I’ve been scribbling for a living since 1973, and was raised and trained in the old-school model of journalism that we called “objectivity.”
The term was borrowed from science, but journalism was never science. Journo-objectivity was never perfect, but it sorta worked. Now it doesn’t. Now it’s pretty much dead, at least in coverage of national political and governmental news. To a significant degree, the candidacy and the now presidency of Donald Trump may have finished it off.
The latest nail in the coffin of the objectivity model of journalism is a headline from yesterday’s Washington Post, which read:
“Trump and Republicans settle on fear — and falsehoods — as a midterm strategy.”
The objectivity rule
The old objectivity model was rooted in the rule that reporters report facts and don’t allow their personal politics to interfere. It was always a bit shaky.
A factual story could be biased without including any falsehoods, if the person reporting the facts was biased and allowed their power to choose which facts to report, and which to leave out, to be influenced by their bias. And most reporters were liberals, so that issue was a real and serious problem with the objectivity model, as smart conservatives sometimes pointed out.
But the model also required journalists, in addition to being factual, to be “balanced,” which referred to the practice of respectfully quoting people with differing politics and allowing liberals and conservatives to express themselves, and let readers decide for themselves what to believe.
That old job description included me, back when I was an old-school “objective” reporter. (MinnPost now considers me a columnist, who is allowed to analyze the news and express his views, as I am doing here.)
The old model did allow an “objective” reporter, if a politician, for example, said something false, to seek documentary evidence, or interview experts who could offer a true (or truer) version of the matter in question.
That model was far from perfect. Conservative critics said the fact that most journalists were liberals was a deep flaw. I had some sympathy for that view. (Newspapers and other media outlets did not set out to hire liberals. But, for reasons I’ve never fully understood, something about the job seemed to attract mostly liberals.)
But the main goal was to force-feed the news pages (and TV broadcasts) with facts, facts, accurate facts, and leave the opinionizing to the columnists and editorial writers. And the system more or less worked.
Then came Trump
Then came Trump, the biggest liar in our political history. Trump lies all the time. When asked to back up one of his lies with facts, he either repeats the same lie more loudly, changes the subject, issues a factless dismissal of the question, or denounces the (according to him) lying media for its audacity in pressing him to be more accurate.
I’m not the world’s biggest expert on all this. But, to keep writing as if I were, I’d say that the old model relied on the belief that if a public figure told enough lies, and journalism stuck to the facts, the liar’s credibility would decline and he would be forced to lie less often or be driven from the public stage.
I’m so addicted to the idea of factual accuracy that I can’t pretend to fully comprehend the allure of a politician who lies constantly. I tell myself, knowing I don’t really get it, that he connects with his admirers (who are neither a majority nor a plurality of Americans) on a nonfactual level of grievance-sharing and a desire to believe that certain false things are true, and certain things that won’t fix their problems will. (Like the wall.)
What set me off on this post was the Washington Post headline, mentioned above: “Trump and Republicans settle on fear — and falsehoods — as a midterm strategy.”
More an argument
The headline is more an argument, or a critique, than a fact. Arguments and critiques have their place, but when such an assertion appears as a headline on a news story, it is evidence of the breakdown of the old model.
Having pointed out Trump’s many, many falsehoods, and having Trump continue repeating the old ones while adding new ones, pretty much every day, the Post headline writers apparently decided that the old norms of what a headline could say no longer sufficed; that the simple summary that Trump lies, all the time, and his followers don’t mind, rises to the level of an established fact, suitable for headline type.
I don’t disagree with the headline writers. I don’t expect any Trump admirers to be surprised to learn that Washington Post headline writers have concluded what they did about their guy. I don’t expect them to believe it. I don’t expect them to care.
The assumption on which the old model was based, that people want accurate facts (and that the journalistic method is a way of conveying those facts and separating them from falsehoods, to serve an audience that wants to know the truth), is dead, dying or taking on water at an alarming rate.
I’m pretty worried.
Trump on the migrants heading north
The Post story includes, for example, this, about the migrants heading toward the United States’ southern border:
“You’re going to find MS-13, you’re going to find Middle Eastern, you’re going to find everything. And guess what? We’re not allowing them in our country,” Trump said, when asked by reporters Wednesday if he had any proof of terrorists infiltrating the caravan. “We want safety.”
Many of the president’s assertions are false or clear distortions of the facts. Trump is incorrect, for example, in his claim that Democrats will “destroy” both Medicare and Social Security, while he has made both programs “stronger.” There is also no evidence that Democrats are paying for the migrant caravan snaking its way north toward the southern border, while voter fraud remains exceedingly rare.
But that has not stopped the president from repeating such false or misleading claims, in part because advisers say his key midterm strategy is to fuel Republican turnout by riling up his most avid supporters, often through frightening and emotional appeals.
Speaking of the mob of Latin Americans who are marching toward the U.S. border:
… In tweets Monday, Trump warned without offering evidence that “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners are mixed in” and urged voters to ‘think of and blame the Democrats for not giving us the votes to change our pathetic Immigration Laws!’ A Trump-backed immigration plan failed to pass earlier this year, but not just because of Democrats: 14 Republicans also opposed the bill.
Trump’s claim — again, without providing evidence — that Middle Easterners are “mixed in” with the caravan is an example of how some leaders blend a mix of fact and fiction to instill fear in their electorate, said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor who studies authoritarian rulers.
“This is the way propaganda works,” Ben-Ghiat said. “You put different enemies together that really have nothing to do with one another. He’s trying to create this image of a wave of people of color, or threats, who are coming to invade the border.”
At last Thursday’s rally in Missoula, Mont., Trump alleged without evidence that Democrats were paying migrants to enter the United States so that they could vote for Democratic candidates.
“A lot of money’s been passing to people to come up and try to get to the border by Election Day, because they think that’s a negative for us,” Trump said. He added that Democrats like”‘the illegal immigration onslaught” because “everybody coming in is going to vote Democrat.”
The president went on to posit that some of the migrants attempting to cross the border into the United States were “hardened criminals” and “bad people,” but again declined to cite any evidence.
When a reporter asked him for an example, he dismissed her question with, “Oh, please, please, don’t be a baby.”