The Elephant in the Room

Even in the face of Donald Trump’s latest denial of reality, the U.S. media is struggling to report on him. Have they not learned anything from four years of the Trump show?

“Their long national nightmare is over,” promised CNN moderator Jake Tapper on Nov. 7, shortly after the declaration of the election result — at least for the many millions of Americans who considered the past four years to be a nightmare. Soon he will be gone, one thought. Well, at least no longer in the place where he can do the greatest damage. Soon, that’s how it sounded on many TV networks and opinion sites, something like normality would be possible again, and normality after this election, after this year, after this presidency wouldn’t be the worst thing. Or as the conservative columnist of The New York Times, David Brooks, put it on Twitter: “I’m already enjoying using the past tense when I write about Donald Trump.”

Trump as a past tense; that seemed to be the widespread mood for a few days. All that time watching TV was worth it; the numbers now had a calming effect. From the emotional Van Jones to the conservative never-Trumper organization The Lincoln Project, you could hear emotion and pride. Even Trump’s attempts to challenge the legitimacy of the election were initially dismissed by many: Trump’s behavior is “small, and pitiful and irrelevant,” said Rachel Maddow, for example, the face of the network MSNBC.

However, Trump is and remains quite present. On the one hand, because he and high-ranking politicians like the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, refuse to acknowledge the election results with increasing vehemence and this refusal is more and more resembling a coup attempt. On the other hand, because the Trump system, to which at least the Republican Party, over 72 million voters, plenty of capital and an entire media empire belong, is much too big and rooting in society to just disappear into the past. The fact that a new era will most likely begin with Joe Biden as president in no way means that the old one is over.

What Is ‘Objective’ and ‘Neutral’?

The U.S. media is currently trying to find a way to deal with this phase between these states. Overestimating Trump would only help him in this situation, they say. Underestimating his sabotage of the democratic process would be even more fatal, however. An attitude in between is needed. And this brings us to a question that has flowed through the media discourse in the past years probably like no other. The question of how one can and should “objectively” and “neutrally” report on someone like Trump and what objectivity and neutrality are in that context anyway.

Ultimately, the Trump phenomenon meant confronting a problem that media committed to neutrality has been dealing with, not just in the United States and not only since 2016: How does one deal with anti-democratic forces, especially with those that are part of the democratic system?

If one had to somewhat crudely summarize the relationship between Trump and the established centrist media, then perhaps it would be like this: It was good business. Trump, who talked about fake news at every opportunity, was rewarded with permanent attention, and the media was rewarded by the fact that their reach and subscription numbers skyrocketed. Not only, but also and especially because of Trump. The New York Times increased its digital subscription numbers since Trump’s election victory in 2016 to currently 4.4 million (the number back then: 1.6 million). According to Jeff Zucker, in the days surrounding this year’s election CNN had the best ratings in the network’s history. “It has been a profitable time for cable news, a record-breaking year for political books and, generally, a bonanza for the legacy media,” concluded Ben Smith, the media columnist for The New York Times, summarizing the election year of 2020 two weeks ago.

While Trump had been attacking the press, without whom he would never have landed in the White House, as “the enemy of the American people” since the beginning of his term in 2017, the liberal mainstream media was able to position themselves as institutions of truth. The Washington Post gave itself a new motto: “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” CNN started a new campaign (“Facts First”) and The New York Times advertised — philosophically rather controversially — that the “truth cannot be fabricated.”*

All things considered, the fact that the current president and the major media were good business for each other should neither sound cynical nor diminish the necessarily excellent journalism that was produced in the past years. The hardly original determination that the vast majority of media is dependent on clicks, circulation and ratings seems like an important factor, however, when it comes to questions of attitude and journalistic impartiality. The way one deals with Trumpism is also dependent on which way is worth it.

In January 2017 Trump was in office for just a few days when the journalist Lewis Raven Wallace wrote a notably forward-looking blog post. “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it,” read the headline of his article on Medium that quickly went viral. Wallace, who was then working as a reporter for the radio program “Marketplace” by American Public Media, wondered about the role of journalism in the face of a government that even then was systematically spreading lies and flagrantly pushing a policy of white nationalism.

“I propose that we need to become more shameless, more raw, more honest with ourselves and our audiences,” Wallace wrote then. “We need to admit that those who oppose free speech, diversity and kindergarten-level fairness are our enemies.” For Wallace, a trans man, objectivity is a fantasy based on his lived experience. “The idea that I don’t have a right to exist is not an opinion, it is a falsehood.” The journalistic insistence on portraying “both sides” equally is a concrete threat for other minorities as well, Wallace explains. For example, when one of the two sides is white supremacy.

