Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Straight from the Gray Lady--The media is officially untrustworthy

As a general rule, it is a bad idea to build too much off a single quote from a single source. Context and nuance alone can render the single quote's informational value problematic at best.  My preference is always to build a thesis using multiple sources, unifying the multiple data points into a single thesis.

However, there is the rare occasion when the single quote is noteworthy all on its own, when a single news item is noteworthy all on its own. This morning, the New York Times gave us one such news item. That it is regarding the insurgent political firebrand Donald Trump should surprise no one.

What is surprising is the frank admission the New York Times makes regarding Spanish-language news media covering Donald Trump's campaign, and Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos in particular.  Ramos was the journalist who was rather unceremoniously ejected from a Trump press conference yesterday (depending on one's perspective, because he was challenging Trump on his immigration policy or because he was being rude, unprofessional, and disruptive--I am very specifically avoiding commenting on either perspective here as it is wholly not relevant to the topic at hand). The New York Times said very explicitly that Univision--and indeed all the Spanish-language news media, is clearly and unapologetically biased where their coverage of Donald Trump is concerned.  Specifically, New York Times reporter Ashley Parker wrote the following (emphasis is mine):
Mr. Ramos was eventually allowed to return. But for the Spanish-language press, which has grown in size and influence in politics, the tense exchange was a highly public flexing of muscle against a candidate who many outlets no longer pretend to cover objectively: They are offended by Mr. Trump’s words and tactics — and they are showing it.
People should pause to reflect that the essence of journalism is that dispassionate objectivity the New York Times freely acknowledges is being dispensed in at least some cases regarding Mr. Trump.  The full definition of the word "journalism" in Merriam-Webster reads as follows (again, emphasis is mine):
a :  the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media
b :  the public press
c :  an academic study concerned with the collection and editing of news or the management of a news medium
a :  writing designed for publication in a newspaper or magazine
b :  writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation
c :  writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest
Unsurprisingly, the New York Times did not enumerate which of the many news outlets it felt have eschewed the core journalist virtue of objectivity where Donald Trump is concerned. However, it does not need to make that enumeration. The New York Times is a news outlet itself of no small consequence; it is a paper with a long publication history, and bills itself as "All the News That's Fit to Print.".  

Today, the news that is fit to print is that at least some portions of the news media are not interested in being objective regarding a leading candidate for the Presidency of the United States. Today, the news that is fit to print is that at least some portions of the news media are not interested in presenting the entirety of the factual record surrounding Donald Trump's chosen signature issue--illegal immigration. Today, the news that is fit to print is that at least some portions of the news media are in fact lying to their readers--they are either misrepresenting Donald Trump's stances and statements, or they are misrepresenting their own advocacy and bias regarding those stances and statements.  Today, the news that is fit to print is the admission by the New York Times that the news media itself, long arrogating to itself the position of the "Fourth Estate" somehow above the dirt and mud of politics and issues, has finally and unapologetically descended into that political dirt and political mud.

It matters not that some only some news outlets are shamelessly biased. It matters not that they are only shamelessly biased against Donald Trump. It matters not because the nature of bias is such that it cannot be just some outlets and it cannot be just Donald Trump. Misrepresenting his stances and statements mispositions other candidates stances and statements, and thus misrepresents all candidates. To misrepresent Donald Trump is to simultaneously misrepresent Hillary Clinton. To misrepresent Donald Trump is to misrepresent Barack Obama. There is no position of political philosophy or ideology that can proceed with a substantive and honest discussion of either candidates or issues when there is not at least an effort at honesty and objectivity. To allow biased advocacy as objective journalism--which even the New York Times ultimately is doing--without criticizing at least Univision and Jorge Ramos for their departure from traditional journalistic standards is to be complicit in that bias and to be complicit in the lie. If any of the news media tolerate bias from any of the news media, the credibility of all news media is called into question.

