Your humble correspondent—a man young enough he can still be persuaded—solicited thoughts from CJR members last week on whether journalists’ notion of objectivity should change in the face of immoral or arguably un-American acts, even if those acts have popular support.
Please keep your questions, comments, and bad jokes coming in: firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your dateline and any relevant media affiliations. I take liberty to edit your feedback for clarity, length, and, yes, misspellings.
In answer to the question about injecting one’s opinions into reporting: The place for personal opinion is in the opinion columns and editorials. For the most part, news should be reported objectively and as truthfully as possible. That being said, when a lie has been said—a provable lie—that should also reported. After all, that’s objective.
Cary G. Herwig
DU: Cary, I think you’ve been caught! Absent solid evidence that a subject intentionally misled—a rarity—there’s no such thing as a provable lie. We don’t know that President Donald Trump was lying when he spewed falsehoods about Barack Obama’s birthplace ad nauseum; he could have convinced himself of this delusion. The same can be said for the fake terrorist attacks he and his aides misspeak about when pushing their refugee order, and his administration’s tendency toward alternative facts.
Calling these out as “lies,” which I have, requires a leap of opinion. Team Trump habitually spreads falsehoods, without evidence, while not responding to credible evidence that contradicts their claims. It is a pattern of behavior that insults journalists’ intelligence—to say nothing of the public’s—in a way that forces them to push back. Whether that opinionated response helps or hurts the media’s long-term credibility remains an open question. What do you think? Email me!
Terms such as the “Acela corridor” might be part of the daily vernacular around the [Washington] environs, but not so much here in the Rust Belt. I could go on and on about how their use without explanation reinforces the concern that there are massive disconnects between those supposedly in the know and others of us … many who voted for Trump.
Fond du Lac, Wisconsin
DU: I’m writing this dispatch far outside the Washington environs, from CJR’s Brooklyn bureau (my couch). But the point is well taken. For the uninitiated: The Acela Express is a train that runs from Boston to Washington, charging double the normal Amtrak price for cushier seats and a few minutes slashed off total travel time. Perhaps my choice of the term came from a subconscious desire to talk like elites from the East Coast. Or perhaps it came from my personal infatuation with regional transportation systems, which my homeland of Michigan sorely lacks. As someone who speaks the language of both places, I’d argue that cultural differences between the two aren’t as great as my word choices or our national political climate might suggest.
With my eightieth birthday coming up on February 1, I’m feeling something I’ve never felt in my life: fear for our democracy’s existence. All of my working days, more than 40 years as a reporter and editor at newspapers—the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times (California), El Paso Herald Post, UPI (Manhattan), Newsday, The New York Times, Albuquerque Journal, and the New York Post—kept me in touch with the thoughts and emotions of my countrymen. And I loved them all and told their stories, even when they were Republicans. Now there is something new and very troubling coming into being—I call it the Third Reich comes to America. How superior and blessed I felt growing up in Texas back in the 1950s, when I was reading William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich.” Nothing like that could ever occur in our beloved country. Well, it’s not only here, it’s in our very presidency. My God, how did this happen? The only thing I know for certain is that we have to fight it with every fibre of our being—all of us—even if we are just decrepit old farts like yours truly. Come on, Texans, come on Ohioans, come on everybody. This is the big one!
Howard H. Crook
New York, NY
DU: Let the record show that I try to shy away from Nazi analogies. But having spoken to numerous journalists on this topic since the election, I can report that many share Howard’s feeling that “this is the big one.” So, how to respond? My general take is that Trump’s cartoonish behavior, proclivity for misinformation, and governance by chaos—should it continue—will be made woefully apparent through straightforward, hard-edged news coverage. No need to scream from the rooftops, much as Trump supporters’ disregard for the press makes us want to. Courage, Hemingway once said, is “grace under pressure.” And in a time of unprecedented pressure on the press—both political and financial—there’s as great a need as ever for clear eyes and cool heads.
A couple of past events more horrific than Mr. Trump’s decree that Muslims from certain countries may not enter the United States beg comparison: the sequestration of Japanese and Japanese-Americans [during World War II], and the refusal to accept Jewish refugees, even children, fleeing Nazi persecution. Both historical events had broad popular support, but now we realize—in shame—that they blemished our national character. We must report what has been done and how all parts of our society react. In interpretative pieces and on our editorial pages we must reflect on our values and on the lessons from our past to understand current actions and beliefs.
Silver City, New Mexico
DU: Beautifully put. Where it gets tricky is with attempts to convey moral stains of the past to those who currently hold morally questionable beliefs. I’ve yet to see many examples of news organizations doing so without sounding paternalistic. Pointing out that the seven countries targeted in Trump’s order haven’t yielded a fatal terrorist attack on US soil over the past 15 years—a fact—can likewise be received as arrogance. Fear is irrational, of course, making this needle all the more difficult to thread. Journalists will keep trying, and I’ll keep fielding your suggestions on how they—we—can do better.