U.S. President Donald Trump takes questions during a news conference in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House August 11, 2020 in Washington, DC (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Journalists must face the 2020 challenge: This isn't a normal election, and the truth is at stake

Not taking sides in the 2020 election is basically just taking Trump's side — and refusing to be honest about it



Dan Froomkin
September 18, 2020 10:00AM (UTC)

This article was co-produced with Press Watch, a new website that monitors and critiques American political coverage. Please consider supporting Press Watch by making a donation.

With the first votes in the 2020 presidential election already being cast, the nation's political journalists face a moment of reckoning: Will they continue to treat this like a normal election, acting as if both sides have equally compelling claims on the American voter?

Or will they sound the alarm, and make it clear in every story precisely what is at stake for the country?

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Our top newsroom leaders need to empower their political reporters and producers and editors to do the latter — right now — because equating the two choices currently before the voters in any way is bad journalism.

The solid, evidence-based reporting that's been done over the past four years clearly establishes that Donald Trump's ignorance and authoritarianism endanger our democratic institutions and core democratic values. The federal government under Trump is failing at its basic tasks — in many cases, fatally — and during a second term would inevitably be turned against its own people. At a historic moment that offers hope for a national coming-together on race, Trump is trying to foment hysteria and division. This election is the moment of accountability that all of that skillful journalism has been building toward.

But out of habit and a misbegotten sense of obligation, the mainstream media's campaign coverage is still framed as if this were a normal contest, in which reasonable voters could go either way. And the relentless who's-up-who's-down narrative actively obscures just how morally and ethically asymmetrical a race it is.

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Our top newsrooms need to start producing campaign coverage with a clear, relentless message: Donald Trump is unfit and democracy is in danger. His constant lying alone is enough to justify taking this approach; it is an affront to journalism's central mission of telling the truth.

Sly hints to the already convinced are not enough. Campaign reporters must make the case so clearly and with so much evidence that it will persuade the unpersuaded.

Political journalists during this election cycle cannot afford to simply watch and report the ups and down of the campaign from a moral remove. They can't just do stenography and call it a day. They can't report on the poll numbers as if there weren't something dangerous and malignant going on in our body politic. They can't keep repeating Trump's campaign slogans as if they were a matter of opinion.

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Every day there are new developments that reveal the urgency of removing Trump from office — new revelations about his willful incompetence in the face of a pandemic, his stifling of information that doesn't suit him, his bigotry, his shocking lack of empathy, his endless lies.

But even as right-wing media is constantly bombarding its audiences with over-the-top disinformation and conspiracy theories intended to create hysteria, hatred and chaos, mainstream campaign coverage still sticks to its both-sides-have-a-point framing — framing that at this point is tantamount to enabling.

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And there's another thing: By insisting to themselves that both sides are equally and legitimately vying for the votes of the American public, our elite news organizations are  blinding themselves to the real story of this campaign, which is that Trump isn't actually trying to win over a majority of the American voters. He's trying to find some way to create enough chaos and uncertainty to prevent enough votes against him from being cast or counted, so he will have an excuse to retain power.

That's a great story, the stuff of great journalism. Pretending that it isn't happening — that Trump is genuinely trying to win an election in the normal way — is naïve fantasy and a journalistic failure.

To all the political reporters and editors out there, I ask you: Is your job not to protect democracy?

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How will you feel after this election if you haven't done everything you reasonably could to prevent an authoritarian takeover? What will you tell your children or grandchildren about what you did in these dark days? Will you tell them you protected your standing among your peers and your access to the powerful by reporting from a great moral distance on what was going on? Or will you be able to say that you became brave, and did your damnedest to inform the electorate of what was really at stake?

You had an excuse in 2016: You didn't think he could possibly win, and the dangers he posed were hypothetical. This time around, you have no excuse at all.

Yes, it's true that the discipline of political journalism in this country typically requires that journalists not take sides. Normally, that's a good rule; partisans, in stark contrast to reporters, inflate facts that support their beliefs and ignore those that don't, which is inimical to American journalistic values.

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But it's not your fault that truth has become a partisan dividing line this time around.

So if taking sides with the truth in this one election is tantamount to taking sides with a particular candidate, so be it. What else could your job possibly be, if not speaking the truth, defending democracy and holding the liars accountable?

