The last two weeks have engendered serious soul searching in the professional media now that Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee. Two general types of articles pleading mea culpa are now emerging. First, news outlets are lamenting the sorry state of their prognostication efforts after first ridiculing and then dismissing (in the face of contrary evidence) the chances of Trump’s eventual triumph. That this misstep has provoked so much handwringing might suggest that the media’s preoccupation with handicapping the horse race has become far too prominent in its political coverage. Regardless, news outlets are now rightfully expressing contrition for quite literally laughing at the chances of a Trump nomination for months, only to see him win comfortably after leading in the polls from start to finish. The second form of media self-flagellation this week has focused on its outsized role in Trump’s rise. By some measures, Trump has received over $2 billion worth of free earned media during the campaign through mid-March alone, totaling as much as six times the amount of coverage as his most covered opponent, Ted Cruz. Given that a demagogic populist has never before won a major party nomination, many have posited that celebrity-fueled obsessive coverage of the candidate is ultimately to blame. Trump played for ratings and the news media made sure that ratings translated into votes. This introspection, too, is a worthwhile endeavor.
Yet, there is a third and more important issue concerning the media’s relation to the Trump candidacy: how to handle the single most diversionary and dishonest presidential campaign in this country’s history. Thus far, the art of the forceful follow-up question appears dead. To be fair, Trump’s violation of the most basic norms of political campaigning makes it challenging to push back against his lies and nonsense. Trump is a master at issuing thousand-word non-sequiturs to difficult questions, leaving the examiner the choice of getting bogged down on a single topic or simply moving on. To make matters worse, Trump is also prone to denying that he ever said what he indeed said and turning viciously against the interviewer should he perceive a question as too hostile. In essence, Trump is taking advantage of the media’s adherence to journalistic norms of neutrality and respect to major political figures. All of which begs the question: given Trump’s unconstrained deceit, mustn’t the media abandon the pretense of neutrality in order to hold him to account?
That Trump is the biggest liar in presidential political history is not mere hyperbole. Politifact recently determined that 76% of the factual declarations made by Trump in his campaign have been either mostly false, false, or “pants on fire.” The Huffington Post once identified seventy-one demonstrably false statements in one hour-long Trump town-hall. Trump himself exults in his many contradictions, suggesting that “everything is negotiable” and that the president should be “unpredictable.” The transcripts of his editorial board interviews with the New York Times and Washington Post are simply breathtaking. These formal, lengthy interviews on substantive policy issues reveal a man utterly unaware of the most basic functions of the office he aspires to, and wholly committed to distracting and disputing elemental facts no one could credibly deny.
The man’s mendacity knows no bounds. Trump habitually asserts and repeats full-throated lies. He maintains that he was against the Iraq War before the invasion, even though he expressed support. He contends that Mexicans are pouring across the border while disproportionately committing crimes, even though net migration from Mexico is negative and studies indicate that immigrants commit proportionally fewer crimes than American citizens. And so on. In addition, Trump often states a policy position only to immediately deny that he did. He uses his public pronouncements to calibrate his positions, flopping around until he arrives at a place his supporters and the media can accept. Then he asserts he has always been at war with Oceania. Finally, Trump also deceives by dominating an interview, using a journalist’s basic decorum and unwillingness to interrupt against them by nonsensically rambling about unrelated topics until the original question is lost. The evidence of these patterns and the frequency of their deployment is overwhelming.
All of the above is rather distressing in part because Trump appears to be getting away with it. Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign was flogged for months simply because an aide compared his general election versus primary positioning to an etch-a-sketch. Hillary Clinton continues to be roasted over the fires of Benghazi despite multiple independent and Republican-led investigations clearing her of any malfeasance or incompetence. Just this week, Clinton was given prolonged negative coverage of a statement she made in March about wanting to put coal mines out of business, while reporters ignored her subsequent statement that she wanted to assist the working class individuals who would lose jobs as a result (she was consequently forced to apologize, even though the underlying point is eminently defensible and essentially in accord with the Obama EPA’s policy). Meanwhile, Trump careens from one offensive and mendacious statement to the next, rendering him seemingly gaffe proof.
All of which is why the media has an obligation to tell its audience when Donald Trump is lying that “Donald Trump is lying.” Interviewers have a responsibility to tell Trump “you have not answered my question” when he has not answered their question, and “what you just said is not true,” when what he has just said is not true.
Of course, such an approach would be unthinkable to the traditional media, whose most bedrock ideal is that journalists must be neutral between the major political parties. This principle is so fundamental that journalists often contort themselves to present each party’s position without correction even if one side is clearly distorting the facts, a practice New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has derisively termed “bothsidesism.” Krugman has long identified how pervasive and harmful this habit is in print and television journalism, especially as the GOP has increasingly devolved into using rhetoric based on alternative realities fed by opportunistic politicians and insular, alternative media outlets. His best articulation of the problem with bothsidesism is the joking headline, “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.” On these crystal clear issues, Krugman’s core criticism is correct. The media’s failure to “take sides” when mainstream Republican politicians said they “didn’t know” if President Obama was born in the United States or asserted that the Affordable Care Act established “death panels,” was a journalistic failing.
