A lot of deep thinkers about journalism have begun writing about a small journo-dilemma that I’ve been thinking about for weeks now, so I’ll just piggy back on, for example, this one by the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg who writes under the clever label of “mediator” to write about what he calls “our shifting media landscape.”
The question is what to do about the old norms of balance and fairness in the age of Trump. If you want to write about all the important untruths coming out of the candidates’ mouths, and one of them is responsible for 10 times more untrue statements, how do you proceed without looking like you are picking on one side?
The dilemma is compounded when the candidate who issues the majority of the lies and/or offensive statements is the Republican nominee, because the “mainstream media” has long stood accused of being biased in favor of the “liberal” side, which, in mindless duopolistic terms, is generally the Democratic side.
Personally, I stopped believing the old version of the “fair/balanced/objective” religion many years ago. Of those three goals, I still believe the most in fairness, with the recognition that it will always ultimately be in the eye of the beholder. “Balanced,” if you take it literally and you take it mean that balance requires you to write an equal number of stories about the untruths told by two candidates, can lead to outright dishonesty if one candidate is telling five or 10 times as many whoppers as another. In such circumstances, it’s better to be “unbalanced” than dishonest.
“Objectivity” is a word borrowed from science but in journalistic practice means something very different. I’m not a scientist, but my lay understanding of how “objectivity” fits into the scientific method is this: State a proposition that you think may be true, like, before Galileo, the widely held belief that “the sun revolves around the earth.” Devise an experiment designed to disprove this proposition. If you are unable to disprove it, you still don’t know whether it is true, but your confidence in it is increased. That is a very slow, careful system for edging closer to truth.
A tall order
Journalistic “objectivity” means little other than just “don’t be biased,” which is a tall order for mere humans. More reasonably for humans might be: “Do what you can to overcome your personal biases,” but that leaves journalists susceptible to the frequent not-unreasonable claim that they are biased. And, in partisan or ideological matters, since the overwhelming majority of mainstream journalists are liberals who usually vote for Democrats, it is especially easy for conservatives and Republicans to play the bias card, when necessary, to discredit what is in the “mainstream media.”
So of the trinity (fair, balanced, objective), I still believe in fairness, even though it’s the hardest one to measure. To me, “fairness” means something like this: Try to set aside your biases. When interviewing to someone with whom you may disagree, put the disagreements on the table and give him/her a chance to put their best facts and arguments on the table, and put those facts and arguments (assuming the facts check out), honestly and respectfully into what you write. Many conservatives and Republicans will talk to me, on the record, because they understand that and appreciate it. Without them, I’d be trapped in a liberal echo chamber where a cartoon version of liberal verities goes unchallenged.
Now back to Mr. Trump, who is not really a Republican nor a conservative as I understand those mushy terms, who lies constantly, perhaps on a 10-1 ratio with his opponent. His disrespect for factual accuracy is staggering. Leaving aside for the moment the dog whistles of racial and religious bigotry that he emits but never honestly discusses, his unwillingness to engage in a real discussion of his policy proposals reaches a staggering level of disregard for honest political discourse.
The lie that bothers me the most
Allow me to cite the lie that bothers me the most. Mr. Trump constantly claims to have opposed the war in Iraq, from the beginning. If true, I would be impressed. It appears to be a lie. The existing record of statements he made about the war, in advance and in the early going, contains no statement of opposition. In a radio interview during the run-up to the war, when Howard Stern asked him if he favored going to war in Iraq. He replied: “I guess so.”
If he could prove that he made a public statement before the war and even before it started to go badly, that he was opposed to the war, I would apologize to him. But he not only has produced no such statement, he has vaguely implied that he has now proved that he opposed the war, which is a new lie.
In his big foreign policy speech of June 22, one of the rare cases when he read a prepared text off a teleprompter, he said:
“Hillary Clinton’s tryout for the presidency has produced one deadly foreign policy disaster after another. It all started with her bad judgment in supporting the war in Iraq in the first place. Though I was not in government service, I was among the earliest to criticize the rush to war, and yes, even before the war ever started.”
Strangely, or not so strangely, he did not cite the evidence that enabled him to add, “yes, even before the war started.” The war started on March 19, 2003. In fact, it is not until well into 2004 that he made a clear statement of opposition to the war, by which point the big WMD lie on which the war had been sold to the public had been disproved and by which point it was becoming more and more clear that Iraq was turning into a colossal mess that might destabilize the region.
Hillary Clinton, as a U.S. senator, voted to authorize the war. Her statement at the time of that vote was a mess of illogic, since she claimed to be voting to authorize a war that she did not really favor. It took her years to say publicly that the war and her vote for it had been a mistake. I hold all of that against her, but she doesn’t claim that she voted against the war. She is sufficiently planted in the world of facts that she doesn’t attempt to assert that black is white.
A certain kind of half-truth
She is also given to a certain kind of familiar half-truth, as with the recent dust-up over her statement that FBI Director James Comey had confirmed that she had told the truth about her infamous email server. Comey did say that she had not lied to the FBI in her interviews with them, but he also said that she had said several things in her testimony to Congress that were untrue.
Sadly, this kind of tap-dancing and half-truthing is fairly common in politics. I wish they would all cut it out. But it does not compare — it’s not even close — to Trump’s practice of telling a bald-faced lie, refusing to back it up, refusing to back down even after the fact-checkers have proven the lie, and continuing to assert the lie with renewed confidence, even implying that he has looked further into it and confirmed that the lie is the truth.
So, in the name of “fairness” or “balance” to equate Trump’s audacious doubling down on an outright lie, about the biggest deal in the world no less, with Clinton’s fairly ordinary political tap-dancing and trying to get away with half-truthing, would not be “objective” journalistic honesty, or fairness, or objectivity.
More journalists, more often, and relentlessly need to challenge Trump to either prove the truth of his statement about having opposed the Iraq war from the beginning, or stop making the statement. If he does neither, as I expect he will, he should be called a liar. If his strongest supporters don’t care whether he is a liar, that is their prerogative. If they complain that journalists are treating Trump unfairly about this stuff, they are engaging in willful false perception, which is not uncommon in human history.
If journalists, in order to seek to present the “best obtainable version of the truth,” have to treat the bigger liar in a particular campaign more harshly than the lesser liar, and some people would rather claim bias than deal with that best obtainable version, then maybe that’s just how it has to be. I believe that is preferable than creating a false equivalence between the bigger and the lesser liar.
To say that, of course, is not “balanced,” but I think it’s more “fair” and “honest” than the alternative.
Update: After the piece above was published, I came across Nicolas Kristof’s most recent New York Times column, in which he also compared Trump and Clinton as liars. It’s here, but in case you don’t click through, Kristof’s conclusion:
” If deception were a sport, Trump would be the Olympic gold medalist; Clinton would be an honorable mention at her local Y.”