Journalists need new rules after Trump: Marc Ambinder

How do you not take sides when one of those sides is so clearly wrong?

Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 26, 2016.(Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP)

Many journalists dislike Donald Trump. They do. I can share this not-very-secret secret with you because I’m a few years removed from the practice, and I think this collective dislike can be channeled to help journalists do their jobs better in the future.

The level of animus cannot be explained by your average journalist’s I-am-a-citizen-of-the-world disposition. Trump came from that world, even if he now tries to disavow it. It cannot be explained by media bias; liberal journalists have disliked and distrusted Hillary Clinton for decades. It cannot be explained, as Matt Lewis has suggested, by his free-wheeling, workaday speech patterns. They may be grating, but they aren’t any different than the hundreds of non-writer humans that journalists deal with pleasantly every day.

Some of it, certainly, has to do with his character. Trump treats people badly and seems unbothered by it. But most of it, I think, has to do with the intense dissonance that he has created for journalists. Trump has made it much harder for them to cling to certain principles that form the spine the profession.

Here’s a tried-and-true creed, straight from Journalism 101: Journalists should never take sides. But how do you not take sides when one of those sides is so clearly wrong?

Another: Journalists should not characterize political candidates as liars. But what happens when political candidates base their entire campaigns on very persuasive lies?

A third: Journalists should go to unfathomable lengths to avoid the appearance of bias, especially because their viewers, readers and listeners already mistrust their motives. But how do you avoid conveying the impression that you’re rooting for one candidate (Clinton) when you try to cover the other candidate (Trump) in a way that reflects a shared, reality-based sensibility about the world?

Journalists are supposed to bend over backwards to treat unpopular points of view with respect. But at what point does that somersault confer legitimacy onto something that does not deserve it? And since when did journalists become the designated signifiers of anything? Aren’t they supposed to just observe and report?

Trump’s presidential campaign has made it impossible for journalists who follow the old creeds to do their jobs well. Just as Einstein’s special relativity displaced Newton’s (still useful!) mechanics on a grander scale, journalists who cover politics must adopt a new set of rules.

Rule number one: Amend the canon of political facts that are legitimately arguable.

Science journalists no longer cover anthropogenic climate change as an issue that’s subject to dispute. (What to do about it surely is; the fact of it is not.) Reporters on the criminal justice beat recognize, as a fact, that the system is institutionally biased against black people. Women in sports journalism take sexism as a fact.

But political journalists will be tempted to cover the coming fight about Obamacare as if the Republicans have put forth a serious solution to its problems. That’s not true. Republicans want to get rid of the entire program and replace it with something else they haven't fully explained. In the context of the real world, that solution is a nothingburger. It is not real. It should be treated as not-real.

Political journalists should adapt to the world as it evolves. If the Republican refusal to govern becomes a fact under the next administration, then it should be treated as a canonical fact. Debates about policy should depart from the station with that fact already aboard.

POLICING THE USA: A look at race, justice, media 

To their audience, journalists should be clearer about their motives and methods.

When they decide that fidelity to certain values such as social tolerance is more important than adherence to an old professional habit such as giving each side equal time, they should explain why. Journalists should not have to pretend that there is a right side and a wrong side, for instance, to the question of whether gay people deserve equal protection under the law.

What galls people more than the fact that journalists have obviously chosen sides is the pretense that they haven’t. Rubbish. Of course they have. Choosing a side does not mean and has never meant that people stop being journalists, or that they cover gay people or the gay rights movement uncritically.

In the same way, the fact that most journalists dislike Trump and don’t want him to become president does not in any way obviate their obligation to hold a President Hillary Clinton accountable. Nor does it mean that the profession should over-correct and hold Clinton to ridiculous standards. It does mean worrying less about what the audience thinks and worrying more about truth, about facts and about context.

Marc Ambinder, a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors and a fellow at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California, is working on a book about nuclear brinksmanship in the Cold War. Follow him on Twitter: @marcambinder.

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