Old norms in the age of Trump: a journo-dilemma

REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Supporters cheering Donald Trump at a campaign event at the Iowa Events Center in Des Moines on Friday.

 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.”

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Comments (22)

  1. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/08/2016 - 03:24 pm.

    The old standard of fair and balanced coverage

    assumed that the candidates being covered were more or less equivalent in their respect for facts.
    Trump is a new phenomenon as a presidential candidate, so the old norms no longer apply.
    Rather than using the term ‘objective’, let’s be direct and talk about accurately reporting what candidates do and say. If one candidate does many more outrageous things than another, the reportage should reflect that imbalance.

  2. Submitted by Frank Phelan on 08/08/2016 - 05:28 pm.

    Cliff’s Notes Version

    The truth has a liberal bias.

  3. Submitted by Max Hailperin on 08/08/2016 - 07:01 pm.

    Objectivity

    Regarding your struggle to find a suitable definition of objectivity, allow me to suggest this: a report is objective to the degree that a reader learns more about the subject than about the writer. By that definition, a manifestly unfair report can’t be objective: it tells the reader a lot about the writer’s unfairness and not much (because of the unfairness) about the subject. However, the two terms are a report can be fair yet subjective, revealing a lot about the writer in a way that doesn’t appreciably skew whatever limited view it does reveal of the subject.

    • Submitted by Tim Walker on 08/12/2016 - 08:15 am.

      Objectivity

      I like your definition of objectivity. It’s very practical.

      BTW, what Eric described is the scientific method, not objectivity.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/08/2016 - 08:38 pm.

    pseudo dilemma

    You don’t control what people think, you just write stories. Despite decades of alleged “balance” few Americans think the media is “balanced” so the quest for legitimacy based on “balanced” journalism is an illusion at best, a perversion of journalism at worse. The quest for balance dilutes truth and muzzles the media, its a false god that does more damage than good.

    Integrity has nothing to do with “balance”, on the contrary “balance” destroys integrity. This why the media has had declining credibility for decades now. This is why Jon Stewart and Colbert are more credible than MSNBC. The pretense of “balance” between the democrats and republicans, rich and poor, science and religion, etc. has NEVER been credible and the failure to point out the obvious for decades has been a toxic contribution to our national discourse.

    I think these occasional foray’s into self examination tend to be shallow and self serving, they create a psuedo dilemma that puts REAL dilemma’s behind a curtian, they establish a narrative that obscures the meta-narrative.

    The question isn’t whether or not the public can be manipulated into thinking the media is credible with the pretense of “balance” or “un-bias”, we know the answer to THAT question is:”No”. The question is who and what interests the media (or an individual journalist) is servicing?

  5. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/09/2016 - 07:55 am.

    “fair and balanced” ??What

    “fair and balanced” ??

    What about reporting the facts, and the facts that disclose the lies and reveal the truth ?

    A politician tells a lie. Is it really journalism if the lie is faithfully reproduced and repeated in a media outlet ? Or is that being a stenographer ?

    In these days, there are far more than enough ways to record and distribute what was said.

    What’s wrong with going a step beyond regurgitation ?

  6. Submitted by Terry Beyl on 08/09/2016 - 08:15 am.

    Standards…if you’re lucky to be covered at all

    While the author frets about how to apply journalistic “standards” in this day and age, the fact is that most of the mainstream media just refuses to cover most candidates and third parties in any substantive way. The media narrows its coverage not to just the two major parties, BUT only the candidates in those parties they deem “credible”. The exorbitant amount of free media given to both Trump and Clinton since the start of the campaign is proof enough. Other candidates, no matter their experience, their excitement to run for office, their ideas or the soundness of program proposals they bring to the democracy table, are ignored or dismissed out of hand. Only when the mainstream media has narrowed their focus to the two or three candidates that they deem “credible”, do they then begin to try to apply such standards as fairness and objectivity. As a result, the fourth estate is not doing its job and democracy suffers. I think the author made this same point regarding the lack of third parties in the U.S. political system a few weeks ago.

  7. Submitted by William Stahl on 08/09/2016 - 09:31 am.

    Trump-speak

    Covering Trump’s campaign obviously presents enormous challenges. I do wish there were more effort to illustrate the sheer verbal incoherence of Trump’s off-the-cuff speeches. Most of the time reporters extract small bits as the “news” in the speech and miss the larger issue of how Trump’s mind works.

    • Submitted by Rosalie O'Brien on 08/14/2016 - 10:03 am.

      Excellent point

      I think Mr. Stahl has an excellent point. It has been frustrating from the start to see Mr. Trump treated by the press as a bona fide candidate, when in fact it is not at all clear that he can distinguish reality TV from reality. The man is a narcissist to whom all attention is positive. He’s going for attention, which is very different from persuasion through logic or credibility. He has created a character (not to be confused with having character) larger than life, and through various modes of mass and social media has managed to command the attention of a large number of persons who are frustrated with the current conditions of their lives. It seems that many may choose to “support” him not necessarily because they believe in whatever he might say from time to time, but rather because he is in so many ways a contrarian (which, of course, includes one who doesn’t play by the rules). He is to many simply a scream that the present state of affairs isn’t working. When a candidate exhibits such a position, it is by definition extremely challenging–and may be impossible–to figure out what it means to play by the rules in reporting on him or her. (Sarah Palin bore some similarities, but for various reasons, including her gender, the fact that she was only a VP candidate, and the relatively brief time during which we were subjected to her media presence, didn’t constitute as much of a challenge.) If this were a childhood playground, one could just go home. If only that were possible here!

  8. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/09/2016 - 09:33 am.

