How do you solve a problem like Donald Trump?
We are watching bastions of free press correct themselves in response to their own perceived biases, fears, disgust, and personal outrage.
The New York Times and the Washington Post, to which both I digitally subscribe and highly recommend supporting, are leaning toward a precarious position in the Age of Trump. And that position is the Achilles Heel of smart people everywhere; the tendency to adjust for their own “biases”, and thus give the other side more leeway than they would their own “side”.
In this case, it’s not that either paper or their editors or writers have a “side” – to suggest that is to fall for a false trope that papers are run by and staffed with liberals. The correct term is they are run by and staffed with at least reasonably smart people, usually very smart people.
And smart people have one glaring fault; i.e., an open mindedness that causes them to open the door to the bad guy in, lest they seem too entrenched in an emotional position. Intellectualism is the final killer of freedom when it’s used to justify not screaming in the face of horrible acts.
To wit, WaPo the Pulitzer-nominated Ruth Marcus penned a column getting much praise within journalist circles about how to be fair to Donald Trump.
“The media shouldn’t hesitate to label an assertion false, but it should be cautious about imputing motive. ‘This statement is false’ or ‘This assertion is untrue’ carries as much weight as ‘Trump lied,’ and without the inflammatory baggage. It informs the audience but does so in a way more likely to leave the broadest audience willing to absorb the information,” Marcus urges, as if the largest source of inflammatory baggage were not coming directly from the President-elect.
While suggesting a motive for behavior is often a cheap ad hominem attack, it is not the press’ job to weed out Trump’s inflammatory statements and make him palatable by using prettier words for lie. It is also not going out on a limb to say that Donald Trump lies with purpose and to protect himself. Trump has lied with purpose so many times that it is more than fair to characterize his lying as a part of his personality. To suggest he is simply wrong is to leave out needed context.
Marcus acknowledges this challenge, “Perhaps the hardest problem — and the most important, given the millisecond modern attention span — involves how to accurately portray Trump’s conduct within the confined space of a headline, or a broadcaster’s capsule summary. This task will demand constant vigilance and endless creativity on the part of those of us committed to practicing journalism in the Age of Trump. It will, in some circumstances, require some diligence on the part of our audience to probe beyond the first impression.”
Why? Why should the audience be forced to read between the lines because journalists don’t want to use the word lie? The definition of lie from Dictionary.com:
a false statement made with deliberate intent to deceive; an intentional untruth; a falsehood. … the charge or accusation of telling a lie: … to speak falsely or utter untruth knowingly, as with intent to deceive.
Respectfully I have to disagree here. Subtlety will get us nowhere right now, and it’s not called for. It is actually a huge mistake to fall for the genteel approach in the face of such a threat. Mind you, it was no problem for a member of the conservative press to scream at President Obama in the Rose Garden, but I’m not advocating that kind of blatant disrespect. I’m advocating for reality.
Reality must always win, and sometimes reality is not polite.
I don’t recall anyone writing an editorial about the need to be fair to the first black president, who faced real biases, unfair and unfounded accusations – ironically enough, some of the most egregious of which were led by the incoming president – you know, the guy we need to be fair to, because we can’t know his motives. Although he has a consistent pattern of troubling, immature and nasty behavior.
But that was okay back then because the job of the press isn’t really to be fair to the president; if it’s to be fair to anyone, it’s to the people. To their needs. And that is a job at which we have all failed miserably.
I suspect the press is trying to correct themselves from their automatic, reflexive repulsion of all that Donald Trump represents; his attacks on the first amendment and transparency, his personal attacks on journalists, his seeming deliberate use of his cult-like crowds to intimidate the press away from negative coverage of him. And by “negative”, I mean accurate.
So this impulse is admirable, and yet wrong.
I suggest every journalist, editor, and reporter read security specialist Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear.” Because that fear/repulsion/anger/disgust is telling you something and instead of reflexively adjusting to make it okay, to pretend the person isn’t truly terrifying in their ignorance or dangerous international high jinx gone wrong.
No, it’s not personal and no it’s not ideological.
It’s actually reality.
The entire media needs to stop pretending reality isn’t reality, just because they are unwittingly part of this story. They didn’t insert themselves, Donald Trump did that. The correct response isn’t to reward Trump for this egregious behavior by correcting the disgust in an effort to be fair.
Why? Because it means something.
People tell us we have to “wait” to see what he’s going to do. That’s so absurd it’s enraging. We already have the information. It is not supposition.
Wait until Trump indicates that he will suggest his opponent be shot if she wins? That already happened. Wait until he messes up international relations with his ignorance? That already happened. Wait until he threatens the first amendment overtly? That already happened. Wait until we know Putin deliberately hacked Democrats in order to help Donald Trump? That already happened.
Wait until we know what’s in Donald Trump’s tax returns before we surmise why a man helped by Putin won’t release his tax returns like every other presidential candidate has? That’s rewarding deceptive behavior.
Accuracy is always the goal. But accuracy isn’t achieved by trying to be “fair”. Fair is for preschool. Fair is not for Putin’s pick for our White House. That reminds me, are we to pretend that Donald Trump had no reason for lying about the intelligence he got about Russia’s hacking of the DNC? He lied repeatedly about this.
Let us not work so hard to restrain ourselves that we don’t call reality what it is.
Sometimes there is nothing good to say. Sometimes a lie countered by measured caution is dangerous. It is not always nice or responsible pretend we don’t see the entire forest.
We all see the forest and we all know what is at stake.
The willfully ignorant and easily manipulated got us here, but smart people correcting for their own biases (also known in this case as internal alarms) will finish us off if they aren’t careful.
Ms. Jones is the co-founder/ editor-in-chief of PoliticusUSA and a member of the White House press pool.
Sarah hosts Politicus News and co-hosts Politicus Radio. Her analysis has been featured on several national radio, television news programs and talk shows, and print outlets including Stateside with David Shuster, as well as The Washington Post, The Atlantic Wire, CNN, MSNBC, The Week, The Hollywood Reporter, and more.
Sarah is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists.