The other day I was at work and got tapped to contribute to a big story we’ve been following: the shooting at a house party that killed three teenagers and wounded a fourth by another teen in a jealous rage.
We’d just received transcripts and CDs of audio recordings of 911 calls and police and paramedics’ radio chatter from that night. There were hours of recordings, not very well indexed, so we split them up at random and transcribed. I got what turned out to be the first paramedics’ conversations as they arrived on the scene and started finding the victims, first the wounded teen, then the first dead one, then the others.
These were audio recordings, so I could only imagine the visual scene before the medic’s eyes, but I could tell that, behind the clipped professionalism in the medic’s voice, there was real emotion being kept in check when he reported, “Updated victim count, three black.”
After several hours of this — most of the rest was pretty mundane staging and traffic instructions and calls for chaplains to help the survivors — I took off the headphones, wrote up my little bit for the next day’s paper, and proceeded to look on the internet in an effort to clear my head before I went to work on the next thing.
And I learned that Donald Trump had pretty much suggested someone should assassinate Hillary Clinton, or perhaps just a federal judge or two she might appoint.
I’ve long since grown tired of Donald Trump and his continuing to ratchet up inflammatory speech and fly even further off the handle the lower his polls dip. After each Monday outburst, followed by two or three days of doubling down, then trying to spin it, then to blame it on Hillary Clinton or President Obama or the media… it’s gets tiresome and boring. Until the next week. What’s then: “Ya know, sharia law isn’t all that bad, because it’ll keep… well, some women… I have lots of women friends, all the best most beautiful women, right? Believe me, they all love me. I’m great with the women. But there’s a problem, right?”
I exaggerate, but only because he hasn’t called for instituting religious law as the law of the land yet. Ask me in a week or two.
But back to the point: we’ve crossed a line here.
Read that again. I said “we” have crossed a line. Not “he.” But he certainly did, too. That’s not debatable, and the Secret Service agrees.
The reason I say that is because, as appalling as it is that a candidate for president is hinting at the murder of his opponent —
Excuse me. This is for every one who just held up their finger and said, “But he was joking,” or “He was talking about encouraging gun owners to vote,” or “He was referring to the power of using their voting power to deter regulations.” Please. Everyone in that room knew exactly what he meant when he said it. Nothing else matters. Now let me continue.
— the murder of his opponent, we have some culpability for mainstreaming this kind of behavior. Yes, Donald Trump is the end result of three decades of Republicans combining their race-based divide-and-conquer electoral strategy with scorched-earth delegitimization of anyone else’s claim to power. But if it weren’t Trump, it would have been someone else emerging from that fetid swamp.
Trump may be unique in his combination of charisma and thorough derangement — history does not look favorably on those kinds of people when they obtain power, and many people suffer horribly because of them — but he is a weed that sprouted from well-fertilized soil.
Our responsibility for this comes from allowing this soil to be fertilized.
I take my job as a journalist seriously, but I am also a harsh critic of the failings of my profession. We’re the only profession specifically called out for protection in the Constitution, but, as they say, there are some implied responsibilities that go along with that, chief among them that we should help our readers (and viewers and listeners) make better sense of the world.
Let’s get a few things straight here, to put this in the proper context, because when people talk about “the media” (or “the mainstream media” or the “media elite”) they’re usually bringing to it a fair amount of political baggage. When I’m using it, I’m referring to those people who practice journalism. And that means a few specific things:
Journalists research and report the facts by going to the best sources available. That means they don’t retweet others and call it a day. They don’t write opinion pieces with nothing to back up their claims, without clearly labeling it as such (such as this very piece on my personal blog). It means if someone said or did something newsworthy (or even trivial, if we’re going to report it), they check it out with witnesses, video, public records requests of emails and transcripts and other documentation — anything that gets closer to the truth. They don’t give credence to sources that aren’t in a position to have authority on a subject, they don’t traffic in hearsay, and they don’t use weasely language to try and get around a less-than-airtight story, such as, “People have been saying…” or “It is widely believed…” If you can’t put a name to it, you haven’t got the goods.
Journalists do their utmost to be accurate. When they make an error, they admit it, they correct it, and they don’t repeat the error again. Some journalists let their egos get in the way of admitting when they screw up. This is an on-the-job failure. The reporter has a job to do and his or her ego isn’t relevant to it.
Journalists must be fair. This is a loaded word, and its meaning often gets confused with that of “balanced” (wonder where that comes from?) But let’s go to Webster. Here’s the most applicable definition of the word:
6a : marked by impartiality and honesty : free from self-interest, prejudice, or favoritism <a very fair person to do business with> b (1) : conforming with the established rules : allowed (2) : consonant with merit or importance : due <a fair share> c : open to legitimate pursuit, attack, or ridicule <fair game>
OK, but what does that mean for journalism? It means you don’t take sides in your reporting, for one. I’ve interviewed plenty of people I’ve personally disagreed with, and I’ve always striven to not just quote them correctly and represent their views accurately, but also that their comments are taken in the appropriate context. Journalists aren’t supposed to have visible political views — and their reporting should absolutely reflect that — but personally? I don’t care who knows that I’m a political liberal. I do care that people believe I have the professional integrity to do my job and that my personal views don’t affect how I do it.
