The toxic combination of President Trump and Fox News has reached dangerous new levels, as the network has shifted from dismissing concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, to (briefly) acknowledging its virulence, to pushing Trump to end the extraordinary measures being taken to slow its spread. Three data points:
On Monday, New York Times columnist Ben Smith wrote that Fox major domo Rupert Murdoch has made a bad situation worse by leaving his hands-off son Lachlan in charge: “Fox failed its viewers and the broader public in ways both revealing and potentially lethal. In particular, Lachlan Murdoch failed to pry its most important voices away from their embrace of the president’s early line: that the virus was not a big threat in the United States.”
On Tuesday night, Paul Farhi and Sarah Ellison of The Washington Post reported that Trump’s bizarre, potentially lethal embrace of ending COVID-19 restrictions weeks or months sooner than medical experts recommend — even if the oldsters die — comes straight from Fox: “Early this week, the cable network’s most prominent figures began urging the president to ditch the restrictions and get people back to work, even if doing so risks the public’s health. The commentary dovetails with, and may even have encouraged, Trump’s expressing a desire for businesses to start reopening after the federal government’s 15-day, stay-at-home period ends on Monday.”
This morning, Tom Jones, who writes the Poynter Institute’s morning newsletter, took Fox to task for hosting a Trump town hall without challenging any of his dubious assertions: “Mostly because of the incompetence and softball approach from host Bill Hemmer, the two-hour town hall produced little in the way of accountability, clarity and specifics. Once again, Trump’s message to the American people felt more like the substitute for one of his rallies than a Q&A to inform them about one of the worst crises we have ever seen.”
You have to wonder what the late Roger Ailes would have done if he were still in charge. Yes, under Ailes, Fox spouted Republican propaganda and claimed it was “fair and balanced.” But Ailes’ version of Fox was at least nominally tethered to reality, even flirting with the “Never Trump” movement during the 2016 Republican primary campaign.
What’s happening now is incredibly dangerous and is going to get people killed.
Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen writes that he held out for a long time before coming to the conclusion that the media should stop covering President Trump in real time. Now COVID-19 and Trump’s news conferences, filled with lies and falsehoods, have tipped Cohen over the edge.
“At a moment of true national cataclysm, allowing him to use the bully pulpit in such an irresponsible manner is a risk we can’t afford to take,” Cohen writes. I agree. And he quotes me as telling him, “We can’t knowingly put out disinformation and misinformation. We have to put the public first.”
I’m not saying Trump shouldn’t be covered. If media outlets want to carry his news conferences in full, that’s fine — as long as they wait until they can fact-check his statements. Or simply cover his statements as we would any other news story, being especially careful to vet anything he says that isn’t obviously true.
It’s impossible to fact-check Trump in real time. For instance, who could have imagined that he wasn’t telling the truth about Google? Now he’s putting out false information at the podium and on Twitter (an entirely different problem) about completely unproven remedies that may be dangerous and that are depriving those who really need them.
We’re in the midst of a crisis. No one should be given free rein to spout dangerous nonsense — even if that person is the president of the United States.
So now President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign is filing SLAPP suits against news organizations — that is, libel suits with no legal merit whose goal is to intimidate rather than to expose the truth.
The lawsuits have targeted The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN, all of which have the resources to defend themselves. But the Trump campaign’s tactics raise a larger question: Will these suits embolden others to weaponize the courts against media outlets that lack the financial wherewithal to fight back against deep-pocketed opponents?
I can’t think of a more corrupt act any president has ever committed than illegally withholding military aid from a besieged ally until they agreed to claim they were digging up dirt on one of the president’s political opponents. I can think of more harmful acts, like ordering torture or launching a major war for no good reason. But more corrupt? No. The vote to remove Trump should be 100-0.
The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.
These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.
10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson?(March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.
9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.
7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.
6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?
5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head(Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.
4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.
3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism(Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.
2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.
1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.
