Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism
If you're a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation's worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?
Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you've never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that's potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you've ever been to being oppositional. That's uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I've ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.
But the question that everyone is grappling with is: Do normal standards apply? And if they don't, what should take their place?
Covering Mr. Trump as an abnormal and potentially dangerous candidate is more than just a shock to the journalistic system. It threatens to throw the advantage to his news conference-averse opponent, Hillary Clinton, who should draw plenty more tough-minded coverage herself. She proved that again last week with her assertion on "Fox News Sunday" that James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had declared her to be truthful in her answers about her decision to use a private email server for official State Department business — a grossly misleading interpretation of an F.B.I. report that pointed up various falsehoods in her public explanations.
And, most broadly, it upsets balance, that idealistic form of journalism with a capital "J" we've been trained to always strive for.
But let's face it: Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator last year to announce his candidacy. For the primaries and caucuses, the imbalance played to his advantage, captured by the killer statistic of the season: His nearly $2 billion in free media was more than six times as much as that of his closest Republican rival.
Now that he is the Republican nominee for president, the imbalance is cutting against him. Journalists and commentators are analyzing his policy pronouncements and temperament with an eye toward what it would all look like in the Oval Office — something so many of them viewed as an impossibility for so long.
You can see it from the minute the television news day starts, on the set of "Morning Joe" on MSNBC. A few months ago media writers were describing a too-cozy relationship between Mr. Trump and the show's hosts, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski.
Yet there was Mr. Scarborough on Wednesday asking the former Central Intelligence Agency director Michael V. Hayden whether there were safeguards in place to ensure that if Mr. Trump "gets angry, he can't launch a nuclear weapon," given the perception that he might not be "the most stable guy."
Then Mr. Scarborough shared an alarming conversation he said he had with a "foreign policy expert" who had given Mr. Trump a national security briefing. "Three times he asked about the use of nuclear weapons," Mr. Scarborough said, describing one of the questions as "If we have them, why can't we use them?"
Speaking with me later, Mr. Scarborough, a Republican, said he had not contemplated sharing the anecdote with the audience until just before he did.
"When that discussion came up, I really didn't have a choice," Mr. Scarborough said. "That was something I thought Americans needed to know."
Mr. Trump has denied Mr. Scarborough's account. (He told The New York Times in March he would use nuclear weapons as "an absolutely last step." But when the MSNBC host Chris Matthews challenged him for raising the possibility he would use them, Mr. Trump asked, "Then why are we making them?")
Mr. Scarborough, a frequent critic of liberal media bias, said he was concerned that Mr. Trump was becoming increasingly erratic, and asked rhetorically, "How balanced do you have to be when one side is just irrational?"
Mr. Scarborough is on the opinion side of the news business. It's much dodgier for conventional news reporters to treat this year's political debate as one between "normal" and "abnormal," as the Vox editor in chief Ezra Klein put it recently.
In a sense, that's just what reporters are doing. And it's unavoidable. Because Mr. Trump is conducting his campaign in ways we've not normally seen.
No living journalist has ever seen a major party nominee put financial conditions on the United States defense of NATO allies, openly fight with the family of a fallen American soldier, or entice Russia to meddle in a United States presidential election by hacking his opponent (a joke, Mr. Trump later said, that the news media failed to get). And while coded appeals to racism or nationalism aren't new — two words: Southern strategy — overt calls to temporarily bar Muslims from entry to the United States or questioning a federal judge's impartiality based on his Mexican heritage are new.
"If you have a nominee who expresses warmth toward one of our most mischievous and menacing adversaries, a nominee who shatters all the norms about how our leaders treat families whose sons died for our country, a nominee proposing to rethink the alliances that have guided our foreign policy for 60 years, that demands coverage — copious coverage and aggressive coverage," said Carolyn Ryan, The New York Times's senior editor for politics. "It doesn't mean that we won't vigorously pursue reporting lines on Hillary Clinton — we are and we will."
You can fairly say about Mrs. Clinton that no presidential candidate has secured a major party nomination after an F.B.I. investigation into her use of a private email server for, in some cases, top-secret national security information. That warrants scrutiny, along with her entire record. But the candidates do not produce news at the same rate.
"When controversy is being stoked, it's our obligation to report that," said the Washington Post managing editor Cameron Barr. "If one candidate is doing that more aggressively and consistently than the other, that is an imbalance for sure." But, he added, "it's not one that we create, it's one that the candidate is creating."
Some of it was baked into the two candidacies. Mrs. Clinton has been around so long that voters can more easily envision what her presidency would look like. And to say she hasn't been amply scrutinized is to ignore the fact that there are more "gates" affixed to her last name — Travelgate, Whitewatergate, now Emailgate — than there are gates in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Mr. Trump is a political novice who has spent his career running a private company and starring in a hit reality show. He's hardly an unknown, but there is so much we still don't know about his views and his familiarity with the major issues. His positions would be big news even if they didn't so often seem to break with decades-old policy consensus (which they do).
The media reaction to it all has been striking, what The Columbia Journalism Review called "a Murrow moment." It's not unusual to see news stories describe him as "erratic" without attribution to an opponent. The "fact checks" of his falsehoods continue to pile up in staggering numbers, far outpacing those of Mrs. Clinton. And, on Sunday, the CNN "Reliable Sources" host Brian Stelter called upon journalists and opinion makers to challenge Mr. Trump's "dangerous" claims that the electoral system is rigged against him. Failure to do so would be unpatriotic, Mr. Stelter said.
While there are several examples of conservative media criticism of Mr. Trump this year, the candidate and his supporters are reprising longstanding accusations of liberal bias. "The media is trying to take Donald Trump out," Rush Limbaugh declared last week.
A lot of core Trump supporters certainly view it that way. That will only serve to worsen their already dim view of the news media, which initially failed to recognize the power of their grievances, and therefore failed to recognize the seriousness of Mr. Trump's candidacy.
This, however, is what being taken seriously looks like. As Ms. Ryan put it to me, Mr. Trump's candidacy is "extraordinary and precedent-shattering" and "to pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous with readers."
It would also be an abdication of political journalism's most solemn duty: to ferret out what the candidates will be like in the most powerful office in the world.
It may not always seem fair to Mr. Trump or his supporters. But journalism shouldn't measure itself against any one campaign's definition of fairness. It is journalism's job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history's judgment. To do anything less would be untenable.
Donald Trump and the National Rifle Association aid and abet violence.
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