On the other hand, Krugman has not come up with a workable theory of what ideal would replace bothsidesism. A blithe dismissal that empowered reporters to be the clear arbiters of right and wrong would be a mistake. Fox News, for instance, continually argues (often but not always insincerely) that they present the news accurately and honestly. Obama’s immigration orders are an imperial overreach. Christians really are persecuted today. And on and on. Indeed, although Fox News at its worst is full of racist bile and partisan hacks masquerading as experts, the channel at its best can be seen as a conservative attempt to abandon the pretense that all viewpoints are equal and to instead report the facts as it perceives them to be. Viewed in this light, simply dismissing the journalist norm of detachment and evenhandedness means accepting a less trusted, more partisan media. Neutrality, therefore, is a bulwark worth preserving, so long as the truth is not sacrificed to do so.
Indeed, there is a reason why reporters fall back on “one side says, the other side says” formulations for reporting political disputes. The first problem is that no person has a monopoly on discerning the truth. Stephen Colbert’s joking critique of the George W. Bush’s casual disregard for the facts—its “truthiness”—was that “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” And certainly under the current political climate, Republicans have demonstrated an asymmetrical aversion to empirical research and unpleasant truths. But there is nothing inevitable or unalterable about this current juxtaposition. Many issues really are open to multiple viewpoints, even if one might legitimately believe that their view is the only acceptable one. For instance, it would be inappropriate for a journalist to identify a statement that “life begins at conception” or that “life begins at birth” as categorically inaccurate. One or the other may definitively be true, but there is legitimate political debate about it. Linda Greenhouse is likely correct that Obama’s immigration executive orders are lawful enforcement actions, but a contrary viewpoint should not be termed a “lie” in a general news article. A press unchecked by its proper role in the political system is one that will either become too powerful or completely irrelevant.
The second problem is line drawing. Even if one could dispassionately and without bias decide which political statements are clearly false, there remains the problem of deciding which falsehoods to identify as such. It is easy to forget this now as Trump exhales misinformation as casually as CO2, but prior to this electoral season Mitt Romney’s campaign was perhaps the most deceitful in modern general election history. His tax plan did not add up. He repeated the falsehood about Obama’s “apology tour” ad nauseam even after it had been debunked. He deliberately mischaracterized the policy prescription behind his “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt” editorial. And of course, he centered his criticism of the Affordable Care Act on the notorious “$716 million in Medicare cuts” invention. Yet, these distortions pale in comparison to Trump’s flagrant falsehoods (such as handing out “Trump Steaks” at his Super Tuesday victory party when they were in fact no such thing, as that venture is now defunct). Was Romney’s $716 million misrepresentation closer to Trump Steaks or the dispute over Obama’s immigration proposal? If we want journalists to report on the campaign and not decide it, parsing half-truths and distortions in a more aggressive posture by freeing them to be the ultimate arbiters is a risky move.
In many ways, then, the media must allow some level of distortion and spin to go unchecked in order to preserve its credibility and thus continue its necessary mission of informing the public on current events. And yet, Trump is different. His lies are not simply spin to make his opponents look worse or to dodge the unpleasant ramifications of certain policy proposals promised to the base. As discussed above, they are purposely demagogic and present a fundamentally unfair advantage. He is not held to the same standard as other candidates, and he is able to defame without repercussion. So how are we to reconcile the competing obligations to maintain journalistic independence while honestly reporting the facts in the age of Trump?
One solution is for journalists to approach their jobs as though they were a trial judge presiding over a jury trial. Under our legal system, juries are usually the arbiters of fact. They decide what did and did not happen and make the final call in applying those facts to the law. Nonetheless, the judge presiding over a jury trial has tremendous power over procedural outcomes, evidentiary submissions, and litigant conduct. While the judge cannot decide which side wins, they ensure that the process conforms to accepted legal norms and rules and determine what and how the evidence and argument will be presented. And critically for this discussion, a good trial judge lets both sides try their case, while still demanding that certain ethical conventions are adhered to. That is, a lawyer may represent a clearly culpable party and concoct the best defense. Presenting evidence or a legal argument a lawyer knows to be false, however, is considered “fraud on the court.” A lawyer may cast doubt on the other side’s evidence, may present competing theories, and may try to muddy an otherwise straightforward account. But she cannot knowingly present false testimony or implausibly construe legal precedent outside of accepted bounds.
Applying this logic as a model for good journalism, a candidate may have the “wrong” view of trade, health care, education, or civil rights, but it is not for the media to say so. It is for the voters to decide. If in making their argument, however, a candidate knowingly or recklessly states that which is false, it is incumbent on the media to inform the public of that falsehood loudly and clearly. In other words, journalists must insistent that Trump respect widely accepted norms. When it comes to Trump, a responsible media should tell the truth when he does not.