Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times is the latest journalist to address the issue of “objectivity” in covering Donald Trump:
No living journalist has ever seen a major party nominee put financial conditions on the United States defense of NATO allies, openly fight with the family of a fallen American soldier, or entice Russia to meddle in a United States presidential election by hacking his opponent (a joke, Mr. Trump later said, that the news media failed to get). And while coded appeals to racism or nationalism aren’t new — two words: Southern strategy — overt calls to temporarily bar Muslims from entry to the United States or questioning a federal judge’s impartiality based on his Mexican heritage are new.
In other words, we have not seen a major-party nominee this determined to lie, this personally erratic or this lacking in self-control. A he said/she said account of the race therefore is misleading, as respected journalists attest:
“When controversy is being stoked, it’s our obligation to report that,” said the Washington Post managing editor Cameron Barr. “If one candidate is doing that more aggressively and consistently than the other, that is an imbalance for sure.” But, he added, “it’s not one that we create, it’s one that the candidate is creating.”
Refusing to acknowledge the much higher rate of falsities coming from Trump — artificially keeping his lying on par with Clinton’s misstatements — is as Rutenberg says, “an abdication of political journalism’s most solemn duty: to ferret out what the candidates will be like in the most powerful office in the world. . . . It is journalism’s job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment.”
There has been both on the right and left massive confusion about the demands of “objectivity.” False balance (Vladimir Putin says Russia is not in Ukraine; the administration says it is not) cannot substitute for presentation of ascertainable fact. (Vladimir Putin falsely claims Russia is not in Ukraine; the administration has identified Russian forces ...) Ironically, conservatives used to be critics of post-modernism, arguing that there are knowable, objective facts. It seems to have escaped notice, however, that this standard is as applicable to politics as it is to other endeavors.
The first rule for coverage of the campaign must be to do no harm — not to add to confusion or misunderstanding, nor to encourage others to do so. Breitbart, which takes Trump’s spin and falsities as truth or actively creates jaw-dropping propaganda on behalf of Trump (e.g. using a photo of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ parade crowd in lieu of a real photo of a Trump rally), is not journalism at all. It’s an effort to mislead voters in service of a candidate. Likewise, Sean Hannity is not acting as a journalist, even a credible opinion maker, in interviews when he feeds Trump his own propaganda lines and then asks, “Isn’t that true?”
Second, while voters may conclude that whatever Hillary Clinton’s faults may be, Trump is worse, news reporters must nevertheless (and generally have, in our judgment) continue to call out Clinton’s inaccuracies (e.g. on the emails) and inconsistencies (e.g. on trade). Her economic plans, for example, may be less extravagant than Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), but they still must be scrutinized (e.g. does she pay for them, are they feasible, what obvious flaws are there). She may be saner on foreign policy, but she nevertheless should be pressed on particulars: How does she get tougher on the Islamic State with present levels of military spending? Would she have made the same Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and what faults does the current deal contain?
Third, it’s critical not to misrepresent the state of the race, even if it diminishes from the “excitement.” The notion that there are realistic “paths” for Trump to get to the White House — by winning states in which he has no chance — is not responsible or accurate political handicapping. All caveats about unexpected events apply, of course, but as of this moment it is fair to say there is no discernible path for Trump to win. The same is true, for example, for Johnson-Weld. Both should be acknowledged while continuing to cover both campaigns.
Finally, in 2008, as many journalists conceded after the fact, there was widespread media rooting for then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and a lack of interest in thorough vetting, at least vetting comparable to the kind of examination which examined every detail of Mitt Romney’s prep school years. There is no legitimate complaint of the same conduct in this general-election race. It is fair, however, that in search for ratings the same exacting, independent media vetting of Trump’s background came very late in the GOP primary process. Simply because the GOP competitors failed to do their job is no reason the media did not forge ahead much sooner. Needless to say, the media has undergone a course correction.
The conservative media was supposed to be a check on the excesses, biases and blind spots of the mainstream media. In some cases, however, the right-wing echo chamber has become far worse than the mainstream media it was intended to check. (Even on the pure opinion side, a dreamy wishful-thinking stance — If only he could get on message!— reveals a foolishness and intellectual honesty.)
The lessons of 2016 — respect for accuracy, refusal to cover up errors artificially to equalize mistakes, candor about the state of the race — should inform all media outlets. If not, they deserve ridicule and extinction.