Media neutrality too precious to abandon

Don Campbell

Before political insiders begin their inevitable postmortems on the 2016 presidential election, I’d like to propose that newsroom leaders across the country convene and honestly examine the ways in which their coverage of the campaign departed from long-held tradition. I hope they’d conclude by issuing a declaration reading something like this: “It is not the job of the media to decide who should be elected president of the United States, nor is it the job of the media to save American voters from themselves. In a democracy, the decision of voters should be respected.”
I bring this up not as a general indictment of bias in the media — that dead horse has been beaten enough — but because two of the giants of daily journalism, The New York Times and The Washington Post, seem to have lost their moorings in covering this presidential election and, in the process, have set a troubling precedent. Both newspapers have been the gold standard against which print journalism has been held for as long as I can remember. In criticising them, I’m not holding any brief for Donald Trump; his attitude about freedom of the press scares the hell out of me. And precisely because of that, I fear the actions of the Times and the Post will spread Trump’s attitude more widely.
The first issue is balance. Balance doesn’t mean constantly measuring column inches of print or numbers of pictures or minutes of videos; it means making a conscious and obvious effort to aggressively report and examine the record and utterances of major candidates with consistent and equal vigour. Treating a narcissistic motor-mouth candidate like a celebrity because he’s readily accessible and highly quotable and his opponent like a boring recluse because she’s wary of reporters is to cede control of campaign coverage to the candidates and their handlers.
Out of curiosity, I picked three days during the week of Oct. 23 (Monday, Tuesday and Thursday) to examine at midday the online presidential campaign coverage of the Times and the Post. It was a relatively calm period in an election dominated most days by petulant mudslinging. My survey was purely arbitrary and anecdotal, but I was able to identify 59 news stories posted within the past 24 hours. Of that number, 41 were about Trump, 16 about Hillary Clinton and two were about both. I then labelled the stories as negative in tone, positive in tone, or neutral. The tally this time: 35 negative Trump stories, three negative Clinton stories, seven positive Clinton stories and 14 neutral stories.
Obviously that is subjective, but a half-century as, first, a reporter and editor covering six presidential campaigns and, then, as a teacher of best journalistic practices, gives me at least modest credentials to make those judgments. The second and more important matter is the admission by some Times and Post newsroom staffers that they have willingly abandoned the concept of neutrality in covering the Trump campaign. According to the Times’ media columnist and its senior political editor, Trump represents such a threat to democracy that it is incumbent on the Times to call him out on the news pages, a prerogative usually reserved for the editorial section. Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank echoed that sentiment more recently, writing that “in an ordinary presidential campaign, press neutrality is essential.” He then listed numerous examples of how he considered Trump’s pronouncements and temperament to be so abnormal as to make it “absolutely appropriate to take sides in a contest between democracy and its alternative.”
The stated or implied message in both cases is that abandoning a sacred tenet of journalism this year is a one-off, an exception to the rule. And that — trust us — we will resume our commitment to neutrality just as soon as the voters send Donald Trump packing. But this is a slippery and dangerous slope. What if the exception becomes the rule? The era of the partisan press mostly expired in this country before the Civil War. We don’t need icons of the mainstream news media to resurrect it in the 21st century. The writer is a former Washington reporter, editor and journalism educator.
— Courtesy: USA Today

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