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Navarrette: When reporters are 'combatants,' they stop being journalists

April 1, 2017 at 10:43 p.m.


I never thought I'd say this, but Mark Halperin is right.In 2015, I wrote a column criticizing him for a series of questions he posed to Ted Cruz that I considered racist. Exhibiting both bad journalism and bad manners, Halperin — who was then co-hosting an online interview show — seemed eager to determine if the Republican senator was a real Cuban-American as opposed to one of those cheap knock-offs you find at the Miami airport. As I wrote, Halperin did everything but ask Cruz to "play the conga drums like Desi Arnaz while dancing salsa and sipping cafe con leche."

But apparently even a clueless journalist can find a kernel of wisdom now and then. And recently, Halperin — who is now a senior political analyst for NBC — redeemed himself by offering, in an interview with The Hill, an insightful comment about where journalists are going wrong in covering President Trump.

Halperin had his epiphany while he was on the defensive. Some of his colleagues worry he is too cozy with Trump.

That could have something to do with the fact the journalist was recently invited to dine privately at the White House with the president. Or the fact Trump is letting senior advisers speak with Halperin, and his "Game Change" co-author John Heilemann, for a book about the 2016 campaign.

Halperin's critics include reporters, anchors and columnists who, during the presidential campaign, were cozy with Team Hillary. These media types did everything from attending an off-the-record dinner at the home of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta to submitting their stories to Clinton officials before publication to soliciting anti-Trump material from the Democratic National Committee.

And yet, the left-wing media remains suspicious of anyone who they believe to be in the tank for Republicans. Which is ironic given that so much of the media — especially if based in New York or Washington — has long snuggled up next to Democrats.

A few years ago when I was writing for CNN.com, I was grilled over lunch by my editor. He wanted to know the exact nature of my friendship with Cruz, who was at the time getting a lot of attention leading up to his presidential campaign. The editor wanted to be sure that, even as an opinion writer, I could be fair in covering my friend.

That's fine. But my editor knew I was also close to a couple of rising stars in the Democratic Party — then-Housing Secretary Julian Castro and Rep. Joaquin Castro. He didn't ask about them. I guess journalists are allowed to be friends with Democrats.

It's no wonder the media is in crisis. Even amid soaring ad revenue at anti-Trump outlets such as CNN, MSNBC and The New York Times, most Americans think the media is the last place you should go if you want the unbiased truth about what's going on in the world and what it means to you.

In February, Gallup found the trust Americans have in the media to "report news fully, accurately and fairly" is at its lowest level in the history of the survey. Only 32 percent have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. Meanwhile, a recent Monmouth University poll found that a majority of Americans believe that all the major news outlets — including ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN and Fox News — dabble in "fake news."

In fact, contempt for the Fourth Estate has united the political parties. Republicans are upset at the media for trying to destroy Trump while Democrats are furious at them for helping elect him by torpedoing his GOP primary opponents.

Still, that's not what Halperin was talking about. He has zeroed in on something bigger, and ultimately more dangerous: the changing role of the media. He told The Hill that reporters "should not be combatants trying to beat the people we're covering." Since Trump became president, he said, "Too many people in the media have decided that we're going to be warriors in some kind of hostile confrontation with the people we cover."

This is spot on. Too many journalists are in the arena, protecting their employers' brands and going mano a mano with Trump. This means they're combatants and that they've stopped being journalists.

Halperin figured that out and blew the whistle. Many of his colleagues will hate him for it. But the rest of us should thank him.

— Ruben Navarrette is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.

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