Because journalism worth its salt is in short supply, and because everybody loves a listicle, here’s one that rates the journalistic chops of some of the best and worst news and opinion writers. It’s not scientific but it’s fun to do, and the worst have it coming to them.
Victor Davis Hanson (American Greatness). It says a lot that the best and most powerful journalist in America today writes mostly for conservative and relatively small-circulation journals like American Greatness. A classicist, farmer, and university professor, Hanson has for several years been laying waste to the media-academic complex, home to much of the country’s most tiresome people. For this reason alone, he will never win a mainstream journalism award.
Mollie Hemingway (The Federalist). The second-best journalist in the country, Mollie Hemingway also writes primarily for small journals, though her greater claim to fame may come her way through book publishing. “Justice on Trial,” the deeply disturbing best-seller she co-authored with Carrie Severino about the Kavanaugh confirmation, is the best non-fiction book published in 2019. If you lived through the confirmation hearings without acquiring a deep contempt for the Democratic members of the Senate, for reporters, and for witnesses like Christine Blasey Ford, read this book and see if you still feel that way.
Michael Goodwin (New York Post). A former New York Times reporter, Michael Goodwin displays all the best sensibilities about Trump and the media. He is shocked and appalled by the complete suspension of objectivity in what were formerly thought of as elite media, but he is no enemy of the press. He understands the importance of the media in its historic role as a check on government, and yearns for a return to better journalism. To quote from a column Goodwin wrote in December: “My view is that top (NYT) editor Dean Baquet made a disastrous mistake by eliminating the traditional standards of fairness and impartiality in a bid to stop Trump and upend his presidency.”
John Kass (Chicago Tribune). Writing from the most corrupt big city in the United States, John Kass employs biting sarcasm and artful wit to great effect in all his columns, especially those about Chicago. His coverage of the Jussie Smollett travesty provides a good example. Referring to the dismissal of the charges against Smollett by disgraced Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, Kass wrote: “Kim Foxx’s office didn’t merely drop all the charges against Smollett…her office wiped him clean. His record was expunged. The stain of the 16 counts in the indictment was scrubbed right off him…You might say Foxx bathed him in the waters of the Chicago Way, cleansed him, and made a new man out of him.”
Matt Taibbi (Rolling Stone). It is the rare liberal journalist who will criticize the MSM. Conservative reporters do it frequently, of course, but liberals almost never rise to that challenge. Enter Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone, whose criticism of media coverage of the Trump/Russia canard rates among the best, if not the very best, whatever the politics of the reporter. Taibbi’s terrific piece titled “It’s Official: Russiagate is this Generation’s WMD,” begins with this explosive sentence: “Nobody wants to hear this, but news that Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller is headed home without issuing new charges is a death-blow for the reputation of the American news media.”
Juan Williams (Fox). In 2010, Juan Williams was fired from NPR for nuanced comments he made about Muslims on a Bill O’Reilly program. The CEO of NPR at the time, Vivian Schiller, relieved herself of the following dainty explanation for his firing, “Williams should have kept his feelings about Muslims between himself and his psychiatrist or publicist.” In consequence of NPR’s hypocrisy, a number of people, including yours truly, rallied to Williams’ side, a group that included FOX News, which offered him a contract. Given this background, it is jarring to see what he has become since Trump’s election as he pens pieces like his 2019 column in The Hill, titled “Why does Trump fear GOP Voters?” (Answer: He doesn’t.) Or his article, published in December, “Pelosi is my politician of the year.”
Frank Bruni (New York Times). A former restaurant critic at the Times, and before that a movie critic for the Detroit Free Press, Bruni parlayed those gigs into his current job as a Times Op-ed columnist. This platform has allowed him to display his many shortcomings, including his juvenile sense of right and wrong, as in his piece titled “Senate Republicans are bathed in shame.” Quoth the man: “The majority of the party’s senators have said outright or clearly signaled that they have no intention of finding the president guilty and removing him from office. Yapping lap dogs like Lindsey Graham and obedient manservants like Mitch McConnell have gone further, mocking the whole impeachment process.” Bruni’s first cookbook was titled “A Meatloaf in Every Oven.” Better a meatloaf in the oven than in the New York Times.
E.J. Dionne (Washington Post). If E.J. Dionne had been employed not by the Post, but by the Democratic National Committee, none of the pieces he has written for years would read even a little bit differently. The gentleman practices partisan flackery without surcease or distinction. Check out the headlines on several of his latest columns and see if you can find a pattern there: “Hey Republicans, demagoguery won’t hide Trump’s incoherence;” “Democrats understand moderation. Republicans don’t;” “Impeachment and the lost art of persuasion /Pelosi knows that opinion about impeachment is still fluid. It’s why she chose to answer partisanship with prayerfulness.” This last bit, suggesting Pelosi’s piety overwhelms her partisanship, is quite possibly the single most ludicrous thing Dionne, or anyone, has ever written.
