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Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Nasty Little Orwell

Let’s stipulate up front that Trump’s a bad guy and a disaster as president. But there are more and more stories these days that attribute things he’s said in ways he probably didn’t mean. Take the wave of stories over the weekend that reported he had called Meghan Markle “nasty.” And there’s even tape:

This came after an exchange with the reporter where he had told Trump Markle had been critical of him.

Trump denied he’d called her nasty and denounced “fake news”

Which then led Brian Stelter on CNN to call Trump “Orwellian“. Now, of course he said she had been nasty. It’s on tape. But what he plausibly meant was that what she had said had been nasty, not that she herself is so. He’s a clumsy, inarticulate speaker who uses words to generate clouds of meaning. He no doubt believes that he didn’t say she was a nasty person and it was just the press going off again being inaccurate.

A small thing. But in 48 hours it’s generated hundreds and hundreds of stories across the world. It’s not a “fake” story. But it’s an uncharitable story that willfully interprets him in the most negative way and then doubles down when he responds. All of which, for anyone who suspects that reporting about Trump isn’t fair, or worse, is dishonest, gives them evidence to feed their suspicions.

He says terrible things about many people. He’s insulting, rude, and boorish. But stories such as these are so obviously a trap. So why is it that reporters fall for it over and over?

Douglas McLennan
Douglas McLennanhttps://www.artsjournal.com
Doug is a longtime arts journalist, and the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com, he's frequent keynoter on arts and digital issues, and works with a number of arts organizations nationally.

5 COMMENTS

  1. The definition of journalistic objectivity has been shifting rapidly in an era where there is increasing acknowledgment that in a polarized society like ours there can be no singular, unitary truth. That shift has been really noticeable in the shot selection and framing of stories in the elite national media, particularly the New York Times and the Washington Post, which now let their educated white progressive freak flag fly (and not just in their coverage of Trump).

    Here’s an interesting – and quite revealing – attempt to capture graphically the shift at the NYT on social justice issues: https://marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2019/06/the-nytimes-is-woke.html?fbclid=IwAR3NfaasldUpVHdtxH3D5gY64XBewfoKi_OV7LbyhDkrslI5gh4BcDz-TIk

  2. I’ve always thought that debates about journalistic “objectivity” were the wrong conversation. It ought to be a debate about fairness. Objectivity leads to a trap of false equivalencies. On-the-one-handism. Objectivity justifies reporting information without nuance or context or even meaning, which can leave the consumer dumber than when s/he started. (but it almost certainly results in more views and clicks than more nuanced stories and headlines, which means this kind of reporting is incentivized)

    Fairness is much trickier to both define and practice, but it insists that the context of information can be as important as the information itself. And its goal ought to be to make you smarter.

    Sandeep – the diversity chart is interesting, but I could probably make similar graphs about climate change or gun violence or any number of other topics which rise and fall. That doesn’t signal bias necessarily. It means that issues come more and less to the fore and trends get traction and then fall. Is this because reporting agendas drive them or that media merely reflects what’s going on in the world? Probably a little of both. Which brings me back to the idea that fairness is a better measure than objectivity.

    • The problem with fairness is that a nod in the direction of the other point of view can be tacked on unpersuasively at the end or buried in the story. I used to question prospective writers at Seattle Weekly with this question, designed to sense the open-mindedness of the reporter: What are two things you admire about Richard Nixon? Then I would watch to see if the candidate found this an interesting exercise or was flustered. Fairness is also a key thing a tough editor will insist on.

  3. Well, I don’t think journalistic “objectivity” ever really meant suspending judgment or engaging in an everything’s-the-same relativism. But regardless of what we call the journalistic holy grail, it’s increasingly clear something fundamental has shifted.

    As I understand how objectivity was understood in American journalism even 10 years ago:the objective truth was a single, unitary truth that located the central point between a range of competing public perspectives, and that the task of traditional journalism was to capture and occupy that central point as best they could. By that standard, I think it’s fair to say that elite newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times aren’t really objective anymore.

    The impacts of political polarization, media fragmentation, and the rise of online news — where generating clicks really matters — has fundamentally transformed mainstream journalism. Now there’s a widening acceptance (but a mostly unacknowledged one) that there is no central truth, and the role of a mainstream journalistic outlet is to tell the truth as best it can from an established perspective that represents not the central point of the public at large, but of the worldview of that outlet’s audience. This seems to be the case with both liberal and conservative media (like Sinclair’s news coverage, for example, about homelessness in Seattle).

    In short, American journalism has rapidly evolved to something roughly equivalent to the British model. The WaPo and the NYT are now sort of like the Guardian is in Britain. They are openly representative of the worldview of their (national) cosmopolitan, educated, liberal readerships. They still believe in small “o” objectivity, which is about basic principles of accuracy and fairness, but they’re going to frame their Trump coverage, say, in a way that reflects the assumptions of their writers, and of their readers. That’s still a valid model, and those papers still produce excellent journalism, but their output is noticeably different from what it used to be even a few years ago.

    And there are obvious differences of degree. While I wouldn’t call the Washington Post’s political coverage objective, I think the quality of it is much, much better than most (but not all) of the stuff I see on Fox. I thought the Jane Mayer piece in the New Yorker a couple of months ago, in which she argues that Fox has become a propaganda outlet with an explicit mission to advance the agenda of Trump and his administration, was convincing and troubling. I don’t think it’s good for democracy, or for any of us when media outlets become mouthpieces for those in power (and yes, before you ask, I think if the right sort of lefty got elected president, MSNBC would do exactly what FOX is doing now).

    So while it’s a bit weird for me to say this, given my prior background in alt-weekly advocacy journalism, I’m starting to question how much this shift is perpetuating, increasing, and consolidating a tribalism and polarization so extreme that it makes it impossible to even contemplate reasonable compromises to solve serious problems (like, for example, homelessness in Seattle, or shoring up Social Security’s finances, something that needs to happen sooner rather than later).

    But hey, maybe I’m just getting a little soft and muddle-headed in my advancing middle age.

  4. Looking at how objectivity and fairness play out in today’s journalistic landscape, it’s clear as Doug notes that there is a pile-on tendency when it comes to Trump. And by leading the day’s news with his latest faux pas, do journalists risk devaluing the important reporting they are doing on the impact of his policies? Meanwhile, I wonder if the quest for clicks and eyeballs is all that different from the fierce competition of yesteryear as in “remember the Maine.”

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