Journalists and press watchers on the political left have for years complained about media conventions manipulated by Republicans.
The Atlantic‘s James Fallows coined the term “false equivalency” decades ago to describe a reporter’s tendency to give liars and truth-tellers equal footing. He inspired a generation of media observers to be mindful of journalism’s yen for conflict over substance, “optics” over facts. The Nation‘s Eric Alterman warned us for years against the Republican tactic of “working the refs” — i.e., yelling “bias” at every perceived break from professional impartiality.
But Donald Trump has loosened something that can’t be put back. He has given pundits with high perches significant reason to seriously consider what used to be of marginal concern. For instance, this new column by the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank in which he argues, amazingly, that American media didn’t show enough bias.
“I’m not talking about partisan bias,” Milbank wrote, “but a healthy and necessary journalistic bias against authoritarianism.”
Milbank explains what he means by noting the difference between what he calls “watchdog journalism” and “process journalism.” The former is rooted in values: independence, courage, deference to facts. The latter is value-free. It doesn’t take sides even when one side has no appreciable purchase on observable reality.
“In general, watchdogs until recently were outnumbered in this election by those who cover politics as horse race, praising the maneuvers of whichever candidate is ahead in the polls. This avowedly neutral approach—process journalism—is apolitical. But it’s also amoral—a he-said-she-said approach that in this case confused tactics for truth and what works for what’s right.”
Milbank holds up, rightly, WaPo colleagues David Fahrenthold and Glenn Kessler as examples of the former. He points to Mark Halperin and Joe Scarborough as embarrassing examples of the latter. While Fahrenthold and Kessler have held Trump to account for his many sinful sins, Halperin, of Bloomberg Politics, and Joe Scarborough, of MSNBC, have defended or shilled for Trump.
After Trump refused to say whether he’d concede to the will of the people, Halperin said that only bothered media elites. Scarborough seconded: only “people in newsrooms … with their soy lattes”would care. Milbank points to a poll that suggests the diametrical opposite. A huge majority of voters said, um, no — that’s really matters.
Milbank comes to a familiar conclusion. In a normal election, he said, horserace journalism would suffice. But Donald Trump is not a normal candidate. His entire candidacy has been premised on proposals contrary to the founding values of the republic, such as:
…banning an entire religion from entering the country; forcing Muslims in America to register with authorities; rewriting press laws and prosecuting his critics and political opponents; blacklisting news organizations he doesn’t like; ordering the military to do illegal things such as torture and targeting innocents; and much more. In this case, attempting neutrality legitimized the illegitimate.
Milbank ends with this amazing last line:
And it is absolutely appropriate to “take sides” in a contest between democracy and its alternative.
Why amazing? Because a syndicated writer for a national newspaper with a readership in outlets around the country has come to the same conclusion, at long last, that writers with limited audiences came to decades ago. Granted, Milbank has his own reasons, but the conclusions are the same: that it’s okay to take sides when facts lead you there.
But I would take this a step farther, and hope this is the beginning, not the end, of a larger debate in front of a larger audience.
It’s true Trump is abnormal. It’s also true that Trump sprang from a context, a context built by Republicans over decades. That context includes manipulating the press, but also policies that are detrimental to democracy, especially the bedrock ideal of equality.
Consider, for instance, the intractable opposition to health care reform. Citizens have a right to good, affordable care. Republicans never say they oppose that right. Instead, they say they oppose “Big Government.” That rationale would be exposed as fraudulent if the press took the side of equality. Sure, Republicans say they oppose government, but the result is less principled: people die.
Milbank, like many Washington journalists, tends to focus on civil liberties: freedom of religion, press, speech etc. That’s his prerogative. My hope is that in a larger debate before larger audience about the responsibility of the press to defend democracy against authoritarianism there will be room also for civil rights.
Without rights as well as liberties, we have no democracy.
And it should be OK for journalists to take a side.