Journalists Must Report the Crazy, Not Normalize It

David Atkins wrote last week:

One of the challenges in analyzing modern American politics is accurately describing the Republican Party without seeming unserious and hyperbolic. Major publications are understandably in the habit of presenting both sides of the partisan divide as being inherently worthy of respect and equal consideration, both as a way of shielding themselves from accusations of bias and as a way of maintaining their own sense of journalistic integrity.

Unfortunately, the modern Republican Party’s abdication of seriousness, good faith and reality-based communications or policy-making has stretched even the most open-minded analyst’s capacity for forced balance. Donald Trump’s own inability to string together coherent or consistent thoughts has led to a bizarre normalization of his statements in the traditional media, as journalists unconsciously try to fit his rambling, spontaneous utterances into a conventional framework. This has come at the cost of Americans seeing the full truth of the crisis of leadership in the Oval Office for what it is.

This trend has been developing for decades, of course. Especially since the Nixon era, U.S. news media companies have striven mightily to avoid the label of bias at all costs. Of course, also since the Nixon era “bias” has been mostly defined by the political Right. But it’s been twenty years since Paul Krugman complained about news media’s, um, uncritical coverage of presidential candidate George W. Bush’s nonsensical economic proposals.

Partly this is a matter of marketing — insider gossip makes better TV than budget arithmetic. But there has also been a political aspect: the mainstream media are fanatically determined to seem evenhanded. One of the great jokes of American politics is the insistence by conservatives that the media have a liberal bias. The truth is that reporters have failed to call Mr. Bush to account on even the most outrageous misstatements, presumably for fear that they might be accused of partisanship. If a presidential candidate were to declare that the earth is flat, you would be sure to see a news analysis under the headline ”Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”

It would take an encyclopedia to document all the ways journalists have under-reported damaging information about Trump while “normalizing” his bizarre behavior. I’ll pick just one example; see Aaron Rupar, Vox, NPR’s sanitizing of Trump’s Milwaukee rally shows how he’s broken the media from January 15, 2020. Rupar points to NPR’s coverage of a rally in which Trump went on one of his signature incoherent tirades.

Describing Trump as he really is can make it seem as if a report is “anti-Trump” and that the reporter is trying to make the president look foolish.

But for media outlets that view themselves as above taking sides, attempts to provide a sober, “balanced” look at presidential speeches often end up normalizing things that are decidedly not normal.

A brief report about Trump’s Milwaukee speech that aired Wednesday morning on NPR illustrates this phenomenon. The anchor’s intro framed Trump’s at times disjointed ramblings as a normal political speech that “ranged widely,” …

…On Twitter, Georgetown University public affairs professor Don Moynihan noted that NPR’s report about the rally “mentioned specific topics like Iran and impeachment but carefully omit the insane stuff. This is one way the media strives to present Trump as a normal president.”

NPR is far from alone in struggling to cover Trump.

As I wrote following a previous Trump rally in Wisconsin last April, outlets including CBS, USA Today, the Associated Press, and the Hill failed to so much as mention in their reporting that Trump pushed dozens of lies and incendiary smears during his speech.

The irony is that the media is one of Trump’s foremost targets of abuse. He calls the press the “enemy of the people,” yet the very outlets he demeans regularly bend over backward to cover him in the most favorable possible light.

Of course, it’s also the case that if now news media uniformly began to describe Trump as he really is, many people would not believe them.  But it has to be done, or we are lost.

Dan Froomkin, after AG Bill Barr asked for the Michael Flynn charges to be dropped:

Autocrats don’t announce it publicly when they’re taking a step toward greater authoritarianism.

As long as there’s a free press, it’s up to journalists to call them out.

But even as Donald Trump and members of his administration have asserted greater and more unilateral executive power, our top news organizations have tended to interpret those moves narrowly and naively – giving too much credit to cover stories, marginalizing criticism as just so much partisan squabbling, and leaving the accurate, alarming description of what’s really going on to opinion writers.

Yesterday, Jay Rosen described a distinction between journalism that is political and journalism that is politicized. He argues that good journalists should not avoid taking political stands in service of the truth.

When the president is using you as a hate object in order to discredit the entire mainstream press in the eyes of his supporters so that your reporting and the reporting of all the people you compete with arrives pre-rejected, what good is “our job is to observe, not participate?” You are part of that system whether you like it or not. You either think your way out of it, or get incorporated into it.

