I have a new essay out today at DAME Magazine called “Opinion Journalism Is Broken.”
It probably doesn’t come as much of a surprise that a significant segment of U.S. news consumers can’t tell the difference between what constitutes “news” and “opinion”—but it’s not entirely their fault. Between news outlets struggling to accurately and consistently label opinion content as “opinion,” the challenges and limits that come with a disaggregated phone-first consumption model, and a general lack of media literacy around what constitutes a factual statement compared to a statement of opinion, there’s plenty of blame to go around.
We live in a confusing world where fact and fiction blend together, and what should be sources of clarity—i.e. newspapers— may actually be functioning as sources of confusion, making them ripe for bad actors looking to exploit the aforementioned vulnerabilities in the system to push dubious information in service of a political agenda. This is, quite obviously, a problem on its own. If the goal of newspapers is to inform the public, yet they publish materials that mislead it, aren’t they undermining themselves?
For instance, on August 12, 2020, Newsweek published an opinion piece by attorney John Eastman titled, “Some Questions for Kamala Harris About Eligibility.” In it, Eastman, who has since become synonymous with former President Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the 2020 election, argued that Vice-President Kamala Harris may not meet the requirements for office as laid out by the U.S. Constitution, and therefore be ineligible to run for president or vice-president. Eastman’s piece claimed that despite being born in Oakland, California, Harris was not a “natural-born” citizen because neither of her parents was a U.S. citizen at the time of her birth.
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This claim, quite obviously, was nonsense. Just a day before Newsweek published Eastman’s opinion, FactCheck.org had debunked the take, which at the time existed primarily as fringe, racist Facebook memes and a blog post at the right-wing American Thinker website designed to subject her to the same sort of “birther” arguments that Trump used against former President Barack Obama for years. The purpose of Eastman’s opinion piece wasn’t to make a serious argument about whether Harris was eligible to run for vice-president, but rather, to spread the rumor and give the smear a sheen of credibility by being published in a once-reputable news outlet.
Tom Fitton, of the right-wing group Judicial Watch, tweeted Eastman’s article the following day, writing, “Is Kamala Harris ineligible to be Vice President under the U.S. Constitution’s ‘Citizenship Clause’?” Soon after, Trump campaign advisor Jenna Ellis retweeted Fitton’s post. When ABC News’ Will Steakin asked Ellis for comment, she called Harris’s eligibility “an open question.”
Once again, she was born in Oakland.
Within days, right-wing media outlets were piggybacking on whatever remnants of credibility Newsweek had left, with The Daily Wire’s Michael Knowles spreading the claim on his show and favorably referencing Eastman’s article. Meanwhile, local and mainstream national media outlets were put in the position of having to devote time and energy to debunking the claim, leaving behind a trail of more than 1.2 million Google search results for the words “Kamala,” “Harris,” and “eligibility.” All that because a once-reputable media outlet that has since been turned into a place for right-wing extremists to air their views.
For another example, look no further than The New York Times. In 2017, the Times hired Bret Stephens away from the Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal to “bring a new perspective to bear on the news.” In his debut column, Stephens argued that the science was not “settled” when it came to climate change. His evidence? Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was pretty confident, too, and look how that turned out. For real, that’s his argument. Now, of course, Stephens framed his argument…
Continue reading this essay at Dame Magazine.