Grumpy Old Man: Two tough days for journalism

We saw shameless self-promotion, a conspiracy theory, courtroom nonsense and the passing of a beloved curmudgeon, all in 48 hours.

March 23, 2017 12:00
Igal Sarna

Journalist Igal Sarna is seen before the arrival of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, to testify in the libel lawsuit they filed against him, at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court, last week. (photo credit: REUTERS)

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow is one smart person.

She’s well educated (a Rhodes Scholar out of Stanford and a PhD from Oxford), well read and highly erudite.

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She consistently puts out well-researched reports. Because of this, she’s seen by many as MSNBC’s flagship personality – and keep in mind that few, if any, of the channel’s other personalities can exactly be called a slouch.

But late on the afternoon of Tuesday, March 14, she tweeted the following: “BREAKING: We’ve got Trump tax returns. Tonight, 9pm ET. MSNBC.” A later tweet sharpened the focus to Tax Year 2005.

The four million people who tuned in that evening were kept waiting some 20 excruciating minutes – well past the first commercial break – as Maddow painfully milked the tension. In the end, she revealed only a bit of bottom-line information showing that President Donald Trump had paid taxes, at least for 2005, and not a small sum. It was a yuuuge letdown for those who believe that Trump pays little, if anything; that the returns he’s been hiding will reveal a nefarious link with Russia; and that if anyone can bring him down, it’s the proudly liberal MSNBC host.

The obvious goal of Maddow’s tweets was to drum up viewership, which she did quite nicely. The letdown, though, only made her look like a third-rate carnival barker on a first-rate midway, or at the very least like so many other broadcasters who use precious air time to promote a channel’s product – in this case, herself. The result? Critics across the spectrum justifiably howled in outrage.

That very day, over on the other side, meaning the Fox News Channel, Andrew Napolitano appeared on the verbose yet vacuous morning program Fox & Friends.

A former New Jersey state judge who started out on TV as the poor man’s Judge Judy, Napolitano, whose professional bona fides are held in high regard, found a niche for himself as the channel’s judicial expert. A libertarian, he also fills in for absent hosts, generally feels sufficiently qualified to hold court on issues well outside the legal sphere, and promotes the occasional conspiracy theory.

On Fox & Friends that day, he explained why no US intelligence agency had stepped forward to back up Trump’s claim that as a candidate, his phones had been tapped by the Obama administration.

It was the Brits, Napolitano proclaimed. He fingered the GCHQ, Britain’s top signal-intelligence body, as happily having done the dirty deed at the behest of a scandal-averse American president.

The normally taciturn GCHQ issued an immediate denial, and at least one of Napolitano’s sources is considered iffy, at best. The whole thing might have evaporated then and there – the way most Fox & Friends material does – had White House spokesman Sean Spicer not made the same claim two days later.

When called out, Spicer quoted… yes, Napolitano. He was basically admitting that the primary intelligence source for the Trump administration, which has the world’s best and most comprehensive spy services at its beck and call, is Fox News.

The Brits fumed yet again, and Trump, perhaps not realizing the severity of the matter, childishly said go blame Fox – which, to the channel’s rare credit, admitted that its vast news-gathering operation could find absolutely no basis for Napolitano’s claim.

Here at home, on the same day that Maddow and Napolitano cheapened their names, Yediot Aharonot journalist Igal Sarna faced down an angry Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, in a Tel Aviv courtroom.

The Netanyahus have been seeking close to NIS 300,000 in damages, saying Sarna libeled them. Cigars? Luxury hotels? Bottle returns? Nope. It’s the claim that Mrs. Netanyahu stopped the prime minister’s heavily protected convoy smack dab in the middle of the busy Jerusalem- Tel Aviv highway to throw him out of their limo. Sarna heard it from others who had heard it from yet others (some of them ostensibly in positions to be well informed), and posted the news on his Facebook page.

Did it happen? Like Sarna, I wasn’t there. Could it have happened? I wouldn’t bet that the Netanyahus are exactly lovebirds, but to think that their bodyguards would allow something like this to transpire in the post-Rabin era staggers the imagination.

Sarna refused to divulge his sources but stuck to his story, telling the court he believed its veracity “now more than ever.” His lawyer, perhaps grasping at straws, asked the prime minister whether he always took care to tell the truth on Facebook. When Netanyahu answered in the affirmative, the lawyer cited his claim that a hotly disputed incident in a Negev Beduin town had been terrorism.

The prime minister noted that he had posted the claim on the day of the incident, in which a Beduin teacher appeared to have run down and killed a police officer before being killed in a hail of police bullets. Netanyahu added that there was an ongoing investigation, and if it turned out to be the police screw-up it now appears to be, he’ll apologize – which is far more than Sarna seems willing to promise.

If the journalist really thought the convoy story to be true, the news would have appeared somewhere in the anti-Netanyahu Yediot, if only under a general staff byline. Instead, Sarna seemed to ignore the fact that no matter where a high-profile journalist says or writes something, no matter what the forum, his professional reputation is at stake, as is the reputation of journalism in general.

ON THE same day, back in the US, Bill Walsh, 55, was dying of cancer.

A senior copy editor for The Washington Post, Walsh was a free-wheeling curmudgeon with something of a cult following for the bile he’d spill – with great humor and reasonably good nature – over bad writing and worse editing.

He had so much to say, he filled a website and a blog. He also authored three books: Lapsing into a Comma, The Elephants of Style and Yes, I Could Care Less – How to be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk.

The following is from his January 28 blog entry: “I asked [the surgeon] whether he scooped the cancerous tissue out with a melon baller, and he said no – and then proceeded to describe the tool he did use, defining a melon baller with the kind of precision that could get him a job at Merriam-Webster.”

Whether he was commenting on the ills of news reporting or copy editing, or on his own illness, Walsh was a beacon of clean copy and common sense, both of which are lacking in much of today’s mostly entry-level journalism. I’d like to believe he hung on until March 15 because, as it was, the previous day had been bad enough for the profession.

Unlike March 14, he will be missed.

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