The American media is in crisis. But The Washington Post might be doing something to address a growing lack of faith in America’s fourth estate.
Trust in the media is at a “near record low,” according to an October 2022 Gallup poll. A mere seven percent of Americans have a “great deal” of trust and confidence in the media. Notably, the survey is “the first time that the percentage of Americans with no trust at all in the media is higher than the percentage with a great deal or a fair amount combined.”
Numerous media analysts and critics have offered a variety of explanations, ranging from the collapse of print media and its aftereffects, to the rise and culture of journalism schools. Arguably one contributing factor is the disappearance of key editorial positions — particularly when it comes to standards and ethics.
Having a standards desk is important. It provides newsrooms with accountability. And it offers a degree of uniformity and consistency in standards — no small task given the rise of reporters and columnists filing stories outside of a single building, with what is arguably less oversight.
Importantly, a standards desk also provides readers with the means to contact newspapers with both complaints and suggestions. Their existence provides access that is sorely needed. And it keeps journalists in touch with the public that they should strive to inform and serve.
Unfortunately, many newsrooms have cut, or even eliminated, their standards and ethics desks. For the larger newspapers — those who have, despite budget cuts, hired positions like “assignments editor for Instagram” or “social media coach” — this is particularly inexcusable.
The Washington Post is one of the largest and most influential newspapers in the world. And it has gone without a standards desk for years. Instead, the media conglomerate has maintained a part time reader’s representative. As I can personally attest in my numerous interactions with the Post, this arrangement has hardly been sufficient. More has been needed — as Gallup’s poll readily shows.
Recently announced changes, however, might offer some hope.
On Dec. 11, 2022, the Post announced the creation of a standards desk, to be helmed by Meghan Ashford-Grooms and Carrie Camillo. The former was deputy copy chief at Kaiser Health News. Camillo has been with the Post since 2002.
They are entering what is, no doubt, a challenging assignment at a challenging time — both for media in general and for the Washington Post itself, which recently announced major layoffs and the elimination of huge sections, including Outlook.
One longstanding area of concern for the newspaper — and one that Ashford-Grooms and Camillo should pay attention to — is the Post’s coverage of the Middle East and Israel.
Jamal Khashoggi was a Saudi Arabian dissident who “wrote” a column for the Post prior to his 2018 disappearance and murder in a Saudi consulate in Turkey. After his tragic death, Khashoggi was hailed as a martyr to journalism. Washington DC officials even named a street near the Saudi Embassy after him.
Yet, Khashoggi didn’t even write his own columns. The Washington Post admitted as much. Buried in a Dec. 22, 2018, article that appeared shortly before Christmas of that year, the Post revealed that “text messages between Khashoggi and an executive at Qatar Foundation International show that the executive, Maggie Mitchell Salem, at times shaped the columns he submitted to The Washington Post, proposing topics, drafting material and prodding him to take a harder line against the Saudi government.”
The newspaper also acknowledged that Khashoggi “appears to have relied on a researcher and translator affiliated with the organization.” Further, as the Security Studies Group, a Washington DC-based think tank, noted: “We heard from reliable sources familiar with the investigation [into his death] that documents showing wire transfers from Qatar were found in his apartment in Turkey,” but were “immediately put out of reach by Turkish security services, so they did not show the collusion between Khashoggi, Qatar, and Turkey prior his death.”
Suffice to say: this is scandalous. And it’s equally lamentable that the Washington Post has, in the intervening years, failed to offer any additional details or make any necessary changes. It raises the question of whether other countries or entities have used Post column space for influence operations, breaking promises to disclose any conflicting interests and assurances that they themselves authored their own articles — both of which are standard operating fare when submitting columns.
The newspaper’s coverage of Israel has long been replete with double standards, bias, and misleading omissions. Indeed, as the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) has documented, the newspaper perennially omits the numerous instances in which Israel and the United States have offered Palestinian leaders a state. For example, in more than a decade, the Post ran dozens of stories relating to a “two-state solution” — only to omit that one party, Palestinian leadership, responsible for rejecting that “solution.” Nor is this the only problem relating to the Post’s coverage of Israel.
The newspaper’s reports on the “peace process” habitually overlook the culture of antisemitic incitement that is manifested by Palestinian leaders, be they Fatah, which controls the US-backed Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), or Hamas, the US-designated terrorist group that controls the Gaza Strip.
Both Fatah and Hamas use their media and educational arms to indoctrinate antisemitism. And both offer incentives, financial and otherwise, to those who murder and maim Jews. Indeed, Fatah and Hamas-controlled territories, some of which are frequented by reporters, have streets, sports tournaments, and even educational centers, named after terrorists. But as CAMERA once noted in the Washington Examiner, the press — including The Washington Post — gives this short shift, though these actions violate the Oslo Accords, which remain the basis for the PA receiving considerable international aid and support.
Additionally, the Post has a long history of failing to offer personalized reporting on Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism. The newspaper has done splashy, multi-page stories on the lack of access to art in Gaza, but can’t be troubled to do any follow-up reporting on the trauma suffered every year by the numerous victims of Palestinian terrorism. In a similar vein, the Post often ignores internal Palestinian politics and developments. If the story can’t be connected to Israel, it just isn’t covered. This infantilizes Palestinians, depriving them of independent agency and responsibility — another theme in the Post’s coverage of the Israel-Islamist conflict. And on a related note, Iran’s ambitions in the theater — including its hopes of supplanting Fatah in favor of its proxy Hamas — is often glossed over.
These are longstanding trends in the Post’s coverage. And they’ve been amply documented by CAMERA. One hope is that when it comes to Israel and the Middle East, the Post’s new standards desk will work to provide readers with a more balanced and accurate picture of a region that hasn’t ever lacked for media attention, just responsible reporting.
(Note: A slightly different version of this article appeared as an Op-Ed in the Algemeiner on Jan. 26, 2023)