    Credible candidates are what determine the outcome of elections.
    For parties other than the two majors, the route to credibility is local elections (or at least state level ones). News is what impacts the lives of large numbers of people. Otherwise it’s human interest.
    ……
    Thought — can you have balanced reporting of unbalanced people? 😉

  9. Submitted by Jim Million on 08/09/2016 - 09:41 am.

    Sorry, everyone…

    I had a lot of trouble getting past “A lot of deep thinkers about journalism…” In shallow waters, one needs only a snorkel.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 08/10/2016 - 02:25 pm.

      HA!

      Jim, I think you’re being generous! Noble cause with fuzzy ethics. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we got the news in such a way that the words “lie” and “malarkey” were used to describe lies and malarkey?

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/13/2016 - 10:55 pm.

        “malarkey”

        Excellent application. A term of shared meaning in a single word…much better than two words we all know.
        Love it!

  10. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 08/09/2016 - 12:10 pm.

    Lies and the lying liars…

    It still seems so wrong that in commerce speak you defame a competitive product with false information there are consequences in the law and those consequences have served to keep the mis-information to a tolerable level. That is why Chevrolet ads did not feature exploding Ford gas tanks or wildly accelerating Toyotas. Can you imagine the visuals: Mom and the kids in their Malibu cruising down the highway and then the cut away to a Corolla plunging off a cliff with screaming passengers on their way to certain death. We can’t imagine it.

    Take the scenario to political speech and it is hard not to see an ad where death and dismemberment due to terrorism is not right around the corner, despite being much less likely to occur than a lighting strike on your person: Something most of us do not live in terror of.

    There needs to be accountability for political lying: those lies end careers and disenfranchise voters before the lying liars take office and that is when the real consequences become apparent. Consequences from the voters are virtually non-existent: lying is defended and rewarded by the lying liars supporters.

    Two possible remedies: 1: Forced public venues of accountability like what is seen during the Prime Minister’s Question Hour in the UK. Lies there at least can result in weekly public ridicule. 2. A legal wing of an organization like factcheck.org to at least legally harass the lying liars.

    • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/09/2016 - 08:08 pm.

      Is Free Speech only Responsible Speech?

      That’s a long-lived debating question. In law, we find the “Fire” statute. In Politics, we find scant law. Were defamation a statutory violation, the press would save much ink and the rest of us would learn much more.

      • Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/10/2016 - 10:22 am.

        The First Amendment

        is not a blanket guarantee of ‘free speech’ (whatever that is).
        It is a limited statement that Congress may not pass a law abridging the freedom of speech.
        “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; –or abridging the freedom of speech–, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
        This applies neither to the Executive nor the Judicial branches, or to private pressures of various sorts.
        ‘Free Speech’ is a tradition, not a law.

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/10/2016 - 10:54 am.

          Ummm . . .

          “This applies neither to the Executive nor the Judicial branches, or to private pressures of various sorts.”

          There is no clear answer to the first two claims, as the text of the First Amendment constrains only Congress. The best analysis is that the President is obliged to act, in many cases, according to the authorization of Congress. If the President’s actions violate the First Amendment, either the Congressional authorization is unconstitutional, or the President is acting ultra vires, outside the scope of the delegated authority. If the Presidential action is one specifically delegated by Article II, any actions that would otherwise be First Amendment violations are arguably violations of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

          I think the same analysis can be applied to actions by the judiciary. You are right about “private pressures,” however.

          “‘Free Speech’ is a tradition, not a law.” That’s news to me, and to those of us who understand constitutions to be foundational law.

  11. Submitted by Bill Phillips on 08/10/2016 - 10:55 am.

    Fair & Balanced?

    I recently read Jane Mayer’s Dark Money, detailing the ways in which a group of very conservative billionaires have managed to shift the whole US political discussion and spectrum to the right. Enlightening and scary, but also addressing, in passing, the whole issue of creating the issue that we have a liberal media bias and what would constitute “fair and balanced” coverage. Worth a look.
    As to free speech, reading the Constitution as only applying to Congress in a legislative role ignores several hundred years of case law making it clear that it is a constitutional right, not just a tradition. The executive branch cannot constrain free speech rights granted under the constitution – without enabling legislation such actions could not stand.

  12. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 08/10/2016 - 11:44 am.

    I think a better question/dilemma

    If the republican elite were actually supporting Trump, and endorsing him, would the media still be this hostile? I don’t think so, but that’s just me.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 08/11/2016 - 04:05 pm.

      You Are Correct

      The Republican elite is distancing itself from Trump not because of his substance, but because of his style (Let them yammer all they want about a few trivial policies he endorses: overall, he is saying what Republicans really believe). If he were to moderate his tone, and couch his bigotry/misogyny/bellicosity in more measured terms, the Republican elite would be solidly behind him.

      The media would be gentler to him, because “balance.” If the reporting were this honest about a candidate who knew how to express himself better, the normal workaday whining about the Biased Liberal Media would turn into an unendurable din.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/13/2016 - 10:48 pm.

        Excellent Observation

        “… the Republican elite would be solidly behind him.” Politics aside for a bit, “conservative” social norms include a fundamental caution: It is fine to think it, just don’t say it in public.

  13. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 08/13/2016 - 04:09 pm.

    Principle vs ?

    The target(s) are always moving, folks are always playing for position, if one politician plays exceptional far right, does that mean fair and balanced now becomes reporting from a significantly far right perspective? Seems a couple posters up suggested the same. The real issue is philosophical in nature, does the argument withstand the Socratic method, is it principle based? By definition we can’t have 2 diametrical opposed principles. Also by definition; of course the press has a liberal bias it should; liberal=open minded, do we want closed minded reporting?

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