The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Neutral journalism model is straining under pressure from Donald Trump, tense times

Donald Trump gestures during a news conference near the U.S.- Mexico border outside Laredo, Tex., in July. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

There’s not an editor in the land who’s not agonizing over the issues that BuzzFeed top editor Ben Smith outlines in the memo to staff, as expressed in the tweet above. It’s “entirely fair,” writes Smith to his colleagues, to label Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a “mendacious racist,” given his record of slighting and offending all manner of minority groups and otherwise brandishing a jagged bigotry in service of ever-improving polling numbers.

No one at BuzzFeed, declares the memo, will get in “trouble” for stating these “facts” about Trump on Twitter or wherever. Do not, however, associate all Republicans or conservatives with Trump’s vile views in light of condemnations from those ranks, advises Smith.

There’s just too much documentation out there to quarrel with the conclusions in Smith’s memo. It’s a succinct and fair summation of the Trump record. For another expert case that Trump is a bigot and a racist, see The Post’s Dana Milbank, whose convincing case precedes Trump’s call for a “shutdown” on Muslim entry into the United States.

The challenge for BuzzFeed, though, isn’t so much whether “mendacious racist” is appropriate for Donald Trump; it’s whether this news organization will apply the same level of scrutiny and labeling to every other politician it covers. Though few other politicians can match Trump on racism these days, surely politicians on both sides of the ideological divide have racked up records of mendacity. Will BuzzFeed call them all mendacious? And just how much evidence must be marshaled?

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This isn’t an academic consideration for BuzzFeed. The organization’s standards manual started off with this declaration: “We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides.” The list was later amended to add “women’s rights.” As Gawker’s J.K. Trotter explained, BuzzFeed offered some not-so-convincing accounts of just what’s encompassed under “women’s rights.”

So, policies stink. They tend to limit — to give media critics an opening to engage in puerile gotcha moments. Think about the times that CNN and Fox News, among others, have declared policies not to name or show photos of the gunmen in mass shootings. Those policies tend to wither under duress.

Further evidence that the policies of neutral journalism are groaning under the weight of terrorism, killings and Trump: Last month, CNN suspended global affairs correspondent Elise Labott after she showed a preference for one side of a House bill regarding Syrian refugees. Jim Rich, top newsroom editor at the New York Daily News, piloted a front page that said, “God isn’t fixing this” and slammed certain Republicans as cowards. “We are stating the facts on this page one,” Rich told this blog. And the New York Times, in a once-in-a-century move, dropped an editorial regarding gun control on its front page.

Questioning the model of neutral journalism looks like a really good idea, in light of this paragraph from a recent Associated Press story on Trump’s latest racism spasm:

Trump’s campaign has been marked by a pattern of inflammatory statements, dating back to his harsh rhetoric about Mexican immigrants. He has taken a particularly hard line against Muslims in the days since the Paris attacks, advocating enhanced surveillance of mosques due to fears over radicalization.

“Inflammatory” means “arousing or intended to arouse angry or violent feelings.” That’s only part of Trump’s game; he arouses angry or violent feelings by targeting minority groups. AP’s formulation, accordingly, is inaccurate via omission.