Most working journalists have had a tough time writing about Donald Trump. The venerable objectivity tradition – on the one hand, on the other hand – requires a show of “balance,” but those standards clearly don’t work when one of the candidates is dangerously unbalanced.
In the bygone days, the press simply reported what a candidate said. But that doesn’t work in 2016, when one of the candidates – a pathological liar the likes of which we’ve never seen in presidential politics – is totally untethered from factual reality.
Trump took full advantage of the old traditions during the primaries. The cable networks, in particular, put his rallies on live TV and let him rant. He received $2 billion worth of “free media” coverage, and he came to believe that the gravy train would never end. He said not long ago that he didn’t need to run campaign ads on TV (he doesn’t have the money for ads), because he’d simply keep reaping the benefits of “free media.”
Well, guess what. The gravy train is over. Now he’s getting fact-checked in real time.
CNN, to its credit yesterday, gave Trump the free media treatment he deserves. After he doubled down on his latest lie – that President Obama “founded ISIS” – the network put him on screen with this text at the bottom: “Trump calls Obama founder of ISIS (He’s not).”
Also yesterday, the Associated Press – which traditionally has been the high church of “balanced” objectivity – put this headline on its story: “Trump refuses to back away from false claim Obama found Islamic State.” Perhaps that wording doesn’t strike you as amazing, but it is.
In the BT era (Before Trump), the wire service would’ve just written a headline about a “claim,” and the story would’ve quoted a few experts calling it false. Not this time. With Trump lying at every turn, the AP clearly understands that the old paradigm isn’t enough anymore.
It never was, actually. Joe McCarthy, the ’50s right-wing demagogue whose inaccurate red-baiting wrecked careers and drove people to suicide, was abetted by “objective” journalists who believed that their job was simply to quote a politician’s words. It didn’t matter whether the words were true. So when he said there were 60 or 100 or 200 commies in the State Department or Hollywood or the Army, it was just “news.” He was covered by the Washington press corps much the way that Trump, his rhetorical heir, was covered by “free media” during the primaries.
But today’s journalists are increasingly willing to second-guess the old objectivity standard. What spurred the AP and CNN to action yesterday was an urge to honor factual reality: ISIS was founded by a zealot named Abu Musab al-Zarqarwi in 2004. His goal was to draw anti-western insurgents into Iraq, to fight the Americans who had invaded Iraq. In other words, ISIS is a byproduct of the disaster wrought in Iraq by Bush-Cheney. And when ISIS was founded in 2004, Barack Obama was a state senator in Springfield, Illinois.
That’s way too much info to put at the bottom of a TV screen, but CNN’s real-time chyron got the gist of it yesterday. In addition to “Trump calls Obama founder of ISIS (He’s not),” the network posted, “Fact-check: al-Baghdadi founded ISIS.”
Actually, this wasn’t the first time CNN has done this laudable service. You may recall that, earlier this year, Trump called for the spread of nuclear weapons in Asia, stating that Japan should join the club. Then, in June, he insisted that he’d never said what he’d clearly said. CNN broadcasted Trump’s denial, but at the bottom of the screen it posted, “Trump: I never said Japan should have nukes (He did).”
We’ll need this kind of coverage in the next 88 days, as Trump becomes ever more desperate. Fact-checking in “straight” stories, the way AP did it yesterday, will surely tick off the Trumpkins, but so what. The first priority is to ferret out the truth, not to please the guzzlers of Kool Aid.
There’s no way to “balance” a race that pits a sane and seasoned (albeit flawed) candidate against a lying sociopath who is the sum total of his flaws. The job of journalists is not to create false equivalence. The job is to honor empirical fact, to guard it faithfully from demagogic assault. This year in particular, it’s a noble calling.