The hard work is deciding where the properly political part of journalism ends, and its undue, unfair, unwise and risky politicization begins. But we don’t have a discussion like that. Instead we have media bias wielded like a baseball bat, and journalists who think they can serve the electorate better if they remove themselves from it.

Now we are met on an ugly and brutal battlefield: the 2020 campaign for president. How should American journalists approach it?

This is a good post, as is Froomkin’s, as is Rupar’s, and I suggest reading all of them to get the full gist of what they are saying.

David Atkins argues that it isn’t just Trump; it’s the entire Republican Party that no longer deserves to be “normalized.”

Being a Republican now requires believing in a jaw-dropping series of claims that, if true, would almost necessitate anti-democratic revanchism. One has to believe that a cabal of evil scientists is making up climate science in exchange for grant money; that there is rampant, widescale voter impersonation fraud carried out by thousands of elections officials nationwide; that the “Deep State” concocted a scheme to frame Trump for Russian collusion but chose not to use it before the 2016 election; that shadowy forces are driving migrant caravans and diseases across American borders in the service of destroying white Republican America; that the entire news media is engaged in a conspiracy against the Republican Party; that grieving victims of gun violence and their families all across America want to take away guns as a pretext for stomping the boot of “liberal fascism” on conservative faces; and so on. That and much more is just the vanilla Republican belief system at this point (not even touching less explosive academic fictions like “tax cuts pay for themselves” or “the poor will work harder to better themselves if you cut the safety net.”)

Atkins goes on to describe the QANON cult and the widespread belief that Bill Gates is spreading COVID-19 so that he can microchip everyone.These things possibly didn’t originate with the Republican Party, but the party encourages and feeds on this nonsense as a way to keep true believing voters in the fold. Atkins continues,

It’s long past time for even the venerable pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post to start calling this what it is, and stop normalizing it as standard partisanship. It is deeply dangerous in a democracy whose constitution functionally guarantees a two-party system, for one of those two parties to become a conspiracy cult.

But that is exactly what has happened. And the first step to fixing it is to call it what it is, no matter how uncomfortable that might be for institutions and journalism professionals who find that sort of language loaded with unprofessional bias. The truth is what it is, even if it requires rethinking the role of a responsible press in an era of white anxiety and mass social-media-fueled disinformation.

Just over the past few hours:

Trump, enraged because Twitter dared fact-check one of his tweets, this afternoon signed an executive order to punish social media companies:

The executive order targets companies granted liability protections through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Without congressional action, however, there are limits to what Trump can do with the executive order. The president said Thursday that he would indeed pursue legislation in addition to the order.

Attorney General William Barr, who also attended the signing, said the Justice Department would also seek to sue social media companies, saying the statute “has been stretched way beyond its original intention.”

Trump wants to sic lawsuits on companies that displease him. Ironically, Trump’s tweets about Joe Scarborough and Lori Klausutis may have left him vulnerable to civil suits. See also Greg Sargent, Trump’s assault on truth takes an ugly new turn.

Meanwhile, Trump retweeted a video that includes the line “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.”

A Pulitzer-winning cartoonist put the original copy of an anti-Trump cartoon up for sale on an online retail site. The Trump campaign bullied the retail site, Redbubble, into removing the cartoon. So much for free speech.

Heavily armed white nationalist “boogaloo” militia members have embedded themselves in the Minneapolis protests of the killing of George Floyd.

And, of course, in the midst of a deadly pandemic Trump has been pushing misinformation, suppressing safety guidelines, and discouraging by example the wearing of masks.

I have the impression that a lot of people who are not politics or media nerds genuinely believe that all news media are misreporting facts — generating “fake news” — in the service of their political agendas. Among long-established major media news outlets, that’s actually rare. The real fake news is happening because news media companies are afraid of telling the awful truth. But they have to start.

Update: Charles Pierce on today’s executive order —

Before discussing some of the eight gozillion ways this executive order is insane, let me state for the record to all Republican operatives and their clients: if you ever played the media-bias card for political advantage, openly or covertly, this is what you invited into our politics. Revolving on a spit in hell, Spiro Agnew knows this. It was always nonsense. It was always a bully’s tactic. And here we are now. …

… It should be noted that, as he was signing this, the president* was on Twitter attacking a specific employee of Twitter, throwing his name out to his pack of MAGA hyenas. It should be noted that this came after a month in which the president* used the electric Twitter machine to repeatedly imply that Joe Scarborough may have committed murder.