So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.
Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2020.
In September 2018, President Donald Trump won an important First Amendment victory. By a 3-0 vote, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit ruled that neither Trump nor his campaign could be held liable for injuries suffered by protesters at the hands of Trump supporters during a March 2016 rally even though the then-candidate had yelled to “get ’em out of here.”
The court’s reasoning was based on the straightforward application of free-speech principles: Trump had not advocated violence at the Kentucky rally (in fact, he had also said “don’t hurt ’em”), and therefore he couldn’t be successfully sued even though some people were roughed up.
The decision may have been a disappointment for those who thought Trump should be held accountable for his careless words. But under the First Amendment, political speech receives the highest level of protection except in the most extreme circumstances.
Now, though, those principles are in danger. Based on a similar set of facts, the 5th Circuit ruled recently that a police officer in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, can sue Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson for injuries he received at the hands of a rock-throwing protester — even though, as The Washington Post reported, “Mckesson did not throw the rock or tell anyone else to throw it.”
Mckesson had organized the 2016 demonstration following the police killing of a black man named Alton Sterling. The police officer, whose identity has not been revealed, claims that Mckesson acted negligently by not foreseeing that the demonstration could become violent.
“The goal of lawsuits like these is to prevent people from showing up at a protest out of the fear that they might be held responsible if anything happens,” Mckesson said in a statement released by the ACLU, which earlier this month asked the Supreme Court to take up the case. “If this precedent lasts, it could make organizers all across the country responsible for all types of things they have no control over, such as random people coming into a protest and causing problems. We can’t let that happen.”
The Supreme Court precedent that protected Trump and that, by all rights, should protect Mckesson is NAACP v. Claiborne Hardware Co., a case decided in 1982. The NAACP in 1966 called for a boycott of white-owned businesses in Claiborne County, Mississippi — a nonviolent form of protest that nevertheless led to some acts of violence. In 1969, several of the business owners sued the NAACP and were successful in the state courts. But the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the NAACP could not be held liable for engaging in nonviolent free-speech activities regardless of actions taken by people not under the organization’s control.
Although the cases against Trump and Mckesson, like the case against NAACP, were for alleged civil offenses, it’s also worth noting the high bar the Supreme Court has set for incitement to violence in criminal cases. In the landmark 1969 case of Brandenburg v. Ohio, the court threw out the conviction of Ku Klux Klan leader Clarence Brandenburg because the threats he made at a rally against African Americans and Jews were non-specific and would not result in imminent violence.
In their petition to the Supreme Court, the ACLU’s lawyers argue that allowing the lawsuit against Mckesson to proceed would have a chilling effect on anyone who might wish to organize a nonviolent protest.
“Given the regularity with which violence and First Amendment activity co-occur and the vagaries of state law liability rules,” the lawyers wrote, “only the most intrepid citizens would exercise their rights and risk ruinous liability if they could be held liable for the wrongful acts of others.”
Ben Wizner, director of the ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, put it this way in the Washington Post story: “If this is allowed to stand, anybody can show up and throw a rock at a protest to bankrupt a movement they disagree with. People know when they step into the street that they might have to spend some hours in jail or pay a fine. But if they might have to pay a multi-million dollar civil judgment — that’s something they’re not prepared for, and can’t possibly be expected to prepare for.”
The case should prove to be a telling indicator of where the Supreme Court stands on free speech now that it has swung sharply to the right. Only four of the nine justices are needed take up the case.
Traditionally, even the court’s more conservative members have proved to be staunch advocates of the First Amendment. But if Trump’s justices, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, were to break with that tradition, the case of DeRay Mckesson v. John Doe could prove to be a signal moment in our march to a less open, less free society.
