Bill O’Reilly and Jorge Ramos call each other “amigo,” but they have very different ideas about how to cover Donald Trump.
Perhaps that's no surprise, but what’s odd is that their approaches seem reversed — journalistically speaking. Ramos, Univision’s top anchor, thinks journalists shouldn’t shy away from calling the Republican presidential front-runner racist; O’Reilly, a Fox News Channel commentator, thinks such labeling amounts to an unfair injection of opinion. Go figure.
The veteran newsmen renewed this debate — one they’ve had before — on Wednesday’s edition of “The O’Reilly Factor,” and the Fox host opened Thursday’s program with what might be a perfect summary: “It is becoming clear that many — perhaps most — in the media believe that journalists are not acting responsibly unless they are condemning Trump — labeling the man a bigot or worse.”
Indeed, Ramos leads a real push by some in the news media to state — as an objective fact — that the billionaire real estate mogul is a demagogue. Many Huffington Post articles about Trump include an editor’s note that identifies him as a “serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully.” BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith wrote in a December memo to staff that “it is, for instance, entirely fair to call him a mendacious racist, as the politics team and others here have reported clearly and aggressively. He’s out there saying things that are false and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign. BuzzFeed News’ reporting is rooted in facts, not opinion; these are facts.”
Here’s how Ramos justified this kind of approach in his discussion with O’Reilly:
RAMOS: I think we are really tough on Donald Trump, because what he is saying — we cannot allow racism and discrimination to be normal.
O'REILLY: But that’s a subjective thing.
RAMOS: No, it isn't.
RAMOS: I think as a journalist you have to take a stand when it comes to racism.
O'REILLY: How can you cover him, Jorge?
RAMOS: Corruption, public life, dictatorship and human rights. If you don’t take a stand in those instances, then what’s honorable as journalist?
The answer, according to other journalists, is neutrality — that’s honorable, too. On Monday, two days before the O’Reilly-Ramos exchange, NPR’s David Greene questioned the propriety of Cokie Roberts’s decision to come out strongly against Trump in a newspaper column.
“Objectivity is so fundamental to what we do,” the “Morning Edition” host said in an interview with Roberts. “Can you blame people like me for being a little disappointed to hear you come out and take a personal position on something like this in a campaign?”
So which is it? Take a stand or remain neutral?
A better question might be this: Why are we acting as if all Trump coverage should do one or the other?
The genius of Trump — the “evil genius,” some would say — is his mastery of innuendo. He often communicates something that’s widely considered beyond the pale without stating explicitly that he supports it. Take his suggestion on Wednesday that “you’d have riots” if he were not nominated at a contested Republican convention, for example: It sure sounded like a veiled threat, but he didn’t come right out and say, “I will incite a riot if I’m not the nominee.”
We need journalists who will remove the veil and call Trump’s words what they appear to be. But we also need journalists who refuse to color quotes with their own interpretations, for fear of setting a bad precedent.
In other words, we need a range of coverage styles from Ramos, O’Reilly, the Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, Greene, Roberts and more. And we shouldn’t pretend there’s only one right way to report on Trump.