“Fair and balanced.” This, infamously, was Fox News’s slogan until June 2017, but if you put aside the obvious jokes about Fox’s conservative bias, “fair and balanced” sums up what journalism, ideally, should be. The concept of journalistic objectivity—that the facts of a story should be presented fairly and impartially—is among the first things taught in any introductory journalism class. It’s been the cardinal rule of journalism for about a century, which has been enough time for conservatives to figure out how to outsmart it.
In response to a perceived liberal bias in mainstream media outlets (Fox notwithstanding), conservatives exploit these outlets by forcing them to report their deliberate misinformation, and the media, bound by the notion of objectivity, has not yet learned how to respond to this misinformation and its consequences. As a result, the media has come to believe that appearing impartial is more important than providing truthful, critical coverage—something that’s not just a grievous error but an abdication of journalistic responsibility.
We saw this recently, in the media response to a widely publicized incident at the Indigenous Peoples March. If you’ve managed to avoid the story for the last two weeks, here’s a brief summary: On Jan. 18, a video emerged of a group of young men in Make America Great Again hats appearing to taunt an elderly Native American man. The man, Nathan Phillips—an Omaha people leader—had come across a group of students from Covington Catholic High School, who were there on a field trip to participate in the March for Life on the same day. In the video, Phillips sings and beats his drum as the students bounce and chant along mockingly, except for Nick Sandmann, one of the students, who just stands motionless in front of Phillips, smirking.
It seemed like a clear-cut story about how casually prejudice comes to Donald Trump’s supporters, at least until a pair of unexpected twists in the narrative threw everyone into confusion, not least the people covering it. First, a longer video of the encounter revealed the presence of the Black Hebrew Israelites—recognized as a hate group by both the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League—baiting the Covington Catholic students with homophobic and racist epithets. Almost immediately, media outlets began struggling with how to approach the new video, with some even backtracking on their initial reporting. Second, days later, the TODAY Show invited Sandmann for an interview, which was widely decried by Sandmann’s critics. One of these events confounded the media; the other was created by it. But both of these events represent the two great failures of the media in the Trump era, failures which ultimately help Trump and his allies win.
The first way the media fails is by undermining its own reporting in an effort to appear unbiased. The video with the Black Hebrew Israelites didn’t excuse the actions of the Covington Catholic students, which is why it was so frustrating to see some media outlets act like it did. The Concourse published a great piece, entitled “Don’t Doubt What You Saw With Your Own Eyes,” which criticizes the response of other news outlets in the wake of the longer video’s emergence. It’s worth reading in full, but here are some of the headlines that the article takes issue with:
- “A new video shows a different side of the encounter between a Native American elder and teens in MAGA hats” (CNN)
- “I Failed the Covington Catholic Test” (The Atlantic)
- “New Video Complicates Uproar Over Incident Between Student And Native American Man” (HuffPost)
- “New video shows Native American man confronting Catholic teens with MAGA hats at March for Life” (The Washington Times)
The CNN and HuffPost headlines feel conciliatory; the Atlantic headline looks like an act of self-flagellation (and the magazine ran another bad one, “The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story”); the Times headline borders on misleading for suggesting that Phillips was the instigator. But the problem with all four headlines is that they suggest that both sides pose equally compelling arguments, when they don’t. The longer video added context to what we originally saw—yes, the Black Hebrew Israelites said indefensible, repulsive things to the Covington Catholic students—but it didn’t pose a counterargument to the original video. The students were still wearing MAGA hats and taunting a Native American elder with tomahawk-chop hand gestures—an action many in the Native American community find offensive. This is the central fact of the matter, and the media did not properly consider it.
Of course, there are cases where new facts emerge that complicate or actually do change the narrative, and the media absolutely has to report on those. That’s why every time Rudy Giuliani tries to walk back something he shouldn’t have said about the Trump Tower Moscow plans, the media reflects on everything he’s said up until that point. But Giuliani’s last statement doesn’t overwrite his previous comments, and the media would be wrong to act like it did. The problem with the Covington Catholic case was not, as many of the media’s critics suggested, that the media was too quick to jump to an initial conclusion. It’s that it was too quick to abandon that conclusion at the first indication that there might have been more to the story.