Honesty, Transparency, Direct Language

The remedy for “alternative facts” — that’s how Trump’s former adviser Kellyanne Conway sold the government’s lies — would therefore be neither alternative facts to the “alternative facts” nor the idea that all opinions should be treated equally. The remedy, in Wallace’s opinion, is rather a more active, more combative journalism. “In other words, we can check our facts, tell the truth, and hold the line without pretending that there is no ethical basis to the work that we do.”

A few days later, Wallace was fired for this article. The rejection of objectivity could not be reconciled with the company’s policies, explained “Marketplace” manager Deborah Clark. A story that is interestingly rarely mentioned in the debates over cancel culture— it doesn’t really seem to fit into the narrative of the threatened center.

In his book “The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity” which was released in 2019, Wallace explored the fact that objectivity is not just an impossible intention, but oftentimes serves to suppress marginalized voices as well. In this series of essays, Wallace concerns himself with the history of ideas of the concept of journalistic objectivity and with people who called and continue to call this dogma into question. Among other things, Wallace tells about the Black American journalist Ida B. Wells, who over 100 years ago was attacked by the media establishment for her reporting on lynchings and about the lesbian socialist reporter Sandy Nelson who was degraded by The News Tribune of Tacoma, Washington in the ‘90s because, in addition to her editorial work, she also spoke up for gay rights.

’Moral Clarity’

Objectivity amounts to the management of the status quo, Wallace concludes, and with that to the conservation of power structures under which certain communities historically suffer. What Wallace demands is a journalism that both perceives the conditions of one’s own work, and includes an analysis of hegemonies as well. “Journalism without bias is impossible, and our audiences know it,” writes Wallace. “Those who desire truly critical and pluralistic reporting must therefore free themselves from the ‘myth of objectivity.’”**

Wallace is not the only journalist who has tried to advance this discussion in the past years. This past June the Pulitzer Prize winner Wesley Lowery wrote in a much-noted essay that what is perceived as objective truth in the mainstream is, “decided almost exclusively by white reporters and their mostly white bosses.” Instead of displaying objectively, honesty, transparency and direct language are more important, Lowery explains. He proposed “moral clarity” as a guiding principle.

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute, replied to this with a Twitter thread in which he explained that the concept of journalistic objectivity was first developed in the 1920s, but not with the idea that journalists should be objective. On the contrary: The original idea was to introduce methods of verification specifically because impartiality in reporters is impossible. Therefore, objectivity did not mean “balance” or “neutrality,” but rather thorough research and reliable methods, Rosenstiel says. Only in the course of the 20th century did the idea spread that objectivity means the compelling comparison of contrary perspectives and the reproduction of all possible statements on a topic.

“Something can be factually accurate and substantially untrue at the same time,” Rosenstiel said in an interview with Vox a few weeks later, and he named Trump as an example: When the president spreads a falsehood for the 28th time and this falsehood has been pointed out to him 27 times, then one can assume that he is “strategically lying.” A bare quotation of his lie without context is therefore false.

It’s not a coincidence that such debates have increased since 2016. Since Trump became president — and as a result, racist narratives, conspiracy theories, hostility toward science and lies flowed out of the White House with breathtaking regularity — many American journalists have had to confront in some way their personal role and responsibility that didn’t seem so urgent before. What do you call what the president and his staff are constantly doing? Is it “misleading claims” Or just “lies”? How much room do you give to right-wing authoritarian figures? What forms of interviews are sensible? As a news channel should you really broadcast each of Trump’s speeches live? And how great is the danger of overlooking racism and hostility toward poor people coming from the center because it is more moderately formulated?

As fruitful as some of these discussions were, it nevertheless often seemed as if you were in an endless feedback loop of Trump outrage.

A Loud, Permanent, High-speed Drama

Margaret Sullivan, media critic for The Washington Post, recapitulated the past years a few days ago in her column and came to the conclusion that most media “never quite figured out how to cover President Trump. … Mainstream journalists have been so worried about being called biased by the rabid right that they’ve spent the past four years in a defensive crouch, far too often favoring this false balance over simple truth-telling.”

It seemed to be the only correct reaction that the networks ABC, CBS and NBC interrupted the broadcast of a White House press conference after the election because Trump talked about “election interference” and “illegal votes” without any evidence, but it also seemed sort of absurd after Trump’s show had been continuously broadcast for four years.

