No time for both sides: journalists must take a stand

 

Pic: Unsplash

A click on one of Jason Kottke’s Quick Links took me first to this excoriating piece in The Atlantic, where James Fallows lays into the media coverage of Trump’s re-election campaign. It starts:

We’re seeing a huge error, and a potential tragedy, unfold in real time.
That’s a sentence that could apply to countless aspects of economic, medical, governmental, and environmental life at the moment. What I have in mind, though, is the almost unbelievable failure of much of the press to respond to the realities of the Trump age.
Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect. But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.

Fallows is very critical of what he calls “both-sides-ism”, which he defines as most journalists’ discomfort with seeming to “take a side” in political disputes, and the contortions that result. Reporters are, he says, most at ease when they can quote first one side and then the other, seeming to be neutral between the two—or when they present a charge, and then the response. But this doesn’t work with a President or his representatives who simply lie in public statements dozens of times a day. Therefore, there is no reason to present Trump’s claims on equal footing with other information. Simply put, what he says is probably not true. And yet the instinct is so hard to resist, the impulse to add “some critics say …” is so powerful.

Then Fallows goes on:
We can’t be sure now which is more destructive: a president openly encouraging much of the public to mistrust the democratic process, or that same president openly welcoming foreign interference in the process. Both are steps toward authoritarianism and danger, and awareness of them should shape coverage every single day.

Fallows’s article also had a link to a piece by Dan Froomkin, an experienced journalist who has done 12 years before the mast at the Washington Post, (Stop headlining Trump’s loony disinformation about Covid-19) on a site I’d never seen before, Presswatchers.

Froomkin is unequivocal about the role of the campaigning journalist. His article lams into articles such as this one from AP, which started:
Openly contradicting the government’s top health experts, President Donald Trump predicted Wednesday that a safe and effective vaccine against the coronavirus could be ready as early as next month and in mass distribution soon after, undermining the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and calling him “confused” in projecting a longer time frame.

This approach, Froomkin says, takes no account of Trump’s latest obviously delusional fantasy: that every person in America will be able to get a vaccine “very soon”. It was highly reminiscent of his famous still-a-whopper-more-than-six-months-later that “Anybody that wants a test can get a test.”

Froomkin’s piece ends with a glorious paragraph which should appear in every handbook for the aspiring campaigning journalist for ever more:

I’ve written a lot about Trump’s response to the pandemic, and here is what has been clear all along: It’s an ongoing tragedy that he has no real plan to restore the country to health other than to peddle false hope, predict a quick end, adopt fake deadlines and shift the blame to others. The most urgent need is to test, test, and test even more, but Trump has never liked testing because the results “look bad”. The media has blown its coverage of the federal response by letting political reporters lead instead of health reporters. Political reporters pay way too much attention to whatever Trump says, such that whatever it is makes headlines. They let Trump set the agenda instead of letting knowledgeable people do it. Political reporters also give Trump way too much credit for trying, which he is not. They cover up for his incoherence, ignorance, cluelessness, gaslighting, and yes, just plain stupidity. They generally fail to properly exploit their rare access to him by confronting him with facts and piercing his bubble. They remain complacent in the face of a massive death toll, instead of relentlessly demanding more forceful action.

Great stuff.

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