How can journalists report with balance on an unbalanced candidate?

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Trump soaks up the media spotlight last September. - SANDY HUFFAKER
  • Sandy Huffaker
  • Trump soaks up the media spotlight last September.

Journalists are studying their navels again. As they're hammered—by readers, partisans, and the candidates' own camps—for their coverage of the race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, they're asking themselves fundamental questions: Are we being fair? And fair to whom—the candidates, our readers, the needs of the nation, our own principles? And are we even supposed to be fair?

When no one can agree on what fairness is, why should journalists give it a thought?


Liz Spayd, the New York Times's new public editor, calls the matter that's causing the consternation "false balance" or "false equivalence." In last Sunday's column she explained this as a matter of "journalists who, in their zeal to be fair, present each side of a debate as equally credible." Getting down to cases, Spayd said readers are telling her the Times is "unfairly equating a minor failing of Hillary Clinton's to a major failing of Donald Trump's."

"I am begging you to please refrain from drinking the false equivalency Kool-Aid," one reader wrote Spayd. "There's too much at stake."

Spayd showed some sympathy for this critique, but in the main she believes reporters should simply dig into their stories and let the chips fall where they may. Let a lot of minor failings slide and the result—once they've accumulated—might be a blind eye turned on someone who doesn't belong in the White House. "If Trump is unequivocally more flawed than his opponent, that should be plenty evident to the voting public come November," she wrote. "But it should be evident from the kinds of facts that bold and dogged reporting unearths, not from journalists being encouraged to impose their own values to tip the scales."

Here's the problem Spayd doesn't see: This is a bizarre election between one candidate, Clinton, someone highly vulnerable to bold and dogged reporting, and another, Trump, impervious to it. The next piece of bold and dogged reporting at Clinton's expense will undoubtedly chip away at her stature even more. If it's directed at Trump, it won't change a thing. Journalists must be asking themselves, So why should we go through the motions?

Reporters crowd around an anti-Clinton activist at the Republican National Convention in July. - JEFF J MITCHELL / GETTY
  • Jeff J Mitchell / Getty
  • Reporters crowd around an anti-Clinton activist at the Republican National Convention in July.

A journalist I know recently posted a link on Facebook to a Politico story by Jack Shafer headlined "The Case Against Journalistic Balance." 

"A slavish devotion to balance," Shafer acknowledged, "is injurious to good journalism." But he also said the cry against false equivalency is being led by "strident . . . Clinton acolytes" who don't want her transgressions paraded as equivalent to Trump's. 

Shafer said he agreed with Spayd that the greater danger is that journalists would be "cowed" by critics into backing away from both candidates. If he'd been her editor, Shafer went on, he'd have urged Spayd "to take the next step: Use the column to reject the chimera of journalistic balance altogether, and enjoin reporters to worry less about the nitpicking of partisans and more about whether they're aggressively chasing good stories."

On Facebook, right below the link to Shafer's story, somebody had posted her two cents' worth: "IMHO the journalist's job is to ferret out the truth . . . the REAL truth . . . not what they believe to be the truth."
 
But arguably, there's no unknown truth about Trump worth ferreting. True enough, we know too little about his taxes, his health, and his financial entanglements; the Washington Post just called him "the least transparent major presidential nominee in modern history." And possibly the most hypocritical, as Trump demands total accountability from everyone else.

But this is a wildly asymmetrical election in which the only story that matters about Trump is out in the open and has been told a thousand times already: He's completely unfit to be president.

He has, in the recent words of Eric Zorn, "cornered the market on preposterous, offensive, ill-advised and utterly false utterances." He is, in the more distant words of David Brooks, "precisely the kind of scapegoating, promise-making, fear-driving and deceiving demagogue" the founding fathers feared. Millions of Americans can't wait to vote for Trump. To most of the rest of us—Republicans as well as Democrats—he's a threat to the nation.

It might be that this Trump story that everyone's already heard needs to be told and retold right up until the election—never leaving page one. But it goes against the grain of journalists to report old news. Besides, only pundits have the leeway to report it. It's a lot easier for a reporter to slip a passing reference to e-mail servers into a news story than a reference to a candidate's history of irrationality and demagoguery.  

So journalists are uneasy. Traditional fairness has never so closely resembled irresponsibility. 

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