Trump was a “deeply abnormal president, but we constantly sought to normalize him,” Sullivan writes. And that’s correct: Trump’s tweets were often treated like serious news, his events broadcast almost without exception, each of his impulses was commented on, it was a loud, permanent, high-speed drama. And when it came down to it, Sullivan found that journalists often backed down from a precise description of his politics. Clearly racist statements were repeatedly called merely “racially tinged,” “racially infused” or “racially charged,” as if one were not allowed to burden Trump’s tender soul with unequivocal attributions.

Yearning for ‘Normal Relations’

The defensive attitude that Sullivan criticized was also expressed in a somewhat grotesque longing to recognize something presidential or even progressive in Trump’s demeanor. “Trump says white supremacy and sinister ideologies ‘must be defeated.’ Will he lead the way?” read the headline of an article in The Washington Post in August 2019 after an extreme right-wing attacker killed 23 people in El Paso and Trump held a hypocritical speech about it. In his first reaction to the attack, Trump demanded more immigration reform on Twitter.

In the middle of March 2020 when Trump, in one of his soon-to-be-infamous coronavirus briefings, spoke of wanting to save “the maximum number of lives” — this probably stood out after he deliberately ignored the pandemic at first, repeatedly downplayed the dangers and spread lies about it — CNN correspondent Dana Bash rejoiced that Trump “is being the kind of leader that people need, at least in tone.” Not much seemed to be missing for Trump’s complete rehabilitation.

In the U.S. media these days you often hear words like “restoration,” “healing,” “unity”; these hopes will be projected onto the new Biden administration that is poised to end the Trump chapter in January. Brian Stelter, CNN’s chief media correspondent, recently asked whether there could be “normal relations” between the president and the press again under Biden. Biden’s spokesperson TJ Ducklo reassured him that Biden is convinced of the importance of the media for democracy. “And I think it will be, frankly, the polar opposite of what we’ve seen over the last four years,” Ducklo said.

The anticipatory yearning for normality hardly seems to fit the state of emergency that networks like CNN and MSNBC co-produce daily. However, ultimately this inconsistency was always a part of the program. The question is how reassuring the prospect of “normal” reporting after Trump is anyway. For example, how will the treatment of migrants at the U.S.-Mexican border be reported on when a President Biden is supervising them? What about the fact that reforms supported by the majority of the population, like the introduction of nationwide health insurance, may not be pushed by the Biden administration, or that negotiations about it with a Senate presumably dominated again by the Republicans, may fail? How will the American media report on U.S. military strikes? What about the climate catastrophe? While many Republicans and some Supreme Court justices continue to deny that the latter is a reality, the Democrats also don’t seem to have an actual substantive vision for this. Is tolerating this apathy part of normality? Discussions on objectivity, neutrality and journalistic attitude will certainly not become obsolete when Trump leaves the White House.

And last but not least: What role will Trump himself be allowed to play in the media in the coming years? Will his tweets continue to be discussed in the news (if Twitter does not block his account, is Trump just a private citizen with a large following)? Will his appearances, assuming he continues them, be broadcast live on TV? Will he even found his own network, as is already speculated, and how will the established media deal with this new competitor?

In September 2018, when The New Yorker invited Stephen Bannon, the pioneer of the radical right and Trump’s former chief strategist, to the magazine’s yearly festival, it took a wave of outrage and threats of boycotting for chief editor David Remnick to realize that a live interview with a fascistic conspiracy theorist was perhaps not the best idea.

For some observers and also the magazine’s editors, retracting Bannon’s invitation was a sign of weakness and another example of the existence of cancel culture. However, one could also consider the decision to be one possibility of how one should deal with politically dangerous, downright democracy-undermining opinions from the outset. It’s the possibility of engaging with extreme right-wing ideologies without giving their proponents any space (and at the same time still not limiting his freedom of speech. Bannon, for instance, has enough other channels to express himself). It’s the possibility of taking someone like Bannon seriously and largely ignoring him not in spite of this, but specifically because of it. Such a decision is called editorial consideration, ultimately journalistic independence.

Admittedly, Trump was hard to ignore, simply because as the president he exerted too much power — and currently, he is still exerting it. With Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021, the U.S. media will have to face other challenges in political reporting. In dealing with the then ex-President Trump it will be shown, among other things, what they have learned from the past four years.

*Editor’s note: This quotation, accurately translated, could not be verified.

**Editor’s note: The last sentence in the Wallace quote, accurately translated, could not be verified.

About this publication

About Michael Stehle 96 Articles
I am a graduate of the University of Maryland with a BA in Linguistics and Germanic Studies. I have a love for language and I find translation to be both an engaging activity as well as an important process for connecting the world.

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