Gotcha!—The High Cost of Hit-Piece Journalism

March 4, 2020 Updated: March 4, 2020


Mainstream media, while partisan (The New York Times hasn’t endorsed a Republican candidate for president in 50 years), used to take seriously its responsibility to inform its audience, to be professional, and to check its facts.

Now, and increasingly, the aim of an interview or in-depth analysis isn’t to inform or elucidate the views of a public figure, but to bring him down. The journalist structures the interview to trap the subject into saying something that will expose and discredit him or her. It’s gotcha! journalism.

In a television interview that became internationally famous, British journalist Cathy Newman appeared to show no interest in hearing or letting viewers hear what clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson had to say about anything. She set out to nail him on his position on the reasons for pay differences between men and women; she distorted his views and wouldn’t let the subject go.

As New York Times columnist David Brooks put it, Newman “distorted, simplified, and restated Peterson’s views to make them appear offensive and cartoonish.”

Another journalist, working for the leftist magazine New Statesman, had more success in getting his man. He got the distinguished philosopher Sir Roger Scruton fired from his honorary position advising the government on architecture. The purpose of the bad-faith interview wasn’t to elicit information about Scruton’s views but, as the author’s subsequent behavior made clear, to get him fired.

After a recording of the interview came to light, it became obvious what had happened. Scruton was reinstated, and the New Statesman apologized—but not before making the final year of the cancer-stricken philosopher’s life miserable.

There are countless cases of this kind, where the point of an interview is for the interviewer to make news, to smear, and take down someone whose views he opposes.

The single-minded negative bias, the lack of professional fairmindedness, and the bad faith extends beyond interviews to articles offered as serious analysis. A recent example of such hostile intent in the United States is the lengthy hit piece on Attorney General William Barr published in the once reputable New Yorker magazine.

Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist found 27 problems in the New Yorker article, showing in detail how it’s riddled with factual errors and omissions, false claims, confusion, and bizarre characterization of Barr’s published views. These were errors and misrepresentations that a competent, professional fact-checking system at the magazine would have caught.

Noticing none of these issues, a New York Times writer (not Brooks) called it a “smart, richly rendered and compelling profile.” As Hemingway wryly observed, “It is, alas, not even close to any of these things.”

Trump Derangement Syndrome and Corruption of Journalism

This kind of gotcha! journalism and extreme bias masquerading as analysis are part of a larger problem, in which every aspect of life, every public health challenge, even the most basic matters concerning parents and children or sex and marriage, becomes almost instantly a matter of “hyperpartisanship,” of a “cold civil war“ that goes far beyond the normal and inevitable partisanship in any era of politics and journalism.

We see this most obviously in the obsessive preoccupation of the mainstream media with Trump-bashing—the so-called Trump Derangement Syndrome (TDS).

As I was driving the other day, NPR was running a report on President Donald Trump’s triumphant welcome by a huge crowd of well-wishers in India. The rally was duly documented in an audio recording, followed, however, by the anti-Trump NPR interviewer’s questioning of an anti-Trump expert.

The lead line of questioning—as much as I could stand to listen to—had nothing to do with the size or importance of the mass welcome, the political significance of the visit for U.S.–India relations, or the relations between the two leaders, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Trump. Instead, the interview began with a question about the damage resulting from Trump’s mispronunciation of Indian names.

This isn’t an exception for NPR. I don’t recall any discussion on NPR of any of the president’s many achievements, economic, social, or in foreign policy, where the emphasis wasn’t on belittling those achievements or denying them outright.

Trump’s Feb. 25 joint press conference in India provided another display of TDS. The shameful show of anti-Americanism by U.S. journalists stood in sharp contrast to the Indian journalists’ deference, respect, and concern to clarify important issues.

The Americans interrupted the president, cut him off, even accused him of lying. Their questions were nearly all of the gotcha! kind. They ignored the issues of security and trade that were central to the visit and future relations between the countries.

Debasing Discourse and Building Bad Habits of Mind

We’re all prone to looking for what confirms our stances and badmouthing those who hold opposing opinions. Most of us don’t appreciate a “news” source that consistently trashes our views, day after day, and deplores those of us who hold them.

We may listen to or read what is available without charge as long as it provides at least some information and is free, but are unlikely to donate to NPR or subscribe to the newspapers and magazines that treat us with contempt.

But it’s a loss to all of us that once highly regarded sources of news and opinion have largely lost their own capacity for critical thinking—for fairmindedness and charity in interpreting in the best, not worst light, statements of those they oppose, looking for evidence that undermines, as well as buttresses, conventional wisdom and the author’s preconceptions.

It’s a loss of professionalism among those on whom others once relied for honest and impartial reporting and discussion.

The habits of mind so evident on campuses and in the media, that become vehicles for propaganda and indoctrination rather than information and education, debase public discourse and private conversation alike.

When those who should be professionally committed to truth and objectivity renounce such concerns in practice and often deny their possibility in theory, they reinforce the bad habits of the rest of us.

We can exchange insults in a bar or stop reading articles and interviews altogether—I have friends who appear to have done so—and rely instead on posting gotcha! memes on Facebook. These rely on no evidence or analysis; they’re meant to short-circuit or prevent serious discussion and conversation.

Has this become the standard to which the mainstream media itself has now sunk?

Paul Adams is a professor emeritus of social work at the University of Hawaii and was a professor and associate dean of academic affairs at Case Western Reserve University. He is the co-author of “Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is” and has written extensively on social welfare policy and professional and virtue ethics.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.