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You Will Be Made to Understand: Donald Trump and Oppositional Journalism

By: William Voegeli
March 1, 2017

im Rutenberg pleads: “Will the Real Democracy Lovers Please Stand Up?” What the New York Times media columnist wants, specifically, is for conservative Republicans to prove they’re small-d democrats by standing up to President Trump and for the news media, which Trump has denounced. At last week’s Conservative Political Action Committee conference, for example, the president called “fake news” purveyors the “enemy of the people.”

For Rutenberg, those Republicans who have “kept their traps shut or looked the other way” are jeopardizing our democracy. They should, instead, issue “the full-throated ‘knock it off’ to Mr. Trump that these times demand.”

After 16 years at the Times, Rutenberg’s political concerns are interwoven with personal and professional ones. He took umbrage, accordingly, when White House press secretary Sean Spicer excluded Times reporters, and several others, from a recent press briefing. An appropriate response, Rutenberg suggests, would be to deny “blanket coverage of the next speech Mr. Trump gives in which he calls honest journalists dishonest or ‘the opposition.’”

But this argument has a problem. Rutenberg wrote a widely discussed column in August 2016 that did not quite endorse, but clearly encouraged, the idea that because a Trump presidency was “potentially dangerous” it was natural, defensible, and even necessary for a journalist to “move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.” That is, “If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies,” then “you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century.”

That textbook called for reporters, as distinct from editorialists and opinion journalists, to uncover and present the facts with no partisan slant. Even if a journalist abhors a politician, the division of labor is still for reporters to deliver the news “straight” without further instructing their audience. Connecting the dots—what it all means, how you should think about it, how you should vote about it—is a job for the editorial page, not to mention the candidate’s political opponents. To jettison the textbook leaves readers unsure whether they’re reading news accounts or opinion columns, or if their news source even recognizes and honors a distinction between the two. If it doesn’t, then questions about whether reporters are honest or dishonest become inescapable.

There’s an obvious difficulty here. If it’s imperative for journalists to be “oppositional,” it’s neither outrageous nor sinister but simply logical for President Trump to describe those who take that stance as “the opposition.” They are the opposition, loud and proud. For Rutenberg to implore reporters to oppose Trump, and then deplore Trump for saying that these reporters oppose him, is contradictory, self-serving, and whiny.

Other journalists have justified and practiced the explicit anti-Trump partisanship Rutenberg endorses. Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review in July 2016, media studies professor David Mindich noted approvingly that reporters covering Trump were discarding the “practice of steadfast detachment” and, instead, “pushing explicitly against” Trump by “speaking up” against his statements that “fall outside acceptable social norms.”

That same month, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen wrote in the Washington Post that because “Trump isn’t behaving like a normal candidate,” reporters must “do things they have never done.” They may have to “call Trump out with a forcefulness unseen before,” and “explain to the public that Trump is a special case, and the normal rules do not apply.”

Many editors and reporters did not need to be persuaded. When Trump stated in September 2016 that Barack Obama had in fact been born in the United States, the New York Times news story read, “Mr. Trump made no apology for and took no questions about what had amounted to a five-year-long smear of the nation’s first black president.” A “news analysis” piece was titled “Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic,” which is less oppositional than the title of that day’s Times editorial, “Donald Trump’s Latest Birther Lie,” or the opinion column, “Trump Makes His Birther Lie Worse.”

In 2013, by contrast, a Times editorial dismissed the “overblown controversy” about President Obama’s promise to reform the health care system in such a way that those people who liked the insurance they already had could keep it. Obama “clearly misspoke,” the editorial explained, a ludicrous assessment of a promise that Obama had made repeatedly, not just once. Widespread mockery of the editorial’s sanitizing formulation led the paper’s “public editor” to question the editorial page editor about that choice of words. “We have a high threshold for whether someone lied,” the latter said. As a result, it was justifiable to say that Obama misspoke, absent clear evidence that: a) he knew his statements about keeping your insurance were false; and b) uttered them with the intent to deceive.

Unless the Times has made sudden, dramatic advances in peering into politicians’ souls, it’s hard to doubt that it treated Trump and Obama differently for political rather than journalistic reasons. This likelihood means that Rutenberg and the journalists who agree with him about leaving neutrality behind want to have it both ways in a larger sense, which goes beyond his overwrought reaction to Trump’s criticism of the press. They want to avail themselves of the expressive latitude, and political power, derived from discarding old rules about objectivity, but also to retain the authority and power those rules conferred. They want to deliver opinions while being treated as rigorous empiricists who provide just the facts—to be players on one political team and, at the same time, respected umpires who judge the contest between competing teams.

