Donald Trump Has Freed Up Journalists' Ability To Call Bullshit; But It Won't Last, Nor Extend To Others
from the that's-too-bad dept
If you’ve been watching the political press at all this election season, you may notice something interesting that’s different: the press is now calling bullshit on Donald Trump pretty regularly. Perhaps nothing has made this quite as clear as whoever handles the chyron text for CNN, who seems to take a bit of delight in real time fact checking of Donald Trump in a manner never really seen before:
Of course, there are different ways to look at this. If you’re Michael Goodwin at the NY Post, you argue that it’s yet another example of the horrible biased liberal media, but even worse because now it’s dropped all pretenses:
It?s pure bias, which the Times fancies itself an expert in detecting in others, but is blissfully tolerant of its own. And with the top political editor quoted in the story as ?approving the one-sided coverage as necessary and deserving, the prejudice is now official policy.
It?s a historic mistake and a complete break with the paper?s own traditions. Instead of dropping its standards, the Times should bend over backwards to enforce them, even while acknowledging that Trump is a rare breed. That?s the whole point of standards ? they are designed to guide decisions not just in easy cases, but in all cases, to preserve trust.
That makes for a neat media narrative, but it doesn’t really make much sense. If it were the case, then we’d see this kind of bullshit calling on lots of conservative politicians. But that’s rarely the case. It seems to me that Ezra Klein’s take on the same issue, at Vox, is much more accurate. That the media feels freed of its awkward “objective” standpoint by the fact that Trump is just so blatant in his lies. This is not to say other politicians aren’t frequently dishonest or wrong. But Trump takes lying to a new level.
“The things Trump says are demonstrably false in a way that?s abnormal for politicians,” says the Atlantic?s James Fallows, who wrote the book Why Americans Hate the Media. “When he says he got a letter from the NFL on the debates and then the NFL says, ?No, he didn?t,? it emboldens the media to treat him in a different way.”
Politicians are not fully truthful. Everyone knows that. But they make a basic effort at being, as Stephen Colbert put it, truthy. The statistics they cite are usually in the neighborhood of correct. The falsehoods they offer are crafted through the careful omission of fact rather than the inclusion of falsehood. They may say things journalists know are wrong ? climate change denial is a constant among Republican officeholders ? but they protect themselves by wrapping their arguments in well-constructed controversy or appealing to hand-selected experts.
This is part of how political reporting operates. Politicians are allowed to be wrong, but they can?t lie. Trump just lies.
This is a big difference, but one that many people often confuse. Getting things wrong — because you’re misinformed, because you just really want to believe something is true, or because you just made a mistake — is one thing. But pure fabrication is something different. And it’s the outright fabrications that the press feels comfortable calling out.
The question is what does this actually mean for journalism? Goodwin, at the Post, sees this as the downfall of journalism. The fact that the media will actually call someone out on their lies is seen as “bias” because it’s not done equally to other candidates. Klein sees this as a temporary state of being — because most other candidates will return to their truthy wrongness with the press happy to eat that up, with nothing more than a “he said/she said” type of false equivalency when there’s some question about the facts.
Another writer, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, more or less agrees with Goodwin that this is somehow freeing the press up to be biased, after noting how much he disagrees with Trump — but worries about the press feeling emboldened.
I hate Trump, and I hope he loses. But I fear one consequence of his candidacy will be an even more biased press in the future.
Then there’s Klein, who thinks that Trump’s uniqueness means that this is a unique scenario for the press as well, and one that has many of them uncomfortable:
Covering Trump this way isn?t freeing. It?s uncomfortable, both for individual journalists and for the broader institutions they serve. I think, if anything, the likely reaction will be overcorrection: The press would be so happy to have a semi-normal Republican candidate it could cover respectfully that whoever follows Trump is likely to benefit from a bit of halo effect just by comparison.
Like so much else in this election, what defines the press?s coverage of Trump isn?t that he?s a Republican but that there is something abnormal about him, about his campaign, and about the dynamics surrounding it. Assuming more normal politicians succeed him, more normal forms of coverage will reassert themselves.
I think Klein is probably right here, and this is an unfortunate thing. Because we should want our press to be calling bullshit. It’s not bias to call out someone when they lie. It’s not bias to point out someone said something that’s wrong. We should get over this lame “he said/she said” concept behind the stupidly fake idea of “objective” reporting, and do what reporters should be doing: calling bullshit when there’s actual bullshit.
If there’s any bias in the media, it’s not because they’re calling bullshit, but because they’re not doing it enough. They should be more aggressive in pointing out not just what’s an outright lie, but when a politician says something that’s wrong (though they should distinguish between what’s just wrong and what’s a deliberate lie). Klein is probably right that reporters will go back to their old ways after this election, and Goodwin and Gobry will breathe a sigh of relief, but the reality is that we’ll be losing out on a real opportunity to move the media from compliant stenographers to actual journalists.