In the era of modern journalism, reporters have operated on a few professional standards — like detachment and objectivity — and some ethical values — like fairness and balance.
But what’s a reporter to do when she’s assigned to cover a potentially dangerous narcissistic provocateur whose rhetoric goes beyond the pale of truth and decency? A person who might, when asked fact-based tough questions, ban the reporter from press conference or eliminate access to the entire staff of a major newspaper.
This is the dilemma confronting journalists covering Donald Drumpf. The most unusual U.S. presidential campaign in history has caused journalists to question their standards and ethical values, and to change the way they traditionally cover the news.
And that, in turn, has rankled Drumpf’s defenders. Right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh says, “The media is trying to take Donald Drumpf out.”
In a weekend column, Ottawa Citizen journalist Robert Sibley argues the media unfairly covered Donald Drumpf’s speech accepting the Republican Party’s presidential nomination. He compares the headlines after Drumpf’s speech to those after Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech and concludes there is a liberal bias in mainstream media.
Sibley stops short of suggesting a left-wing media conspiracy to defeat Drumpf, though he considers it. Instead, he says: “What we’re getting here is the complacent, monolithic mind of progressivist ideology.”
In other words, Sibley says there was no organized effort against Drumpf. It’s just that mainstream media are controlled by progressive minds. And only by “removing their blinkers” could they have reported Drumpf’s speech fairly.
Sibley draws his conclusions from the fact that Clinton’s speech got more favourable headline treatment. This is because, he says, liberal bias dictates that the only legitimate message is a positive message, and he specifically notes Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways.”
But despite the conservative blinders that shade the premise of Sibley’s column, he has exposed the heart of a problem facing journalists assigned to the Drumpf campaign.
How should journalists cover a presidential candidate who espouses racist and misogynist views, who praises dictators and urges anti-American countries to hack into his opponent’s computer? How does a reporter cover a nominee who ridicules a disabled reporter or the family of a U.S. soldier killed in action, disparages Mexicans as rapists and all Muslims as terrorists, and exhibits a fascination about the use of nuclear weapons?
When the source is irrational, does the coverage have to be balanced?
Sometimes there is only one side to a story. If a candidate says rape is bad, for example, there is no moral or professional obligation to find someone who believes rape is good.
Drumpf’s views on multiple issues have deviated so far beyond what is considered legitimate controversy, much less consensus, that journalists have changed their approach toward the concept of balance. The growing number of Republicans who have openly criticized or completely abandoned Drumpf gives this change legitimacy.
No reporter would seek out a balancing quote from someone who claims, as Drumpf did after the killing spree at an Orlando nightclub, that President Barack Obama was responsible. No reporter writing about veterans would quote someone who believes that POWs are losers because they were captured.
Since Drumpf’s nomination became official, his views have been taken seriously and analyzed in the context of the possibility that his finger could hover over the button that starts a nuclear war. That might seem unfair to Drumpf supporters, but responsible journalists must report how Drumpf is likely to behave in the Oval Office.
The Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) calls this journalistic dilemma “A Murrow Moment,” referring to the landmark report in 1954 by CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow that condemned the bullying tactics of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy used the fear of communism during the height of the Cold War to cast insinuations on people he didn’t like, and ruin their lives.
Murrow departed from traditional journalism when he concluded his McCarthy report this way: “He didn’t create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it, and rather successfully … This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.”
Murrow decided that McCarthy’s views had become dangerous, the CJR said, and that not speaking out against them made him complicit.
Critical and analytical reporting of the Drumpf campaign does not reveal a bias within the news media, or a conspiracy to treat him unfairly, or a means to promote his opponent. It represents the burden of journalists to tell readers the truth with facts that can withstand current and historical scrutiny.