News objectivity in the time of Trump — telling it like it is

The New York Times published an “op-ed” by Republican Senator Tom Cotton advocating a military crackdown on protests.

Arguably a vile view. But, in a spirit of open discourse and Enlightenment rationalism, The Times thought it merited publication. Especially, you might think, with mainstream media under assault for alleged left-wing bias.

Yet many Times staffers thought differently, objecting to publication. The Times was forced to apologize; the editor responsible forced to resign.

This is today’s “cancel culture.” The paper issued a statement saying the Cotton piece did not meet its standards. What it actually transgressed was the politically correct woke catechism. With dissenters not just countered with arguments, they must be suppressed, not permitted to be heard, banished from society.

I recently reviewed Robert Boyers’s book The Tyranny of Virtue, calling out this illiberal censorship mania on America’s campuses. Now it has infected our wider culture, when not even an institution like The Times can stand against it.

Another Times staffer, Bari Weiss, resigned in protest at the paper’s capitulation. Echoing Boyers, she criticized what she saw as its new ethos, “that the truth isn’t a collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”

We’re between the Scylla of the left’s intolerance of divergent viewpoints and the Charybdis of Trumpian “fake news” rhetoric trying to destroy the public square from the other direction.

Journalistic objectivity is a modern concept. When I researched events circa 1920 for my 1973 book on Albany politics, I was surprised at how overtly partisan newspapers were. That soon gave way to neutral reporting, with opinion confined to editorial pages. This model enabled the public to shape views based on facts and reality. How quaint that sounds today.

We also once thought the internet would make people even better informed. However, while mainstream news outfits feel both an obligation to play it straight and that this serves their commercial interests — information being the product they’re selling — that doesn’t apply to internet platforms whose product is propaganda, and which can make money by feeding red meat to narrow audience slices.

Meantime, America’s public square used to be dominated by two political sides each also pretty much playing it straight, with issues debated honestly and rationally. Journalistic neutrality fit such a landscape. But that has changed, causing the objectivity standard to be questioned even for mainstream news media.

A recent article in The Economist spotlights the problem by quoting a December Times report about an impeachment hearing: “the lawmakers from the two parties could not even agree on a basic set of facts.” Comments The Economist: “Which facts were real? Readers were left to guess.”

But the magazine says a new paradigm is emerging, based on “moral clarity,” a sense of right and wrong. It quotes Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer-winning journalist, that in lieu of an objectivity obsession, reporters should “focus on being fair and telling the truth, as best as one can, based on the given context and available facts.”

There’s been a running debate over using the words “lie” or “racist” in covering Trump. I’ve long watched PBS’s  Washington Week where journalists discuss the news, without slant. Often this means dancing around the obvious. Like always dissecting Trump actions on the pretense that there’s some rationality behind them. At last, recently, The Times’s Peter Baker actually used the word “insane.”

To exemplify the emerging standard, The Economist, quotes this start to a Times front page news story:

“President Trump used the spotlight of the Fourth of July weekend to sow division during a national crisis, denying his failings in containing the worsening coronavirus pandemic while delivering a harsh diatribe against what he branded the ‘new far-left fascism.'”

I’d call this telling it like it is. Indeed, every word is factual reporting. Some, like “diatribe,” are loaded words, but even that usage conforms to its dictionary definition.

Of course right and wrong can always be a matter of opinion. And “moral clarity,” for too many today, translates into the oppressive politically correct orthodoxy Boyers described.

But I keep coming back to our being in an unprecedented national crisis. It predated covid. A crisis of this country’s soul — what it stands for, what it means. Whether our pluralistic democracy can endure. This, right now, is crunch time. Journalists and the news media are on the front lines. Their responsibility transcends he-said-she-said neutrality. They must tell it like it is.


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