Sometimes good and professional people fall into the trap of trying to normalize the abnormal in an attempt to return to better times, to reassure. When journalists act in this manner, however, we are all imperiled. The Fourth Estate is our best hope in these very troubled times of the Russian interference in our government, not just our election, and the continued corruption of pay-to-play Trump administration schemes that harm the country while enriching those in the White House. Journalists may feel obligated, or are pressured, to give “equal time” to opposing sides even when the news should fall only on one side. The attempt to balance negatives about opposing political parties even when there is no balance further tips the scales against retaining our democracy.
There is plenty of evidence of these two flaws in otherwise very good news publications during the election and since. We hold these publications to a higher standard because it is pointless to ask for anything of deliberate propagandists. To trace all of these instances of good journalists causing harm would constitute the writing of a book, but a few examples from one day of news coverage demonstrates the dangerous practices of both normalizing the corrupt/criminal/abnormal and attempting to balance deeply unbalanced scales between political parties. The GOP’s stranglehold on Congress and every branch of government at present is perhaps an even greater threat to democracy than Russia and Putin’s continued interference, although one would not likely be possible without the other.
Respected journalist and CBS This Morning anchor John Dickerson recently wrote the cover story for the May 2018 issue of The Atlantic. Although Dickerson gets into a convoluted rationale for his article and offers research, the headline alone is enough to make anyone interested in preserving our democracy cringe: “How the Presidency Became Impossible: It’s Not Just Trump—the Job Is Now Too Much for Anyone.” Immediately, readers are asked to accept a terribly flawed and biased premise that, essentially, gives cover and apology for Trump’s disastrous handling of the presidency, a position for which he was not only unqualified but prepared to take full advantage of in terms of pay-to-play corruption. In the article, Dickerson poses the question, “What if the problem isn’t the president—it’s the presidency?” This question is about as disingenuous a question as could be asked.
In attempting to create balance, the May issue of The Atlantic also had an essay tucked deeply inside with the title, “How to Sway a Baboon Despot” that is more disturbing than funny, but the cover headline gets all the attention and creates perceptions that, indirectly, offer cover to Trump.
Not to pick on The Atlantic (It is known as a liberal, albeit excellent and reliable, news publication), but the May issue also contained an essay titled “Reinventing America: Notes from a journey through a country that’s steadily becoming a better version of itself outside the baleful gaze of the national media.” This overly long title by James Fallows is an editorial in itself. Reassuring the American people that everything is not only just fine, but America is “steadily becoming a better version of itself” belies, even perverts, the facts. Racism, crimes of hate and bigotry, deep divides, and ugliness has emerged with tidal wave force with the questionable (We have yet to fully discover how much Russian interference tipped the election to Trump and GOP candidates in down ballot elections.) “election” of Trump.
The Washington Post has been one of our best and most reliable news publications in recent years, but even this esteemed newspaper plays to the absurdity of attempting to normalize Trump’s “presidency,” continuing to suggest Trump may restart his presidency and ignore the myriad scandals and crimes in his administration. The May 10, 2018 edition of the newspaper featured a headline on the front page: “Trump Offers Hero’s Welcomes to Three Americans freed by North Korea.” People don’t typically stop to analyze how headline word choice is inherently political, carries bias, and sways readers.
To examine just this one headline, why is “Trump” first? Position is everything in carrying weight and influence. Why not the headline: “Three Americans Returned to U.S. From North Korea”? Unfortunately, for readers trying to determine the significance of the story, nowhere in the article is context given for the long-standing relationship between North Korea and Putin’s Russia. While the freedom of the Korean Americans held in North Korea is good news for them, what exactly does it mean for North Korean-U.S. relations? Political prisoners in North Korea were released under President Obama’s tenure in office, as well. What is North Korea doing with these actions? Understanding the repetitive pattern here is as important to relations as the event itself. Unfortunately, the article provides no context.
“We’re starting off on a new footing,” Trump said. “This is a wonderful thing that he released the folks early. That was a big thing, very important to me and I really think we have a very good chance of doing something very meaningful.” The article does not point out the absurdity of Trump stating that the release of the Americans was “important to me.” Important to Trump because he needed the public distraction from the discovery of more “pay to play” schemes? As the article noted, “The news of their release had led the evening news Wednesday on all three major broadcast networks.” This happened, likely not coincidentally, on an evening when it was revealed that Trump’s “fixer” Michael Cohen had accepted millions of dollars from American companies and Russians for access for Trump. Again, this information is not mentioned in the article.
Another headline on May 10, 2018 read: “Trump Seizes a Chance to Alter His Image.” If we attempted to count the number of times the national news media have given us nearly identical headlines as journalists and news organizations seek to create a balance that simply does not exist with this presidency, we would likely lose count.
Another headline read: “Can Trump’s efforts at foreign policy breakthroughs erase damage of scandals at home?” Readers should be asking why a policy shift (what makes it a “breakthrough?”) should change the way Trump’s presidency is perceived? As if all the damage Trump has done can be erased because Putin likely told Kim to send some Americans home? Even suggesting this subtly works on readers, swaying opinion.
Truly, this is not an easy time to be a journalist, with the Trump administration and Russian bots, and propaganda channels attacking them continually. However, if we are to have any semblance of democratic norms and preserve our democracy, the best in our Fourth Estate must not allow themselves—even under threats and intimidation by the Trump administration—to be used as a Fifth Column.
Nancy Avery Dafoe