Political journalists need to stop stifling their outrage

Don Lemon
CNN anchor Don Lemon is one of a very few journalists willing to show his disgust at Trump’s most outrageous conduct. (CNN)
It’s nice that the Washington Post and the New York Times the other day both ran articles pointing out that Donald Trump’s main strategy in the midterm elections is to traffic in fear and falsehoods.

It’s nice that PBS Newshour had the Toronto Star’s must-follow Trump-tracker Daniel Dale on the other night, patiently explaining to Judy “we call them false statements” Woodruff that “in our regular lives, I think the word we would use is lie. So, I think we as journalists should use it in our articles as well.”

All that fact-checking out there sure is fine, especially when it comes online while the lie is still young.

And the overall tone of Trump coverage from our top newsrooms has clearly become more skeptical over time.

But it’s all still a wildly understated reaction to a presidency that is an affront to so many core American – and journalistic – values.

Let’s be real: The vast majority of political journalists have been stifling their outrage ever since Donald Trump became a plausible candidate for president.

But by stifling that outrage, they have done a grave disservice to their audiences and to country.

By responding normally, they have unwittingly sent the message that what is going on is within the realm of the normal, when it is not.

They have let Trump widen the boundaries of socially acceptable discourse to include poisonous strains of overt racism, xenophobia and misogyny.

They have failed to defend against the erosion of democratic institutions.

Trump played the mainstream media for fools. He knew political journalists would be paralyzed into stenography by their phobia of appearing politically biased. He knew — he still knows — that every time he makes a preposterous statement, they’ll give him a megaphone, rather than a dunce cap.

Washington Post editor Marty Barron famously asserted that his organization isn’t covering Trump any differently than it would any other president. “We’re not at war with the administration, we’re at work,” he said.

But what is the work of a journalist? It starts with doing our best to deliver accurate information to the public — and then extends to advocacy for such core journalistic values as fair play, free speech, government transparency, a humane society, and holding the powerful accountable.

There’s a reason that not one of the top 50 American newspapers’ editorial boards endorsed Trump for president – even those that traditionally sided with Republicans. They recognized that Trump’s values are antithetical to journalism’s.

There’s a reason media outlets are having such a hard – and sometimes embarrassing – time finding Trump supporters to write op-eds or take part in panels. They don’t process facts or use language the way journalists do.

NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and Vox’s Ezra Klein recently had a spirited conversation about journalism in the Trump era, exploring Klein’s hypothesis that political journalists haven’t just failed to make politics better, but are actually making it worse.

Rosen despaired that members of the political media never stop to take stock of things, and never seriously consider changing their ways.

There have certainly been several appropriate occasions to do so recently, including the failure to challenge the specious arguments for war in Iraq, and missing the financial implosion of 2008 until it was too late. Giving rise to Trump and then failing to explain him properly may be the worst yet.

“The erosion of democratic institutions — not just the press but all of them” is a key element of Trump’s political movement, Rosen said. “I don’t think our journalists have learned how to angle their work so they can defend democratic institutions, and they probably need to at this point because it’s getting so bad.”

The standard defense from our newsroom leaders is that the voting public is divided on what I am calling core American values.

But if Trump were denying gravity — it is just a theory after all — and a big chunk of Americans backed him up, we’d recognize two things quite clearly:

  1. We have not done our job very well, if people believe something so idiotic; and
  2. We have a responsibility to point out – consistently, aggressively, without any caveats — that he is wrong, and that things fall down.

Sometimes it feels to me like the most important requirement to work in a major newsroom these days is to be unflappable. Well, sometimes flapping is the appropriate response.

So how would justifiable outrage manifest itself? Every time Trump is being deceptive, the main thrust of the story should be the truth, not the lie. The story should vividly illustrate how wrong he is. It should point out how no president before has ever lied this much.

Journalists should not shy away from expressing their own informed conclusions about what is true and what is not. Many stories should include quotes from experts in their field — who are treated as trusted sources who know what they’re talking about, not marginalized as “critics.”

When Trump lies in a tweet about wanting to protect people with pre-existing conditions, that’s a great time to write about how the opposite is true. When he lies about wanting a middle class tax cut, that’s a great time to write about how he lied about last year’s massive tax cut for the rich.

Trump is hardly unique when it comes to violating core American and journalistic values. George W. Bush committed the ultimate presidential sin: lying us into war and then trying to cover it up. Barack Obama, despite his vaunted speech to Muslims calling for a new relationship, dropped 26,172 bombs in seven predominately Muslim countries in his last year in office alone. Despite his public commitment to transparency, he made up rules for drone and cyber warfare unilaterally and in secret.

But Trump’s affronts are across the board, and constant.

Back in July, I wrote at great length about how the rebirth of the deflated Los Angeles Times Washington bureau could become an occasion for the sort of journalistic revolution I’m looking for. California newspapers are the natural vanguard. As I wrote (initially on Medium):

A supermajority of Californians see Trump for what he is. California is future-focused — in distinct contrast to Trump’s fantastical visions of a mythological past that he wants to return to. California is leading the state-level resistance to Trump initiatives in areas such as environmental deregulation, health care, immigration and voting rights. Its people are multicultural and pluralistic. They take seriously their role as stewards of the earth.

So from California, the view is clear: Trump is a profoundly regressive force whose actions and statements are dangerous. And he’s being enabled. Congress has abdicated its role as a check to presidential power. The Supreme Court is no longer committed to protecting minority rights. The result: an irrational and unrestrained president threatens the future of our country as a pluralistic constitutional democracy.

A bureau that openly embraces this view as a baseline… would cover Trump very differently from more typical DC reporters, who censor themselves for fear of appearing to take sides.

But that never went anywhere.

I tweeted my intention to write about this topic earlier today, and got some valuable responses. (One of which is already reflected above.)

I like this idea very much:

My ideas tend to stem from my idealism about journalism. Constantly exposing Trump’s con game is a very practical antidote to Trumpism, and potentially highly effective at bringing people who have been deceived by Trump back to reality.

This tweet is a powerful argument against everything I’ve written above, and I partly agree:

And this tweet reflects the existential despair I felt the other day, seeing a (hopefully outlier) poll reporting that 47 percent of registered voters approve of the job Trump is doing.

Do half of Americans consciously and intentionally reject what I still think of as core American values? For now, I’m going to continue to hope that it’s an aberration — a fluke of history — that journalists can help reverse.

3 thoughts on “Political journalists need to stop stifling their outrage”

  1. I like George Lakoff’s truth sandwich method of messaging. He emphasizes that every report, interview, message, etc should start with the truth, and explain the facts/evidence in context. Only then should a lie be explained and the culpable person(s) identified. However, he also emphasizes that the lie should never be repeated, since that’s doing the work of the liar in amplifying the lie. The close should be a repeat and emphasis of the truth.

    Motivational interviewing is another technique which has the reporter/interviewer attempt to get the audience on the same side of demanding truth, facts and evidence instead of emotion, ad hominems, fear, insults and attacks.

    Michelle Goldberg does this well. You do this well. Otherwise, I find it rare in reporting and in opinion/analysis.


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