What not to do

What political reporters should most assuredly not do is throw their hands in the air when it comes to determining the truth.

Sadly, this has become the calling card of some of our top reporters, like, as I have painstakingly chronicled, Peter Baker of the New York Times.

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Yet the ultimate recent example probably came from New York Times reporters Katie Glueck, Annie Karni and Alexander Burns, as they looked back at two national political conventions that couldn't have been further apart in their relationship to reality. They neutrally described the emerging "battle lines," with Joe Biden "focusing on President Trump's virus management, while the president is hammering a law-and-order message."

The framing was tit for tat — even when the Times noted that Trump was lying. So on the one hand, "Mr. Trump and his allies spent four nights hammering Mr. Biden with misleading and often false claims about his record on fighting crime and support of the police." But on the other hand, Biden "charged Mr. Trump with a failure of leadership, particularly regarding his handling of the pandemic."

The outcome of the election, they wrote, would depend on "which argument feels more urgent to the American people."

And after repeatedly granting Trump the mantle of "law and order" candidate, the reporters — in their 24th paragraph! — showed Trump delighting in his lawlessness, quoting aides who said that "he enjoyed the frustration and anger he caused by holding a political event on the South Lawn of the White House, shattering conventional norms and raising questions about ethics law violations" and "relished the fact that no one could do anything to stop him."

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That one goes in my Hall of Shame. But the Times reporters were hardly alone.

Over the Labor Day weekend, Associated Press chief political reporter Steve Peoples described the "dizzyingly different versions of reality" being espoused in the presidential election — without even hinting about which version was based in lies and which was based in truth.

In Trump's view, "the pandemic is largely over, the economy is roaring back, and murderous mobs are infiltrating America's suburbs," Peoples wrote. In Biden's view, "the pandemic is raging, the economy isn't lifting the working class, and systemic racism threatens Black lives across America."

Peoples's conclusion? "All the conflicting messages carry at least a sliver of truth, some much more than others."

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That's a total abandonment of journalistic responsibility, by Peoples and by every editor who signed off it.

As media critic Eric Boehlert noted, the piece "perfectly captured everything that's gone wrong with political news reporting in the age of Trump."

The symmetry is a distortion, argues NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen:

Campaign reporters are prone to seeing everything as a partisan issue, even the question of whether democracy survives. A recent, important New York Times story by Trip Gabriel explored the real possibility that Trump would declare victory if in-person vote tallies showed him in the lead on election night, even if mail-in ballots later ended up flipping the race to Biden. But it was appropriately flamed on social media for the headline, describing it as the "Democrats' Doomsday Scenario for Election Night" — rather than a doomsday scenario for electoral democracy.

Some reporters are even taking their sense of obligation to treat both sides equally to an inane and morally depraved level by making the case for how Trump could turn things around. I wrote in July about how Washington Post reporters Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Robert Costa described Trump's abject failures as president and constant grotesque lies as simply "self-destructive behavior" that was hurting his campaign effort but could potentially be rectified.

More recently, New York Times reporters Maggie Haberman and Annie Karni warned that "with less than eight weeks left until the election, and with early voting beginning in some states this month, the number of days Mr. Trump can afford to burn is dwindling." Haberman and Karni wrote as if the "constant churn of scandals, resignations, tell-all books and racist or sexist tweets" were something Trump could turn off at will — as if it weren't intrinsic to his very existence.

The most chronic offender here, however, has got to be Dan Balz, the Washington Post's "chief correspondent" — once a must-read, but now a pathetic parody of his former self. In his weekend column, Balz has pontificated that for Trump, "the challenge in the weeks ahead will be to undo impressions of nearly four years of chaotic leadership, to demonstrate the kind of discipline and focus that has too often been missing." He has insisted that the central question of 2020 is whether Trump "has the skills to turn around his candidacy in hopes of replicating his 2016 surprise victory."

Just this past weekend — even as Trump has been abusing the powers of his office beyond anything dreamed of by any of his predecessors — Balz warned that Trump "is frittering away the advantages of incumbency" rather than effectively using the "levers of the federal government to benefit himself politically" in a way that would overshadow the events that are currently distracting him "from his ability to deliver a consistent and effective campaign message."

