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J.D. Tuccille: Anti-Trump journalists picked their side and torched their credibility

Are journalists really supposed to ignore a former president with a real chance of returning to the White House?

Donald Trump
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Opinionated journalism has a long and storied history, dating back long before my grandparents yelled at each other over competing left-wing and right-wing newspapers. But viewpoints should be confined to interpreting facts — not substitutes for accurately reporting them. Unfortunately, many journalists now believe an ideologically charged search for “truth” is more important than fully covering the story.

National Post

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“We have to be truthful, not neutral,” CNN icon Christiane Amanpour recently told her colleagues as she celebrated 40 years at the news network. “I would make sure that you don’t just give a platform to those who survive on hate speech, to those who want to crash down the constitution and democracy.”

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There’s a strong argument to be made for not pretending that, say, genocidal evil is a legitimate position. But being “truthful, not neutral” is harder when it comes to picking among contenders in democratic systems premised on the idea that “truth” isn’t easily determined and the best we can do is to pick our poison at the ballot box while limiting all politicians’ power. Not that elite left-leaning journalists agree.

“The big problem is that the mainstream media wants to be seen as non-partisan — a reasonable goal — and bends over backwards to accomplish this,” writes Margaret Sullivan, former public editor for the New York Times, past Washington Post media columnist and now a writer for the Guardian. “If this means equalizing an anti-democratic candidate with a pro-democracy candidate, then so be it.”

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Fair enough. But which is the pro-democracy candidate in the United States? Is it Donald Trump, the guy who threw a temper tantrum and stirred up his followers when he lost an election? Or is it his successor, Joe Biden, who was slapped by a federal judge for overseeing an “Orwellian ‘Ministry of Truth,’ ” in the judge’s words, that coerced social media companies into suppressing speech that was at odds with White House policies?

Moral clarity is hard to come by in politics — a field that draws authoritarians like rotting meat draws flies. But that’s apparently not a problem for journalists who are committed to being “truthful.”

“Trump continues to be covered mostly as an entertaining sideshow — his mugshot! His latest insults! — not a perilous threat to democracy,” complains Sullivan.

“It’s time to stop giving Trump air time,” agrees Bill Goodykoontz of the Arizona Republic.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy concurs, saying, “It’s arguable that, at this juncture, there is really no need to interview Trump. After years and years of seeing how he dishonestly operates, what exactly is there to glean from a sit-down?”

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That’s going to make for interesting campaign coverage given that Trump is the leading contender for the presidential nomination of one of the two main U.S. political parties. Polling shows the tantrum-prone “anti-democratic” candidate even with, or leading, the Orwellian “pro-democracy” incumbent.

Are journalists really supposed to ignore a former president with a real chance of returning to the White House? Why not cover everybody and let their deep flaws and virtues, if any, speak for themselves?

Don’t count on that. The idea that journalism means picking a side — the right side — and then supporting it is increasingly popular in the media.

“A growing number of journalists of colour and younger white reporters, including LGBTQ+ people, believe that objectivity has become an increasingly outdated and divisive concept that prevents truly accurate reporting informed by their own backgrounds, experiences and points of view,” found a report published earlier this year by the Knight-Cronkite News Lab, titled “Beyond Objectivity.”

To their credit, authors Leonard Downie Jr., formerly of the Washington Post, and Andrew Heyward, a professor of journalism at Arizona State University, recommended that post-objectivity newsrooms should be open about their core beliefs. Troublingly, though, they also suggested that newsroom leaders should “move beyond accuracy to truth.”

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Who knew that truth was so easily discovered, we could skip accuracy and proclaim it in the headlines? So much for messy debates.

Ironically, the “Beyond Objectivity” report came out just days before the Columbia Journalism Review published a scathing analysis of the mishandling of the Russiagate saga by the mainstream media.

“The end of the long inquiry into whether Donald Trump was colluding with Russia came in July 2019, when Robert Mueller III, the special counsel, took seven, sometimes painful, hours to essentially say no,” former New York Times reporter Jeff Gerth wrote at the beginning of his detailed piece.

“But outside of the Times’ own bubble, the damage to the credibility of the Times and its peers persists, three years on, and is likely to take on new energy as the nation faces yet another election season animated by antagonism toward the press. At its root was an undeclared war between an entrenched media, and a new kind of disruptive presidency, with its own hyperbolic version of the truth.”

An “undeclared war between an entrenched media, and a new kind of disruptive presidency” is a good way to summarize what “truthful, not neutral” looks like in practice. Journalists decided what the “truth” was, stuck to it and blew their credibility right out of the water.

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“Only 26 per cent of Americans have a favourable opinion of the news media, the lowest level Gallup and Knight have recorded in the past five years, while 53 per cent hold an unfavourable view,” a Knight Foundation/Gallup poll reported in February.

Unsurprisingly, given the path most journalists have chosen, “Democrats express significantly more trust in news organizations than Republicans.” But the corrosive belief that journalists are cheerleaders extends across the board.

“Perceptions of political bias in news coverage have also increased, with independents driving the trend, followed by Republicans, then Democrats,” according to the poll. “Fifty per cent say there is so much bias in the news media that it is often difficult to sort out the facts.”

Gerth had something to say about that in his Russiagate postmortem. “My main conclusion is that journalism’s primary missions, informing the public and holding powerful interests accountable, have been undermined by the erosion of journalistic norms and the media’s own lack of transparency about its work,” Gerth wrote.

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“One traditional journalistic standard that wasn’t always followed in the Trump-Russia coverage is the need to report facts that run counter to the prevailing narrative.”

In fact, journalists’ ability to hold Trump to account is undermined by making him a special target and refusing to concede that his rivals also deserve scrutiny for their misdeeds. The necessary business of acting as a check on the powerful is served only when journalists realize they’re engaged in an important occupation, not an ideological crusade.

National Post

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