While these are all important questions to raise in the media, never before have they been so needed with respect to an American national politician, for whom “controversial” would be a clear understatement. Bloomberg journalist Mark Halperin’s neutral coverage of Mr. Trump led him to be characterized by many on the left as a Trump apologist. Those on the right have characterized CNN and MSNBC and being too far left for expressing criticism of his more controversial positions, such as his attacks on the media and his insistence that it was a rigged system, the outcome of which could not be trusted (unless he won).
To be sure, fine journalism requires objectivity and a fierce investigation into the truth, whether or not the truth uncovered is pleasing to one’s political party or the president. But we would be doing ourselves a disservice if we conflate impartiality with a need to to hold back in actively defending a free press against First Amendment threats, with a prominent such threat being Mr. Trump himself and those whom he mobilizes. Impartiality and objectivity are insufficient: we must also actively oppose threats to a free press, even if that carries with it a risk of appearing to have an agenda. After all, while we can certainly criticize journalists should they proselytize over issues of ideology – healthcare, abortion, gay marriage, vouchers – without making clear that it is opinion rather than news reporting, taking a stand for the basic tenets of democracy is not bias but rather patriotism.
This is certainly not to say that we should on principle either be neutral or critical of everything that Mr. Trump says, but rather that as citizens and scholars, we should scrutinize the ideas being put forth into the news media and social media, and vigilantly hold him accountable if (when) he spreads falsehoods. After all, only 4% of Mr. Trump’s statements were rated as “true” by PolitiFact, compared to 51% rated as “false” or “pants on fire.”
The reality is that it is not a partisan position to hold that while we are entitled to our own opinions, we are NOT entitled to our own facts. That is very bit as true for the president-elect as it is for you or me.
Reiterating falsehoods cannot be tolerated, and to call him out for lies (when they are in fact lies) should be incumbent upon us all. His continued assertion that he would have won the popular vote but for the “millions” who voted illegally left a mark on much of the American electorate, with a recent Economist/You Gov survey indicating that 46% of respondents overall and 52% of Republican respondents viewed it as definitely or probably true that millions of illegal votes were cast in the recent election.
There is, of course, the question of whether discussing publicly Trump’s numerous lies gives them life, with many failing to look beyond the headlines to the responsible fact-checking. Yet to fail to ensure that American voters understand that voter fraud is fact a myth, that it was not voter fraud that precluded Mr. Trump from winning the popular vote (by nearly 3 million votes), myths that might be used as fuel for the introduction of more restrictive voting legislation that disproportionately impact poor and minority voters (who, coincidentally, vote overwhelmingly for the Democratic Party).
When the Associated Press tweeted on January 1, “President-elect Trump will boldly use Twitter to make major policy announcements, incoming press chief says,” they neglected to scrutinize why Mr. Trump is using this unorthodox medium: the lack of accountability. Mr. Trump has not held a press conference since July, when he actively encouraged Russians to hack Secretary Clinton’s emails. His December press conference meant to address his conflicts of interest was cancelled. He has refused to disclose his tax returns. He as refused to put his assets in a blind trust. He was refused to hold a full press conference in which he could be questioned on these issues and others (such as ties to Russia, his position on the hacking, and issues such as his interest in expanding nuclear capacity in contradiction with long-standing United States policy). Twitter is fast, direct, and does not have immediate fact checking or follow-up questions. It is instant dissemination of ideas that go unfiltered until the media comment, with that commentary garnering far less attention than do the tweets themselves. It is irresponsible for members of the media not to shine a light on this clear motive that Trump has in shifting his policymaking to this dangerously unfiltered and unaccountable medium.
There is then the question of how to cover his stranger tweets that could reasonably be characterized as tantrums or otherwise complaints of those who are critical, or else distractions from substantive matters on which he might find the spotlight unfavorable. For example, on November 29th, he tweeted that those who burn the American flag should be punished with loss of citizenship or jail.
Is it signal or noise? Answer: Noise, though there are some responsible ways to cover it. For example, does the president-elect know landmark American jurisprudence? Do we have reason to fear more crackdown on First Amendment protections of speech? Likewise, his tweets attacking Saturday Night Live and Vanity Fair, petulant though they are, suggest a willingness to restrict – or at minimum publicly condemn – news and entertainment sources that deign to criticize him.
His tweet that China’s capturing of a drone was an “unpresidented” act garnered (justified) mockery for its misspelling of “unprecedented,” but that was not the important implication. The bigger issues were his addressing foreign policy matters in public and 140-character format, and the typo indicated that his tweets on these serious matters were not being vetted by those advising him. The absence of collaborative involvement in shaping the course of American foreign policy, especially given the president-elect’s thin skin and inexperience, is deeply troubling and is grounds for close scrutiny.
The Wall Street Journal recently sparked a controversy when its editor determined that the Journal would not call Trump’s lies “lies,” given the implication that lies intend to mislead. Rather, the Journal held that reporters should state the facts and leave to readers their classification as honest or false.
We do ourselves and our nation a disservice when we let the semantics of "lie" versus "falsehood" undermine our commitment to the truth. We cannot always decipher the intent of Mr. Trump's inaccurate statements about such things as crime rates and illegal voting, though we can certainly make our own conjectures especially with respect to things that have been debunked repeatedly. But regardless of intent, a falsehood must be disavowed. It is not bias, it is responsible journalism, and fear about the use of the word "lie" precluding us from responsible fact-checking does us a great harm.
An additional and monumental problem, of course, is that the average reader does not go on PolitiFact or other websites to fact check, but rather depends on vigilant journalists to do the leg work to ferret out the truth. They are not likely accustomed to the degree of lies that we are seeing in the president-elect, and as the Economist/YouGov survey suggests, many have adopted the beliefs that he and those supporting him embrace, whether with respect to illegal voting, Pizzagate (36% believing it to be true), or the notion that President Obama was born in Kenya (36% believing it to be true). In the era of increasing degrees of fake news with instant dissemination and at times difficulty deciphering fact from fiction, journalists and their editors owe it to the American people to be ever more vigorous in their efforts to fact check people on both sides of the political aisle (though the president-elect’s many falsehoods are, to be sure, those most prominent in public discourse).
The notion that scrutinizing the president-elect’s statements indicates bias is misleading. His successes should be acknowledged, and his falsehoods corrected. Calling him out for lying – intentionally or not – and actively opposing efforts to undermine a free and independent media (essential to our democracy) is not bias. On the contrary, it is responsible journalism, and it is patriotism. And if we have a pro-democracy bias, well, we should be able to live with that.