Thursday, February 9, 2017

Karl du Fresne: Donald Trump and the decline of objective journalism


One consequence of the Trump presidency is that it has accelerated the decline of detached, objective journalism.

Most people outside America, me included, despise Donald Trump. This has apparently made it permissible for the media to abandon all pretence of neutrality and to treat him as fair game for contempt, disgust and ridicule.
An example was an article on Monday by Paul McGeough, the chief foreign correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald. The SMH is a paper that could once be relied on for balanced reportage, but McGeough’s report on Trump’s decree banning immigration from seven Muslim countries was drenched with emotive rhetoric and hyperbole.

It began with the words: “This is the face of selective, lily-livered hate.” It went on: “Donald Trump holds it in his heart, but he manufactures it too, masking state-sanctioned religious persecution as a national security endeavour – all to stoke the ‘us and them’ hysteria that drove his election campaign”.

McGeough’s article continued in similar vein, telling us that Trump had severed the torch-bearing arm from the Statue of Liberty and plunged America into darkness. (I presume he meant in a metaphorical sense.)

You didn’t need to read far to realise that this wasn’t a classically restrained piece of reportage. But mixing comment with fact, to the point where the two become almost indistinguishable, is already routine in media coverage of the Trump presidency.

When a man is as widely loathed as Trump, journalists feel safe putting the boot in. But these may be the very times when we most need sober, cool-headed journalism that reports the facts without further inflaming already overheated passions. There’s enough hysteria around already without over-excited journalists heaping petrol on the fire.

In any case, much of the rage about Trump overlooks a couple of important points.

The first is that he was fairly elected according to the rules of the US Constitution. We might view those rules as flawed, since Electoral College votes can outweigh the result of the popular ballot, but they were deliberately designed that way to protect smaller states from being disempowered by more populous ones.

Protest banners shrieking "Dump Trump", just because the presidential election delivered a result some people didn't like, are not only spectacularly pointless after the event, but indicate contempt for democracy.

The other point is that nations are entitled to protect their borders against possible external threats – in this case, a very real one. People might dislike the brutal, pig-headed manner in which Trump has gone about this, but the principle is unarguable.

Now, back to that McGeough piece. There has always been a place in good newspapers for robust, provocative editorials and opinion columns, but traditionally they were kept separate from news. That’s no longer necessarily the case.

Editorial bias has so pervasively invaded the news columns of once-esteemed papers like the SMH, its sister paper the Melbourne Age, Britain’s Guardian and even the redoubtable Washington Post, that they can no longer be regarded as reliable papers of record. Much of their reportage is coloured by the journalist’s personal perception of events or by the paper’s editorial stance. 

But the mixing of news and comment isn’t a phenomenon that suddenly materialised with Trump’s emergence. It’s a trend that has been gathering momentum for years.

Its origins lie in journalism schools, where ideologically motivated tutors tell students that objectivity – the professional obligation to remain impartial and tell both sides of the story – is a myth promulgated to protect the wealthy and powerful.

Many of the journalists now working in newsrooms here and overseas have been taught that their mission is not so much to report events as to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable – often using exactly those words.

This is activism, not journalism. Journalism can and often does produce outcomes that afflict the comfortable, but that is not its primary purpose, which is to inform people on matters that may be of interest to them.

But there’s another factor, besides the politicisation of journalism training, that has led to the increasingly opinionated tone of news coverage. The internet, by giving people instant access to an almost infinite range of news and opinion outlets worldwide, has imperilled the traditional “broad church” newspaper – the one where you could expect to see a wide range of views expressed.

News and information junkies now gravitate to the websites that most closely reflect their own world view. News outlets on both the Right and the Left have responded by taking on a tribal character, promoting opinions that parallel the views of their followers.

After all, it’s easier to have your prejudices confirmed than to be challenged by unpalatable new ideas. Not so good for democracy, though.

Karl du Fresne blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz. First published in the Dominion Post.

3 comments:

Kiwiwit said...

I used to be a news junkie, reading several newspapers daily and devouring the television and radio news broadcasts, but I have given up consuming the local mainstream media in utter frustration at the biased, poorly-written, unedited, inarticulate propaganda that they feed us instead of news. It is amazing the number of people I speak to who have done the same. I think this is reflected in declining circulations and ratings but I suspect a long tail of subscriptions and habits, particularly amongst older consumers, means that even those figures mask a steeper decline in actual consumption.

There is a desperation about the coverage of the US election result by the mainstream media that has become quite comical. A few rare leaders like Arthur Sulzberger, publisher of the New York Times, recognised that they had lost the plot and that their survival depended on reporting "honestly, without fear or favor, striving always to understand and reflect all political perspectives", but such self-awareness seems to be completely absence from most organisations.

I think it is already too late for most of the mainstream media and perhaps that is not a bad thing. It is time for renewal and from the myriad of small, independent, online media outlets, some leaders are emerging. Our own Scoop is an example of this.

Brian said...

Donald Trump verses Bias Journalism.

Well I do not hate President D. Trump, I believe in quite a lot of his objectives, also thankfully, I belong to a generation that can distinguish between the outright muck raking which infests our today’s media under the guise of journalism.

I must admit I had little idea that the tutors in the schools of journalism indoctrinated our journalists to such an extent. Although this sort of left wing ideology seems to be prevalent in our general school system, with the left wing emphasis on Human Climate Change, the blatant condemnation and history revision of our colonial past, together with a rampant social engineering policy.

The NZ Herald is dominated by articles written or copied from the Washington Post by strong leftist journalists, ( As re-naming is in vogue how about “The New Zealand Washington Post”) There is a sizable content of our population who cannot, or rather will not stomach, that their world has changed forever. These are modern Luddites who have germinated under democracy, but never actually accepted it as a form of government; unless of course it meets their criteria. So we witness now the mob riots and protests in the Western World directed against President Trump, and the Republican party.

Mr. Trump’s immigration policies, especially those in connection with the Muslim extremist countries are the first step real step ever taken by someone in authority to curb the spread of Islamic terrorism. This together with the United Nations ultra bias attitudes to such as Israel, the outright persecution and massacres by Islam against other religious faiths throughout the world, are ignored by the U.N. and to their shame by journalists.

We have been suffering like the rest of our society, from a worldwide leftist movement so convinced that anyone with a right wing view is an enemy of the state. This sort of labelling extends into all facets of our society in New Zealand.

The wringing of hands over the demise of TPP trade deal is hypocrisy at its very best, for years this country has fought to overcome barriers principally levelled at our agricultural exports. The sell out that TPP would give this country access to markets yet unknown, and the start of a “Free Trade Era” was a false and unrealistic dream.
Did anyone ever think that if TPP had become a reality it would have opened up and seen duties on our produce dropped? The truth has always been that import duties are part of the protective trade system, but first and foremost a political electoral decision for any country.

Brexit and Trumpism have arrived, but our media still lives in its leftish past...what next another Saint Obama and the Promised Land?
Brian

paul scott said...

Kiwiwit [above commenter] is usually right about everything. I have a 100% MSM news black out.
That includes all newspapers and TV. I use our TV at home as a monitor for good work.
Those who hate Trump stagger me, they would have prefered the evil swamp which the Clintons live in, and an unelected New World Order, proseletysed by the sick Press.
CNN. ABC, WAPO. NYT. CBC .. all junk news dominated by the owners politics .
That is finished care of our hero. .. Lets ses how many Middle East Wars he starts not.
Conservatism and National patriotism will probably be on the ascendancy for the next generation and longer. Good. America will be great again.