How Should Journalists Cover a President Who Doesn’t Care About Telling the Truth?

In response to this tweet:

Here’s Professor Jay Rosen’s tweet:

How Are Journalists Supposed to Cover a President Who Doesn’t Care About the Truth?

That’s my question. And, to be clear, I don’t just mean a President who doesn’t care about telling the truth, but a President who doesn’t care about the truth. That is, a President who speaks as if his views and opinions supercede the reality; that what he says is the truth.

The answer isn’t simple in my view. For most people, if they worked with or knew someone who didn’t care about the truth–most people would distance themselves from that person, maybe even expressing contempt and hostility. A part of me wonders why the press can’t react in the same way.

But here’s at least one problem with that approach. Many viewers will, rightly in my view, wonder if the press is being impartial, or if they actually are losing their objectivity. Some viewers might speculate that the some members of the press have personal vendetta against the President, especially if the President has attacked and insulted the press. President Trump will no doubt add fuel to this fire, as he already has been doing. The result is that some viewers, maybe many, will begin to question the motives of journalists and then also question the accuracy of the reporting. This is a huge problem.

How can the press overcome this? That is, how do they respond to the fact that Trump doesn’t care about the truth in a way that doesn’t cause them to lose credibility in the public’s eyes?

The First Step: Make a Case That Trump’s Lies Are Different and Call For Different Type of Coverage

The first thing that comes to mind is for all the major news outlets to come together to explain and make a case to the public that the President Trump is lying in a way that is significantly different from any other politician, and that because of this, the press would adopt an approach will be different from covering other politicians in the past.

I’m not exactly sure about the way the arguments in this case would look specifically, but I will say that I believe news agencies from across the political spectrum need to speak with one voice on this. For example, this proposal doesn’t work if large numbers of mainstream conservative journalists don’t support the effort. (Crafting an argument that news agencies can agree to will pose a challenge, but I don’t feel like this is insurmountable.)

The case for this position should be in print, audio, and video forms, appearing in the major newspapers, TV/cable networks, as well radio outlets.

The Hard Part: What the Coverage Will Look Like

I think this is a hard question to answer, and I only have vague ideas. For example, a part of me feels like journalists can now express more skepticism and even disdain when they feel like they’re being lied to.

Another thing they can do is to stop giving the President and his administration the benefit of the doubt–stop assuming good faith. At this point, the press should do the assume–namely, assume bad faith on the part of the Trump administration, at least when it comes to the truth.

How this would affect coverage and the actual telling for news stories is unclear to me, at least in terms of specifics. However, I think it’s important and valuable that the press doesn’t feel inclined to cover the President and his administration while assuming good faith. I think the President and his administration has crossed a line, demonstrating that he is not trustworthy, and the press should find their way in responding accordingly.

4 Responses to “How Should Journalists Cover a President Who Doesn’t Care About Telling the Truth?”

  1. Reid

  2. Reid

    David Leonhardt of the New York Times in this op-ed gets at the kind of case I referred to earlier, although I think the press should spend more time fleshing this out and they should do it collectively:

    I’ve previously argued that not every untruth deserves to be branded with the L-word, because it implies intent and somebody can state an untruth without doing so knowingly. George W. Bush didn’t lie when he said Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and Obama didn’t lie when he said people who liked their current health insurance could keep it. They made careless statements that proved false (and they deserved much of the criticism they got).

    But the current president of the United States lies. He lies in ways that no American politician ever has before. He has lied about — among many other things — Obama’s birthplace, John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Sept. 11, the Iraq War, ISIS, NATO, military veterans, Mexican immigrants, Muslim immigrants, anti-Semitic attacks, the unemployment rate, the murder rate, the Electoral College, voter fraud and his groping of women.

    He tells so many untruths that it’s time to leave behind the textual parsing over which are unwitting and which are deliberate — as well as the condescending notion that most of Trump’s supporters enjoy his lies. Trump sets out to deceive people. As he has put it, “I play to people’s fantasies.”

  3. Reid

    I just thought of what I would include in the case showing that Trump’s lying and BS are different and warrant a different approach to covering him.

    The case actually could be broken down into different type of lying. For example, one section could be called, “Lies of a Con Man.” In this section, I would show a pattern of lying that seem like attempts at hoodwinking the public and press. Some examples would include claims about having soon-to-be revealed evidence proving claims about Obama not being born in Hawai’i, the U.S. intelligence being wrong about Russian interference in the election. In the presentation of this case, I would want the person speaking on behalf of the MSM to say something like: “Trump hasn’t followed through on any of these promises. If he doesn’t do so, we don’t feel an obligation to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

    Closely related to this are Trump’s attempts to lie or create a false impression with the hopes the public and press eventually forget about these claims and/or won’t really scrutinize them. Some examples are Trump’s promise to release his taxes (later using the bogus excuse of being audited as a reason for not releasing them); divesting of his business, putting it into a “blind trust;” not giving security clearances to his family. Recent press reports say that Ivanka is moving into the WH, into a space that has been left open all this time, and that she’s getting high security clearance. Trump hasn’t released his taxes, and at a January press conference he said that this was no longer a big deal–only the press cared about releasing his tax forms. Trump still owns his business. (Oh, he also claimed to give his salary to charity and also give some of his profits to the U.S. government. None of these things have happened.)

    I also want to mention Trump’s promise to donate money to veterans. Something he delayed doing–and only seemed to do when the press got on him. There’s a strong sense that Trump won’t really follow through unless he’s pressured to do so–either by press scrutiny, public outcry, or maybe the courts.

    There is a pattern here, and it creates the sense that Trump is a con man, someone playing the American public and press for suckers. As far as I know, this isn’t something that other politicians do, and the press should alter their coverage as a result.

  4. Reid

    Former world chess champion,Garry Kasparov in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review:

    Call things what they are. Lies are lies. Facts are facts. Dictators are dictators. The tell-both-sides media attitude that generally works in the free world falls apart completely when dealing with a dictatorship that doesn’t operate in good faith, that lies and actively fabricates constantly. The US media are now learning this with Trump, to treat his administration like a hostile witness, or at least an unreliable narrator. Russia’s elections are a complete joke. Putin isn’t an elected leader any more than Kim Jong-un at this point, so why play along with the charade? To be “objective” or “fair”? This is how the bad guys win, because the free world’s leaders and media want to play by rules that assume fair play and a degree of scrupulousness that doesn’t exist for people like Putin, who see this tendency, accurately, as a weakness to exploit.

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