Press must be fierce but fair

by Steven Roberts

Donald Trump’s third try for the White House will pose “a major professional dilemma for American journalism,” writes Marvin Kalb, whose political reporting earned him a cherished place on Richard Nixon’s enemies list.

“How will Trump be covered?” Kalb asks in an essay for the Brookings Institution. “Editors know Trump makes news. He is outrageously controversial, and, though no one knows yet, he may actually be indicted for criminal activity relating to the 2020 election and his personal finances. How do you cover such a presidential candidate, who has been widely accused of undermining American democracy?”

The answer is that journalists need to be vigorous and rigorous, tough and tenacious, relentlessly calling out Trump’s falsehoods and fabrications and his systematic attempts to destabilize the electoral process. But journalists must also be as careful and accurate as possible.

Since Trump regularly derides the media as “scum” and “enemies of the people,” it’s understandable that many journalists deeply despise the man. But that human reaction should not poison their professional performance.

The press can’t be anti-Trump. It has to be pro-truth. And there is a big difference.

I covered the Reagan White House for The New York Times, and I have taught journalistic ethics at George Washington University for more than two decades, so I’ve been watching closely as Trump altered the basic relationship between the press and the presidency.

He lies continuously, never corrects his errors or apologizes for them, and assiduously discredits any person or institution that tries to hold him accountable. In reaction, journalists have taken a far more aggressive – even adversarial – posture toward Trump than toward previous administrations.

“We are much tougher about calling out falsehoods from (this) president,” Elisabeth Bumiller, the Times’ Washington bureau chief, told me during Trump’s administration. “In the old days, we would say, ‘The president said this, but Democrats said this.’ We don’t do that anymore. … You can’t just say, ‘He said.’ You have to say, ‘He falsely said.’ Trump has uttered so many falsehoods, so often, that to just report what he said, like we have covered other presidents, seems like a falsehood in itself.”

In my 25 years at the Times, I never wrote words like “He falsely said,” but I think the change is essential, and it comes down to the difference between facts and truth. If a reporter writes, “President Trump said yesterday that the 2020 election was stolen,” that’s stating a fact. Trump said it. But the fact is not true; it demands correction — clearly and immediately.

Another positive journalistic shift is the widespread rejection of both sides-ism or false equivalency. President Biden occasionally gets facts wrong. For Trump, deception is doctrine, part of his core being. To simply call both men “liars” conveys a profoundly inaccurate impression.

In his previous campaigns, Trump was masterful at commanding free coverage of his live events by media outlets that loved the ratings he produced and the ad revenue that followed. And since fact-checking Trump, or any politician for that matter, in real time is very difficult, his strategy of manipulation and misinformation flourished.

Today, the networks — including Fox — are far more wary of playing into his hands. Margaret Sullivan, the outgoing media critic of The Washington Post, made this point about future campaign coverage: “One thing is certain. News outlets can’t continue to do speech, rally and debate coverage — the heart of campaign reporting — in the same old way. They will need to lean less on knee-jerk live coverage and more on reporting that relentlessly provides meaningful context.”

All true. But there are major counter-pressures coming from the left, urging the mainstream media to join the “resistance” to Trump, to take sides, to accept his worldview that there is no such thing as independent, verifiable reality, just partisan and subjective posturing.

As Dean Baquet, who recently retired as editor of the Times, once put it, “our readers and some of our staff cheer us when we take on Donald Trump, but they jeer at us when we take on Joe Biden. They sometimes want us to pretend that he was not elected president, but he was elected president. And our job is to figure out why, and how, and to hold the administration to account. If you’re independent, that’s what you do.”

As I warn my ethics students, one of the most dangerous pitfalls is wanting a story to be true, allowing confirmation bias to infect your reporting, twisting your professional standards to fit your personal prejudices.

Be fierce. But be fair.

Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.