Journalism and the illusion of innocence

On October 23, two weeks before the US election, a Florida newspaper apologized to its readers for running too much news that was critical of Donald Trump. It happened at the Daily Commercial, based in Leesburg, Florida, a conservative-leaning area of the state with a lot of affluent retirees. The editors published an open letter to readers in which they they said: “This is not an endorsement of Trump, a candidate whose brutish, sometimes childish antics are responsible for his sizable deficit in the polls. Rather, it is a recognition that you, the voter, deserve better than we in the media have given you. You deserve a more balanced approach.”

Reporting the news and serving readers are first principles in journalism, bedrock for sound practice. But protecting against criticism is not like that at all. It has far less legitimacy, especially when the criticism itself has thin legitimacy. This is how the phrase “working the refs” got started. Political actors try to influence judgment calls by screeching about bias, whether the charge is warranted or not.

My favourite description of “protecting ourselves against criticism” comes from a former reporter for the Washington Post, Paul Taylor, in his 1990 book about election coverage: See How They Run. I have quoted it many times: 

“Sometimes I worry that my squeamishness about making sharp judgments, pro or con, makes me unfit for the slam-bang world of daily journalism. Other times I conclude that it makes me ideally suited for newspapering– certainly for the rigors and conventions of modern ‘objective’ journalism. For I can dispose of my dilemmas by writing stories straight down the middle. I can search for the halfway point between the best and the worst that might be said about someone (or some policy or idea) and write my story in that fair-minded place. By aiming for the golden mean, I probably land near the best approximation of truth more often than if I were guided by any other set of compasses – partisan, ideological, psychological, whatever… Yes, I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. I’m taking a pass on the toughest calls I face.”

I am seeking truth. But I’m also seeking refuge. What if it’s not possible to do both? This is what the editors of the Daily Commercial failed to ask themselves. And this is what the movement for Trump forced journalists everywhere in the US to realize, even if word never reached Leesburg, Florida.

Earlier in the campaign, Dean Baquet, editor of the New York Timessaid Donald Trump had changed journalism.

“I was either editor or managing editor of the L.A. Times during the Swift Boat incident. Newspapers did not know — we did not quite know how to do it. I remember struggling with the reporter, Jim Rainey, who covers the media now, trying to get him to write the paragraph that laid out why the Swift Boat allegation was false… We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, “This is just false…” We struggle with that. I think that Trump has ended that struggle.”

You may wonder: in 1990, in 2004, or in 2016 how could it be hard to say in a news report “this is false” when the reporter and the editor are both persuaded that it is false? I have an answer for you. Alongside the production of news, reporters and editors in the mainstream press have for a long time been engaged in another manufacture: persuading us of their own innocence, especially when it comes to a contested election. 

But as Dean Baquet declared: “Trump has ended that struggle.” His point is not that it’s suddenly “okay” to take sides. Trump ended the struggle in this sense: by openly trashing the norms of American politics, by flooding the campaign with wave after wave of provable falsehood, by convincing his supporters to despise and mistrust the press, Trump made it a certainty that when honest journalism was done about him it also worked against him.

For journalists this destroyed the illusion of innocence: just by doing your job you were undoing Trump… unless he could turn his portion of the electorate against you so decisively that the very possibility that you may be trying to do an honest job was rejected out of hand. And then the disaster became complete, for now by doing your job (applying scrutiny, checking facts) you were actually helping Trump, confirming among his most committed supporters the hateful image of a media elite trying to rig the election. 

Either way the production of innocence failed. In this vexing situation the Daily Commercial of Leesburg, Florida published its open letter to readers. Unable to think it through clearly, the editors surrendered their right to speak truth to power (in this case audience power) and sold out their colleagues in the American press.