Journalists also have a "duty to warn": Are we starting to do our jobs?

Media's obsession with "balance" and addiction to spectacle led to disaster. Can we get back to real reporting now?

Published November 5, 2017 12:00PM (EST)

Rachel Maddow; Shepard Smith; Jake Tapper; Donald Trump (AP/Photo Montage by Salon)
Rachel Maddow; Shepard Smith; Jake Tapper; Donald Trump (AP/Photo Montage by Salon)

In the much-discussed new book "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" (Salon review here), mental health professionals act on their “duty to warn” of the imminent danger the Trump presidency represents. As explained in its prologue, “Collectively with our coauthors, we warn that anyone as mentally unstable as Mr. Trump simply should not be entrusted with the life-and-death powers of the presidency.”

But what about journalists’ duty to warn? Press freedom’s stature, as enshrined in the First Amendment, is predicated on its importance in preserving all the other freedoms, in exposing and warning of violations and threats. As the contributors to "The Dangerous Case" make clear, Trump represents a threat unlike any America has ever seen in a sitting president, except perhaps for Richard Nixon in the last few weeks of his presidency. So journalists’ duty to warn should be clear. As Robert Jay Lifton reminds us in the "Dangerous Case" foreword, the larger framework of professional ethics that motivates mental health professionals to speak out also “applies to members of other professions who may have their own ‘duty to warn.’"

Journalists have a similar responsibility, and bear even more of it, given how flawed journalistic practices helped create our nation's current dire predicament. By adopting a set of conventions that undermined their civic commitment and even usefulness, journalists themselves have helped pave the way for Trump’s emergence, so the admonition, “Reporter, heal thyself!” is clearly in order.

Two critics of journalism struck me as particularly helpful in finding our footing, so I reached out to both for comments to build on what they’d already done. The first is NYU professor of journalism Jay Rosen, proprietor of the long-running Pressthink blog.  The second is James Fallows, longtime national correspondent for the Atlantic and author of the 1996 book, "Breaking the News: How the Media Undermine American Democracy." Both have had cogent responses to Trump, but it’s their appreciation of how we got here that’s even more valuable. 

During the campaign, Fallows wrote “Trump Time Capsules” – 152 in all – described as "a running chronicle ... of how Trump has broken the norms that applied to previous major-party candidates." It was an example of beat reporting at its best – but not the kind of beat that had ever been possible before. As I’m about to argue, that’s just what we need much more of in order to fulfill our duty to warn as journalists.

“I think Trump is revising the presidency, in some profound and disturbing ways that go beyond the natural evolution of the office as it passes into different hands,” Rosen told me via email. “I gave an example of that here. So much of what he doing is unprecedented in the modern era, as James Fallows of the Atlantic documented during the campaign. I think Fallows proved that this could itself be a beat.” 

As for Rosen himself, in a recent post, “Normalizing Trump: An incredibly brief explainer,” he points out that journalists covering Trump are painfully aware of his incompetence: “He isn’t good at anything a president has to do…. He doesn’t know anything about the issues. … He doesn’t care to learn. ... Nothing he says can be trusted. ... His ‘model’ of leadership is humiliation of others.”

Their code requires them to report all this, but it also calls on them “to respect the voters’ choice, as well as the American presidency, of which they see themselves a vital part, as well as the beat, the job of White House reporting. The two parts of the code are in conflict,” and that conflict is quite painful. They flee from it, if they can, which is why we see so many interpretive attempts to normalize Trump. “What they have to report brings ruin to what they have to respect,” he concludes. “So they occasionally revise it into something they can respect: at least a little.”

Rosen provides even better insight about how we got here in the first place. He is perhaps best known for his critique of “The View from Nowhere,” a pretense to pseudo-objectivity based on being neither left nor right. "American journalists have almost a lust for the View from Nowhere because they think it has more authority than any other possible stance," he later explained. That authority is unearned, he argues: “In journalism, real authority starts with reporting. Knowing your stuff, mastering your beat, being right on the facts, digging under the surface of things, calling around to find out what happened, verifying what you heard. ... Illuminating a murky situation because you understand it better than almost anyone.”

A classic example of how wildly distorted “balanced” journalism can be — and how far at odds with factual reporting — is PolitiFact’s 2011 “Lie of the Year.”  In 2009, Republicans won the title with their lie about Obamacare’s nonexistent “death panels.”  The following year, Republicans won again, with their false claims that Obamacare was a "government takeover of health care." By then, the gods of balance had gone crazy, so in 2011, PolitiFact awarded Democrats their “lie of the year,” for the entirely factual claim that Republicans were trying to end Medicare with Paul Ryan’s plan to voucherize it — and then slash the program's subsidy shares over time.

