The media have failed to report the real story of the 2020 presidential campaign. What is it about “meaningful context” that journalists do not get?
One of the guiding principles of journalism is that a story cannot fairly and accurately be reported without placing it in its proper context. As described by the American Press Institute, the goal of journalism is to promote good decision-making by putting “reliable, accurate facts. . . in a meaningful context.”
The problem is that, with precious few exceptions, the media fail to understand that the “meaningful context” of this year’s presidential election is not politics as usual. This is not simply another instance in the history of our democracy of an incumbent president seeking a second term in office.
The media have been covering the presidential campaign as if it is simply a contest between differing personalities and styles, and between different ideas of how the country should be governed. In other words, the media has gotten the story completely wrong.
The meaningful context of the election on November 3rd
The “meaningful context” of the election on November 3rd is that the fate of our democratic institutions and the rule of law is on the line. There is a mentally unstable individual in the White House who has proved that the copious warnings by mental health experts that he is mentally unstable and dangerously unfit to exercise the powers of the presidency because of a malignant narcissism comparable to that of Adolph Hitler’s were correct. For starters, he has caused well over 150,000 unnecessary deaths by his callous mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Trump has declared war on science and reason and purged important intelligence, defense, regulatory, and public health agencies of experts and replaced them with sycophants and political hacks. He now seeks a second term, during which he will replace liberal democracy in the United States with authoritarianism, by exploiting racial and other prejudices in a campaign consisting almost entirely of lies and disinformation. He foments violence by his followers, including against the media, and hints that he will not peacefully give up power even if he loses the election.
Trump’s goal is to be part of a worldwide oligarchy that controls global affairs and affords him access to great wealth and power. He sees himself in common cause with dictators like Vladimir Putin of Russia and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia in pursuit of personal interests that have little or nothing to do with the interests of the United States. He is a threat to the United States as it has existed for the past 244 years.
Given all of the above, most “journalists” still are covering the presidential campaign in the same way that their predecessors covered President Dwight Eisenhower’s campaign for a second term against Adlai Stevenson in 1956. WTF are they thinking?
The dangers to this country posed by Trump’s mental disorder and authoritarianism are undeniable conclusions based on facts — not mere opinions
Some journalists may be reluctant to better contextualize their reporting of the campaign for fear of tainting the reporting with their personal opinions. Scott Pelley of CBS seems to be among them.
Pelley interviewed famed Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward on 60 Minutes about Woodward’s new book, Rage. It was in that book that Woodward disclosed that, despite understanding the gravity of the pandemic, Trump decided to “downplay” its dangers to the public.
Woodward concluded his book with the observation that President Donald Trump “is the wrong man for the job.” Pelley questioned Woodward’s “editorializing,” stating:
“It might disappoint some of your fans that you reach an editorial conclusion at the end of this book, something that reporters are not supposed to do… you’re known as the reporter who doesn’t put his thumb on the scale. And yet, at the end of this book, you do just that.”
To which Woodward responded: “[It’s] a conclusion based on evidence, overwhelming evidence, that he could not rise to the occasion with the virus and tell the truth.”
Pelley’s characterization of Woodward’s conclusion, a conclusion shared by every rational person not living under a rock for the past six months, as putting his “thumb on the scale” tells us a lot about why the media has struggled to properly cover Trump’s campaign.
In journalism, a factual statement is “something that is capable of being proved or disproved by objective evidence,” distinguishing it from a statement of opinion “that reflects the beliefs and values of whoever expressed it.”
At this point, there is overwhelming objective evidence that Trump’s mental disorder and authoritarianism make him an existential threat to the lives of Americans, our democratic institutions, and the rule of law.
In their book Journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel describe “journalistic truth” as “a practical and functional form of truth.” It is not the truth in an absolute sense but truth “by which we can operate on a day-to-day basis.”
Law also is a practical profession. Jurors weigh evidence according to the applicable standard of proof. Many courts explain to juries the standard of proof required to convict a person of crime as follows: “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt is not proof to a mathematical certainty, but is proof of such a convincing character that a reasonable person would not hesitate to rely and act upon it in the most important of his or her own affairs.”
We have heard from experts about his malignant narcissism and observed the pathological lying and other evidence of mental instability for ourselves. We have seen the authoritarianism and assaults on democratic institutions and the rule of law by Trump and his chief henchman, Attorney General William Barr, grow more serious and frequent.