A digression on "law and order"

How pathetic is your favorite news organization's campaign coverage? Here's a simple test. Are they going along with Trump's attempt to create a false narrative in which he is saving the country from lawlessness?

Washington Post political blogger Greg Sargent beautifully called out his colleagues on Aug. 31, writing that "any news organization that uncritically describes President Trump's reelection campaign as premised on 'law and order' appeals, without placing his concerted efforts to destroy the rule of law in America front and center alongside them, is helping to drain those words of all meaning."

He continued: "Let's not flinch from this: Trump is explicitly campaigning on law and order without the rule of law, in all its terrible implications. That makes Trump not the law-and-order candidate, but rather the candidate of arbitrary violence, lawless abuses of power and civil breakdown."

Sargent's news-side colleagues at the Post seem to have largely heeded his advice, but reporters at the New York Times and many other news organizations continue to dutifully and stenographically recount Trump's rhetoric.

On the front page of Sunday's New York Times, Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin repeatedly referred to Trump's "law-and-order message" — without any caveats. The headline referred to "scathing law-and-order attacks on Joseph Biden." Their article claimed that "Mr. Trump's law-and-order message has rallied support on the right" in swing states. (Although the writers, to use the Times' favorite new euphemism for lying, "provided no evidence" to support that conclusion — quite possibly because there isn't any.)

This continues at the Times even after repeated scoldings on social media, like this one from political scientist Norm Ornstein:

And keep in mind that reporting that Trump is for "law and order" isn't simply inaccurate, it actually serves to amplify his racist, real message. As emptywheel blogger Marcy Wheeler tweeted:

The only way reporters should address Trump's "law and order" rhetoric is in articles about what a dishonest campaign slogan it is, and what it really reveals. Conveniently, the Trump campaign continuously provides news pegs for that almost every day.

Trump whisperer Kellyanne Conway said the quiet part out loud on "Fox & Friends" in late August: "The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who's best on public safety and law and order."

And on Sept. 12, Trump told Fox News host Jeanine Pirro that the execution-style slaying by law enforcement of Michael Reinoehl, the man suspected of gunning down a Trump supporter in Portland, Oregon, was "the way it has to be. There has to be retribution."

As University of North Carolina criminal law professor Carissa Byrne Hessick tweeted:

The even fuller context is that every Trump campaign slogan is fundamentally dishonest. Here's Brian Beutler writing for Crooked:

Trump's commitment to mass deception as a campaign tactic is exclusive and total. Not one of his central appeals to voters, or his in-progress schemes to manipulate them, is rooted in truth. Not his claims about his pre-coronavirus economic record; not his handling of the economy in the wake of the pandemic, nor of the pandemic itself; not his efforts to undo the Russia investigation, or persecute its investigators; not his absentee-voting disinformation or his feigned ignorance of sabotage at the Postal Service; not his claim to being "tough on China" or to "draining the swamp" or to protecting pre-existing conditions protections. The notion that he embodies law and order is just as topsy turvy, but news outlets have nevertheless allowed him to dictate the tenor of their coverage of civic unrest to them.

Beutler concludes:

If professional journalists respond to the challenge of a president campaigning on fiction by pretending, for the sake of argument, that it's truth, then the media failures of 2020 will outstrip the media failures of 2016, which nearly destroyed the country.

How to do it right

Campaign reporters should contrast Trump's actions and statements not with what "Democrats say" but with the overwhelming consensus of experts in their field — who on almost all occasions find him profoundly and dangerously wrong. They should start with constitutional experts and climate scientists.

When appropriate, they should aggressively relate what is going on in the world to the stakes in November. So kudos to Evan Halper and Noah Bierman of the Los Angeles Times, who led their piece on Tuesday by observing that the "wildfires raging through the West" are forcing "millions of voters to confront the consequences of a warming planet."

And they should use the campaign as a news peg to revisit structural problems with Trump's leadership that sometimes get lost in the day-to-day, like the fact that he doesn't really seem to understand what he's talking about a lot of the time, or that there appears to be no actual decision-making process in the White House.

Rather than relegating them to news analyses, reporters should use highly critical, totally factual and accurate phrases to contextualize their campaign coverage, for instance noting that Trump turns conspiracy theories into rallying cries, or often uses graphic depictions of violence to incite his supporters, or throws accelerant on the fire of the nation's social unrest rather than trying to put it out, or revels in attacks and boasts, but appears to lack empathy.