Van Jones is ripping Hillary Clinton for suggesting that Russian interests are seeking to use Tulsi Gabbard’s fringe presidential campaign to divide Democrats and help President Trump get re-elected. Here’s what Jones said on CNN:
If you’re concerned about disinformation … that is what just happened, just throw out some information, disinformation, smear somebody. She is Hillary Clinton. She’s a legend. She’s going to be in the history books, she’s a former nominee of our party, and she just came out against a sitting U.S. congresswoman, a decorated war veteran, and somebody who’s running for the nomination of our party with a complete smear and no facts.
In fact, there was nothing novel about Clinton’s contention. NBC News reported on Russian interest in Gabbard’s candidacy last February (via Sue O’Connell) in a detailed investigative report that begins:
The Russian propaganda machine that tried to influence the 2016 U.S. election is now promoting the presidential aspirations of a controversial Hawaii Democrat who earlier this month declared her intention to run for president in 2020.
An NBC News analysis of the main English-language news sites employed by Russia in its 2016 election meddling shows Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is set to make her formal announcement Saturday, has become a favorite of the sites Moscow used when it interfered in 2016.
Now, I realize that CNN talking heads are required to speak many words, and sometimes things go haywire. But for Jones not to be aware of longstanding concerns about Gabbard and Russian propaganda is unacceptable.
I think they [the Russians Republicans] have got their eye somebody who’s currently in the Democratic primary and are grooming her to be the third-party candidate. She’s a favorite of the Russians. They have a bunch of sites and bots and other ways of supporting her so far.
Clinton also said Jill Stein, who ran a third-party campaign in 2016, was a “Russian asset,” which is an uncontroversial assertion to anyone who paid attention. As with Gabbard, we can’t know what Stein was thinking, but it’s simply a fact that Stein’s candidacy was pushed by RT and other elements of Russian’s propaganda machine.
What Clinton said was the opposite of fake news, and Jones should acknowledge it. Then again, liberal commentators like Jones have a huge incentive to rip other liberals so they will be seen as “fair.” And the Clintons have been everyone’s favorite punching bag for such exercises for nearly 30 years.
Correction and update: Thanks to this Wall Street Journal story and Dylan Smith’s transcript of the Clinton-Plouffe exchange, we now know that Clinton said Gabbard was being groomed by the Republicans, not by the Russians, and that she did not call Gabbard a “Russian asset” (that was reserved solely for Stein). So Jones was even more unprepared and offbase than I originally thought.
Joe Biden could be the next president. And he has issued a “demand” (via his campaign) that the networks stop booking Rudy Giuliani, which they have a First Amendment right to do.
Yes, Giuliani is lying about the Bidens. But Biden, who may soon have the power to appoint FCC commissioners, could have “urged” or “requested” that the networks stop giving Giuliani a platform. “Demand” suggests consequences. Does Biden want to join Trump in eroding constitutional norms?
For the first time in Donald Trump’s 33-month presidency, his impeachment seems possible — maybe even probable. The dam that withstood the Mueller Report has broken in recent days over the news that Trump may have withheld military aid from Ukraine in order to strong-arm that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, into investigating Joe Biden. As “Never Trump” conservative Tom Nichols put it in The Atlantic: “If this in itself is not impeachable, then the concept has no meaning.”
Yet media fecklessness (and worse) has already pretty much guaranteed that the scandal will be seen in entirely partisan terms. To wit:
• In an appearance on MSNBC last Friday, New York Times reporter Kenneth Vogel breathed life into a discredited theory promoted by Trump and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani that the real story is Biden and his son Hunter’s dealings with Ukraine. Vogel called it “a significant liability for Joe Biden,” adding that Giuliani should back off “and just kind of leave the reporters to do the work on it.”
• On Monday, NPR.org published a headline that was a parody of false equivalence: “What’s The Ukraine Story About? Trump Says It’s Biden. Democrats Say It’s Trump.” I captured an image of it as I was gathering string for this column. Good thing. Because within a few hours, someone had the sense to change it to “Trump And The Ukraine Call — What Happened And What’s Next?” (The old headline is still in the URL.)
