As Donald Trump’s campaign predictably moves from toxic rhetoric targeting the most marginalized minorities to threats and use of violence, there is a growing sense that American institutions have been too lax about resisting it. Political scientist Brendan Nyhan on Sunday posted a widely cited Twitter essay voicing this concern, arguing that “Trump’s rise represents a failure in American parties, media, and civic institutions — and they’re continuing to fail right now.” He added, “Someone could capture a major party [nomination] who endorses violence [and] few seem alarmed.”
Actually, many people are alarmed, but it is difficult to know that by observing media coverage, where little journalistic alarm over Trump is expressed. That’s because the rules of large media outlets — venerating faux objectivity over truth along with every other civic value — prohibit the sounding of any alarms. Under this framework of corporate journalism, to denounce Trump, or even to sound alarms about the dark forces he’s exploiting and unleashing, would not constitute journalism. To the contrary, such behavior is regarded as a violation of journalism. Such denunciations are scorned as opinion, activism, and bias: all the values that large media-owning corporations have posited as the antithesis of journalism in order to defang and neuter it as an adversarial force.
Just this morning, NPR media reporter David Folkenflik published a story describing the concern and even anger of some NPR executives and journalists over a column by longtime NPR commentator Cokie Roberts — the Beacon of Washington Centrism — that criticizes Trump. “NPR has a policy forbidding its journalists from taking public stances on political affairs,” he wrote. For any NPR reporter, Roberts’s statements — warning of the dangers of a Trump presidency — would be a clear violation of that policy.
An NPR vice president, Michael Oreskes, published an internal memo to NPR staff this morning highlighting Roberts’s non-reporting and non-employee role as a reason she would not be punished, but he pointedly noted, “If Cokie were still a member of NPR’s staff we would not have allowed that.” And in an interview that Oreskes “directed” Roberts to do this morning with Morning Edition host David Greene about the matter, the NPR host chided Roberts for expressing negative views of Trump, telling her:
Objectivity is so fundamental to what we do. Can you blame people like me for being a little disappointed to hear you come out and take a personal position on something like this in a campaign?
Imagine calling yourself a journalist, and then — as you watch an authoritarian politician get closer to power by threatening and unleashing violence and stoking the ugliest impulses — denouncing not that politician, but rather other journalists who warn of the dangers. That is the embodiment of the ethos of corporate journalism in America, and a potent illustration of why its fetishized reverence for “objectivity” is so rotted and even dangerous. Indeed, Roberts herself agreed that it was justified for her to speak out only because she’s in the role of NPR commentator and not reporter: “If I were doing it in your role” as a reporter, Roberts told Greene, “you should be disappointed.”
This abdication of the journalistic duty inevitably engendered by corporate “neutrality” rules is not new. We saw it repeatedly during the Bush years, when most large media outlets suppressed journalistic criticism of things like torture and grotesque war crimes carried out by the U.S. as part of the war on terror, and even changed their language by adopting government euphemisms to obscure what was being done. Outlets such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR refused to use the word “torture” to describe techniques long universally recognized as such — which were always called torture by those same media outlets when used by countries adversarial to the U.S. — because to do so would evince “bias,” lack “neutrality,” and “take sides” in the torture debate.
Contrary to what U.S. media corporations have succeeded in convincing people, these journalistic neutrality rules are not remotely traditional. They are newly invented concepts that coincided with the acquisition of the nation’s most important media outlets by large, controversy-averse corporations for which “media” was just one of many businesses.
Large corporations hate controversy (it alienates consumers) and really hate offending those who wield political power (bad for business). Imposing objectivity rules on the journalists who work for their media divisions was a means to avoid offending anyone by forcing journalists to conceal their perspectives, assumptions, and viewpoints, and, worse, forcing them to dishonestly pretend that they had none, that they float above all that. This framework neutered journalism and drained it of all its vitality and passion, reducing journalists to stenography drones permitted to do little more than summarize what each equally valid side asserts. Worse, it ensures that people who wield great influence and power — such as Donald Trump — can engage in all sorts of toxic, dishonest, and destructive behavior without having to worry about any check from journalists, who are literally barred by their employers from speaking out (even as their employers profit greatly through endless coverage).
This corporate, neutrality-über-alles framework is literally the exact antithesis of how journalism was practiced, and why it was so valued, when the U.S. Constitution was enacted and for decades after. As Jack Shafer documented in 2013, those who claim that journalism has always been grounded in neutrality demonstrate “a painful lack of historical understanding of American journalism.” Indeed, “American journalism began in earnest as a rebellion against the state”: citizens using journalism to denounce in no uncertain terms the evils of the British Crown and to agitate for resistance against it. He cites Judith and William Serrin’s anthology, Muckraking: The Journalism That Changed America, which “establishes the primacy of partisan, activist journalism from the revolutionary period through the modern era.” That is the noble journalistic tradition that has been deliberately suppressed — outright barred — by our nation’s largest corporate media outlets, justifying their meek and impotent codes under the banner of an objectivity and neutrality that are as illusory and deceitful as they are amoral.
As a result, nobody should be looking to our nation’s largest media outlets to serve as a bulwark against Trumpism or any other serious menace. The rules they have imposed on themselves, by design, ensure their own neutrality even in the face of the most extreme evils.
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The debate over “objectivity” and “neutrality” in journalism has been, as I noted, quite relevant and pressing since long before the emergence of Donald Trump. I had a long exchange with former New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller about this in 2013 in the context of the founding of The Intercept, where the arguments are laid out in full, and, as Folkenflik noted this morning, I spoke with him about this issue on CNN after that exchange with Keller:
Update: March 14, 2016
Regarding whether “neutrality” and “objectivity” are new journalistic concoctions, note that the two most revered figures in American broadcast journalism history — Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite — would have been fired from NPR and multiple other contemporary media outlets for their most notable moments: Murrow when he used his nightly news broadcast to repeatedly denounce Sen. Joseph McCarthy, and Cronkite when he did the same about the Vietnam War.