This is a kind of “which side are you on?” moment for journalists. Will they defend the rights and liberties of the many communities under threat—Muslims, women, those reliant on government assistance? Will they keep alive a space for dissent and critical questioning in the face of a White House that declares itself indifferent to rules about conflicts of interest, among many other things, and that threatens revenge on those it calls “enemies”?
Let’s just say: Signs bode poorly.
One sign: The editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, Gerard Baker, told Meet the Press (1/1/17) that it wouldn’t be “objective” to use the word “lie” to refer to patently false statements from Donald Trump. That would imply “a deliberate intent to mislead,” Baker explained, and that’s lacking, in his view, in things like Trump’s claim that “thousands and thousands” of Muslim Americans “celebrated” the attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s “up to the reader,” he contended, to weigh that statement against the fact that nobody has ever found any evidence of it whatsoever.
The Journal has run articles containing criticism of Trump; that’s presumably why he called it “a piece of garbage” at a campaign rally. Baker called that “strange tough love,” suggesting he has a creative relationship to language generally.
Note that this isn’t a new thing. In 2005, FAIR reported a talk in which the New York Times‘ Elizabeth Bumiller and Susan Page of USA Today detailed how they construct absurd word salads to avoid breaking what they present as a firm rule: In Bumiller’s words, “You can’t say the president is lying.”
Bumiller elaborated: “You can say Mr. Bush’s statement was not factually accurate. You can’t say the president is lying—that’s a judgement call.” Over the increasingly outraged murmurs of the audience of journalism students, Page underscored the idea, adding, “I think it’s much more powerful to say, ‘However, the president’s statement did not reflect the record.'”
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Keep in mind, both outlets are comfortable saying other people are lying—it’s only when it comes to some of the most powerful people on the planet that the rules change.
Another sign: The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi (12/9/16) reports that the nation’s newspapers are stumped by even conservative columnists’ unwillingness to endorse Donald Trump or his ideas, and rather than explore and explain that, they think the answer is to dig up folks who will. “We struggled to find voices” that would advocate for Trump, the New York Times‘ editorial page editor says; “I’m still waiting” for pro-Trump op-eds to come in, says his counterpart at the Des Moines Register. Our editor “ought to be aggressively seeking smart, articulate people who have positive things to say,” says the LA Times.
USA Today solved the problem, we’re told, by getting Trump and Pence themselves to write for them. Maybe the New York Times will adopt that strategy, given its editor’s statement that his paper “could have done better.”
And of a piece with that: NBC has decided that a good place to seek talent for its news division is Fox News. Megyn Kelly will soon host a daytime news show, anchor an “in-depth” Sunday night news show, and take part in NBC‘s special political programming and event coverage. Kelly was subjected to the creepy predations of Fox head Roger Ailes, and of course was the target of Donald Trump for daring to broach his overt sexism in a debate question.
But one wonders what was so attractive about her journalistic record (which Jamelle Bouie detailed in Slate—1/4/17). Was it the doggedness reflected in the 45 segments she dedicated to conspiracy-mongering that the New Black Panther Party was carrying out a campaign of voter intimidation and anti-white racism on behalf of the Obama Justice Department? Her repeated dismissal of racism as a factor in police violence, a topic she often discussed with favored guest the LAPD’s Mark Fuhrman, or her reference to the “anti-cop, thug mentality” she detected in black communities? Or maybe it was the journalistic mettle evidenced by her insistence that Santa Claus is white. She was firm on that one, adding: “Jesus was a white man too. He’s a historical figure and that’s a verifiable fact, as is Santa.”
Yes, Santa is white and Trump can be a newspaper’s source on Trump and there’s no such thing as a president lying. Buckle up.