Facts speak for themselves; journalists need not opine

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Posted 10/24/17 (Tue)

Whines & Roses
By Cecile Wehrman

I spent some time while traveling last weekend reading a whole issue of Columbia Journalism Review devoted to Donald Trump and the challenges his presidency creates for the press.
The subtitle of this magazine was “The Year That Changed Journalism.”
While the jury remains out on whether those changes are overwhelmingly for the good or bad, there’s no question, change is occurring.
I’m troubled by many of the changes I see in how fellow journalists ply their trade, but I am equally disturbed by the amount of untruths daily coming out of the White House.
Last week’s drama over the whole consolation call debacle provides just the latest illustration of both the Trump administration and journalism at odds with one another. While, in this case, I would argue journalism “won” the day, increasingly, the national press is casting itself not only as government watch dog, but in some cases, as the government’s opposition -- a trend I fear will only further divide our country.
The trouble is not in the reporting in and of itself:
Networks carried the actual words of Trump, who tried to cast in a negative light the efforts of previous administrations to console the families of slain soldiers. His stammering, back-and-forth assertions -- previous presidents maybe did or maybe did not make as many calls to families of the fallen -- had the tone of a teenager making excuses for his lost homework.
Later in the week, documented evidence emerged that several condolence packages to families went out only after the president made assertions about the great job he has done in this arena.
And the $25,000 personal check promised to one Gold Star father -- promised back in April -- clearly had not arrived by the time of Trump’s press conference Monday last week.
We could see, in the president’s own words, on video, his assertion that Congresswoman Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) was wrong when she claimed he told a grieving widow her husband “knew what he was getting into.”
And, we could see for ourselves last Thursday that, despite Trump’s assertions, Chief of Staff John Kelly held his own press briefing to explain what Donald Trump meant when he said the words Trump claimed he never said. And we could also hear, coming out of Kelly’s mouth, the description of Wilson as an “empty barrel” based on her previous actions at the dedication of an FBI building.
Further, we could see with our own eyes, the tape of Rep. Wilson at said dedication, speaking words that in no way represented the shameless self-promotion Kelly had suggested it did.
In this day and age there is a record of everything. If you make a false statement, whether you are the president or his chief of staff, it’s the job of the press to check it out.
The trouble is that the national press is muddying the waters by going beyond the reporting to bring on talking head after talking head to opine upon these matters. 
The national press further muddies the water when publications like The New York Times and the Washington Post allow journalists who report on such stories to appear on programs hosted by other talking heads who ARE journalists -- but ALSO celebrities who share opinions of their own.
I’ve been decrying in this column for more than 15 years what we used to call “spin” by networks, more lately devolved into what a lot of people now call “fake news” -- any article or story with which we disagree.
The problem is not that the press is not capable of reporting the facts or that we don’t have access to the unedited and “unspun” video clips available. It’s that the networks seem hellbent on destroying their own reporters’ credibility by allowing them to also share opinions.
It’s the spin that is dividing us. The facts, as laid out in last week’s consolation call drama, speak for themselves.