Journalists Look Awkward in the 'Opposition Party'
The opening days of Donald Trump’s presidency are forcing the traditional news media to choose between squarely reporting on the president and more directly challenging him when he makes statements that are demonstrably false. The strategic choice between a watchdog mission and an active opposition must be made mindfully. Otherwise the media will find itself tacking back and forth between objectivity and persuasion, an approach that could squander both aims.
The state of play is driven by uncertainty about the journalistic mission. Print and broadcast media tried for much of the last century to differentiate between reporting, which strived for objectivity, and editorial opinion (like Bloomberg View), which could openly support or oppose politicians, including sitting presidents.
That divide has been eroded by cable news. Fox News Channel started by calling itself “fair and balanced” while pushing a conservative agenda; following that outsize success, MSNBC tried to fill the same niche on the liberal side, leaving CNN in the awkward state of being somewhere in between.
Now the divide is in question for traditional newspapers, as well. The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal have increasingly reported in recent weeks that Trump has “lied” or uttered “falsehoods,” words that imply a knowing deception, not just an error.
That’s rhetorically and conceptually different from reporting that Trump made a factual assertion and that knowledgeable experts disagree with it.
It’s worth remembering that the reporting/editorial distinction doesn’t go back to the era of the Founding Fathers, when newspapers were generally seen as pervasively partisan. It’s a product of the divide between facts and values, itself derived from 20th-century developments in the realm of ideas.
Among other uses, the line between facts and values was always intended to underscore the power of “objective” truth-telling institutions and disciplines. That often meant hard science. But it also included social science -- and reporting.
The most crucial reality that the media needs to recognize is that by labeling Trump’s statements as lies, it will be perceived as going into opposition and abandoning objectivity. That's certainly the message coming from Trump adviser Steve Bannon. In American political culture, paradoxically, calling someone a liar doesn’t make it sound like you’re the truth-teller. It makes it sound like you’re engaged in a debate.
Of course, should the traditional media choose to go back and reassert its objectivity, that strategy has limits as well. It’s naive to believe that the Trump-supporting public will accept the newspapers’ version of objective truth in the face of Trump’s repeatedly asserted views. The president’s supporters will embrace their version of facts -- “alternative facts,” as Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway unforgettably put it.
The instantly famous phrase wasn’t just doublespeak. It captured a public perception that political facts are indistinguishable from interpretation. It makes logical sense only in an era of factual relativism, where you have the right not only to your own opinion, but also to your own facts.
Over time, if the newspapers report daily that Trump is “lying” rather than impassively quoting knowledgeable experts who dispute his claims, the public will consider the media to be presenting a counter-version of the truth, not the objective truth itself. The result will be that the media’s assertions of its objectivity will be accepted -- if at all -- only by Trump opponents. The credibility benefit of the reporting/editorial divide will be lost.
Trump gets this. His apparently trivial assertions about crowd size at the inauguration or voter fraud give the news media the hard choice between labeling him a liar and losing the credibility of objectivity, or soft-pedaling their refutations and feeling less relevant. He doesn’t particularly care which.
Today, this division is still alive, albeit in weakened form. Most people concerned about climate change believe the consensus of climate scientists to be true -- because they accept the authority of scientific assertion, not because they’ve done the research themselves. They refer to skeptics as “climate-change deniers” because the skeptics question the truth of the scientists’ claims.
Notice that the adage stating that you’re entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts, is usually deployed today precisely when the facts are being disputed. Its very use undercuts its message.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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