cogan to speculate about a journalistic quandary: When a source says something that both journalist and source immediately recognize as stupid, do you print it? The answer’s easy enough when the subject is Schweitzer, who is a big boy and should have known better—he walked an awfully thin line for quite a few years—but it’s much tougher when the source is someone unfamiliar with and unguarded about journalistic conventions.
“It is sometimes extremely difficult,” Cogan concludes, “to be a good journalist and also a good person.”
But given how tame Schweitzer’s remarks sound given the current state of the presidential election, it might be more rewarding to speculate about what would have happened if Schweitzer had just said, “Gaffes be damned” and charged on ahead. Would it have worked?
Probably not, but it’s fun to think about a Schweitzer vs. Trump campaign, two politically incorrect behemoths pounding away at each other from now until November. Schweitzer would be the happier warrior, for sure, with some actual useful experience and better information about the Middle East. But perhaps he could not match Trump insult for insult, with Trump’s weirdly thick-skinned self-aggrandizing demeanor.
Maybe the ultimate lesson of this election is that the occasional dumb mistake will no longer be automatically disqualifying. That might even make this a bit better world.