This is really awful,” Paul Krugman wrote in response. “PolitiFact, which is supposed to police false claims in politics, has announced its Lie of the Year — and it’s a statement that happens to be true, the claim that Republicans have voted to end Medicare.” Even a writer at the National Review agreed: “I don’t think any of these examples rise to the level of ‘lie,’ much less ‘Lie of the Year,’” wrote Robert VerBruggen, who supported the Ryan Plan.

"[T]he people at PolitiFact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there's a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other,” Krugman went on to say. “So they've bent over backwards to appear 'balanced' -- and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant. Way to go, guys."

Five years later, the imbalance in lying had gotten much worse, and brought us President Trump, even though PolitiFact’s 2015 “Lie of the Year” was “the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump.” (That’s right: “Misstatements.” SAD!)

Decades before all this, in "Breaking the News," Fallows highlighted two main developments that are especially relevant here: the devaluing of beat reporting — which ties in directly with Rosen’s critique — and the shift to treating politics as a contest or sporting event, which makes it both more entertaining and easier to cover without getting all bogged down in boring facts. The two are interrelated, as Fallow described when I asked him how the devaluing of beat reporting helped make Trump possible — and how it continues to make him more dangerous.

“Long before Trump, political reporters have had a natural preference of the how of public issues, rather than the what,” Fallows told me. “Can the Republicans win on their immigration (or tax cut or environmental) bill, versus what will that bill actually do. Those political angles are important -- but it's a matter of proportion and emphasis, and the main force for balance was the 'beat' reporters who could put the what of the issues into context.”

In short, political reporters were ripe targets for Trump’s exploitation, following a pattern I described last summer, except that they were ripe targets as a class, rather than as individuals.

“In his personal traits and in his rise, Donald Trump represents taking the how of politics to an extreme," Fallows said. "He is all about the way he presents himself and his promises and his complaints, rather than the specifics of any actual program. Back in 'Breaking the News,' I argued that journalism had to fight to maintain the distinction between ‘news’ and ‘entertainment,’ because on a pure contest for eyeballs and attention, outright entertainment would always win. That's what entertainment is for!”

Two decades later, things have only gotten worse. “As our politics has reached this extreme in pure posturing and showmanship, with all the consequences on the way we pay taxes and go to war and raise our children, the pressure is all the greater on journalism to keep explaining the what of our world,” Fallows said. “The pressure and responsibility are greater, when the resources are more stretched than they've been in many years.”

One way to cope is through leaner, more focused, innovative beat reporting, of the sort Fallows himself did during the campaign with his Trump Time Capsules. But perhaps the best example of that came from Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale’s daily tallies of Trump’s lies, which he also dispersed on Twitter, beginning in September 2016. I asked Dale how and why he got started.

I did it because I didn’t feel like the frequency of Trump’s dishonesty was being sufficiently communicated by mainstream media coverage,” Dale wrote by email. “Reporters were doing a decent job calling out his deception on Twitter, but if you were just to read their final story or watch their final segment on the evening news, the lying wouldn’t usually make the cut – the story would be ‘Trump talked health care today’ rather than ‘Trump said 20 false things today.’ I wanted to focus on the dishonesty itself, as I thought it was its own story.”

The end results can look so neat and tidy, but it’s a serious job, with plenty of work behind it. “It’s simply very time-consuming,” Dale told me. “He is averaging 2.8 false claims per day, more than four per day over the last month. It takes a while to check all of them.”

It also comes with its own set of specific challenges. “There’s an obvious fatigue factor here,” he said. “Trump frequently tells the same lies over and over; it’s harder to get people to care the 20th time than it is the first,” Dale noted. “You also risk coming across as a pedant or scold when you repeatedly call him out for misstating figures, for example. (I argue that the little lies can be just as revealing as the big ones, and that we shouldn’t let anything slide.)”

With so many lies, and so many reporters, why was it Dale who stepped up, I wondered. “My experience covering late Toronto mayor Rob Ford and his brother, fellow politician Doug Ford, helped prepare me for this,” Dale explained. “They were both regularly and flagrantly dishonest, and I called them out on that. My newspaper enthusiastically supported me in doing so, which is not always the case, and I knew I could do the same with Trump.”

Neither the Fords nor Trump are unprecedented. Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich … the list goes on and on. Perhaps if someone like Dale had been around in 1994 when Gingrich was lying his way to the speakership, we’d be living in a very different world today.  We should bear that in mind, while still focused on our current situation.