• In the fever swamps of the right, Trump’s enablers are working hard to transform this into another Benghazi/ Uranium One/ “her emails” distraction. In The Hill, John Solomon wrote that the Obama administration leaned on Ukrainian officials to drop an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company that had Hunter Biden on retainer. “Politics. Pressure. Opposition research,” Solomon wrote. “All were part of the Democrats’ playbook on Ukraine long before Trump ever called Zelensky this summer.” Naturally, Solomon popped up on Fox News on Monday evening, sharing his conspiracy theories with a rapt Sean Hannity.
As Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan put it: “Instead of snuffing out false and misleading claims, news stories give them oxygen. Then pundits come along to fan the flames — while simultaneously bemoaning what’s happened to our democratic norms.”
The Biden-Ukraine story is incredibly complicated, but the simplified version is this: Then-Vice President Biden served as the point man to pressure the Ukrainian government into removing that country’s prosecutor general, Victor Shokin, who had been investigating Burisma. Officials in both the United States and the United Kingdom were frustrated with Shokin for not moving aggressively enough in pursuing corruption. Shokin was in fact removed, and Biden took credit for it — more than he deserved, but that’s our Uncle Joe. There is no evidence that Hunter Biden benefited in any way or that the elder and younger Bidens even talked about the Burisma matter beyond one brief, non-substantive exchange.
Now this is where you, the fair-minded reader, probably find yourself wondering if there really is anything to the Biden angle. I wondered myself. What I discovered is every major fact-checking organization has concluded that neither of the Bidens did anything wrong. It’s fair to observe that Hunter Biden traded on his family connections in an unseemly way, collecting some $50,000 a month to serve on the Burisma board of directors. But as best as journalists have been able to determine, nothing illegal or corrupt took place.
It seems like a long time ago now, but this all started coming into focus two weeks ago, when U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, chair of the House Intelligence Committee, publicly charged the Trump administration with violating the federal whistleblower law by not allowing an official who reportedly had damaging information about the president to come forward.
It all unraveled pretty quickly last week, with the Post and the Times moving the story forward and the Journal hitting what the Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop called “the motherlode”: the news that Trump had pressured Zelensky in a phone call last July, repeating about eight times that Zelensky should investigate the Bidens.
Trump’s various explanations for what happened have shifted. He’s admitted to putting the squeeze on Zelensky to go after the Bidens, but his latest explanation for suspending some $400 million in military aid was that he wanted the Europeans to contribute more. He also has promised to release the transcript of his call with Zelensky sometime today. It’s not clear what if any steps are being taken to ensure that the transcript is accurate. Nor has the whistleblower information been turned over to Congress.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced late Tuesday afternoon that the House will begin a formal impeachment inquiry. In the weeks and months ahead, it is crucial that journalists do their job and not let themselves be sidetracked by Trump’s diversionary tactics about Joe and Hunter Biden.
Trump has actually admitted to demanding that a foreign government investigate one of his political opponents — as shocking a development as anything we have learned about Trump in his four-plus years as a national political figure. It remains to be seen if he also threatened to withhold military aid if the Ukrainians failed to comply, though the evidence suggests that’s exactly what he did.
Of course, if any legitimate concerns about the Bidens emerge, they should be investigated. What the press needs to avoid, though, is the urge to balance truthful information about Trump with his false accusations about one of his leading Democratic challengers.
Have the media engaged in false equivalence when it comes to political lying? Do fact-checkers nitpick statements by Democrats in order to seem fair and balanced when they go after President Trump’s numerous and blatant falsehoods?
That proposition might seem ludicrous. After all, The Washington Post last month announced that Trump had mademore than 12,000 false or misleading statements since his inauguration in 2017. Daniel Dale of CNN tracks every Trumpian falsehood — writing, for example, that the president“made at least 26 false claims” at a rally in New Mexico on Monday. PolitiFact has rated fully 69 percent of Trump’s public utterances asfalse to some degree, and 14 percent as being so at odds with reality that they have earned the coveted “Pants on Fire” rating.
