How a conservative can trust the news media


When I was in Washington, DC, as a graduating senior from high school, I was scheduled to meet with my senators and my representative. Due to a scheduling screwup, I was stuck in then-Senator Harkin's office at the time I was supposed to be meeting Senator Grassley on the steps of the Capitol. This was before everyone had cell phones, so it really stuck with me that Senator Grassley went to some extraordinary lengths to track me down and overstayed the scheduled time for our meeting just to make sure I got that picture.

I share that story to reinforce the point that the Senator works to represent a kind of decency that matters, well outside of partisanship and above and beyond any passing issues of the day. Of course, the Senator is well-known for being a strong conservative -- but he's an advocate for principles that aren't so narrowly political, too.

Senator Grassley issued an important statement last week:

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa made the following comment on reports that Federal Communications Commission security guards manhandled a news reporter who tried to ask questions of a commissioner at a public meeting. The commissioner reportedly apologized after the National Press Club and others expressed concern. "The Federal Communications Commission needs to take a hard look at why this happened and make sure it doesn't happen again. As The Washington Post pointed out, it's standard operating procedure for reporters to ask questions of public officials after meetings and news conferences. It happens all day, every day. There's no good reason to put hands on a reporter who's doing his or her job."

This statement is important because we're experiencing a really hazardous phenomenon. Some of you may even be taking part. People who otherwise seem perfectly sane and reasonable are losing their minds about the news media. The other day, I watched a Facebook flame war explode as a friend of mine went into full crank mode, declaring that you can't trust anything in "the media" because (in his mind) everyone in "the media" is biased and wrong.

A whole lot of this -- not all of it, but a whole lot -- has come from people who are trying to promote what they call a "conservative" agenda. Frankly, I think a lot of these hucksters who want you to hate "the media" are frauds. I think they lack an appreciation for real conservative principles and because they don't really understand how to analyze and comment on real-world events in a way that reflects a legitimate conservative philosophy, they just want to "burn it all down" and tell people to live in a bubble.

I think that's cheap, I think it undermines our national traditions, and worst of all, I think it hollows out the authentic arguments that could be winning over voters and citizens to policies that really would make our country better.

Yet I also understand that some conservatives may be reasonably skeptical of what they hear, see, and read in the news. Because, yes, sometimes reporters are biased and sometimes that bias influences their coverage.

Permit me to offer four suggestions for how a skeptical conservative can approach news media:

1. If you deeply distrust the major media institutions, find individual reporters in whom you can trust, and follow their work. Twitter makes this especially easy, but it's not the only way. Start with a few local reporters, then follow them as they rise through the ranks (Des Moines, it turns out, is a great market for ambitious reporters to use as a launchpad). You may be pleasantly surprised just how accessible many of them are -- especially if you send an email, a Facebook comment, or a tweet acknowledging when you think they've done a good job on a story. They're human beings, too. As you follow their work, you'll find out which other reporters they consider credible. Just for examples: I have personally met and would be willing to trust the work of Lee Powell at the Washington Post, Jonathan Martin at the New York Times, and Jennifer Jacobs at Bloomberg (previously a reporter here in Des Moines). On Twitter, they are @leepowellTV, @jmartNYT, and @JenniferJJacobs. I'm sure they make mistakes like all people do, but I have confidence that each of them is trying their best to understand the world and report on it fairly. And if they share stories by their colleagues, I'm inclined to give those reporters the benefit of the doubt as well.

2. Verify reporting on your own, or read through the source material that news outlets now routinely share online. A great example is the exhaustive work David Fahrenthold did to document his research into President Trump's claims about his charitable giving. What made his reporting so good was how transparent it was. He literally photographed his research notes and showed them to the world.

3. Reconsider the assumption that "the media" is liberal. It has been my observation that what often passes for a liberal bias is actually a mild bias in favor of government and other "non-profit" sources. Those two are different things, and they have different effects. But there is also a strong bias against those with political power. That's what makes it so interesting that the same reporter broke the Clinton email story and the current story about the Comey memos. Neither story makes him a hero nor a villain, but they also illustrate that the reporter you loathe today may be the one you celebrate tomorrow -- it's not up to them to win your love. (By the way, if you'd like a longer exploration of the "liberal bias" question, I wrote an essay about it and would be happy to share it with you.)

4. Remember how peculiar it sounded when Hillary Clinton decried a "vast right-wing conspiracy" back in the 1990s? Consider that claims of a vast left-wing conspiracy sound equally paranoid.

Finally, permit me to plug a list I curate on Twitter consisting of hundreds of individual reporters, all sharing their stories on Twitter. If you're looking for a place to start following the work of individual journalists, all you have to do is click on the link.

Some people have perceptions of the media that are now so deeply entrenched that there's no turning them around. But for the rest of us, it's smart and sensible to take a thoughtful approach to media consumption -- skeptical, but not cynical and definitely not cranky. If Chuck Grassley can rise to the defense of the news media, there's nothing anti-conservative about doing so ourselves.

Brian Gongol

Brian Gongol

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