A commenter on my last post — the one about the “unfiltered voices” video that The New York Times compiled from Donald Trump rallies during the past year — raised the question of balanced reporting, asserting that The Times’ video contained no balance whatsoever.
The commenter’s point is unarguable because Times reporters set out, video devices in hand, to record the most objectionable behavior and most contemptuous things that people shouted out at Trump rallies. For example, when Trump referenced President Obama at one rally, someone in the crowd shouted, “Fuck that nigger.” At another rally, a smiling, young Trump supporter held up for the camera a hand-printed T-shirt that said, “Trump that Bitch,” referring, of course, to Hillary Clinton.
That kind of stuff is shocking, and I, for one, am grateful to The Times for pulling back the curtain and giving us an inside look at those rallies.
No, there was no effort to “present both sides” in that video. The point — totally valid — was that some people in the Trump crowds have so far eclipsed reasonable and appropriate expression that, in some cases, two long-held tenets of journalism, fairness and balance, must be suspended. Otherwise, you would never get to the truth.
The public certainly has a right to know this type of vulgar and disgusting expression is taking place…out loud and in public. It’s not like it’s a group of seething rednecks and KKK members getting together around a campfire and cutting loose, with lookouts stationed around the perimeter to make sure no one was pointing an iPhone through the trees.
…Dovetailing with (but not stemming from) publication of the “unfiltered voices” video, NYT chief media reporter Jim Rutenberg today had an excellent commentary titled, “Trump is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.”
Here’s how Rutenberg begins his piece:
If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, 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, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, non-opinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.
Covering Trump, Rutenberg said, upsets the balance of the “idealistic form of journalism” that working journalists have long been trained to aspire to.
“But let’s face it,” Rutenberg goes on to say. “Balance has been on vacation since Mr. Trump stepped onto his golden Trump Tower escalator last year to announce his candidacy. For the primaries and caucuses, the imbalance played to his advantage, captured by the killer statistic of the season: His nearly $2 billion in free media was more than six times as much as that of his closest Republican rival.”
Rutenberg says that now Trump is the Republican nominee for president, commentators — even some known to be friendly to him — have been analyzing him through a different lens, that is, how his temperament and grandiose policy statements would play out in the White House.
Rutenberg cited a report that former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough made on his “Morning Joe” show on MSNBC. Scarborough told his audience about an alarming conversation he had with a “foreign policy expert” who had given Mr. Trump a national security briefing.
Three times, Scarborough said, the expert asked about the use of nuclear weapons, and one of the questions was: “If we have them, why can’t we use them?”
It’s worth noting that, in his column, Rutenberg also points an accusing finger at Hillary Clinton. He said that covering Trump as a potentially dangerous candidate “threatens to throw the advantage to his news conference-averse opponent…who should draw plenty more tough-minded coverage herself.”
“She proved that again last week,” Rutenberg said, “with her assertion on “Fox News Sunday” that James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had declared her to be truthful in her answers about her decision to use a private email server for official State Department business — a grossly misleading interpretation of an F.B.I. report that pointed up various falsehoods in her public explanations.”
…I’ve said all along that Hillary Clinton’s evasion of the truth and cutting of corners have made my blood boil, and I will not cast my vote for her with great joy. But after all I’ve learned about Trump and the type of people who seem to support him, I will vote for Clinton enthusiastically.
Fifty years ago, in 1966, the writer Gay Talese revolutionized journalism with what still ranks today as one of the greatest magazine stories ever written — a very long profile of Frank Sinatra, titled “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.”
A lead-in to an online version of the story says when Talese arrived in Los Angeles, Sinatra was “under the weather, out of sorts, and unwilling to be interviewed.” But Talese was undeterred; he stayed in L.A. and began talking to people in Sinatra’s circle and through them finally gained access to The Man himself.
The lead-in goes on to say the resulting profile (which I hope many of you will take the time to read, if you haven’t seen it before) “became one of the most celebrated magazine stories ever published, a pioneering example of what came to be called New Journalism—a work of rigorously faithful fact enlivened with the kind of vivid storytelling that had previously been reserved for fiction.”
Yes, journalism has changed in the past and continues to change and evolve. In this presidential election cycle, we can thank Donald Trump for triggering a new round of changes in covering the candidates who seek to lead the greatest and strongest nation in the world. We need to know, as best we can and with the veneer removed, what they are like and what they do to inspire support and dedication among their followers. As we’ve seen, it can be scary, and we deserve to know that before Nov. 8.