(Published in the Manawatu Standard, Nelson Mail and other Stuff regional papers, December 12.)
Whenever I read something about Donald Trump, my eyes go straight to the credit line at the bottom of the story to see where it came from.
If it’s sourced from the Washington Post or the New York Times, I read it with a degree of scepticism. These once-great newspapers have dangerously compromised their credibility by allowing their almost obsessive dislike of the American president to contaminate their reportage.
This is made worse by their tendency to allow fact and opinion to become so entangled that it’s hard to tell where one ends and the other starts. It’s open season on Trump, and many American journalists make it clear that they despise him.
And actually, I understand why they feel that way. I despise Trump too, and worry about the damage his presidency might do to America and to the world. He’s a man who appears to have no moral compass and no respect for the truth.
He has also, consciously and deliberately, made an enemy of the media. The terrible mistake made by news organisations such as the Washington Post and the New York Times is that they have been suckered into playing his game.
There is always tension in the relationship between politicians and journalists, but it’s usually kept under control by both sides. Not so with Trump.
He has weaponised public distrust of the media in much the same way as Robert Muldoon did in New Zealand 40 years ago. Trump knows, as Muldoon did, that it can be politically advantageous to portray the media as biased and elitist.
Trump plays this political card more blatantly and unscrupulously than even Muldoon did, repeatedly branding the American media as the enemy of the people.
Sadly, by buying into the adversarial relationship and adopting an openly hostile stance toward the White House, the media have perversely enhanced Trump’s political capital.
He can point to their antagonistic coverage as proof that the liberal media can’t be trusted to report things fairly and accurately. This played well to his supporters on the campaign trail in 2016 and it continues to play well for Trump now, because there will always be an element of the public that is prepared to believe the worst of supposedly elitist, out-of-touch reporters.
And it has to be said that many journalists are elitist and out-of-touch – especially in the US, where the big media organisations are headquartered far from the neglected heartland where Trump’s support base is located. That helps explain why the media so dismally failed to foresee Trump’s victory in the presidential election.
The best counter to Trump’s game, surely, is to do what reputable newspapers used to do as a matter of course: play it straight.
News columns are not the place for editorial opinion. They should be concerned only with detached, factual accounts of what Trump has said or done.
This doesn’t preclude journalists from documenting inconsistencies and obvious untruths, or from reporting the turmoil created by Trump’s erratic behaviour. Neither does it stop columnists and editorial writers from expressing themselves freely in opinion sections.
But tone is everything, and what passes for news coverage in papers like the Washington Post and the New York Times is often freighted with emotive rhetoric and laced with the reporter’s obvious contempt. In those circumstances, even readers who dislike Trump are entitled to wonder whether they are getting a reliable, unbiased account, or whether the media are reporting only what happens to align with their perception.
Many liberal Americans share this concern. A recent programme on National Public Radio, which is anything but pro-Trump, attracted calls from listeners who called out media bias. As one said, “I think they [the media] have decided what’s right for everyone and think it’s their job to convince people.”
All of this leads me, in a roundabout way, to last month’s declaration by Patrick Crewdson, editor-in-chief of Stuff, that his organisation will no longer give space to the views of people he classifies as climate change sceptics and “denialists”.
Okay, the parallel with Trump isn’t obvious, but Stuff’s stance does raise a serious question relating to trust in the media.
When a news organisation decides to shut down dissenting comment on an issue as important as climate change on the basis that the debate is “settled”, it assumes a position of omniscience that will rankle with many readers. But far more importantly, it raises doubts in readers’ minds about its commitment to free and open debate.
I would have thought the media faced enough challenges in the current environment without incurring accusations of elitist bias. That threatens to take us into Trump territory, and who wants to go there?
Stuff appended the following editor's note to my column:
Stuff has not shut down discussion on climate change, but we will not provide a forum for its factual existence to be countered with fictions and call it "balance".
It added: Stuff accepts the overwhelming scientific consensus that climate change is real and caused by human activity. We welcome robust debate about the appropriate response to climate change, but do not intend to provide a venue for denialism or hoax advocacy. That applies equally to the stories we will publish in Quick! Save the Planet [a Stuff project highlighting climate change] and to our moderation standards for reader comments.