At the beginning of the Trump presidency, a few cautious editors, such as the Wall Street Journal’s Gerard Baker, questioned the media’s open embrace of biased reporting. Baker warned reporters that they should stick to demonstrable facts and avoid jumping to any conclusions beyond them. Leave those conclusions to your readers, he argued. He, for example, didn’t care for the practice of reporters labeling Trump’s misstatements “lies,” which he rightly saw as an editorial judgment masquerading as news:
The difference is not what I think or what I might express and an opinion or even given reasonable grounds to believe, but what my reporters can report as facts. And if you’re going to report as a fact that something is a lie, you have to know that it’s not only an untruth, not only a falsehood, you have to be able to be able to impute two things in the mind of the speaker: one, knowledge that it is actually untrue; and two, a deliberate intent to deceive.
And I can see circumstances, perhaps, that Donald Trump or indeed anybody else for that matter, that they have enough evidence to know that it’s truth, and that I would be able to infer from their falsehood that they were telling a lie. But it’s a pretty high bar. Our reporters are very careful about imputing motives to people that go beyond the evidence. We are very strict about this. We don’t impute jealousy or hatred or various other things. It is a judgment making a call about whether or not someone is lying. And again, I don’t rule it out completely. I said I’m careful about it. And I think that most people should be careful about it.
Baker was widely mocked for this stance. But had reporters listened to him, they might have spared themselves countless acts of journalistic malpractice during the course of the Trump presidency. In the last week, reporters couldn’t resist jumping to judgments about bogus stories alleging that Trump suborned perjury and that some MAGA-hat-wearing youth had accosted a Native American, both perfect storms of anti-Trump prejudice.
Conforming perfectly to Trump’s description of them as an “opposition party,” journalists have shed any semblance of objectivity and now simply wallow in anti-Trump politics. The frenzy over the bogus BuzzFeed story fed off the media’s conviction that Trump is an inveterate liar; the fraudulent story about the Covington students fed off the media’s conviction that the Trump hat is an inherent symbol of racism. The same journalists who scoffed at Baker’s counsel of restraint embraced the call of CNN’s Christiane Amanpour to be “truthful,” not “neutral.” Such conceits have simply given the media a license to lie in the name of a supposedly superior politics. Neither truthful nor neutral, the media in the age of Trump is purely propagandistic and attitudinal: if something feels “true,” which is to say, if it furthers an anti-Trump narrative, they report it as true.
Dan Rather was one of Gerard Baker’s critics for urging the media to tap the brakes on its anti-Trump bias. Rather called Baker’s advice “deeply disturbing” and then mused on the mission of a journalist: “Journalism, as I was taught it, is a process of getting as close to some valid version of the truth as is humanly possible. And one of my definitions of news is information that the powerful don’t want you to know.… It is not the proper role of journalists to meet lies — especially from someone of Mr. Trump’s stature and power — by hiding behind semantics and euphemisms. Our role is to call it as we see it, based on solid reporting.”
From that sloppy standard for journalists — the injunction to “call it as we see it” — came Rather’s bogus, forgery-based story about George W. Bush’s days in the National Guard, a story that Rather to this day justifies on the ground that it touched upon a “core truth” of Bush’s dishonesty.
By replacing the Baker standard with the Rather/Amanpour standard, the media has gotten itself entangled in an endless stream of fake news. Out of spite for Trump, journalists gave themselves permission to ignore rigorous rules of skepticism and destroy what little remained of the wall between straight reporting and liberal opinion. They set out to torch Trump’s credibility but ended up obliterating their own.