Kavanaugh and the fallacy of cause and effect

October 8, 2018

Journalists are idealists. We get into this business because we want to right wrongs, call out bad guys, and help underdogs. Yet these days, so much of what we do is either ignored by a public who no longer reads us or dismissed by a political class intent on casting us as partisans. If journalism doesn’t seem to have much immediate impact, is it still effective? Does journalism have to have an effect to matter?

It certainly doesn’t help morale, or our own sense of justice, when it doesn’t, as was the case in coverage of Brett Kavanaugh, who has been sworn in to serve on the Supreme Court. He was approved by the Senate, defended by President Trump, and embraced by supporters, despite an extraordinary push by journalists—at The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Yorker, and elsewhere—to prove that Kavanaugh was, at worst, a sexual predator and, at least, a liar with a drinking problem.

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The journalistic output was clearly important, giving voice to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and other assault survivors while forcing the (old, white, male) Republican leadership in Washington to reckon with a #MeToo case that they could not wave away. But if the goal of reporters was to persuade the majority party and their constituents to doubt Kavanaugh’s credibility and his qualifications as a justice, they failed. The evidence of that is in the vote, along predictable party lines, and held on the anniversary of the Times’ epic story unmasking Harvey Weinstein as a serial abuser.

Trump has moved brilliantly to stoke our most existential fears—that we don’t matter or aren’t believed or are declining in audience, resources, reach, whatever. (It is a fear that is reinforced every time another local newsroom closes its doors or another one of our colleagues loses his or her job.) Last week, in addition to Trump’s dismissal of the Kavanaugh reporting, he stayed on message when it came the Times report on the finances of his family business. I praised that piece—seismic, irrefutable, and exhaustive proof that the Trump empire was built on fraud—and soon after it was published, a number of local and state authorities in New York (all, by the way, led by Democratic elected officials) announced investigations of the schemes described. But Trump called it “old, boring and often told” and Sarah Sanders, his press secretary, said the story was “a totally false attack.”

Having careful work rebuffed this way is exasperating—and it compounds a frustration we feel every time a story that we think is important is ignored or ridiculed, while so many others—including intentionally false stories from party hacks or Russian trolls—garner a more meaningful response. On Monday, Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of The Guardian, vented via a long Twitter thread about a press obsession in the United Kingdom with a scandal involving a pair of reality-TV stars—all while, editors ignored a terrifying new United Nations report about the rapid acceleration of the global climate-change threat. “Editors will argue that climate change doesn’t sell newspapers. Which may or may not be true,” he wrote. “This argument says: ‘Our business model doesn’t allow us to do journalism in the public interest.’ If so, then we urgently need to reinvigorate the conversation about how to sustain journalism that does contribute to the public interest.” If we think about our work on a social-media time frame, or in terms of cause and effect of the kind favored by corporate shareholders, then we’re going to end weeks like the last one profoundly disappointed.

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Given the political and media climate, I fear it’s going to be increasingly difficult to see immediate, conclusive impact from the stories we do. For every Harvey Weinstein or Eric Schneiderman or Elizabeth Holmes investigation, there are dozens—even hundreds—of others that don’t receive the responses they deserve. More often than not, investigative stories that merit direct, substantial reaction from officials—or at least a wave of readers—will instead be either ignored or, as was the case with Kavanaugh, met with public relations hedging and little sincere attempt to reckon with journalists’ findings.

Here’s the bottom line: We do these stories because we believe in something even bigger than what will become of them. We do them because we are convinced that they are important, that our readers deserve to know them, that they get us a tiny bit closer to some kind of truth. We do them because they’re the right thing to do. The results of our work are completely out of our control; justice, even karma, sometimes moves fast, but more often moves slow and sometimes not at all.

This is what journalism as a public service is about, and all of us—reporters and editors, as well as investors, publishers, funders, and shareholders—need to understand that this is the business we’re in. Adjust your expectations for returns accordingly.

With an informed citizenry as a measure, then, last week doesn’t look as bad as you might think.

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Kyle Pope is the editor in chief and publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.