But look at section (b) in the definition above. Fairness also means conforming to established rules and being consonant with merit or importance. That means that we journalists have to recognize that we don’t work in a vacuum. Context matters. We play by the rules (we do not intentionally misquote you) but also we are not going to stay quiet if you violate the rules (you claim we misquoted you when we did not). Being a journalist does not mean we are not allowed to defend the integrity of our work when we know it (by virtue of evidence, sourcing and so forth) to be true.
Section (b) also tells us that we should give each side what it’s worth. This is where people confuse “fair” with “balanced”: One word says you must treat all sides equally, the other says you must make a judgment call as to the worth of each sides. Coupled with definition (a), which compels honesty, this leaves us with a conflict. How are we to honestly judge the merits of each argument, in order to render a fair reporting of such.
Here are two hypothetical examples.
- Person A, who advocates lower taxes, claims lower taxes for businesses help them grow. Person B, who advocates raising taxes, claims many big businesses do not pay their fair share in taxes.
- Person C, who represents a civil rights organization, says a new law unfairly targets minorities for discrimination in voting. Person D, who represents a white supremacist organization, says the new law is just fine, and in fact should be stronger.
In the first example, neither of these statements has any inherent moral advantage over the other, and absent hard, verifiable data that proves or disproves one or the other side, there’s no real reason to give more merit to one rather than the other.
In the second example, one of the positions clearly is untenable. Person D’s position is worth less, not because of the details in the law (absent having the law in front of us to judge the language for ourselves), but because of who Person D is. Context matters. And in this case, the context is that we live in a country where voting is a Constitutional right (15th, 19th, 24th and 26th Amendments, most importantly) and that efforts to restrict citizens from voting by race, sex, religion, age (if they’re above 18) or financial wherewithal are unconstitutional, and people with a demonstrated intent of denying people those rights necessarily need to get called out on it. We don’t report from a civil rights rally and then say, “And now let’s see what the Klan has to say about this.” There are some things which are outside the bounds of acceptability, and those things are determined by the society we live in, the laws we abide by, and the Constitution that gives us certain rights.
The same goes for the Second Amendment, by the way, but again: context. Read the whole amendment and frame your debate from there. The assault weapons ban that Congress let expire was not found to be unconstitutional, or abridging of anyone’s rights. As with voting, there’s a line to be drawn where someone’s rights can or cannot be abridged, but only within certain boundaries. Race-based voter disenfranchisement is as unconstitutional as saying a person is prohibited from carrying any kind of weapon for self-defense in any scenario. We attach conditions to these: Felons cannot vote, nor can they own or buy guns; part of the punishment felons suffer for having violated our social contract is that certain of their rights are abridged. We could change both restrictions tomorrow without changing the Constitution, so even those laws are not inviolate. But the point is, we currently have a system that allows two seemingly contradictory legal points to stand. Where do you draw the line on the Second Amendment? Maybe that line is between handguns and AR-15s, maybe it’s between semi-automatics and full automatics — already illegal, by the way — or maybe it’s between modern firearms and flintlocks, or between Alaska and the lower 48. Those are all valid debate points well within the confines of the Constitution.
So when I say that fairness is not the same thing as balance, and that often the two are at odds with each other, it’s about considering where the boundaries of acceptable debate are, and weighing positions against each other if they’re within the boundaries, or if they’re outside, weighing them against the boundaries themselves.
That also brings me back to where I started, where a political candidate can wink-wink obliquely call for someone to shoot his rival OR MAYBE NOT WHO KNOWS? and we in the media, and in the rest of society, can just brush this off as yet more he-said-she-said. “Tell me, Mrs. Clinton, what do you think about being targeted for assassination?”
That’s pretty much where we are now. The media has become so inured to despicable behavior this year that calling for someone to be killed is just a little bit more shocking than tossing a baby out of a rally, which is just a little bit more shocking than implying that a Gold Star parent is a terrorist… let’s now see what the other side says, shall we?
Add to this the journalism profession’s hypersensitivity to being seen as having a liberal bias, and quite a few of my fellow reporters are hesitant to call the play as they see it: out of bounds. It’s a pre-emptive way to dodge a political attack that is inconsistent with the values of the profession.
But let’s do this one thing, and restore a bit of fairness to these proceedings.
- It is not fair that, when a candidate blatantly lies (not “misspeaks” or “dissembles”) about things that have been demonstrated to be true without any doubt, we should let the lie stand without pointing out the lie immediately, or as soon as possible so that the context of the correction is not lost with the passage of time in a hyper-accelerated media environment.
