Media bias and journalistic integrity

The other day, I came across a CNN article entitled “Trump, skeptical of mail-in balloting, encourages voting more than once if necessary.” My first thought was that the article must be wrong. Donald Trump is a lot of things, but he’s not stupid. He wouldn’t tell his supporters to break the law. I was sure that the article took something out of context—maybe an offhand joke or a poorly expressed observation. But it was even worse than that. In the clip the article referred to, Trump specifically told his supporters not to vote more than once. “We don’t do that,” he said. Trump told them that if they had doubts  on whether their mail-in ballot would be properly counted, they could request a new ballot that would void their first.  The article’s headline was intentionally misleading to make Trump look bad. And I wasn’t even surprised.

How did we get here? When did bias become prevalent not just in commentary but in news pieces themselves? Although CNN later corrected the article, giving it the more accurate title “Trump stokes skepticism of Colorado voting system,” we must consider what it means that CNN published it in the first place. News outlets’ first loyalty should be to the truth. This story, along with thousands of others throughout this election season, reflect an abandonment of the truth in favor of a sort of “end justifies the means” mentality, in which anything that helps the outlet’s preferred candidate is fair game. This type of partisan reporting destroys the media’s credibility, and reflects a larger abandonment of values to the detriment of ordinary citizens.

The reason I say the press has adopted an “end justifies the means” mentality is that journalists themselves have admitted as much. In response to accusations of bias, The New York Times published a piece that argued the journalistic credos of balance and objectivity is obsolete in the age of Trump. “If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that,” Jim Rutenberg writes. “You have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the last half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career.” Essentially, Trump is an abnormal candidate, so the normal rules of journalism do not apply.

It is an interesting idea, but I don’t believe it holds water. Journalistic ethics are what give the media credibility. Otherwise, the public has no reason to believe the media. For the press to abandon these credentials in the face of what they view as a grave threat seems to me the exact opposite of what the situation demands. If Trump is truly the horrible fascist they believe him to be, then honest reporting will reveal him as such. Biased reporting is a far less effective means to do so, as it may easily be dismissed as partisan hysteria. The truth speaks for itself.

Consider the coverage of two of Trump’s most egregious flaws, according to the media: his relationship with Russia and his claims that the election might be rigged. These might be disqualifying, but only if the media ignores everything else the media has reported for the past decade. In terms of Trump wanting to work with Russia, it is simply not credible for media outlets to disparage Trump for this when, four years ago, these same outlets made Mitt Romney a laughing stock for suggesting that Russia was a threat to the U.S. Back then, they said this attitude was warmongering, that Romney was stuck in the 1980s. The rapidness of the change in attitude suggests that the reasons for the shift are, at least in part, politically motivated. If the circumstances were the reverse, and Hillary Clinton wanted to work with Russia while Trump wanted to take a more hardline stance, I have no doubt that the same outlets now criticizing Trump would still be criticizing him. Instead of saying he was cozying up to Putin, they would just say he was warmongering, or stuck in the 1980s.

Hypocrisy similarly abounds in the discussion of rigged elections. Trump has been questioning the integrity of the election process, which, according to many in the media, is an unprecedented attack on the foundation of our democracy. To people with longer memories, however, rigged elections are something nearly every candidate mentions at one point or another. Bernie Sanders said it about the Democratic primaries, John Kerry said it about voting machines in Ohio, Barack Obama said it about elections in Chicago, Hillary Clinton said it about the 2000 election, and members of Clinton’s staff said it about Clinton’s 2008 race against Barack Obama. Talk of election fraud is the furthest thing from unprecedented, and the media loses credibility every time it claims otherwise.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of media bias is when it turns on ordinary citizens. Trump supporters have been subject to some of the harshest and most unfair criticisms in this election cycle. Too often, journalists have reported on Trump supporters like an anthropological phenomenon, obsessing over their race, income, and education levels, always with the implicit question, “How could anyone in their right mind support Trump?” Coverage went beyond the pale with a Washington Post profile of a Trump supporter battling depression and anxiety who found solace in Trump’s campaign. “Finally. Someone who thinks like me,” the article was called. Condescension dripped from every word.

Every day, Trump’s supporters are tarred as conspiracy theorists and white supremacists, trailer trash and misogynists. When Clinton said that half of Trump supporters belong in a “basket of deplorables,” the most common response on blogs and opinion pieces was that she underestimated: the true number was closer to 90 percent. Then when these writers were asked whether they’ve ever attended a Trump rally or so much as talked to a Trump supporter, the answer, more often than not, was no. They based their opinions off of Twitter trolls and SNL skits.

Is it any wonder, then, that Trump supporters are upset with the media? I read tweets from journalists angry at Trump for stoking anti-media sentiments, and I can’t help but wonder if they’re confusing cause and effect. When crowds at rallies turn to CNN cameras and chant, “Tell the truth!” they’re expressing genuine hurt at the lies the media has told. Many journalists may believe it is their ethical duty to keep Trump from getting elected, but their only real duties are to tell the truth and to be fair and decent to ordinary citizens.

 

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