Trump Proves that Journalism Must Reevaluate Its Relationship with "Objectivity"

By Doctor Comrade

Jim Rutenberg argued in The New York Times that Donald Trump's candidacy for president has challenged journalists' commitment to fairness and objectivity. He asks the question that if journalists know that Trump is an existential threat to the US and its allies, "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." Rutenberg says that objectivity--the American media's "idealistic form of journalism with a capital 'J' we’ve been trained to always strive for"--is fundamentally challenged by how absurd Trump's policy proposals, rhetoric, and demeanor are. His solution is, however, to continue striving for the objective ideal, observing, "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."

Putting aside for the moment that Rutenberg has made numerous ahistorical and potentially dangerous assertions about the nature of Journalism, he also forfeits his journalistic responsibility of being "true to the facts," as he put it. In essence, Rutenberg exemplifies numerous problems with American journalism. He is unwilling to use his own voice to criticize Trump, he has attempted to provide some semblance of "balance" in his editorial, and he pays lip service to a kind of journalism that does not exist and has never existed.

In the first case, you can see that he frames the question about the danger of Trump in the second person: "If you're a working journalist and you believe..." rather than saying, "I'm a journalist, and I believe..." or "I am a journalist, and along with many of my colleagues, I believe..." He's presenting a pseudo-objective position, creating a strawman to stand in for his own perspective. It's completely dishonest and, more importantly, completely spineless. It's not as if he's attempting to make a nuanced argument about the danger of Trump; it's quite the opposite, actually. He marches out a number of quotes from high-profile Trump-skeptic journalists like Joe Scarborough, Carolyn Ryan, and Cameron Barr. But then Rutenberg has the nerve to compare Trump's apocalyptic policies with Hillary Clinton's email scandal.

Which is another critical error made by Rutenberg. He states, "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." To disprove his own observation, he attempts to provide a balanced account by drawing false comparisons to Clinton's emails, quoting Rush Limbaugh, and devoting eight paragraphs to Republican commentator Joe Scarborough's milquetoast reporting of Trump's potential nuclear weapons policy. How does Rutenberg know balance has been destroyed? Because Trump's media saturation "threatens to throw the advantage to his news conference-averse opponent, Hillary Clinton, who should draw plenty more tough-minded coverage herself."

I have to believe that Rutenberg is making a bad joke here. For one, if he's attempting to provide context to the American election by showing how Donald Trump is the only presidential candidate in recent memory that is widely regarded as an existential threat to the United States, he shouldn't be comparing an email server to Trump asking why he isn't supposed to use nuclear weapons against Europe! (And what's worse, Rutenberg has put me in the position of defending Hillary Clinton!)

What Rutenberg has demonstrated is the problem inherent to journalism itself. Journalism is not--and never has been--objective. Objectivity has been variably trotted out as a smokescreen behind which journalists hide their agendas, or it has been used to bolster the credibility of news gathering institutions, or it has been presented as the goal that every journalist strives to achieve. But objectivity does not exist: as I've written before, journalists use their position, privilege, education, and audience to espouse their ideology. Whether its unconscious bias or a commitment to a particular worldview, journalists always already present their ideological views in their work.

This is not inherently negative, however. In the case of Trump, it's a dereliction of duty for journalists not to attack him. But they can't use "objectivity" as their prerogative. Mike Pesca argued that journalists should adhere to their journalistic principles, allowing Trump to make a mockery of himself, so journalists will fairly contextualize his absurdity, and then the public will react accordingly. This is a completely naive view of both journalism and journalism's audience. The media gave Trump at least $2 billion of free advertising during his campaign, which not only saved him money but also gave him a national platform through which to reach a national audience. Their uncritical reporting of his dangerous rhetoric allowed him to move relatively unscathed through the primary process, garnering endorsements from Republicans and the American Nazi Party alike. The media has been complicit in creating this mess in the first place.

Pesca also argued that by simply following journalistic practices, most of the country has already turned away from Trump. That presupposes two things: first, that most of the American people were undecided before the media started paying real attention to Trump, which is incorrect because Americans had a majority-unfavorable view of him before the primaries; and second, that all the Americans who were going to turn against him have done so by now. Clinton currently holds a 7.5% lead according to RealClearPoliticsCould and should this lead be bigger? Yes. If the media had treated Trump how he deserved to be treated in 2015, he may not even be the GOP nominee.

As early as December 2015, the media was using the term "disqualifying" to describe Trump. Though if they had treated him as if he had truly disqualified himself, they would have refused to give him the coverage he so desperately needed (remember, he started out polling far below others in the GOP field before Iowa). Or they could have attacked him for what he is rather than hiding behind balance and objectivity, or hiding behind "what the people want." What the people want is for a fascist demagogue to be called a fascist demagogue. The people want him to be dismissed out of hand for what he is. He wasn't a serious presidential candidate until he was turned into one. Imagine if the media had given Trump the amount of attention they gave Bernie Sanders, Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, all of whom have been variously dismissed as real contenders.

Journalism has no interest in objectivity; journalism is about creating revenue. Trump was a revenue generating machine, someone who could garner clicks and views at a much larger rate than many of his competitors. As Jeff Spross wrote in The Week, ignoring Trump would have been "economic suicide." Spross blames "market failures" for coverage of Trump, but that's clearly apologia for journalism's moral failure to suppress the bigoted, hateful, racist, sexist, Islamophobic part of society.

Broadcasting Trump's hate-filled verbal diarrhea is not objectivity, and pretending to give "context" to the election by showing his speeches is not "objectivity." It's pandering to an audience; it's a fearful rejection of moral duty; it's unapologetic money grubbing; and it's a complete disregard for journalism's stated ethics. Crush fascism, don't give it a platform.

You can purchase my first collection of short stories Prepare Your Defenses by clicking here, or you can read the whole first chapter and decide later!