The American mainstream media has always prided itself on striving for objectivity. In press circles, this method is widely referred to as “the view from nowhere,” the concept that good reporting should not reveal, or even hint at, a reporter’s individual bias. But if journalists were hoping they could hide their points of view in 2016, Donald Trump has proved he is willing to pluck their eyes out.
For the better part of a year, the mogul-turned-presumptive GOP nominee has tested the limits of neutral news coverage, and some journalists say it’s about time.
“When it comes to Trump, the American media has essentially conceded the journalistic inadequacy and bankruptcy of feigned neutrality as they now openly condemn him,” the Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald told International Business Times.
Ever since Trump won the Nevada primary, the media’s initial condescension over his campaign has given way to palpable horror over his policies on Latinos and Muslims, not to mention his open flirtation with violence against journalists and protesters. Then there’s his signature style: A candidate who mocks a reporter’s arthrogryposis onstage in front of thousands of people or boasts about the size of his manhood at a debate are the kind of things that will tempt a reporter to crack her poker face.
Some news outlets have not been shy about taking a stand against all of this. On Tuesday, the Huffington Post continued its long-standing anti-Trump crusade with a new feature called “Trump Cards,” which is essentially a special section of the site “highlighting key remarks about the presumptive GOP presidential nominee’s racist, xenophobic and sexist beliefs.”
“This is hardly politics as usual,” read HuffPost’s press release.
That sums up the stance taken by other voicey new media outfits, including BuzzFeed and Vox.com, both of which contend that Trump is a unique figure in American politics deserving of unique condemnation from the press. BuzzFeed on Monday said it would be “terminating” a native advertising deal with the RNC due to the Trump campaign's proposed policies on press freedom and the civil rights of American Muslims. In December, editor-in-chief Ben Smith sent a memo to staff acknowledging it is acceptable to call Trump, but only Trump, a racist candidate.
Even CNN is beginning to get snippy with Trump and company, with recent chyrons like “Trump: I Never Said Japan Should Have Nukes (He Did)” and “Ryan Calls Trump’s Comments Racist But Backs Him.”
Still, some outlets have done their best to stay “objective.” The Wall Street Journal and IBT, for instance, have urged their staffs not to slip into open criticism of Trump while covering his campaign. Journalists have openly debated whether it’s inappropriate or biased to describe Trump, his policies or his supporters as “racist,” “sexist,” “nationalist” and “fascist.” For many, boilerplate words like “controversial” are enough, leaving the rest up to readers.
It’s a foggy bit of an already foggy principle held by journalists old and new: objectivity, or fairness, or neutrality. The term “view from nowhere” has been popularized by media critic Jay Rosen since 2003, but the idea is as old as modern media itself.
Journalist and author Edward Jay Epstein coined a similar term in “News From Nowhere,” his book about TV news originally published in 1973. Epstein got the idea from an interview with Richard Salant, onetime president of CBS News: “Our reports do not cover stories from their point of view,” Salant said. “They are presenting them from nobody’s point of view.”
That’s the idea, anyway. Nicholas Lemann, professor and dean emeritus at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, told IBT that the “view from nowhere” has always been whatever any individual news outlet conceived it to be, even in the heady days of the 1940s and 1950s.
“Even then people thought it was bulls---,” Lemann said. “There have never been standards the way there are in other industries.”
Lemann brushed off attempts to sound objective and said he prefers the standard of intellectual honesty. “To me, being a professional journalist means you have an open mind, seek evidence and come to an earned conclusion. You’re not going to suppress evidence unfriendly to what you want, but you’re not gonna go, ‘person A says world is flat and person B says world is round, how the hell should I know?’ ”
Julian Zelizer, author and professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said Trump isn’t the first politician to blinker the view from nowhere.
“Joe McCarthy was a master,” Zelizer said, referring to the infamous Wisconsin senator who waged a scandalizing campaign in the 1950s to hunt American communists. “He knew reporters would be scared to question him and by the mid-’50s some, Edward Murrow most of all, were uncomfortable with that.”
By the early ’70s, after several years of faithfully reporting Pentagon talking points, many reporters began feeling the same way about the Vietnam War. Flash-forward three decades and the cycle had repeated. “We heard about this discomfort with objectivity with George W. Bush during the lead-up to the war in Iraq,” Zelizer said. “Reporters were said to have been so tied to objectivity that they missed the story.”
“There’s a generation of post-Bush administration journalists who are more critical, they just wanna tell it straight,” he added. Greenwald is a good example.
“[All of this] should (but probably won’t) lead the media to ask why such an opinionated approach is appropriate for Trump but not other news topics such as war, torture, Wall Street corruption, lobbyist domination of both parties, and other politicians,” Greenwald said.
“Being a professional journalist means you have an open mind, seek evidence and come to an earned conclusion.”
BuzzFeed’s ethics guide is an interesting case study. Under the heading “Activism,” the guide currently reads: “We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women’s rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. But when it comes to activism, BuzzFeed editorial must follow the lead of our editors and reporters who come out of a tradition of rigorous, neutral journalism that puts facts and news first.”
Like Walmart, BuzzFeed says there are “not two sides” about issues like gay rights and racism. But when news editor Rachel Zarrell tweeted her views on gun control last year, it took only an hour for her to publicly apologize for what Smith called “a mistake.” Why exactly issues such as gay rights are fair game while others, like gun control, are not, BuzzFeed’s ethics guide does not explain.
A more recent example tying back to Trump came when Vox.com suspended editor and writer Emmett Rensin for tweeting that he supported the idea of rioting in towns where Trump visited. Despite running multiple articles debating whether Trump is a genuine fascist — not to mention a post about the efficacy of political violence — Vox found Rensin’s tweets beyond the pale and disciplined him. (Rensin was not a reporter, but a long-form opinion writer.)
This kind of confusion over the line between truth-telling and advocacy is always a factor in news, as the BuzzFeed example illustrates, but Trump has taken it to another level. “There’s a history of this,” Zelizer said, “but Trump is testing the limits in new ways.”
Defending BuzzFeed’s decision to single out Trump as a racist last December, Ben Smith told IBT: “I guess this depends how different you think Trump is from other candidates, now and in the past. I think what he’s doing is very different.”
But it’s not hard to find examples of Trump’s GOP rivals echoing or even endorsing his supposedly singular proposals to keep Muslims out of the country or deport undocumented immigrants en masse. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who virtually endorsed Trump’s platform even as he challenged him, cut a chummy video with BuzzFeed’s video studio. It’s unlikely, at this point, that BuzzFeed will partner up with Trump to help him go viral as well.
Not that he needs it.