Journalists Have One Job in the Age of Trump

Reporters shouldn’t worry about appearing partial when they tell the truth.

I wish it were required of reporters to take an essay-writing class so they understood better what an opinion is. It’s not enough to know what facts are, because that does not provide adequate defense against those who accuse reporters of biasing facts with their own opinions.

If reporters, even smart ones like those working for the New York Times, demonstrated mastery of opinion, and if they were allowed to deploy that mastery when inevitably attacked, they might stop with the conventional nonsense they practice, and settle into what they are good at and what we need most: telling the people the truth.

I’m thinking, specifically, of Jill Abramson’s piece in the latest issue of Columbia Journalism Review in which the former Times executive editor frets over her former employer’s future. She applauds its institutional effort to be less stodgy and more conversational, but worries about the cost to its reputation. More significantly, and more maddeningly, she seems to believe the Times is so special that the humans who work there can’t permit themselves to be human.

Some clips, with commentary:

Precisely because of its influence, the Times’s tone and sense of proportion in covering the president must be pitch perfect.

No, it doesn’t.

The paper can’t create the appearance of a pile-on through the sheer volume of its coverage …

Meh.

On Twitter, cable, and other platforms, reporters on the news side can come off as opinionated.

So what?

It seems to me that every word the Times publishes and what its journalists say about Donald Trump on other platforms should be measured.

Nah.

On Twitter, Glenn Thrush, an otherwise great reporter, has tweeted that Trump had “breathtaking chutzpah,” that he “will never get over the shock of waking up and seeing the leader of the free world spouting demonstrably false information,” and that “No one has degraded discourse more, while embracing the fringe,” observations that, while true, are opinions.

Kill me.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s best practice for reporters to be measured and fair, and to allow each side of the story a chance to voice its position. These are time-tested methods. But that’s not what Abramson is talking about. She’s talking about the appearance of partiality when reporters do what they’re supposed to do—report facts.

This is journalism’s angst in the age of Trump. When the president lies as often as he does, how do newspapers go about informing the public of the president’s lying without appearing to be partial and opinionated? This was the heart of the media debate before the 2016 election over the use of the word “lie” in headlines, a debate that thank god appears to have been settled for the right reasons.

But this fretting over appearances—over optics—is why I think it’s a good idea to spend time thinking about what opinion is. It is an assertion, a claim on reality, that may or may not be underscored by evidence, which may or may not be direct or circumstantial. Opinions are neither right nor wrong, but the claimant can be mistaken, among other things, and her argument can hence be good or bad—or it can be based on nothing but the strength of her magical thinking.

But my focus here is what an opinion is not. It is not an opinion to say the president has earned a reputation as a liar. It is not an opinion to say the president speaks the language of white supremacy. It is not an opinion to say he’s divisive, incompetent, and crazy-making.

These are conclusions, to be sure, but they are conclusions based on observable, empirical, and falsifiable reality. They are not solely the product of one’s imagination. They have a social dimension. They are not personal. Like a researcher’s findings using the scientific method, these statements can be checked, reproduced and universalized.

In her piece, Abramson conflates opinion and fact. When Glenn Thrush said on Twitter that he “will never get over the shock of waking up and seeing the leader of the free world spouting demonstrably false information,” the only part of that that’s opinion is what he feels—shock—and perhaps “leader of the free world.” Otherwise, “demonstrably false information” is verifiable.

When something is true, appearances should not matter. The optics, you might say, should not matter. They do matter, of course, but only because there is an inadequate understanding of what opinion is and an inept defense of the reporter’s obligation to speak the truth.

But Abramson, and a lot of media people as well, worries about appearances, even though there’s nothing to be done about appearances no matter how measured you are, no matter how many stories you do or don’t run, no matter how “objective” the paper’s reporters are on social media. As long as reporters do their jobs—using best practices and professional ethics to get the story right—reporters should not be held responsible for how the truth appears to some people, because some people will never be satisfied.

John Stoehr

John Stoehr is a Washington Monthly contributing writer.