There’s a lot of that disingenuousness going around. Two years ago columnist Damon Linker showed that its data-based “explanation and analysis,” which purportedly branded Vox.com as a bold new journalistic venture, routinely devolved into “stories that are almost a parody of liberal faux-neutrality.” In contrast to the web offerings of an explicitly liberal and partisan organization like the Center for American Progress, Vox comes across as “a liberal website that thinks it can get away with pretending not to be a liberal website,” Linker wrote, offering “dispassionate, objective” analyses that reliably vindicate the excellence of whatever Obama policies they examine.

Little wonder that, since 2005, fewer than half of Americans have trusted the mass media to report the news “fully, fairly, and accurately,” according to the Gallup poll. By September 2016 the proportion who trusted the media either “a great deal” or “a fair amount” had fallen to less than one third, the lowest level Gallup recorded since it began asking the question in 1972. A reasonable person might well conclude that for a more explicitly partisan news media to discard every lingering vestige of the distinction between reporting and opining is a “cure” certain to worsen this problem. But that’s the exact course followed by media outlets that have become more oppositional since Donald Trump’s November victory than they were before.

This self-inflicted wound makes sense in the context of the modern progressive project, whose animating principle is: You Will Be Made to Care. You will, that is, be made to care about the things that the “woke” and “evolved” care about, when and in the ways that the moral avant-garde cares about them…or you will be denounced as a hate-filled, reactionary bigot. You will, for example, either be consumed by moral panic about transgender rights, or you will be what the highly moral are panicked about. If you dispute that schools must open all restrooms, locker rooms, and sports teams to all students, or question whether Caitlyn Jenner is the bravest person alive, you might as well wear your white sheet to a cross-burning and get it over with.

Progressivism’s Ministry of Information operates on the companion principle: You Will Be Made to Understand. The belief that politics provides a succession of “teachable moments” assumes we’re a nation of instructors and students. That we elected Trump president, and Republican majorities in Congress and statehouses, proves only that a lot of people flunked the exam. The facts weren’t clear enough, the journalistic interpretations of them weren’t aggressive enough, and the students weren’t bright enough to come up with the right answer. Oppositional journalism couldn’t prevent Trump’s victory, yet the moral of the story is that more stridently oppositional journalism will thwart his presidency.

There is, Jim Rutenberg conceded before the election, “a shared sense of noble mission across the news media that can preclude journalists from questioning their own potential biases.” In response to Trump’s election, crusading journalists have become more convinced of their own nobility and more complacent about their own biases. Last month the Washington Post offered a new slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” chosen apparently in the belief that democracy thrives in smugness.

Not to be out-preened, the New York Times has launched an ad campaign, “Truth,” consisting of 19 brief statements about truth’s attributes. Among them:

The truth has no agenda.
The truth doesn’t take sides.
The truth isn’t red or blue.

It’s possible that a newspaper that writes about Trump lying and Obama misspeaking knows it has an agenda, takes sides, and is pro-blue and anti-red. Denying this obvious reality is just a brazen step to advance its blue agenda.

It’s likely, however, that the Times really believes it is, merely and nobly, on the side of Truth, not of any political party or cause. This explanation would comport with modern liberalism’s ever deepening commitment to William James’s famous axiom that “the true” is “only the expedient in our way of thinking,” which means we must “live today by what truth we can get today, and be ready tomorrow to call it falsehood.”

A consequence of this belief is that it’s hard to understand modern liberals as they understand themselves, because they’re genuinely convinced that there’s nothing to understand. Their cause is nothing more ambitious or controversial than common sense and common decency. On no other basis can liberalism synthesize, with complete self-assurance, moral agnosticism and moral zeal.

The dictates of common sense and decency will change, of course, as James predicted and the transgender rights emergency demonstrated. This variability makes liberals more assertive, however, not more hesitant. The only certain way to be on the right side of history is to make history: the future will vindicate you for having forged it.

It’s no surprise that as the distinction between liberalism and journalism disappears, liberalism’s problem—authority that has no foundation other than assertions of authority—becomes journalism’s problem. It’s too late, at this point, for liberalism to go back to being what it was, a commitment to securing inalienable rights through preserving government by consent of the governed.

As a much more recent development, it may not be too late for journalism to revert to being reportorial instead of oppositional. Such journalism would trust, as liberalism no longer does, mere citizens to govern themselves by considering the pertinent facts without instruction from their moral and intellectual betters. It would meditate the possibility that Donald Trump won last November more because of than in spite of oppositional journalism, which encouraged those who did not already consider themselves part of the opposition to get their news and views elsewhere—and to resent their self-appointed tutors. Supporting journalism that adhered to the old textbook would, in short, be an excellent way for those who love democracy to stand up for it.