The "It's My Opinion" Dodge
Michael Goodwin, B. A., chief political columnist for The New York Post, delivered a speech at a Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar (Atlanta, Georgia, April 20, 2017) in which he proclaims that the American media is broken and cannot be fixed. Their unfair treatment of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was the final straw.
Goodwin, a college graduate, has spent most of his professional career on newspaper opinion pages. He acknowledges that the journalistic rules for writers and editors of opinion is different from those of news reporters. He says he learned that lesson well during his early years at The New York Times.
However, he did not reveal any understanding of an ethical rule that applies equally to the front page and the opinion page. In his speech in Atlanta, which was subsequently published in writing, Goodwin violates that rule. The imperative is simply that all writing must be supported by facts. In other words, it should be honest. It is ethically unacceptable, for example, for Alex Jones to say that in his “opinion” the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax. That is not an opinion; it is a lie which cannot be supported by fact.
Michael Goodwin is no Alex Jones, but he does violate the same ethical standard. He claims that ever since Watergate,
…young people became journalists because they wanted to be the next Woodward and Bernstein, find a Deep Throat, and bring down a president. Of course, most of them only wanted to bring down a Republican president.
That is clearly his opinion, but it is also a charge, an accusation, which, in any honest speech or writing, deserves supporting evidence. Goodwin never supplies any. Indeed, one wonders how he possibly could support it, seeing that it would require a supernatural ability to know the hearts of thousands of young journalists. It reveals not a fact but a prejudice that he is willing to engender in young college students.
Furthermore, he commits the same transgression against the newspaper that raised him from a pup:
The New York Times has not endorsed a Republican for president since Dwight Eisenhower in 1956, meaning it would back a dead raccoon if it had a “D” after its name.
No it doesn’t. It doesn’t mean that at all. He cannot know whether or not the Times might have endorsed Colin Powell, John Kasich or some other Republican for president at some point, had they been nominated.
Again: He makes an unsubstantiated accusation against “executives, producers, and journalists,” saying they were “furious” when they realized they had aided Trump’s rise to power by giving him so much air time. He cannot know the emotions of thousands of these professionals.
And once more: He accuses President Obama of viewing “other people’s wealth as a crime against the common good.” While increased income for lower-paid workers was a stated goal of President Obama, as it has been for every president in memory, there is nothing in anything Obama said or did to support the charge that he saw wealth as “a crime against the common good.” If there were such evidence, Goodwin could have referred to it.
After saying, “I blame The New York Times and The Washington Post for causing this breakdown [in the American media],” he praises Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes of FOX as models for providing fair and balanced news. “Fair and balanced” is a tag used by FOX, but does it really fit? Here is a brief sampling of false claims made on FOX News:
President Obama wanted “to bring in 250,000 (Syrian and Iraqi) refugees into this country." (Sean Hannity) FALSE
"50 percent of murders in Texas have been linked to illegal aliens." (Gavin McInnes) FALSE
"Most polls show foreign nations have lower regard for the U.S. now than they did before Obama’s time." (Gretchen Carlson) FALSE
Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich "apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments. ... It turns out, it wasn’t the Russians." (Newt Gingrich) FALSE
Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland "voted, so the folks know, in Washington, D.C., to keep guns away from private citizens." (Bill O'Reilly) FALSE
All the above statements and many more have been proven false. Indeed, according to fact checkers, half of the statements made on FOX News by Sean Hannity, for example, have been false or mostly false.
Of course, Sean Hannity and others of those mentioned are not news reporters; they are “opinionators” like Michael Goodwin. They do not have to be objective. But if they care about being ethical, they cannot use falsehoods to support their opinions.
It is true that others in the news media sometimes transgress standards of journalistic ethics. Not even the old standbys like the Louisville Courrier-Journal, Washington Post, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Tribune, and New York Times are without sin. But none of them even comes close to the volume of falsehoods perpetrated under the cover of “opinion” by the more recent spate of cable news networks and on-line magazines.
Take MSNBC for example. PolitiFact says 44 percent of their claims rate Mostly False or worse. At FOX News, the rate of falsehood is 51 percent. A closer look reveals that most of the deception does not come from the news reports on these networks, but from talk shows that abuse their freedom of speech by using it to propagate misrepresentations masquerading as opinion.