Instead of headlining his latest lie, they should write about how he lies all the time, makes a mockery of the truth, treats the public like gullible idiots, spreads toxic conspiracy theories, and has destroyed the credibility of his office and the nation at a time when accurate information is the difference between life and death. Then maybe they could mention whatever that particular, latest lie was and debunk it. (Here's a reminder of what not to do.)

Instead of headlining some outrageous prediction or threat, they should recount his long record of failed predictions and idle threats.

When he attacks someone, they should relate it to his all-consuming narcissism. And they should write about his tweets — but primarily in the context of the ways they are almost always projections of his own failings onto others.

They shouldn't write about how something Trump just said will play; they should write about what it means, how it relates to core American values, whether it's a lie. As author Steven Beschloss tweeted:

And they should actively refute the misinformation spread by far-right propaganda outlets pretending to be news, starting with Fox.

Excavating the source of Trump support

Campaign reporters also need to find a better way to interview Trump voters.

These days, whenever I read an article in the traditional media quoting Trump supporters, I am struck that none of what they are quoted as saying actually explains their support.

They repeat his lies — but that doesn't make them true.

So the reason they say they're supporting Trump can't really be that he is "taking on China and putting 'America first," as a supporter told New York Times reporter Trip Gabriel. It's that they believe Trump when he says that's what he's doing. In other words, they're supporting him because they're misinformed.

The Economist recently interviewed members of a construction worker's union in Youngstown, Ohio, and gathered quotes like "He's done more for our country than the past ten presidents put together," and "He's made — who is it, China or Japan? — pay our farmers billions of dollars. He got health care done, which the Democrats could never do. He built the wall."

But those workers don't support Trump because he "got health care done." Trump didn't do any such thing. They support him because they are the victims (and, in turn, purveyors) of misinformation.

Sometimes supporters complain to reporters like Time magazine's Charlotte Alter that they are unfairly called racist, but that only hints at their real motivation, which is — surprise! — that they are indeed racist.

So reporters need to go out and do better, more probing interviews of Trump voters, and better, more honest reporting about what drives them. As I wrote in July, that means acting more like sociologists than typical political reporters. It means exploring not just these voters' political opinions, but their formative moments and their value systems. It means exploring certain dynamics that rarely get much attention from journalists: peer pressure, cultural tribalism, news consumption, residential segregation and educational standards, among others.

It means being more empathetic to the Trump voters, to fully understand them.

Then it means calling them out for what they are.

And reporters should contextualize their words with the work of political scientists. For instance, as Eric Levitz wrote for New York, Vanderbilt University's Larry Bartels has found that many Republican voters value "keeping America great" more than they value democracy — and by "keeping America great," such voters typically mean "keeping America's power structure white." That's pretty terrifying.

And talking to voters shouldn't just mean talking to Trump voters, although that's the preponderance of what I see out there.

More than a year ago, New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote that "anti-Trump voters are practically invisible in recent mainstream political coverage," even though they represent the majority of Americans.

It's still true. Where are the voices of the ordinary people?

Which side are you on?

The argument against becoming more activist about exposing the Trump menace was most recently made by New York Times media columnist Ben Smith, who — even as he himself cited Trump's attack on democratic institutions – decried "the increasing temptation" reporters face "to posture for those most eager to oust him."

In Smith's telling, warning the public against Trump is only for soft-headed journalists succumbing to flatterers. It's a surrender to the forces pushing reporters "toward making ourselves the story and toward telling you exactly what you want to hear."

Smith's argument is very much like that made by his boss, Times executive editor Dean Baquet, who has repeatedly stated that he wants reporters to keep an open mind and not "take sides" — even when one side is the stark truth and the other side is pure duplicity.

But with only weeks to go, in this race like no other, it's clear to me that this time around, not taking sides is really tantamount to taking sides, just not being very honest about it.

It's choosing not to ring the alarm bell when there's a fire.

And there's a fire.

Are you with me?


Dan Froomkin

Dan Froomkin is Editor of Press Watch. He wrote the daily White House Watch column for the Washington Post during the George W. Bush administration, then served as Washington bureau chief and senior writer at Huffington Post, covering Barack Obama's presidency, before working as Washington editor at The Intercept.

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