Some journalists are now doing this, and providing real-time fact-checking to compensate for a political candidate to whom the facts are irrelevant. Case in point: “Hillary Clinton wants to eliminate the Second Amendment.” Fact: There is no evidence of this. No video, no speech. She has not said so, nor has she hinted at it. Gun control does not mean the Second Amendment must be overturned (see above), and in fact the two can co-exist quite comfortably. But we in the media have neglected our duty to the people we are supposed to be helping make sense of everything. People are free to form their own opinions no matter what the local paper says, but if we’re not at least saying, “This is demonstrably false, and now I’ll demonstrate why,” we’re not doing our job.
- It is also not fair that comments that come from outside the bounds of our social contract — overthrowing the democratically-elected government to establish a Communist people’s republic, say — should be given as much weight as those that come from inside the bounds: Let’s raise taxes to pay for more social services. Context matters here, too. Back in the days of the Soviet Union, calls for democratic elections were likewise outside the bounds of their social contract, as was the case in many police states. We might have hailed those calls for elections from our standpoint here in the West, but are we taking Pravda to task for not encouraging democratic reforms?
To clarify: journalism in the Soviet Union was not the same as it is or has ever been in the United States. Newspapers were deemed to be the mouthpiece of the government and the Communist Party, full stop. If you bucked the system, you found yourself in jail and the newspaper shut down. This is not to excuse that. A critic might accuse me of imposing a degree of moral relativism here, and they would be correct: Judging another system by the standards or our own (and vice-versa) is necessarily not a fair assessment in either context. But that same moral relativism also allows us to take a broader contextual look. Let’s say we’re not talking about our Constitution-protected free press, but rather human rights, among which are freedom of expression. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is one such venue in which, morally, the U.S.’s free press is weighed more heavily than the Soviet Union’s state-controlled press (see Article 19). It’s not the same as the First Amendment, but it provides the moral authority and a wider context in which to make that moral argument. Increase the context widely enough and who knows? Perhaps the United States would be found wanting for not guaranteeing paid vacation for every worker. It’s all relative, as they say, but if you know what context you’re working in, that is fine. Back to the main point.
- It is also not fair that we do not consider and relay the context in which we are operating when we make moral decisions about what we cover and why we do it. Why are we, as journalists, not pointing out that what Trump is doing is considered outside the bounds of decent behavior and is quite possibly a danger to the republic? Some of us are. Not nearly enough, in my (admittedly, see above) biased opinion.
Several years ago, Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” to mean “facts that just feel right.” Colbert is a comedian and a masterful satirist, and he was clearly sending up then-President George W. Bush, who had a, let’s say, rather uncomplicated view of the world. But Colbert was also sending up the media who played along with Bush, and allowed him to make unsubstantiated claims about (for example) weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, because really: are we going to believe Saddam Hussein, who everyone knew was an evil psychopath, or our own president, a bit dull-witted, but kind of funny about it and goshdarnit, he’s one of us?
It wasn’t just about Bush. We’re seeing, in this late period of the 2016 presidential campaign, the resurrection of 25 years of shit that the Republicans have been flinging at the Clintons from the day Bill took office in order to see what would stick so they could delegitimize this interloper from the sticks of Arkansas who had the gall to win the election. We’ve internalized it, and we drop phrases like “the Whitewater scandal” or “Clinton’s impeachment” without stopping to look at and explain what that actually entailed. And by “we,” I mean we in the media as well.
Is there media bias? Yes. The bias isn’t necessarily liberal (like many individual reporters are) or conservative (like many media executives and owners are). It’s toward uncritical acceptance of aberrant behavior (I was alive at and remember a time when we didn’t have mass shootings every week — this week’s work, by the way, is the second local mass shooting I’ve worked on in the past three years, and I’m not even on the crime desk — and when presidential candidates didn’t threaten their opponents) and the unwillingness to ask uncomfortable questions that might make our jobs harder and expose us to criticism from people who don’t want to understand truth in context, or worse, whose interests lie in undermining it.
So now we’re in assassination territory. Here’s the context: Four of our 44 presidents have been assassinated while in office. Attempts have been made on at least seven sitting presidents (including Lincoln, eight months before his actual assassination), not counting plots foiled in advance (three of the five attempts on Obama’s life), attempts that didn’t put the president’s life in imminent danger (Nixon in 1972 and 1974), attempts on the president’s life while traveling abroad (Hoover in Argentina, Bush in Kuwait), or when the would-be assassin changed his mind before making the attempt (Kennedy in 1960).
Interesting tidbits from this well-sourced Wikipedia article: Obama has been targeted in five separate attempts, and Bill Clinton four times. Lincoln was targeted three times, the third time being successful.
In short: 11 out of 44 is a 25 percent assassination attempt rate against a sitting president over the entire history of the United States. That is a really high rate of political violence for a developed country. That’s a rate you’d more expect in a banana republic that has a coup d’etat every decade or so.
The cynical thing to say is, “Hey, so this is normal, right? What Trump said isn’t all that big a deal!”
The fair thing to say, however, is this: It’s way outside the bounds. This isn’t a joke, and we should seriously question the morality and intentions of those who say it is.