The mainstream media are developing new rules to cover Donald Trump. (More)
“Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?”
That is the question Jim Rutenberg explores in a must-read essay on the media coverage of Donald Trump:
If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?
Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.
But the question that everyone is grappling with is: Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?
Rutenberg tries to cling to neutrality by highlighting the FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails, but even in doing so he all-but concedes there was no ‘there’ there. He then turns to Trump:
Because Mr. Trump is conducting his campaign in ways we’ve not normally seen.
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.
While there are several examples of conservative media criticism of Mr. Trump this year, the candidate and his supporters are reprising longstanding accusations of liberal bias. “The media is trying to take Donald Trump out,” Rush Limbaugh declared last week.
A lot of core Trump supporters certainly view it that way. That will only serve to worsen their already dim view of the news media, which initially failed to recognize the power of their grievances, and therefore failed to recognize the seriousness of Mr. Trump’s candidacy.
It may not always seem fair to Mr. Trump or his supporters. But journalism shouldn’t measure itself against any one campaign’s definition of fairness. 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. To do anything less would be untenable.
He’s hardly alone in that conclusion.
CNN’s Brian Stelter offered an essay, pushing back against Trump’s thinly-veiled claim that the election will be illegitimate unless Trump wins:
Essay: Trump is sowing doubt about the legitimacy of the election. It's dangerous. Press has a duty to challenge him https://t.co/V6CCyZIfdF
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) August 7, 2016
That isn’t “neutral,” in the sense that it doesn’t treat the Clinton and Trump campaigns equally. But the media have finally awakened to the notion of “false equivalence.”
“A Murrow moment”
The Columbia Journalism Review’s David Mindich calls this “a Murrow moment,” and explains why the media can’t treat Trump like a normal candidate:
The American journalistic goals of detachment and objectivity are long held. Until the mid-19th century, most newspapers were directly funded by political parties. As that started to change and the commercial model began to emerge, newspapers started to shed their partisan baggage. For much of the last 150 years the trade-off was a good one: Journalists would avoid taking sides, and they would be given access to newsmakers – and news consumers – from both parties.
Playing it straight can still be effective. Trump mocked a disabled New York Times reporter, revoked the credentials of The Washington Post, and insulted Megyn Kelly – responding, in each case, to straight reporting of facts. But facts alone may be a poor weapon against a campaign that rarely admits errors, choosing instead to double down on dubious claims.
So why the change in coverage?
To answer that, Mindich cites Daniel Hallen’s three spheres of political dialogue. There is a Consensus Sphere, issues on which almost all of us agree, such as the legitimacy of our constitutional system. There is a Legitimate Controversy Sphere which includes common political debates, such as tax rates, specifics of the social safety net, trade policy, etc. And then there is a Deviance Sphere: opinions so far outside the mainstream we simply don’t accept them … such as claiming a federal judge can’t be impartial because his parents were Mexican immigrants, or hinting that a U.S. Army captain killed in Iraq was probably a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist who just hadn’t been able to strike Americans yet.
And Trump’s views appear increasingly deviant. No respected journalist would seek a balancing quote from someone who held such a view about a judge or who suggested, as Trump did last month after the Orlando shootings, that a sitting president was in cahoots with a mass murderer.
Murrow felt compelled to end his broadcast by warning his audience about the dangers of staying neutral, as journalists too often do, when the stakes are high: “Cassius was right,” said Murrow. “‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’” If a politician’s rhetoric is dangerous, Murrow implied, all of us, including journalists, are complicit if we don’t stand up and oppose it.
The media have recognized that Trump’s rhetoric is not merely strewn with lies, but with corrosive conspiracy theories, racist and sexist taunts, promises to use government to silence his critics, threats to treat NATO like a mob protection racket, requests for foreign intelligence agencies to hack his opponent’s email, and open appeals for supporters to use physical violence.
That is indeed dangerous. The media were slow to respond, partly out of habit and partly because Trump was good for ratings. But now they’ve recognized they have a civic duty … even if wingnuts call that “biased.”
Photo Credit: Justin Sullivan (Getty Images)
Good day and good nuts