Fallows and Rosen both appreciate what Dale has done. “I think Daniel Dale is doing an important job, both in his own work and as an example,” Fallows said. “In his own work, the indefatigable chronicle of daily lies is an important part of the historical record, for the real-time version of history we are living through and for those looking back.” There was an obvious parallel with his own work on the Trump Time Capsule series, Fallows noted.

“I think he's been very effective at documenting that the president of the United States doesn't care if what he says is true,” Rosen added.This deserves to be a beat because it's unprecedented that a stream of falsehoods, many of them easy to check, moves outward from the office of the president into American life. That this is not considered a problem by the current White House is itself an amazing fact.” 

As for broader impacts, “Other journalists have regularly retweeted my fact-checks on Twitter, which is good,” Dale said. “Some have used my corrections to begin correcting the false claims themselves when Trump has uttered the same thing again.”

But these are still the exceptions, not the rule.  “I think there’s a reluctance on the part of editors and media entities – more than reporters themselves – to frequently declare the president a liar,” Dale reflected. “It’s still seen as a departure from journalistic norms. I’d argue that it’s a basic part of our job.”

Fallows has a similar view. “As an example, it emphasizes the crucial distinction between emotional outrage, which usually makes it harder to get a message across, and intellectual relentlessness,” he said. “It doesn't help anyone to have reporters yelling about the latest lie, boast or threat that has come from Donald Trump. But it is important to keep saying: This is not normal, this is not true, this is dangerous.”  And, he went to note, “David Fahrenthold's work in the [Washington] Post has had a similar effect: emotionally calm, intellectually relentless.”

I asked Dale how he hoped others would build on his work. “I’d like to see it become standard to call out the president’s lying at all times,” Dale replied. “Specifically, I think it should be a daily part of our coverage of the president. When there is a presidential debate, media outlets deploy teams of fact-checkers, for good reason – and yet there is almost no fact-checking included in the daily coverage of the president’s interviews and rallies.” Perhaps with most presidents this could be understandable — shading truths has long been much more common than outright lies. But Trump is not other presidents.

“For example, when he does a Fox News interview and makes more than 10 false claims, the mainstream coverage will not mention that,” Dale said. “Fact-checking is still mostly relegated to PolitiFact, and the Washington Post’s fact checker rather than considered a core component of the coverage, as it should be.”

Beyond that is the question of what new journalistic beats may be called for to cover Trump and his impacts in ways that actually make sense of what is going on. Along these lines, Rosen suggested, “I think it would be useful to have a 'Republicans who cannot countenance Trump' beat, to regularize the kind of reporting seen here.” Instead, we’ve actually had the opposite — a “Trump voter beat” with a seemingly endless stream of stories in the New York Times and elsewhere, which has helped obscure the fact that Trump’s support among his base has slowly but steadily eroded.

Other beats are clearly possible too. Trump’s lies are but one facet of his troubling, threatening pattern of behavior. As "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" suggests, the president engages in troubling behavior almost every day. And he does not act in a vacuum. He and his appointees — and even his lack of appointees — are profoundly changing American government and governance, as Rosen says.  

Trump is actually building on a long history here. Wide systemic attacks on scientists and other experts in government, as well as attacks on established decision-making practices cannot be adequately understood in isolation. Dismantling government is a multi-agency initiative of the Trump administration, which requires reporters covering multiple beats in order to grasp what is actually going on.

Beyond that, Trump represents a threat to liberal democracy, in concert with a wide range of political actors across the globe. The resurgence of right-wing, authoritarian political parties and governments is a worldwide phenomenon that deserves to be covered as a beat. There is a significant literature on the emergence of authoritarian regimes in the post-Cold War era, not only from journalists, and historians, but also from a psychiatric perspective. Frederick Burkle of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, for instance, recently published a paper on the subject, "Antisocial Personality Disorder and Pathological Narcissism in Prolonged Conflicts and Wars of the 21st Century."

There are some notable journalists whose work is informed by these international developments, but mostly as freelance writers who lack the sustained institutional support that gives real power to what they do. Connecting the psychological dimension with the political is especially challenging without a team-of-experts approach that even the best individual journalists would find difficult to master. If we are to grasp what is happening around us — and respond effectively to protect our country, and the best of what it stands for -- then we will need these new forms of beat reporting.

We're a long way from having the kind of journalism we need to respond adequately to the threats we face on a a national and global scale. But there are signs of progress, and reasons for optimism. Consider this recent Daniel Dale thread about Donald Trump's propensity to become "hilariously lost in his own lying." That's the kind of reporting our president has made possible.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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