Back in early May, I predicted that the mainstream media’s “objectivity” rituals would kick in as autumn neared, “balancing” the two major candidates according to the timeworn rules of “on of the one hand, on the other hand,” thus leaving the impression that Hillary Clinton (seasoned and experienced, whatever her flaws) and Donald Trump (manifestly unfit, by dint of his temperament and ignorance) can somehow be equated.
I predicted the coverage would devolve into he said/she said, with insufficient attention paid to the truth or value of what was said. My prediction was not exactly daring; I’ve been around long enough to know how the traditional media game is played. And sure enough, the false-balance game was played to the hilt late last week, and the effect was sickening.
Last Wednesday, Trump (whose entire campaign is grounded in white grievance against minorities) claimed that Clinton (who has been working on minority issues since the 1970s) is a racist. On Thursday, Clinton delivered a fact-packed indictment that accurately tied Trump to the racist “alt-right” movement and listed some of his most disgraceful racist episodes ---- like his habit of retweeting white supremacists, including a user who goes by the name “white genocide.” In response, Trump (who thrived in his dad’s real estate empire, where applications from African Americans were branded with the letter C, for “colored”) simply repeated his Wednesday attack, again calling Clinton a racist.
In order to treat his drive-by name-calling and her substantive indictment as equal, you have to be cognitively brain dead. Either that, or you have to be tethered to the tenets of “objective” false equivalency. Here’s how four media outlets played those episodes:
The headline in The Washington Post: Clinton, Trump exchange racially charged accusations
The headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer: Trading tough jabs on race and alt-right
The headline on the Politico site: Trump and Clinton throw more blows in bigotry fight
The headline on the Bloomberg News site: Trump, Clinton trade blistering attacks on race, prejudice
This is “objective” journalism at its most reductively banal, seeking to “balance” the unbalanceable. As I’ve argued before (and I’m hardly alone on this), the traditional journalism tenets are inadequate to meet the challenges of this perilously historic moment. It’s not sufficient to say that a dangerously racist demagogue “traded jabs” with a qualified opponent, absent of fact-checking context.
There are blessedly rare times in the life of this nation when journalists have found it necessary to step beyond their “objective” roles and tell the unvarnished truth. Edward R. Murrow did it in 1954 when he slapped down Trump predecessor Joseph McCarthy. Walter Cronkite did it in 1968 when he returned from Vietnam and told viewers exactly what he’d learned, that the war was a lost farce. We are living such a moment today.
I agree with Paul Moses, a professor of journalism at Brooklyn College, who recently wrote that “something is lost” when journalists feel compelled to abandon their Olympian dispassion. However, there are times when “conscience calls for it,” as Moses explained further:
“As the son of a father who grew up Jewish in Nazi Germany, I can well understand the danger of muffling or muzzling criticism of a would-be leader who builds a movement based on antipathy toward immigrants and a minority religious group, joined to an exaggerated nationalism and violence-tinged rhetoric .... [O]bjectivity in journalism doesn’t mean allowing the wool to be pulled over your eyes. It means a commitment to the truth, rooted in determined reporting and a fair-minded consideration of the facts.”
This is no time for lazy boxing match banalities. We pull the wool over our eyes when we practice false equivalence. Conscience calls us to do better.
Dick Polman is the national political columnist at NewsWorks/WHYY in Philadelphia (newsworks.org/polman) and a “Writer in Residence” at the University of Pennsylvania. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org