For the first fifteen years of my professional career, I was a journalist for a variety of publications, most notably three different stints with The Associated Press in Albany, Seattle and New York. Journalism is a tough, unforgiving career — low pay, long hours, soul-crushing deadlines and heaping helpings of disrespect from nearly every quarter. I admit, it totally burned me out, which is why I left.
Yet it’s an absolutely critical part of American society. The problem is, at a time when it’s more important than ever, the Achilles heel of American journalism has been exposed.
Get both sides. That’s been the mantra of journalists for more than a century now, when the notion of an impartial Fourth Estate began to take shape. This was, in large part, due to the growth and importance of The Associated Press. Back in the 19th century, newspapers were unabashed in their political views in reporting. But when five New York papers created a cooperative service to report on far-flung areas, there was a need for the AP to be impartial, so that a conservative paper and a liberal paper could use the same dispatch.
This grew into a general belief that news should be impartial, and that editorializing should be the purview of the editorial pages only. I genuinely believe this to be a Good Thing, and it transformed journalism into an active challenger of the status quo, no matter who was in power and who was on the outside.
Over time, though, the get both sides mantra has become bastardized. It’s allowed folks on the very margins of reasonable discourse — anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, all manner of conspiracy theorists — a seat at the table. And with the advent of social media, these fringe voices can find each other, organize and boost their signal, giving journalists a sense that the beliefs in question are more widespread than perhaps they realized.
And so here we are today, when we see journalists writing normalizing articles on the so-called Alt-Right and CNN has a ticker that says “Alt-Right Founder Asks If Jews Are People,” as if this can even be debated. (Meanwhile, you have The Atlantic, saving face for the rest of the Fourth Estate, covering an Alt-Right event where participants are giving the Nazi salute and shouting “Heil Victory! Heil Trump!” and calling it like it is.)
So where does get both sides end and the media begins to take a stand for the nation?