I certainly am aware that many supporters of President Donald Trump think that “the media” in general is motivated by a general liberal bias, and by hatred of the current incumbent, to constantly criticize everything the president says, does or proposes. Maybe there’s something to it. I’m not in the camp that thinks liberal media bias is a phony concept. But it’s complicated. I’m a liberal, or some kind of lefty. My life experience working for newspapers, and plenty of data that others have unearthed, confirms that most journalists are liberals.
But, at least for those still working in the so-called “objective” paradigm of reporting, a reporter is supposed to keep his biases out of his work and concentrate on facts and presenting a balance of views. The concept of “objectivity is borrowed from the scientific method, which is mostly about always seeking truth, but always remaining skeptical about whether you have found it.
That “solution” to the bias problem in journalism is not scientific and not perfect but it is real and powerful. Value facts — actual, straightforward, verifiable facts very highly. Even, and maybe especially, facts that challenge your own preferred belief. You don’t have to change your opinion every time you hear an inconvenient truth. But you can’t ignore that truth just because it is inconvenient. These rules for thinking and learning apply in fields far beyond reporting.
‘Spin’ doesn’t include outright lying
For many politicians, there may be higher priorities. Journalists are used to getting “spun,” which is a lower-level of dishonesty many politicians and public officials use to seek favorable coverage and/or promote half-truths. But “spin” doesn’t include outright lying or refusing to discuss contrary facts.
There’s never been anyone to rise as high in our public life with less respect for those basic rules than Trump. There are no inconvenient truths in his brain, because he refuses to take note of them. His beliefs – and I’m certainly not talking about religious beliefs here but about earthly issues, policy beliefs and his belief in his own brilliance – form around a set of facts and very, very often a set of nonfacts that allow him to assert whatever suits his ego or stokes up his base. It’s an approach that fundamentally disrupts the usual give-and-take between self-promoting sources and truth-seeking, or at least fact-seeking, journalists. Trump seems to inhabit his own private reality and he is impressively incurious about other versions of reality that are more fact-based.
Writing that paragraph, I had a flashback to a moment surrounding the rise of George W. Bush. Journalist Ron Suskind, writing for the New York Times Magazine, quoted an unnamed Bush adviser (it turned out to be Karl Rove) who said (and this excerpt is listed from the Wikipedia article on “Reality-based community”):
that guys like me [by which Rove meant journalists like Suskind) were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from a judicious study of discernible reality….”
“That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” [Rove] continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors …and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
I wasn’t the world’s biggest fan of the second President Bush, but he looks a lot better to me now, because his divorce from reality was far less of a final decree than the divorce of Trump.
He rejects the bounds of facticity
The fact-checkers have broken their old norms in order to call out Trump’s lies. To his admirers, this feels like anti-Trump bias. But I don’t blame the fact-checkers for trotting out very strong terms to describe Trump’s lying. Trump doesn’t make mere factual errors. He rejects the bounds of facticity: If it feels good, say it. If it is proven to be false, never bother to acknowledge that, move on to the next thing that feels good and say that. It’s not at all clear to me that he can tell whether he is relating a fact or lying.
During his campaign, he granted a fair amount of media access. And reporters would confront him with some of his falsehoods, but he seldom conceded any ground and introduced us to a number of totally insulting (to the audience as well as the interviewer) techniques for not correcting his myriad errors. Nowadays, he seldom bothers with such interviews.
So, just one example (which is the one that set me off on this rant):
In announcing that he was “canceling” the Paris climate pact (which, of course he had no power to do, since the pact still exists and is still a thing for every country in the world except the U.S., Syria and Nicaragua), Trump threw what I assume was supposed to be a bone to those who wished the United States would remain within the pact. He said that he was willing to negotiate for a better deal that would keep the U.S. in. Here’s the quote:
So we’re getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that’s fair. And if we can, that’s great. And if we can’t, that’s fine.
Every single coherent analysis of Trump’s “I-was-elected-to-represent-the-citizens-of-Pittsburgh-not-Paris” speech (and even my own incoherent one) noted that there is no mechanism for such a renegotiation and no need either. Each country (including the United States, but only on the signature of former President Obama) pledged to all of the other signatories to take certain steps to try to reduce its carbon emissions, and each nation designed those steps for itself.
No mechanism or need for renegotiation
There is no mechanism for one of the signatories to renegotiate its plan, no one to negotiate it with, and really no need, since there is also no enforcement mechanism to reward or punish those who keep or don’t keep their commitments. If Trump wants to pollute more than Obama had promised it would, he can just do less to save the world. He doesn’t need anyone’s permission and there is no technical sanction, just the obvious loss of trust and confidence that the world will have in U.S. leadership on environmental sustainability.
So, back to reconciling with reality, does Trump not know this is how the Paris Accord works? Did no one tell him? Was he busy tweeting during that part of the briefing? Who does he plan to negotiate with? What does he expect in return for coming back into the accord that anyone can give him?
Has he answered these questions to anyone? I haven’t seen his answers. Has he even given anyone an opportunity to ask those questions? Did no one on his team have an opportunity to tell him that — great negotiator that he is — that particular skill has no application to this “deal?” Do his admirers know that his offer to renegotiate is meaningless? Do they care?
Trump’s modus operandi is to say or do something that raises many basic questions, then not answer those questions, then (while journalists and others are seeking to get him to answer) move on to something else that raises more questions.
I’ve searched Article II of the Constitution, in which the presidency is created and described. It’s pretty unhelpful but does say that the president “shall from time to time give to the Congress information of the state of the union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
It seems to leave it up to the president to decide what information to give and when it is necessary and expedient to give it.