This is noteworthy not because it is shocking to find media bias. Accusations of media bias have been around for as long as there have been news media. This is noteworthy because the media has reached a level either of arrogance or cognitive dissonance that it no longer cares whether or not it is seen as biased.

Supporters of Donald Trump will with some justification read the New York Times article with a sense of "I told you so!". But anyone who reads the New York Times coverage of Trump's dustup with Jorge Ramos and Univision is left with the same unsavory conclusion--American news media is simply not trustworthy, nor does it care to be.

The Megyn Kelly mess

In recent days, Republican Presidential hopeful Donald Trump has been engaged in a running feud with Fox News commentator Megyn Kelly. The feud started after Ms. Kelly questioned "The Donald" during the first Republican debate--hosted on Fox--inquiring about commentary he has made regarding women, both on social media and in person. After seeming allowing the dispute to die down while Megyn Kelly took a 10-day vacation, upon her return the feud flared up again when Trump posted on Twitter about her return, referring to her as a "bimbo":
The media reaction has been in large measure predictable: Donald Trump has been lambasted for being "misogynistic" because of the "bimbo" word. To be sure, most would agree that such language is unnecessarily crude, crass, and generally rude.

While Donald Trump might be fairly reproached for rather ungentlemanly conduct, the hyperfocus on Trump's tweets entirely overlooks two aspects of this on-line feud.

First and foremost, Donald Trump does not advance his candidacy one iota by complaining about Ms. Kelly's journalistic style. Whether her questions as moderator of the debate were fair or unfair is simply not relevant. Ms. Kelly is a news commentator, a "talking head", and no more. She is not an issue to be debated. Even if she shows bias as a journalist--and her lead question to Trump in the debate was absolutely a "gotcha" sort of question about his now-famous trash-talking feud with media personality Rosie O' Donnell--it is a poor demonstration of political leadership for Donald Trump to be distracted from the issues framing his campaign by that bias. 

Trump demonstrated that he is indeed a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016 by releasing an immigration plan that even liberal commentators acknowledge is substantive despite their disagreeing with large parts of it.  He wins plaudits from all angles for forcing a serious discussion on a serious issue--immigration reform. Obsessing over Megyn Kelly's "gotcha" attacks during the debate can only prove a distraction to that discussion, and the more substantive that discussion gets nationally the more credible a Presidential candidate Trump becomes. Megyn Kelly has nothing to offer in that debate--not critique, not analysis, not rebuttal.

The other aspect that is getting missed by commentators across the spectrum is that Ms. Kelly is fairly shallow and even trite as a journalist. Harping on Donald Trump's prior crass behavior is hardly a meaningful debate question--even if Trump regrets his behavior in hindsight, as a simple matter of political strategy is does him no good to admit it now. In fact, his unwillingness to make apologies for being blunt, brash, and bombastic during the debate has resonated with potential voters, and contributed to his rise in the opinion polls after that first debate. That Ms. Kelly chose that as her lead question to Trump says more about her journalistic integrity and political acumen than it does about Trump's core values. Arguably, even Fox News regards her as not much of a journalist, depending on how much significance one can ascribe to Fox referring to her as "talent" and not a "journalist" in a post-debate release about her feud with Trump. Never forget that Ms. Kelly has been the source of such classics of journalism as her 2013 on-air statements that both Jesus Christ and Santa Claus were "verifiably white" (whatever that means). Although a lawyer by training, other commentators dismiss her as an "egomaniiacal smart-aleck". To borrow some of Donald Trump's boorish rhetoric, Megyn Kelly is a "drama queen."

Trump's feud with Ms. Kelly is wrong, not because he committed some unpardonable sin by referring to her as a "bimbo", but because it is a political distraction. His feud with Megyn Kelly is as airy and as insubstantial as is Ms. Kelly herself. Trump has the ability to spar with the best, debate with the best--he's shown that time and again. That ability needs to be focused on issues, not pretentious journalists. That is what his campaign, his ambition, and this country require of him.