Is It Becoming Too Costly for Journalists to Tell the Truth?

Economic pressures may be harming journalism in ways we don't fully appreciate.

By Nathan Pippenger

David Roberts offers some smart thoughts on how journalistic conventions will adapt to divergent trends in the acceptability of climate denialism. During the GOP primaries, political journalists will spend a lot of time covering candidates and voters who passionately reject climate science, even as that belief becomes more and more unacceptable in mainstream society. Left-wing opinion journalists have an easy way out of this problem, but the dynamic is tougher for campaign reporters:

But if you’re a view-from-nowhere journalist covering a campaign, you can’t call the politicians you cover absurd. You can’t take sides in the fight between reality and ideological fantasy. Climate denialism is one place where the strain is starting to show, but there are others, and there will only be more as the conservative movement in the U.S. becomes more concentrated, intense, and dissociated from mainstream institutions. The basic mental model that has governed U.S. journalism for decades — two mirror-image sides, each with their moderates and extremists, engaging in normal politics — is crumbling and it’s not clear what journalism will look like when the dust clears.

This seems true, although the question remains: Why aren’t other kooky right-wing theories afforded as much deference (or, at least, spared as much criticism) as climate denialism? Roberts argues that social norms among D.C. journalists play a large role, perhaps even a larger role than false equivalence now does. For years, well-funded agitation from skeptics at least created the veneer of a legitimate debate, giving cover to cowed journalists and comfort to right-wingers dead set against admitting Al Gore was right all along. Roberts thinks this problem has waned in recent years, but either way, it surely still poses a challenge to at least some outlets wary of taking on too many challenges at once.

When I mention “challenges,” I’m referring to the collapse of U.S. journalism’s economic model, and suggesting that we pay at least as much attention to that problem as to the collapse of what Roberts calls the industry’s “mental” model. The popularity of outlets like Fox News doesn’t just pose an ideological challenge to mainstream sources, many of which now find feel pressure to make a public show of their own objectivity (ironically, in many cases, by veering to the right). It poses an economic challenge as well. Mainstream sources are well aware that disgruntled conservative readers have a range of right-wing alternatives, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if this fear manifested itself in small decisions to self-censor, to soften language, to avoid confrontational reporting. (I suspect this is especially the case at downmarket outlets on less secure financial footing than the big players.)

I’ve written before about the danger to journalistic integrity posed by “native advertising,” and the problem here is similar. Journalists don’t know how their industry is going to survive in its current form (or if it will at all), and this precarity makes people desperate. It’s already blurring the lines between the editorial and business sides of major publications. It may also be contributing to public misinformation about climate change and helping to protect climate deniers from the criticism they deserve. Compromises like this are easy to rationalize if they’re seen as helping to keep a publication’s doors open in the first place. And as long as that precarity lasts, it will only continue to undermine the ideal of a well-informed public.

Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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