Long before Donald Trump ran for president, an inside-journalism battle was raging over the ideas of objectivity and balance.
It went like this: Should reporters and editors strive for a kind of neutral evenhandedness, long considered the hallmark of responsible journalism?
Or should they declare their biases up front and let news consumers know where they are coming from, an approach seen by some as more useful and honest?
With Trump dominating politics and media, a third — more important — question arises.
Are journalists going to embrace or abandon their primary job, which is truth-telling?
If they are going to do that job, they must embrace direct language and clear framing of important issues.
Early in Trump’s presidency, the question of whether to use the word “lie” arose.
Most mainstream news organizations were wary about it. Some 10,000 false or misleading presidential statements later, many now use it when appropriate — that is, when there is a clear intention to mislead. Which is quite often.
Now the question is the word “racist.”
Were Trump’s tweets portraying Democratic legislators of color as foreigners merely “racially tinged”? Were they just sprinkled with racially tinted pixie dust?
And should descriptions of what Trump stands for be put only in the mouths of his critics — a step removed from the journalists themselves?
Or should stronger language and sharper focus be used?
It depends on only one thing: whether journalists want to be clear about saying what’s right there in front of everyone’s eyes and ears.
Not all of this comes down to a single word. Consider, for example, Peter Baker’s analytical story that went online Sunday.
No polemicist, the New York Times’s chief White House correspondent nonetheless was remarkably direct.
High up in his article, he wrote: “When it comes to race, Mr. Trump plays with fire like no other president in a century.” No other modern president, he wrote, “fanned the flames as overtly, relentlessly and even eagerly as Mr. Trump.”
It was hard to miss the point.
It was even harder to miss the point in a Los Angeles Times editorial (representing the views of the paper’s editorial board), the headline of which was “Trump is Truly America’s Bigot-in-Chief” and which used words such as “repugnant” and “disgusting” to describe the president’s statements.
Or in CNN’s use of “racist rant” in its headlines and on-screen banners.
Others didn’t go there.
In general, the network news shows, with their efforts to appeal to everyone, regardless of political affiliation, like to be particularly careful not to offend.
So they used what CNN’s Brian Stelter accurately called, in his media newsletter, a “crutch” — for example, on NBC, Kate Snow noted that “many were decrying [the tweet] as racist.”
In a New York Times news story (not an analysis like Baker’s), reporters wore kid gloves in describing Trump’s urging the lawmakers to go back to their countries of origin:
“Wrapped inside that insult, which was widely established as a racist trope, was a factually inaccurate claim: Only one of the lawmakers was born outside the country.” Earlier, even less direct language had it that “Democrats slammed” Trump’s words as a racist trope; editing changed that for the better.
The Washington Post used language similar to that second (improved) version in some of its news coverage. A Monday article about Republican silence on Trump’s attacks used this description: “Insinuating that people of color are foreigners, the president used a trope broadly viewed as racist.”
It makes good sense for media organizations to be careful and noninflammatory in their news coverage. That kind of caution continues to be a virtue.
But a crucial part of being careful is being accurate, clear and direct. When confronted with racism and lying, we can’t run and hide in the name of neutrality and impartiality. To do that is a dereliction of duty.
Former New York Times reporter and columnist Clyde Haberman, in a Sunday tweet, put it simply and well, describing his own transition:
“Despite decades of evidence that Trump is a racist, I’ve resisted calling him one because it’s polarizing language that’s rarely helpful. But his go-back-where-you-came-from harangue tears it for me. He’s a bigot, and if GOPers don’t call him out, they’re complicit.”
That goes for the news media, too.
Journalists don’t need to see themselves as political advocates when they say obvious things in plain terms. And doing so doesn’t make them Democratic operatives as their pro-Trump critics are sure to charge.
It just means they are doing the most fundamental job they have: telling the truth as plainly and directly as possible.
For more by Margaret Sullivan visit wapo.st/sullivan.