Don Lemon (CNN). At a network that features not a single distinguished reporter or commentator, but lots of propagandists, Don Lemon fits right in. Though he sports perhaps the thinnest journalistic credentials of any network anchor, Lemon knows exactly how to push the levers, in an age of political correctness, available for self-aggrandizement. So it is that he has called Trump a racist, even as he has declared, without evincing a hint of irony, that “the biggest terror threat in this country is white men.” On other occasions he whines about criticism he receives, often blaming it on his race or homosexuality, and he laments the arduousness of his life (except when he is at his $3.1 million home in Sag Harbor). “One doesn’t have to be in a war zone,” he says, “to have post-traumatic stress from this particular administration.”
Dana Milbank (Washington Post). There must be some reason Dana Milbank has been allowed to write for the Washington Post for lo these many years, but nobody has yet been able to figure it out. It’s certainly not because of his trenchant political insights or his way with words. Indeed, much of the stuff he writes reads like Zen koans for liberals, never really saying much of anything that anybody cares about. The very titles of some of his columns demonstrate the problem: “This has to be one of the most successful failures in modern political history;” “As Trump is impeached, Trumpism prevails;” “Impeachment is rare. Republicans’ histrionics are historic.” It would be in keeping with his journalistic style if Milbank’s grave marker carries an inscription like “Here lies Dana Milbank, so far as you know.”
Paul Krugman (New York Times). If pomposity were diamonds, Paul Krugman would be the shiniest person in journalism. Ever since the Nobel Committee gave him an economics award (just one year before they preposterously gave the Peace Prize to Obama), Krugman has written one imperious piece after another. Days after Trump’s election, for instance, he forecast ruin for the nation’s economy, and he has become an over-the-top climate change alarmist. But Krugman is mostly notable for the hatred he displays for everyone who disagrees with him. In his review of Krugman’s 2007 book, “Conscience of a Liberal,” economist David Kennedy wrote “Like the rants of Rush Limbaugh or the films of Michael Moore, Krugman’s shrill polemic may hearten the faithful, but it will do little to persuade the unconvinced.” And as evidence that the beat goes on, just this month Sebastian Mallaby wrote in the Atlantic that Krugman is a prime example of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Brian Stelter (CNN). Which is funnier, that Brian Stelter has his own show on CNN, or that the show is called Reliable Sources? Stelter brings to TV the uncommon attributes of personal unattractiveness, 100-proof pugnacity, and a complete unawareness of why gibberish is to be avoided. Examples abound of his journalistic shortcomings, but because of space restrictions I offer just this one, my personal favorite. Michael Avenatti, the former lawyer for stripper Stormy Daniels and would-be Trump conqueror, appeared on CNN over 100 times during his salad days. And his greatest admirer there was Stelter who, during one memorable interview, said: “And looking forward to 2020, one reason I’m taking you seriously as a contender is because of your presence on cable news.”
Chuck Todd (NBC/MSNBC). You have to hand it to Chuck Todd. Alone among the crackpots at MSNBC, he appears to have successfully brainwashed himself into actually believing the claptrap he spouts. So it is that, eighteen months ago, he wrote a piece for the Atlantic titled “It’s Time for the Press to Stop Complaining—And to Start Fighting Back.” The thrust of that opus is that the mainstream media always try to be fair and accurate, and to correct errors, but that because of FOX News and the late Roger Ailes, they need to adopt a more aggressive strategy in confronting their critics. Earth to Chuck: Time to come home now.
Chris Cuomo (CNN). One might think that the son of a distinguished former governor like Mario Cuomo, a Yale graduate with a law degree from Fordham, and a long and well-traveled history as a TV reporter, would be one suave dude. But in Chris Cuomo’s case, one would be wrong. Cuomo is the opposite of suave; he’s an oaf, and not a very smart one at that. Among the tells: He has astonishingly averred that hate speech isn’t protected by the First Amendment; and exploded in profane and bully-boy rage when a guy referred to him as Fredo. One clue to his greatest fondness may be the many online videos of him working out, leading to an admiring New York Times story headlined “How Chris Cuomo Looks Buff Without Bodybuilding.”
Jane Mayer (New Yorker). Like her colleagues at the New Yorker, Jane Mayer practices left wing tendentiousness at every opportunity. Take, for instance, the role she and Ronan Farrow played in the Kavanaugh hearings when they introduced to the nation one Deborah Ramirez who, after 6 days of concentrated recollecting (and the hiring of a lawyer) said that she thought, but couldn’t be absolutely certain, that it was Kavanaugh who, years earlier, had waved his penis in her face at a party. Neither the New Yorker, nor any other news organization, could find anyone who could provide first-hand corroboration of the claim, and it raised, and raises still, the obvious question: If the alleged incident actually happened and was as traumatic as Ramirez contends, wouldn’t you think she could recall with certainty whose penis it was?
Patrick Maines is President Emeritus of The Media Institute, one of the country’s leading First Amendment think tanks.