And that’s just the tip of the journalistic iceberg. Indeed, if the media have told us anything about Trump over these past few years, it’s that he spews lies so freely that his every word and every tweet is suspect. So what do Democrats have to complain about?
This: Despite the media’s admirably tough-minded stance on Trump’s falsehoods, they are nevertheless holding Democrats to a much higher standard. Most politicians exaggerate, butcher the facts or shade the truth, and journalists should take note when they do. But the press should also be careful to point out the difference between standard-issue rhetorical excesses and the sort of gaslighting that Trump engages in on a daily basis.
Last week Michael Calderone of Politico wrote an important story about Democratic complaints regarding the fact-checkers’ embrace of false equivalence. He began with the example of Bernie Sanders’ claim that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded three Pinocchios (out of a possible four) to Sanders — not because he was completely wrong, but because medical bills were only one factor in those 500,000 bankruptcies. Meanwhile, Calderone noted, the Post also gave Trump three Pinocchios for claiming that large swaths of his border wall have been already built when, in fact, none of it has.
The Sanders example is a matter of factual interpretation. The Trump example is somewhere between a hallucination and a lie. Yet they each got the same rating. How can this be?
One explanation is that journalism, steeped as it is in notions of fairness and balance, is unequipped for the extraordinary challenge of the Trump era. Calderone offered several other instances of Democrats’ words being parsed for shades of nuance so that they could be labeled as lies. He also wrote that “several prominent fact checkers said they don’t believe their job has changed when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their words on the stump and in TV studios, despite Trump’s persistence falsehoods.” And he quoted PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan as saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” OK. But everything is not the same.
Consider an example that Calderone didn’t cite: Joe Biden’s recent mixing up of three separate stories about honoring a heroic soldier who had tried to save a comrade in Afghanistan. Yes, Biden botched it pretty badly, but the essential truth of what he was trying to say came through. Yet The Washington Post headlined it, “As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden tells a moving but false war story.” False? Not really. More like Biden being Biden, lacking the discipline to master the details and not understanding why it matters.
Or how about two years of obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s private email server while the news that Trump uses an unsecured cell phone, reported last October in The New York Times, got about two minutes’ worth of attention — even though Chinese and Russian spies were reportedly listening in on Trump’s calls.
Those last examples aren’t about lies and fact-checking. But all of this is grounded in a larger, more enduring issue — accusations of liberal bias on the part of conservatives, and the duck-and-cover response from too many journalists whose politics may indeed be liberal but who bend over backwards to torment liberal politicians. Eric Alterman, in his 2003 book, “What Liberal Media?,” called it “working the refs,” and it goes back at least to Spiro Agnew’s famous nattering nabobs of negativism speech of 1970.
In 2012 — a more innocent time — I wrote in The Huffington Post that one of the big problems with fact-checking was that politicians’ false or partly false statements were rarely full-blown lies, but that ratings like Pinocchios or “Pants on Fire” suggested that every falsehood was a lie. “The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they’re not necessarily doing it because they want to,” I wrote. “They’re doing it because politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.” Now we have a president who lies so promiscuously that the fact-checkers seek out minor factual discrepancies among Democrats so it won’t seem like they’re picking on Trump.
“Indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions,” Patterson wrote. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”
Now we are moving into yet another presidential election season. The problem for 2020, as it was for 2016, isn’t that the media won’t report negative information about Trump. It’s that they will report negative information about his opponents in such a way that it all looks the same. In that respect, Democratic complaints about fact-checking that may seem trivial are actually emblematic of a much deeper problem with journalism: the primal urge to treat both sides equally, to be seen as fair, to avoid accusations of liberal bias.
It’s going to be an ugly, brutal campaign, and Trump’s going to drive the agenda once again. Are the media up to the challenge? The evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.