In an interview with the BBC last year, New York Times editor Dean Baquet said: “We are not supposed to be the leaders of the resistance to Donald Trump. That is an untenable, non-journalistic, immoral position for The New York Times.”
Traditionalists in the mainstream media believe Baquet’s position is the right one – for the Times, and for any independent outlet that wants to preserve its journalistic integrity. The best way to cover Trump ethically is to be aggressive, vigilant, critical, tough and fair. Scrupulously, rigorously fair.
But that model is under fierce attack from all sides. Trump regularly denounces the press as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people,” and admits he’s following a devious, damaging game plan. Lesley Stahl of CBS reports this conversation with the president: “He said, ‘You know why I do it? I do it to discredit you all and demean you all, so when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.’”
In response, a rising chorus of Resisters – led by younger journalists of color within the Times and elsewhere – find Baquet’s model hopelessly outdated and even immoral. In Trump’s America, they are saying, polarization is unavoidable. You have to choose sides.
Nikole Hannah-Jones, who won a Pulitzer Prize for the Times, put it this way on CNN: “This adherence to even-handedness, both-side-ism, ‘view from nowhere’ doesn’t actually work in the political circumstances that we’re in.”
This clash has been brewing for some time, but it came to a head when the Times ran an op-ed piece by Sen. Tom Cotton: an inflammatory screed calling for military repression of the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. The paper initially defended its decision, but backed down in the face of ferocious criticism. James Bennet, chief of the editorial page, even resigned.
The Resisters won that round, but the Traditionalists remain deeply troubled. Cotton is a major political figure who reflects the views of the president, and will probably run himself in four years. They point to Bennet’s defense of his decision before his resignation: “It would undermine the integrity and independence of The New York Times if we only published views that editors like me agreed with, and it would betray what I think of as our fundamental purpose: not to tell you what to think, but to help you think for yourself.”
The Resisters argued that Cotton’s piece contained numerous inaccuracies. They also argued it was hurtful and even dangerous to black reporters, especially those covering the protests. “It’s a unique balancing act,” wrote LZ Granderson, a columnist for the Los Angeles Times, “juggling your humanity with your profession against the backdrop of being under relentless attack in today’s toxic political environment.”
Both sides agree on one thing: Trump has altered the journalistic rules in critical ways. He lies repeatedly and ruthlessly. Unlike other politicians, he never corrects his misstatements or apologizes for them. He commands the TBN, the Trump Broadcasting Network, which uses Twitter and other social media platforms to communicate directly with his supporters and evade accountability.
As a result, even Traditionalists believe Trump has to be treated differently than his predecessors. They feel they have to be far more aggressive in documenting his falsehoods and calling them out. Some outlets now use words like “liar” and “racist” to describe him in extreme cases.
As Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief of the Times, told me: “Trump has uttered so many obvious falsehoods, so often, that to just report what he said, like we have covered other presidents, seems like a falsehood in itself.”
For the Resisters, that approach does not go far enough. They embrace views like this tweet from Wesley Lowery, a former Washington Post writer: “American view-from-nowhere, ‘objectivity’-obsessed, both-sides journalism is a failed experiment. We need to fundamentally reset the norms of our field. The old way must go. We need to rebuild our industry as one that operates from a place of moral clarity.”
For the Traditionalists, moral clarity comes from professionalism, not partisanship; from independence, not alliances. No matter how awful Trump is, in their view, he does not justify abandoning basic journalistic values. They side with Marty Baron, Lowery’s old editor at the Post, who said in 2017: “We’re not at war (with the administration); we’re at work.”
This conflict will continue to reverberate in newsrooms across the country. It will heavily influence how the mainstream press continues to cover Trump, and the presidents who succeed him.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at [email protected]