Journalism, we are told, is suffering from two ailments: Fake news – some of the boys and girls are just pestiferous ideologues – and transactional journalism. Of the two, the more fatal is transactional journalism, because it perverts the very purpose of honest reporting, which is to tell the truth and shame the Devil.
Reporters who engage in transactional journalism are the Donald Trumps of the reportorial world. Journalism is, among other things, a business, and business orbits around access to a product. When he was Attorney General of Connecticut for more than 20 years, Dick Blumenthal was a master at putting his product before the television cameras, so much so that it was said of him -- by journalists weary of having to make his frequent media releases into reportorial foie gras -- that there was no more dangerous place in Connecticut than the space between Blumenthal and a television camera.
Transactional journalism, as the name implies, involves a mutually beneficial arrangement – or a Faustian bargain, depending on your point of view -- between a politician and a journalist: The journalist will give the politician the kind of coverage he wants, and the politician will return the favor by giving the journalist the kind of access he needs; both are frauds parading as saints.
Investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson discussed transactional journalism at the Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar in 2018. She was presenting to the faculty and students of the college a modern iteration of an arrangement that is as old as the country.
The Adams-Jefferson campaign of 1800, truly vicious, was prosecuted by proxies; gentlemen of the time did not engage publically in three ring campaign circuses. Jefferson, according to one surrogate defamer, President of Yale College at the time, presented a danger to virtuous wives and daughters. Should Jefferson become president, “we would see our wives and daughters the victims of legal prostitution.” A Connecticut newspaper warned that electing Jefferson would create a nation where “murder, robbery, rape, adultery and incest will openly be taught and practiced.”
Jefferson, for his part, found James Callender, an influential journalist of the day, a useful tool. Callender specialized in incendiary pamphleteering. Pulling out all the stops on his media organ, Callender, a satirist born in Scotland, wrote that Adams was a “rageful, lying, warmongering fellow,” a “repulsive pedant” and “gross hypocrite” who “behaved neither like a man nor like a woman but instead possessed a hideous hermaphroditical character.” Callender had a private beef with Adams. He had been prosecuted and imprisoned by the Adams administration for violating the execrable Alien and Sedition Acts and was receiving payments for his seemingly objective journalism from Jefferson. To his credit, Callender later turned on Jefferson, authoring a series of newspaper articles alleging that Jefferson had sired children with Sally Hemings, one of his slaves.
Stumbling out of a bar in 1803, Callender drowned in the James River; so it was reported. However, there were doubters. Federalists suspected skullduggery since Callender was due to testify in a much publicized trial, The People vs. Croswell, involving charges against publisher Harry Croswell for having reprinted claims that Jefferson paid Callender to defame George Washington.
Two morals may be drawn from all this reportorial perfidy: 1) If you are a seasoned politician and want a good press, you should buy a sympathetic reporter; 2) If you are a bought reporter, stay bought, and avoid bars and rivers.
American campaigning and American political journalism were born in the same crib. In the good old days, newspapers were little more than party organs. Honest Abe Lincoln wrote editorials for a sympathetic paper under a pseudonym. The notion that the press is and ought to be non-partisan and objective is a modern aspiration, sometimes attained, sometimes not.
Attkisson sees transactional journalism as a noxious practice, fatal to honest journalism. The coin of the realm in transactional journalism is not money, but favorable news in return for access, which is corrupting on both ends; the reporter becomes a conveyance of partisan news, and the politician’s messaging is dishonestly sold as objective reporting. In biblical terms, the bought reporter sells his birthright of honest journalism for a mess of political pottage.
Attkisson’s book The Smear offers some timely advice followed by a warning: “One smear artist I interviewed said nearly every image you run across in daily life, whether it’s on the news, a comedian’s joke, a meme on social media or a comment on the Internet, was put there for a reason. It’s like scenes in a movie, he said. Nothing happens by accident. Sometimes people have paid a great deal of money to put those images before you. What you need to ask yourself isn’t so much ‘is it true,’ but ‘who wants me to believe it and why?’”
She warns that the firewall between political reporting and propaganda may easily be breached: “We are not keeping an adequate firewall, giving the very people access to the newsroom who are trying to sway our opinion and shape news coverage. I am often not sure what these pundits on both sides add, besides propaganda talking points. This is part of what I call the soft ‘infiltration’ of the news media. We haven’t done a good job at staying at arm’s length from the interests that seek to use us as tools.”