Tropical Storm Harvey has by now flooded the Houston area with over four feet of rain, causing the deaths of more than 30 people, forcing more than 30,000 residents to flee their homes, and destroying property worth many tens of billions of dollars.
Given the biblical proportions of the deluge, one would think that journalists would be hard-pressed to choose among an over-abundance of gripping and newsworthy stories. The New York Times and the Washington Post, two pillars of the journalistic establishment, have both identified one such story: the height of Melania Trump’s heels.
I am not making this up; I couldn’t if I tried. Both newspapers, on the first pages of their respective websites, recently featured stories focusing on the height of the heels the first lady was wearing when she boarded a helicopter to take her and the president to Air Force One, which would then fly them from Washington to Texas.
“Melania Trump’s stilettos aren’t insensitive — but using shoes to sow discord is” https://t.co/hs5kMdFobz pic.twitter.com/wnzLCp3nXY
— The Hill (@thehill) August 31, 2017
When she exited the plane in Texas, Trump was wearing sneakers, but that fact apparently did not diminish the newsworthiness — at least in the minds of the reporters and editors of those two august newspapers — of the heels she had worn earlier that day.
We’ve encountered the phrase “fake news” quite often over the last year. There was, however, nothing fake about the stories that were published in the New York Times and the Washington Post: Trump was in fact wearing high heels. In that sense, the stories were genuine rather than fake.
So, perhaps we need a new phrase. I would suggest “stupid news,” meaning that, even if the story is factually accurate, you would have to be stupid to think it was worth reporting.
Just what is going on here? So-called mainstream news outlets are so determined to damage the image and reputation of the president and anyone associated with him that they will publish anything — literally anything — that, in the minds of their news and editorial leaders, might help to achieve that end.
Even the pretense of fairness or objectivity has been abandoned; if a story might possibly damage President Trump, it will be published. “All the news that’s fit to print, including the stupid news.”
Who exactly is the media serving with these stories? Whose interests are being served other than their own?
In 1981, when then-Pres. Ronald Reagan was wheeled into the operating room after being shot by John Hinckley, he said to the surgeons, “Please tell me you’re Republicans.”
It was light-hearted and humorous because the people he was addressing were all doctors, and everyone knows that doctors take an oath to do their utmost to heal every patient, regardless of their personal feelings toward the patient.
Melania Trump’s office: It’s sad that people are worried about her shoes during a natural disaster https://t.co/II7zVZeJtK pic.twitter.com/97GIKSQOTM
— The Hill (@thehill) August 30, 2017
In fact, those lines of work that we think of as “professions” typically require that practitioners must put the interests of the people they serve above their own interests.
Fledgling doctors and lawyers, at the beginning of their careers, pledge to put the interests of their patients and clients ahead of their own. Of course, those pledges are not always fulfilled as they should be, but professionals are subject to disciplinary measures when they transgress.
Journalists and journalistic institutions are supposed to serve the interests of the people who consume their stories. Journalists don’t take any oath, but their readers expect them to use their best judgment in choosing the stories they write and the content they include. The editorial and opinion pages, as we all know, are different beasts. The news stories, however, are supposed to reflect what a competent and (dare I say?) professional journalist has learned about an important issue of the day.
There were plenty of stories in the Times and the Washington Post that focused on important aspects of Harvey and also on other major news items. Not everything in those publications is “stupid news.” But some of the stories are just that.
Sometimes little things say a lot. Stories about Melania Trump’s heels, published in the middle of a catastrophic event of almost unimaginable proportions, reveal much more about the media than they do about Mrs. Trump or the Trump administration. They reveal with startling clarity that certain journalistic institutions are hell-bent on damaging the current administration in any way they possibly can.
And they reveal, in addition, that those institutions have abandoned the practice journalism as a profession; to them, journalism is just a job. They’re not committed to delivering high-quality stories to their readers, because that is what their readers expect and deserve. Rather, they’re committed to publishing anything that they think will damage the president and his administration, because they just don’t like this president.
David E. Weisberg is a longtime civil litigator and appellate lawyer, specializing in state and federal securities laws, antitrust laws, commodities laws and U.S. constitutional law. He has been published in the The Times of Israel and The Jerusalem Post. David’s scholarly work is published on the Social Science Research Network.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.