Whether couched as factual statements, conclusions drawn from facts, or as “journalistic truth,” Trump’s mental instability and autocratic ambitions, and the dangers they present, are real. They are the context without which any explanation of his behavior and his campaign is inaccurate and misleading. The most important parts of the picture of Trump are the parts that most journalists are not painting. They are the parts of Trump that make it extremely dangerous for him to hold the reins of power.
Stop playing the game by Trump’s rules
New York Times media columnist Ben Smith recently told Niall Stanage, associate editor of The Hill, that “I think the old formulas of [presidential] campaign coverage have fallen apart, and reporters don’t have a clear idea” of what should replace them.” Stanage added: “The whole question of what constitutes fairness in covering a president so one-of-a-kind as Trump is something that the media, and outside observers, have grappled with — and failed to come remotely close to a consensus.”
Those “old formulas” play directly into Trump’s hands. It is not that Trump is particularly clever. It is more like the media is especially witless.
Trump plays by none of the rules that the media are accustomed to. He and his sycophants lie repeatedly and use the media to gaslight the public. The media continue to apply old rules to a brand-new game, and it is not working. They are trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.
Trump exploits the obsession of the media with “breaking news” and with reporting statements and events in real time. It is a habit that the media seems unable to break and allows Trump and his sycophants to play “dump and run” with their propaganda.
The nonsense that the networks tolerate from Trump’s press secretary Kayleigh McEnany is an example. She tells lie after lie and then walks off the stage without taking questions that might expose those lies for what they are.
If the networks feel compelled to air her “press briefings,” why not at least condition coverage on her agreement to respond to questions that would expose her statements for what they are — lies? Does the media not understand that the “meaningful context” of statements by a pathological liar is that they are inherently untrustworthy?
Other examples occur daily and are too numerous to mention. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar was a guest on Meet the Press last Sunday. Azar currently is at the center of a major controversy involving the politicization, if not destruction, of critical agencies like the FDA and CDC. Moderator Chuck Todd asked Azar a series of questions, and allowed Azar to deliver canned, unresponsive propaganda speeches without follow up.
Todd accomplished nothing other than give Azar a forum to mislead the audience. Although Todd is among the major offenders, he is hardly alone in enabling the GOP propaganda mill.
Earlier this month Trump issued a memorandum establishing a process for cutting off federal funding to cities and states determined to be “anarchist jurisdictions” because of the allegedly inadequate manner in which protests are policed. Last week the Department of Justice designated the cities of New York, Portland, and Seattle “anarchist jurisdictions” in preparation for withholding funds. All three cities have Democratic mayors, of course.
That story should not have been reported until reporters had done their homework and could accompany it with context, perhaps as follows: “Trump, in yet another step toward his authoritarian goal of quashing protest and dissent, ordered the DOJ to identify “anarchist” cities and states for purposes of cutting off their federal funding, an action for which neither he nor the DOJ has any legal authority.”
Yes, folks, it is that serious. Stop mincing words and start calling it like you can clearly see it. Dana Milbank began a recent column in the Washington Post with the admonition, “America, this is not a drill. The Reichstag is burning.”
Milbank opined that in important ways we are where Germany was in 1933, when Adolf Hitler used the burning of the German parliament building to turn a democracy into a totalitarian state.
He admitted that he and his colleagues have been a bit slow to sound the alarm, hesitant to invoke the “fascist” label and draw comparisons to Hitler and Nazi Germany. Yes, they have been too slow, but there is still time.
I implore members of the media to throw traditional models for reporting presidential campaigns out the window. Stop giving Trump and his sycophants airtime to spread propaganda. Stop pretending that this is a presidential contest between two normal candidates. Only one is normal, and it is not Trump.
Donald Trump poses an existential threat to this country, and you must report that to your viewers, listeners, and readers in no uncertain terms. Worried about not appearing “impartial”? If you live and die by one principle, make it this one: Reality and objective truth must never be sacrificed to the dubious goal of trying to appear impartial.
Moreover, by now every rational impartial observer has come to the same conclusion: A Trump victory on November 3rd may spell doom for America’s “Great Experiment” in democracy. The jury has ended its role as an impartial finder of facts and has returned its verdict. Trump is unfit to govern, dangerous, and must be defeated. That is the story — report it.