The mainstream press in the US is obsessed with ‘objectivity’ – and that’s a problem

It’s impossible for effective political dialogue to be maintained if one side of an argument continue to lie without consequence.

Joe Sandler Clarke
26 November 2016
Donald Trump. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Donald Trump. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.Even in a year that has felt like it was scripted by a team of writers at The Onion, the irony of Mike Pence’s email scandal is too much to bear.

It turns out the vice-president-elect has been embroiled in a dispute over his official Indiana governor email account for the last year and a half.

Pence has refused to disclose the contents of a 2014 message to his chief of staff, despite Democratic lawmakers in the state calling for the email to be a matter of public record.

A spokesperson for the man who spent much of the year deriding Hillary Clinton for using a private email server while secretary of state said Pence’s controversy was “not even in the same universe” as Clinton’s.

In truth, he may have a point. Like Hillary’s emails, it’s a political process story which offers an insight into an unsavoury aspect of a public official’s personality, but little more.

That said, as Donald Trump fills his administration with racists, white nationalists and conspiracy theorists, it seems odd that the American media spent so much of the time leading up to this moment discussing a fairly banal process story.

It’s already becoming a trope for Twitter users to comment on the latest batch of insanity coming out of the Trump administration with the line: “Hillary’s emails though”.

So how did we get here?

As with the BBC in the UK, the mainstream press in the US is obsessed with objectivity.

The reasons for this are manifold. For a start, there’s the idea that if you can pitch your coverage to the middle of the country, you’ll get the most readers and viewers.

Then there’s the question of access. Conservative politicians are hardly likely to want to go to a liberal TV network and be given a hard time.

In the American context, the right has spent years repeatedly lambasting the media for having a liberal bias and treating their side unfairly, so now the press looks to accommodate them for fear of seeming biased.

In a democratic society with a functioning government and opposition and a highly engaged public, this obsession with balance and objectivity can be a virtue.

But throw a spanner in the works – a rogue claim here, a disengaged electorate there – and things can get messy. The relentless demand for objectivity can become false.

It’s impossible for effective political dialogue to be maintained if one side of an argument continue to lie without consequence.

In the UK, we saw this play out dramatically during the EU referendum.

While the Remain camp set out how leaving the EU would devastate the UK economy and throw our political system into uncertainty, the Leave side said those arguments were nonsense, adding that they would spend the £350 million we send the EU every week on the National Health Service instead. The fact that we don’t give the EU £350m a week didn’t matter. The damage had been done.

The 2016 presidential election seems like a more disturbing incidence of false objectivity than Brexit.

In the early months of the year, driven by a desperate need for ratings, American network television news devoted hours of uncritical coverage to the Trump campaign.

In one instance in March, three major TV networks broadcast 30 minutes of uninterrupted coverage of an empty podium at a Trump rally, rather than turning to other news.

As the months rolled on, the press continued to treat the race like any other election, giving equal weight to the points made by each side and treating both candidates’ problems with the same regard.

But this was not a normal election. The biggest story this year was not who would win the presidency. It was that a wholly unqualified fascist could become president.

Hillary’s email scandal became the story the press could latch onto to keep up the appearance of being objective.

In the days after James Comey wrote to Congress to say he was kind of, not really, maybe reopening his investigation, the New York Times plastered the story all over its front page. TV networks, largely following the lead of the papers, did the same.

Pence’s emails never got a look in. Neither did Trump’s racism, his archaic and dangerous views on climate change (“a hoax invented by China”), and the extraordinary Trump University fraud trial due to start just a fortnight after the election, and now settled for $25m.

Somehow, all of the disgracefulness on the GOP ticket – the bragging about sexual assault, the insults aimed at a dead soldiers family, the threats to not accept the results of the election – were made to appear on a par with Clinton’s decision to use a private email server.

This was an extraordinary example of false objectivity.

In the months and years to come, the press faces a battle for its very survival. Before entering office, Trump has already tweeted his disapproval of the New York Times and denied political journalists the kind of access that has become a core of American democracy.

Now as the impact of Brexit begins to batter the British economy even before the decision has been officially made to the leave the EU, a real debate in the UK liberal media about how we got into this mess has been lacking.

As the horror of the Trump administration comes into view, with talk of registering Muslims and mass deportations, some self-examination must take place.

On both sides of the Atlantic, members of the press need to take a long hard look at themselves.

Faced with the prospect of authoritarian government, the US public have already fought back, in the form of unprecedented donations to investigative outlets like ProPublica and civil rights groups like the ACLU.

The mainstream press now has to follow their lead. When the likes of Steve Bannon and avowed opponent of civil rights Jeff Sessions occupy positions of influence in Washington there can be no room for false equivalence.

Since election day, most of the introspection about the media’s role in the result has focused on the phenomenon of fake news, tin-pot sites thriving on social media by publishing nonsense stories their readers want to see.

Diminishing the influence of these operations has to be a priority, but more than that, we need to radically rethink our model for reporting on political events in the age of Trump. We must remember that being objective doesn’t mean treating every voice as equal. It doesn’t mean ignoring facts.

The scandal of 2016 was not that fake news made voters think that Donald Trump would make a good president, it was that the media’s relentless false objectivity made them think he could be president at all.

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