Despite The Atlantic’s two bad takes on the media fallout from the Sandmann saga, it offered a third one that perfectly illustrated why this is a problem. In his article “The Trump-Era Overcorrection,” Adam Serwer mentions Mueller’s denial of a recent BuzzFeed News’ report as another instance where the media doubled back in its coverage; BuzzFeed News stood by its original reporting, but other outlets, including The New York Times, immediately assumed the story was wrong. Serwer argues that the media’s attempts to exercise caution or give both sides equal weight is a misguided attempt to court the trust of Trump supporters. It’s a doomed effort for two reasons: Trump supporters will never trust the media, and an overt campaign to win them over will be met with scorn by everyone else. After all, the purpose of the media isn’t to pander to people. It’s to give them the facts.
That’s what CNN’s Chris Cuomo failed to do last month when he responded Jacob Wohl’s claim that Kamala Harris was ineligible to run for president. Wohl tweeted that, because Harris’ parents were not born in the United States, she was ineligible to do so. Wohl’s claim is patently false—Harris was born in Oakland, giving her birthright citizenship under the Fourteenth Amendment—but when Cuomo responded on Twitter, he failed to overtly refute the claim, instead writing a series of wishy-washy tweets, one of which read: “It is on the ACCUSER to prove what they say about Harris.” But as a journalist, it’s Cuomo’s job to confirm or confront statements such as Wohl’s, and his failure to do so enables people like Wohl to exploit journalistic convention and spread misinformation.
Cuomo’s tweets illustrate the second way that the media has been failing in the Trump era: By committing so wholly to being impartial, even non-confrontational, media outlets stifle critical, hard-hitting coverage. If Wohl were to say that the sky is green, it wouldn’t be enough for Cuomo to merely report Wohl’s statement. It’s Cuomo’s job as a journalist to tell the truth, in no uncertain terms, and provide evidence that the sky is not, in fact, green. As fact-finders and truth-tellers, journalists have a professional obligation to discredit lies and halt the flow of misinformation; allowing the right to use mainstream media outlets to propagate “fake news” and “alternative facts” unchecked threatens not only the media’s credibility, but the credibility of real news and real facts.
The media must also be critical in another sense of the word; while journalists must call lies what they are, they must also evaluate and think carefully about the potential ramifications of their writing. For the TODAY Show to interview Sandmann, simply put, gave him a chance to rewrite his role in the narrative. Sandmann, for that matter, hadn’t done anything in the days after the incident to warrant a reevaluation of his actions, other than issue a publicist-vetted statement denying wrongdoing. “Do you see yourself at fault in any way?” TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie asked; Sandmann didn’t answer, insisting that he had not been disrespectful to Phillips. When Guthrie repeated the question, Sandmann said “I can’t say I’m sorry for listening to him and standing there.” The interview was uncritical in both senses of the word: it didn’t push back against Sandmann, and it didn’t suggest that anyone at the TODAY Show put any thought into it beyond, “Well, what does the kid have to say?”
While objectivity and impartiality are still cornerstones of journalism, the media’s shortcomings in response to the Sandmann saga are just the latest example of why journalists need to think differently about those concepts. Conservatives have convinced their followers not to trust mainstream media outlets, which has convinced those outlets that they must win that trust back. In the Trump era, the media has decided the way to do that is to act as if both sides are equal and sacrifice critical analysis for simple recapitulation, as we saw in the Sandmann case. But when the facts clearly favor one side over the other, it is only proper for the media to reflect that, rather than to pretend that two unequal arguments are in fact equal; manipulating facts to create a false balance is inherently unfair. It’s also harmful and misleading to people, who need to know not just the facts but the truth.
After all, Trump wins by attacking the truth, and attacking the media’s ability to tell it. He wins when he convinces his followers to see the media as “fake news,” and when the media fails to appropriately confront his lies, it helps him win. It is no longer enough for journalists to just report, if it ever was enough. For the media to survive the Trump era, we have to critically analyze and dissect the opinions we are presented with, as well as the people who express them—and then stand by the work we have done. That is how we tell the story. That is how we will win.
By Jacob Nierenberg