With the great Ruth Bader Ginsburg gone, can the media pass the Ginsburg Litmus Test?

Lou Carlozo September 21, 2020

The late Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a legal, cultural and feminist icon. Will the media’s coverage of her passing and its political aftermath do her justice?

When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Friday at 87, the first crocodile tear hadn’t dried on her condolences when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ken.) announced his full-court press to get Ginsburg’s vacancy filled before Election Day.

The vacancy that especially concerns me, and especially now, is the vacuum that nature and journalists abhor. What rushes in to fill it, though—what has already begun to deluge us with hurricane force—are media coverage and accounts that stray from our most time-honored tradition. To wit: We report, we stay as true to the facts as possible and allow readers, viewers and listeners to draw their own conclusions.

Or at least we used to do that.

Welcome then, my media friends, to what I’ve dubbed the Ginsburg Litmus Test. Or, if you prefer: In the court of public opinion, what might RGB’s opinion have been of RGB media opinion?

How the case of media menagerie worked its way to the highest court

Here, I’ll see if I can get to the core of the RGB news problem in follow-the-bouncing-ball fashion:    

  1. A prominent, history-making Supreme Court justice passes away…
  2. and just as major media outlets break out the pre-written obituaries from cold storage…
  3. the U.S. Senate Majority Leader announces that he will push to have that justice’s seat filled ASAP…
  4. which promptly changes the focus of the story to political jockeying…
  5. and spawns other stories, such as record donations to ActBlue passing the $100 million mark…
  6. while third-rate outlets riff on RGB’s role as a pop-culture badass…
  7. and the media noise floor rises to beyond-overload proportions…
  8. so to get attention, or rake in ad dollars, or ratings, some outlets go into opinion-mode overdrive…

Which brings us to now.

Mass media agenda disguised as news: 1948 meets 2020

And here is where I need someone like Edward R. Murrow to restrain me: because I do not see this as a left-or-right, red-or-blue, Fox-or-MSNBC battle for the soul of the media. Not at all. Rather, it is the obscene juxtaposition of news versus agenda posing as news.

None of us should fool ourselves into thinking this is a new thing. Col. Robert McCormick, the Chicago Tribune’s eccentric and bombastic owner, used the paper as his bully pulpit for Republican causes and wacko theories throughout his ownership. Long before it became en vogue, McCormick attempted to strong-arm public opinion through everyday news. Chances are you’ve never heard of Arthur Sears Henning, but he was McCormick’s toady Washington bureau chief, advancing whatever conspiracy theory the Colonel had about FDR.

Problem was that Henning was too eager to please, despite almost 50 years on the job. He approved the Nov. 3, 1948 presidential election headline that he could’ve easily rescinded, but did not:

DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN

It’s a cultural catchphrase today, and Henning was shown the door a few months later. So much for the Colonel showing reciprocal loyalty. Despite his long, long career, Henning’s obituary in the New York Times was a few scant paragraphs. The ads for undies took up way more room. He doesn’t even have a Wikipedia entry.

Can you imagine someone making an error like that today and getting fired? Here’s DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, 2020 style:

  1. News outlet reports Election Day 2020 results: DEWEY (Trump) DEFEATS TRUMAN (Biden).
  2. The news is wrong, but before Arthur Sears Henning can be shown the door for a botch job…
  3. he is interviewed by Infowars, which gives credence to his bad reporting…
  4. and mounts a conspiracy theory it names after the reporter, “Henningate”…
  5. which BuzzFeed picks up and runs in a photo essay of bikini fails…
  6. while reputable accounts of Truman’s victory…
  7. are attacked as “fake news” as Dewey praises the incorrect reporter on SOCIAL media…
  8. and Henning signs a book deal for his tome: “When Wrong Is Right: How I Got the Scoop on the Results of the 2020 Election” …
  9. while the real results of the election now work their way to the Supreme Court…
  10. where nearby, RGB is rolling in her grave…
  11. and Walter Cronkite, too.

Wherefore Walter Cronkite?

It is super surreal to conceive of a world where a large number of millennials, and those younger, have no idea who Walter Cronkite is. But damn, do we need him now. As an anchor for CBS News, he reported on every major story you can name that bridged the era of radio to TV. John F. Kennedy’s assassination and John Lennon’s, too. The moon landings. Watergate. Vietnam. No one read the numbers of the dead and wounded with so much dignity and solemnity.

So was he liberal or conservative? Whose side was he on? You never knew—and you didn’t have to. “Uncle Walter” was someone you could depend on to tell the truth; he was named “the Most Trusted Man in America” in a 1960s poll, and the label stayed with him until his very last CBS broadcast on March 6, 1981, where he signed off as he always did: “And that’s the way it is.”

If any reporter were to say that today, would we believe them? Would the public believe them? And would the current occupant of the White House, on hearing Cronkite report something that he didn’t like, crow, “FAKE NEWS!!! Cronkite is a loser. Most ‘busted’ man in America.”

And how many people would embrace such social media feces over gold-standard media?

The press is not the enemy of the people, of course. But we sure act like it, because too many journalistic thumbsuckers at kiddie-pool-think-tanks tell us we don’t want to appear biased. Come on. We are smarter than that. If you read Gulliver’s Travels, you know how dumb some too-smart people can be.

We get closer and closer to blowing it when we either a) refuse to deflect baseless attacks like those from people in power that are meant to damage our credibility, or b) overcompensate by bringing opinion into what we do.

We do have a right to judge a media outlet, no matter its political stripes, based on its ability to tell the truth without bending it in a funhouse mirror. If I call out Fox News here as guilty, I would fully expect that some people would accuse me of being a leftie or a socialist or biased.

To which my well-reasoned reply would be: Piss off.

Fox just does a poor job of leaving the truth alone and divorcing it from agenda. They do not represent the high ideals of this profession. We can document their failures and manipulations with something as simple as an overarching check of how many times Fox has allowed editorializing to dictate its coverage. Remember when COVID-19 was an attempt by Democrats to discredit the president? Nice.

Ginsburg will judge us

Yes, people may not care or take the manipulation seriously. Maybe they LIKE it. Or perhaps they have been desensitized in large part by the tenor of the times, where lies more than ever are posited as “alternate facts” and repeated until they stay in someone’s head like a hook from a Taylor Swift song.

As we watch the Ruth Bader Ginsburg story unfold, let’s live up to the very best of intentions. Let’s report the facts. Let’s save the opinion for op-ed pages and opinion programming that isn’t an echo chamber for conspiracy theory and venom. And when Fox News—yes, Fox—sees its reporters stick up for Jennifer Griffin after she corroborated Trump’s disrespectful comments about veterans, let’s celebrate that, too.

Truth telling? Let’s hope, in the run up to what promises to her the messiest U.S. election in history, we don’t get wrapped up in splitting hairs and slinging mud. We are better than this. We are better than clicks and eyeballs and ratings and viewers right now and we have to be: This is history-times-ten we will witness and journalism at its finest is the first draft of history.

In her passing, Ruth Bader Ginsburg has our prejudices and funhouse mirror tricks on trial. Red. Blue. Every last one of us. We only win by telling the truth as best as we can report it. No easy task, verily. It guarantees many people who will want you to interpret events their way will downright despise you. Or worse. Never before has the truth been so dangerous.

Ah, but what intrepid reporter doesn’t like a little danger?

Lou Carlozo is Qwoted’s Editor In Chief. All opinions and uses of juvenile phrases such as “piss off” are strictly his own. Email: lou@qwoted.com

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