By July 17, 2015, the Huffington Post had seen enough of Donald Trump’s campaign. Their editorial director Danny Shea and their Washington Bureau Chief Ryan Grim published a remarkable announcement that read:
“After watching and listening to Donald Trump since he announced his candidacy for president, we have decided we won’t report on Trump’s campaign as part of The Huffington Post’s political coverage. Instead, we will cover his campaign as part of our Entertainment section. Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow. We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”
In retrospect, it was one of the more interesting and hard to judge journalistic calls of this political season. It’s certainly easy to mock their lack of prescience, since the “sideshow” is now the presumptive Republican Party nominee and he’s polling competitively in the popular vote. They clearly did not sense that our present reality was even a remote possibility, and I called them out for it at the time:
I guess the Huffington Post can’t quite believe that America is real.
Sure, I can understand the sentiment and the rationale. It’s wrong, though. Donald Trump is currently polling at or near the very top of the seventy billion Republican candidates who are running for the presidency. The media have no right to just assume this is all a big joke that doesn’t need to be taken at all seriously.
It should be taken as seriously as a heart attack. And not because I am projecting that Trump will be the eventual GOP nominee. I can guess at that, and of course I have some serious doubts about his staying power, but this is a serious matter in any case. Why is Trump doing so well, and what does that say about the right-wing of our country in this moment of time?
That’s the biggest political story in the campaign right now and it deserves to be front and center, not carried in the entertainment section.
For me, nothing has changed. I still understand the sentiment and the rationale for Huffington Post’s decision to treat Trump’s campaign as beneath contempt and unworthy of consideration. And I still think that they made the wrong call back in July 2015.
Now I see that they’re running a disclaimer or “Editor’s Note” on their political coverage. So, if you look at Sam Stein’s latest piece on Trump, you’ll see find this at the end:
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence, and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, and birther, who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
The Sam Stein piece does appear in the Huffpost Politics section, which is no surprise since the editors long ago had to back down on their editorial stance against treating Trump as a real candidate. But the content of the piece vindicates the moral aspiration of their original stance:
This editorial disclaimer is a lot different than the one they announced last July. It carries no suggestion that Trump’s campaign is a “sideshow” that doesn’t deserve to be covered in their political section. But the moral condemnation and contempt is still there and is now even stronger.
With such a disclaimer, there’s no way to pretend that their coverage of Trump is even-handed. The entire idea that they should aspire to even-handedness is openly and proudly rejected.
And, this is a kind of challenge to other media outlets. It’s saying that Donald Trump’s campaign is so objectionable that it’s morally wrong to be neutral.
It’s laudable, but it should also be controversial. After all, we can all make moral cases against any presidential candidate. For the anti-choicers, the Democrats support of reproductive freedom is morally unacceptable. For many people, the Bush administration’s first term in office, including their reckless decision to invade Iraq with no plan for its governance or reconstruction was criminally irresponsible and immoral. It’s not so easy to decide where to draw the line from a journalistic point of view. Is it like defining pornography as something you know when you see it?
What would happen if every major news outlet, in print and on television, prefaced all their presidential coverage with a reminder that Trump is a racist, misogynistic, religious bigot, and an inciter of violence who routinely dabbles in idiotic conspiracy theories?
Would that be an improvement? Would that necessitate another disclaimer that Hillary Clinton supports abortion rights, voted for a resolution authorizing force in Iraq, and failed to follow protocol with her email while serving as Secretary of State?
I can see how this kind of moral stand could snowball into something ridiculous where media outlets first attempt to list their moral objections to all the news they’re attempting to report and then wind up listing all the moral objections anyone might have to the candidates and parties they’re covering.
There’s something nice about putting your standards and bias right out front where people can see it, but that’s not how straight political coverage is typically done.
The candidacy of Donald Trump is presenting a lot of challenges to our political system. When people look back at this campaign in the future, they’ll probably view the Huffington Post’s moral opposition to Trump with a lot of favor, but whether that’s true of their journalistic judgment and the precedent they set is less certain.