Sunday, February 5, 2017

Donald Trump and the decline of objective journalism

(First published in The Dominion Post, February 3.)

One consequence of the Trump presidency is that it has accelerated the decline of detached, objective journalism.

Most people outside America, me included, despise Donald Trump. This has apparently made it permissible for the media to abandon all pretence of neutrality and to treat him as fair game for contempt, disgust and ridicule.

An example was an article on Monday by Paul McGeough, the chief foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. The SMH is a paper that could once be relied on for balanced reportage, but McGeough’s report on Trump’s decree banning immigration from seven Muslim countries was drenched with emotive rhetoric and hyperbole.

It began with the words: “This is the face of selective, lily-livered hate.” It went on: “Donald Trump holds it in his heart, but he manufactures it too, masking state-sanctioned religious persecution as a national security endeavour – all to stoke the ‘us and them’ hysteria that drove his election campaign”.

McGeough’s article continued in similar vein, telling us that Trump had severed the torch-bearing arm from the Statue of Liberty and plunged America into darkness. (I presume he meant in a metaphorical sense.)

You didn’t need to read far to realise that this wasn’t a classically restrained piece of reportage. But mixing comment with fact, to the point where the two become almost indistinguishable, is already routine in media coverage of the Trump presidency.

When a man is as widely loathed as Trump, journalists feel safe putting the boot in. But these may be the very times when we most need sober, cool-headed journalism that reports the facts without further inflaming already overheated passions. There’s enough hysteria around already without over-excited journalists heaping petrol on the fire.

In any case, much of the rage about Trump overlooks a couple of important points.

The first is that he was fairly elected according to the rules of the US Constitution. We might view those rules as flawed, since Electoral College votes can outweigh the result of the popular ballot, but they were deliberately designed that way to protect smaller states from being disempowered by more populous ones.

Protest banners shrieking "Dump Trump", just because the presidential election delivered a result some people didn't like, are not only spectacularly pointless after the event, but indicate contempt for democracy.

The other point is that nations are entitled to protect their borders against possible external threats – in this case, a very real one. People might dislike the brutal, pig-headed manner in which Trump has gone about this, but the principle is unarguable.

Now, back to that McGeough piece. There has always been a place in good newspapers for robust, provocative editorials and opinion columns, but traditionally they were kept separate from news. That’s no longer necessarily the case.

Editorial bias has so pervasively invaded the news columns of once-esteemed papers like the SMH, its sister paper the Melbourne Age, Britain’s Guardian and even the redoubtable Washington Post, that they can no longer be regarded as reliable papers of record. Much of their reportage is coloured by the journalist’s personal perception of events or by the paper’s editorial stance. 

But the mixing of news and comment isn’t a phenomenon that suddenly materialised with Trump’s emergence. It’s a trend that has been gathering momentum for years.

Its origins lie in journalism schools, where ideologically motivated tutors tell students that objectivity – the professional obligation to remain impartial and tell both sides of the story – is a myth promulgated to protect the wealthy and powerful.

Many of the journalists now working in newsrooms here and overseas have been taught that their mission is not so much to report events as to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – often using exactly those words.

This is activism, not journalism. Journalism can and often does produce outcomes that afflict the comfortable, but that is not its primary purpose, which is to inform people on matters that may be of interest to them.

But there’s another factor, besides the politicisation of journalism training, that has led to the increasingly opinionated tone of news coverage. The internet, by giving people instant access to an almost infinite range of news and opinion outlets worldwide, has imperilled the traditional “broad church” newspaper – the one where you could expect to see a wide range of views expressed.

News and information junkies now gravitate to the websites that most closely reflect their own world view. News outlets on both the Right and the Left have responded by taking on a tribal character, promoting opinions that parallel the views of their followers.

After all, it’s easier to have your prejudices confirmed than to be challenged by unpalatable new ideas. Not so good for democracy, though.


B DeL said...

"Much of their reportage is coloured by the journalist’s personal perception of events or by the paper’s editorial stance"
A bit like Gonzo journalism? Pioneered by Hunter S. Thompson.

Unknown said...

I agree with most of this post. The issue has some relevance to New Zealand where the Left has long demanded that objectivity is nonsense. The reality is that - with coverage of Trump and politics in New Zealand - we badly need coverage that is neutral in laying out facts divorced from emotive opinion. We need places where we are being told over and over again how journalists feel.

Projectman said...

I agree with the general tenor of your article, but a couple of comments in response:

I am not defending Trump, but what leads you to the conclusion that "Most people outside America...despise Donald Trump". Could your source have arisen from those journalists who have "accelerated the decline of detached, objective journalism"?

Regarding the popular vote, if you take away California I believe Trump carried the popular vote in most of the other states. But...whose journalism is objective?

Karl du Fresne said...

My statement that most people outside America despise Trump is a personal observation based on what I read and hear from a wide variety of sources, including conservative ones.

Karl du Fresne said...

Brendan McNeill tried to post the following comment but it fell foul of my spam detector and defied all attempts to redirect it, so I'm posting it on his behalf:

Hi Karl

I have heard many journalists bemoan the demise of the mainstream media, but as you have so clearly articulated, they only have themselves to blame. The SMH, and at times the NZHerald, not to mention the BBC and others, often promote their liberal progressive worldview with the enthusiasm once reserved for religious zealots.

Those who no longer believe in objective truth have resorted to ideological propaganda simply because they can, and because they are so tolerant, inclusive and diverse.

This cannot end well.

El Diablo said...

"Most people outside America...despise Donald Trump"
It would undoubtedly be accurate to say "most journalists outside America despise Donald Trump". Most people though, I'm not so sure. Considering that every newspaper and TV news show in this country has had wall to wall negative coverage on Trump for months on end now, it's no surprise that your average Joe has a negative view of Trump just as they do for most politicians. Amongst the politically aware, I think you will find just as many people who admire Trump as despise him. However, you would have to look outside the liberal elite media bubble to find these people.

My own take on Donald Trump is that while he is no doubt a flawed human being (who isn't?) he is at heart a decent guy and an American patriot who has gone to the trouble of becoming president for the genuine reason that he believe America is in an almighty mess and he thinks he can clean it up. Like he has said many times, what he is doing is really tough. As a billionaire he could have lived his life any way he pleased. He decided to spend it working for the American people.

I believe he has correctly identified the two greatest threats to the American way of life - the Southern Border which has seen America flooded with millions of people with no skills, a third world mentality and often criminal background and the Muslim invasion of the West. If only we had a politician of similar courage here in NZ.

Karl du Fresne said...

I don't see how you could think, after what I've written, that I'm swayed by left-leaning journalists. As stated above, I believe my view of Trump is widely held among conservatives. A recent Spectator editorial, for instance, said a disappointing president (Obama) had been replaced by a preposterous one. I agree with that.
You're entitled to your own assessment of Trump, but I think it's an extremely charitable one.