The art of jour­nal­ism in the Age of Trump

The Reporter (Lansdale, PA) - - OPINION - Ruth Mar­cus Colum­nist

The ap­proach­ing pres­i­dency of Don­ald Trump poses daunt­ing chal­lenges for the jour­nal­ists cov­er­ing him, not merely be­cause he has de­scribed them as dis­hon­est, low-life scum or be­cause of anx­i­ety over whether the new ad­min­is­tra­tion will ad­here to ba­sic norms of ac­cess, such as daily brief­ings and reg­u­lar news con­fer­ences.

The pres­i­dent-elect’s be­hav­ior presents fun­da­men­tal ques­tions, re­cur­ring daily if not hourly, about the best way to serve our au­di­ence. These are tech­ni­cal is­sues of craft, or­di­nar­ily of in­ter­est only to jour­nal­ists them­selves. In the Age of Trump, they are im­bued with real-world con­se­quences. Should news or­ga­ni­za­tions de­part from cus­tom­ary re­straint and la­bel Trump’s false­hoods as out­right lies? Should the me­dia treat Trump tweet storms with the rapt at­ten­tion de­voted to more tra­di­tional pres­i­den­tial state­ments, or re­frain from such re­flex­ive cov­er­age in or­der to avoid be­ing dis­tracted, per­haps in­ten­tion­ally, from more im­por­tant mat­ters?

And given the phys­i­cal con­straints of head­lines, how should news or­ga­ni­za­tions han­dle a pres­i­den­tial claim — say, to have saved thou­sands of jobs — when the un­der­ly­ing de­tails — the jobs may not be as nu­mer­ous as ad­ver­tised; the po­si­tions might have re­mained in the United States any­way — may be far more nu­anced, if not dis­puted out­right?

The me­dia wres­tled with these ques­tions dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign and ad­justed their be­hav­ior. Fact-checks mi­grated from mere side­bars into es­sen­tial com­po­nents of the main story. Re­porters steeped in a tra­di­tion of el­e­vat­ing ob­jec­tiv­ity above other de­mands in­creas­ingly de­ployed terms like “false” and “with­out fac­tual ba­sis” in straight news re­ports. Tele­vi­sion chy­rons called out the can­di­date’s false­hoods in real time.

The proper use of the L-word be­came a sub­ject of de­bate re­cently when Wall Street Jour­nal edi­tor-in-chief Ger­ard Baker told NBC News’ Chuck Todd that he was re­luc­tant to em­ploy a term that con­noted not mere false­hood but in­ten­tion to de­ceive. “’Lie’ im­plies much more than just say­ing some­thing that’s false,” Baker said. “It im­plies a de­lib­er­ate in­tent to mis­lead.” Ascrib­ing that “moral in­tent,” he added, cre­ates “the risk that you look ... like you’re not be­ing ob­jec­tive.”

Baker’s com­ments, am­pli­fied in a sub­se­quent col­umn, were im­me­di­ately de­nounced by com­men­ta­tors on the left as il­lus­tra­tive of a dan­ger­ous will­ing­ness to nor­mal­ize Trump’s dis­hon­esty, and to value the ap­pear­ance of ob­jec­tiv­ity over the ne­ces­sity for scru­tiny.

Count me with Baker. The me­dia shouldn’t hes­i­tate to la­bel an as­ser­tion false, but it should be cau­tious about im­put­ing mo­tive. “This state­ment is false” or “This as­ser­tion is un­true” car­ries as much weight as “Trump lied,” and with­out the in­flam­ma­tory bag­gage. It in­forms the au­di­ence but does so in a way more likely to leave the broad­est au­di­ence will­ing to ab­sorb the in­for­ma­tion.

Trump crit­ics have also ar­gued for dis­re­gard­ing — or at least, not con­stantly re­spond­ing to — his tweets, on the the­ory that his goal is of­ten as much to dis­tract as it is to in­form or, more likely, in­flame. Here, again, de­duc­ing mo­tive seems aw­fully sub­jec­tive — and ig­nor­ing pres­i­den­tial com­men­tary un­wise, in what­ever for­mat it is de­liv­ered.

Per­haps the hard­est prob­lem — and the most im­por­tant, given the mil­lisec­ond mod­ern at­ten­tion span — in­volves how to ac­cu­rately por­tray Trump’s con­duct within the con­fined space of a head­line, or a broad­caster’s cap­sule sum­mary. This task will de­mand con­stant vigilance and end­less cre­ativ­ity on the part of those of us com­mit­ted to prac­tic­ing jour­nal­ism in the Age of Trump. It will, in some cir­cum­stances, re­quire some dili­gence on the part of our au­di­ence to probe be­yond the first im­pres­sion.

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