A once-upon-a-time voice for journalistic respectability — the Columbia Journalism Review — has consigned to the well-known hot place the notion that respectability entails letting voters rather than reporters decide whether a president is Abe Lincoln or a dirty lying rat. The Review rather leans to the latter conclusion.
The Review’s daily, always (to me) absorbing look at media goings-on raises the question of how to talk about, well, a lying rat of a president: a distinction most media institutions have awarded Donald Trump. The Review highlights the New York Times’ efforts to call Trump a liar without actually calling him one.
“Trump Falsely Says Times Made Up Source in Report on Korea Summit Meeting.” That would be just one example of journalistic efforts to downplay the President’s commitment, such as it is, to the Truth that Makes You Free. The Journalism Review quotes Times White House Reporter Maggie Haberman’s disparaging Tweet the other day: “Trump told two demonstrable falsehoods this AM.”
The Review says “the argument consumed political media conversations on Twitter for much of the weekend.” Some Twitterists thought Haberman’s charge a little mild. On May 28 came the Times’ charge that “He Uses Conspiracy Theories to Erode Trust.”
Here we go again, trying, as a society, as a culture, to make heads or tails of a president who defies efforts to categorize him. Over the uproar concerning his gift for veracity or falsehood, alarm bells should sound. The anti-Trump media are nuts if they think they’re improving their status in 21stcentury life. They’re undermining it further: deepening national disarray by abandoning standards more necessary than ever before in public life.
May it please the court, reporters and editors have neither right nor duty to show up the president as a liar. It’s lousy journalism to try. But oh, such modern journalism! Which is the problem.
Look: The media are our eyes and ears. Our brains they aren’t, though our media clearly suppose the opposite. Which supposition makes them try to lead mere viewers and readers by the nose: telling them what to think. Good luck with that! “Speaking truth to power” — an old Quaker ideal beloved of modern Thought Leaders — involves telling Trump voters they laid an egg. What a non-fruitful mode of argumentation and discussion.
The President’s grasp of facts is his own, certainly. But:
1) He’s not always wrong, even when being obnoxious; and
2) a statement out of line with the truth doesn’t suggest the need to go at him, as per the Times, with eyes bulging; rather, it demands bringing to view — without indignation or contempt — asseverations and facts that undermine the Trumpian account. Only you set such asseverations and facts side by side with his own: quoting responsible, preferably neutral, or neutral-ish, sources. You let the White House answer those sources. Then you stand back and let the people make up their own minds!
Strange conceit, that — trusting votes and consumers of news to make up their minds without pointed assistance from the media. For which, if it doesn’t work out, maybe we need to examine the U.S. education system with more alarm. And maybe also the lack of trust that previous media forays against previous presidents have engendered.
Media fury at one Donald Trump is sowing worrisome consequences for the future. The lying so-and-so, as most of the media view him, is going to be gone one day: possibly with the media’s invaluable assistance. And will there linger, save in progressive circles, any public inclination to believe, or even listen to, a word the anti-Trump press says about anything? Including the weather?
A certain… call it mutual trust, or sense of shared conviction, lies at the foundation of any free society. I cannot see the anti-Trump media adding to our depleted storehouse of trust. I see, indeed, the media’s angry judgmentalism — its love of crying “Liar!” — making things far angrier, far more divisive, than they are now. And what we have right now isn’t great. Just subscribe (as I do) to the Times. And judge.
William Murchison is writing a book about moral restoration. He most recently was Radford Distinguished Professor of Journalism at Baylor University.
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