Commentary: With ‘Trump Unbound’ news media must adapt

Stop worrying about being labeled ‘biased’ and start taking a stand for democracy.

By Margaret Sullivan / The Washington Post

When Donald Trump was elected, the media spent months figuring out how to cover a far-from-ordinary presidency.

Some will argue that many journalists never rose to that challenge; that they normalized Trump at every turn and never successfully conveyed to the public a clear and vivid picture of how he has toppled democratic norms and marched the country toward autocracy.

To be sure, they made adjustments.

Big Journalism began to call a lie a lie. It began to call racism by its name. It began to offer fact-checking in real time.

In other words, journalists adapted; within the framework of their tried-and-true beliefs.

We’re not “part of the resistance,” said New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet; “We’re not at war with the administration; we’re at work,” Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron said. These were thoughtful, reasonable remarks, and they set the tone for much of how the mainstream media — from NPR to the broadcast nightly news to regional newspapers — has proceeded.

And then came Trump’s impeachment. And his acquittal. And now, a new era for this president who chooses to believe he’s been vindicated.

Call it Trump Unbound.

In this new era, Trump has declared himself the nation’s chief law enforcement official. He has pardoned a raft of corrupt officials. He has exacted revenge on those he sees as his impeachment enemies — Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the decorated military veteran and national security staffer; and Gordon Sondland, Trump’s own handpicked ambassador to the European Union — simply because they testified under subpoena to what they knew about the White House’s dealings with Ukraine.

In other words, we are in entirely new territory now. Should the news media continue as usual? Should it retain its own traditions as the nation slides toward autocracy? Should it treat the Trump presidency as pretty much the usual thing, with a few more fact-checks and the occasional use of a word like “lie”?

No. We need a new and better approach if we’re going to do our jobs adequately.

First, we need to abandon neutrality-at-all-costs journalism, to replace it with something more suited to the moment. Call it Fairness First.

I’m talking about the kind of fairness that serves the public by describing the world we report on in honest and direct terms; not the phony kind of fairness that tries to duck out of difficult decisions by giving “both sides” of an argument equal time, regardless of their truth or merit.

Now more than ever, with a president feeling empowered and vindictive after his acquittal, we need to apply more scrutiny and less credulity to his increasingly extreme actions and statements.

Second, we need to be far more direct in the way stories are put together and presented.

I often talk to news consumers — citizens by another name — who insist that they want “just the facts” reporting. They’re understandably frustrated that they can’t seem to find that when so many news organizations, especially cable news, seem to have chosen political sides for commercial purposes. They want news that is unbiased; that doesn’t come with a side helping of opinion. Just tell me what happened, they say. I’ll make my own decisions about what it means.

That sounds good in theory. In practice, every piece of reporting on national politics is unavoidably the product of choices: What’s the angle? Who is quoted? What’s the headline? How much historical context is there? How prominent is it on a front page, a home page, an app?

It’s in these small but crucial decisions that mainstream media often fails its audience: We simply are not getting across the big picture or the urgency. This happens, in part, because those news organizations that haven’t chosen up sides — those that want to serve all Americans — fear being charged with bias.

And so they soften the language. They blunt the impact.

Take the story of Trump’s angry reaction to the warning that Russia is interfering in the 2020 election to help his re-election. After hearing this, he reportedly moved to dump the acting director of national intelligence.

That’s big news that ought to be told with real urgency, right?

But not all of mainstream journalism saw it that way. On Friday morning, I searched and scrolled the home page of ABC News, whose evening news show attracts millions every night, the most-watched program of its kind. There were stories about the coronavirus, about the “mom of Iowa kids arrested in Hawaii,” and even a breathless in-case-you-missed-it piece about new fish sandwiches at Arby’s and Bojangles as Lent approaches. I could find the story in question only after a search for the term “Russia.”

And even those news organizations that did emphasize the story were using words that failed to get the importance across; headline after headline used the word “meddling” to describe the reported Russian intrusions into America democracy.

Meddling sounds like your nosy neighbor getting involved, over the backyard fence, in your family’s squabble.

The Daily Beast was more straightforward: “Russia Is Helping Elect Trump Again, Intel Official Says.”

There are dozens of examples every day. Too often, news organizations are cautious to a fault, afraid of their own shadows, and worried about being labeled anti-Trump or biased.

In this new era, my prescription is less false equivalence, more high-impact language and more willingness to take a stand for democracy.

With Trump unbound, the news media need to change. Yes, radically. The stakes are too high not to.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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