One of the most stupefying defenses of the rigid, free-market libertarianism that took over the American right in the age of Obama was that freedom from government interference was an essential principle no matter the price. This idea came up in many forms. There was the notion that government programs fostered dependency, that redistribution actually harmed its beneficiaries. There was the view that the immediate benefits of expanding government disguised a larger restriction of innovation and prosperity. But no matter the form, the philosophy of Ayn Rand—which conveniently benefited those already possessing resources and power—always cherished a vague ideology of liberty at the expense of basic human needs.
This is how dogmatic adherence to intangible ideas always goes astray. It demands fealty to abstract principle over the primal truths of lived experience. Yet elevating theory while minimizing observation is usually misguided. Government dependency is hardly a concern when you’re starving.
Which is why the latest self-serious journalistic justifications for treating President-Elect Trump with the respect and even-handedness of past leaders are so off-base. Showing “respect” for the election results means only allowing the orderly transfer of power, not normalizing dangerous and unprecedented threats or accepting un-American ideals. Donald Trump is an existential threat to America who embodies principles and ideas that reporters would reflexively condemn if personified in another. Taking comfort in upholding J-school aphorisms while the nation suffers is callous indifference.
Yes, journalism is rightly concerned about tipping the scales between the competing efforts of political movements. The press’s job is to present the facts, not opine about them. If reporting is to remain meaningfully different from advocacy, then the press must, of course, refrain from weighing in on the merits of legitimate policy disputes or political battles. Yet, lost in the endless perorations on the necessity of neutral and balanced coverage is the recognition that objectivity is an illusion. This is so for two reasons: one, because the aim of even-handedness has no relation to the truth, and two, because the inevitable winnowing of which stories to cover and how to cover them necessarily requires value judgments.
First, as should be obvious, not every statement is worthy of consideration and not every assertion is worthy of validation. If we create a world in which the fourth estate cannot evaluate the veracity of the men and women it covers, then it creates an incentive to lie. Indeed, recognizing and exploiting this very dynamic was Trump’s greatest innovation in the 2016 campaign. For instance, everything Trump said during the campaign about his role in the so-called “birther” controversy was an outright lie. That the New York Times would face criticism for labeling it so is the kind of self-righteous piety that hastens our society’s degradation. The media should respect the gray areas, but must remain confident in labeling black and white.
Second, the notion that one can report the news without making value judgments is an absurdity. We cover stories of corruption because society has traditionally recognized that regardless of whether laws are broken, politicians should act in the public interest and not for private gain. Reports on the Islamic State are shaped by the judgment that the religious views and political ends of that movement are illegitimate and that their preferred means of political triumph (namely rape, murder, and torture) are unjustified and inhumane. That Trump received extensive coverage over his “Mexican rapist” comments in his presidential announcement address is evidence enough that values drive coverage. The comments were newsworthy because racially insensitive (read: racist) remarks are perceived negatively and considered disqualifying. The howls of outrage from racists over how Trump’s campaign was covered weren’t wrong—the media is generally (although not sufficiently) biased against overt racism.
Since eliminating bias is neither desirable nor possible, the media’s role must be to prioritize both truth and consensus social values. The press is necessarily the arbiter of legitimate discourse—whether it likes it or not. And the basis for prioritizing inclusiveness, equality, democracy, human rights, and good governance stems from our national identity and constitutional ideals. If these are now exclusively “liberal” ideals, then so be it. They used to be American ones.
Thus, if we assume that Donald Trump is unmoved by America’s best interests, that he is staffing the government with people intent on exploiting their positions for personal gain, and that he is willingly jeopardizing both the country’s short-term health and its long-term, hard-won ability to steer a violent and chaotic world toward a more just and stable equilibrium, then why on earth would journalistic neutrality be worth the sacrifice?
What’s incredible about the argument for coverage neutrality is that its champions haven’t bothered to dispute these premises. And how could they? The evidence is overwhelming that Trump is not a mere disruptor of the traditional order; he is willingly weakening the country’s indispensable assets and virtues in the service of fame, riches, ego, and revenge. Instead, it’s that these staunch defenders of the press truly believe that reporting standards are the sine qua non of democratic freedoms. They are not. Woodward and Bernstein are no match for Goebbels.
Fortunately, we are not there yet. Thus far, Trump has only suggested certain policies and hinted at various undemocratic means. For this reason, many have argued that we should wait to condemn what may not come—a view that in its simplest and most grating form is a request to “give Trump a chance.” That is fair enough. While we should judge Trump on what he says, we should not mistake words for actions.
But if Trump follows through on his campaign promises, or continues to launch unsettling and outrageous missives in every direction, or refuses to reign in his kleptocratic impulses, a responsible press, steeped in small “l” liberal values, must stand as a bulwark in defense of American values. Otherwise, like the Ryan budget adherent living below the poverty line, mindless dogma will be little comfort when the cold sets in. Meanwhile, in its pursuit of objectivity, the media may lose it altogether.