After the mass shooting in El Paso this August, which left 22 dead and 24 injured, the attacker’s so-called manifesto surfaced online.
The document was a directionless rant against immigrants and Latinx people, and that parroted far-right rhetoric warning of a “Hispanic invasion,” and white people being “replaced” as the racial majority in the United States. This idea, frequently called ‘white genocide,’ garnered attention two years earlier at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, when ultra-nationalists wearing MAGA hats and bearing Swastikas, Confederate flags, and Tiki torches chanted “you will not replace us,” which quickly became “Jews will not replace us.”
After the rally — during which a Trump-supporting white nationalist struck and killed Heather Heyer, a leftist counter-protester, with his car — the President infamously said that there were “very fine people… on both sides” of the event.
After the El Paso shooting, President Donald Trump delivered a similarly gormless speech, pleading for God to “protect us,” giving the shooter’s white nationalist motivation only a cursory mention, and blaming the eighth-deadliest shooting in American history on violent video games.
With the country reeling and Hispanic Americans fearing for their lives, the New York Times released their intended headline for the next day: “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism.”
This prompted a colossal outcry on Twitter from Democratic candidates and pundits, liberals and leftists, and anyone with regard for journalistic integrity who had heard the speech and knew that Trump hadn’t said that.
After the response, the Times changed the headline to “Assailing Hate But Not Guns.” This was barely an improvement, but the American attention span for what we consider “politics” — which at this point apparently includes mass loss of human life — is short, and we moved on to the next day’s outrage.
I haven’t moved on.
One of America’s most respected newspapers considered a clearly disingenuous headline fit to print, and I’m convinced that the Times did so because it feared being called part of the liberal media. Trump and the decaying remains of the Republican Party have found success weaponizing the phrase “liberal media” to paint any journalist that doesn’t repeat the administration’s official line as an enemy of the people.
Even many who agree with unfavorable coverage of the American right seem to uncritically accept that the coverage is biased. Since the second Bush administration and the “lamestream media,” conservative sources have slid deeper into hard-right politics under the guise of being “fair and balanced.” This slogan, used by Fox News since its inception in 1996, represents the double standard to which journalists are held.
Proponents of the far right call honest reporting that reflects negatively on them “fake news,” but when they are called out for spreading open falsehoods, their critics are called “biased.”
Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” are the next step. It’s been said before that American conservatives (those who get their news through Fox and far-right online sources) live in an alternate reality from the rest of the country.
But they don’t. Whatever someone believes, if those beliefs don’t line up with reality, that person is simply incorrect.
I’m not talking about differences of opinion. If, for example, someone supports Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (an organization that, incidentally, has only existed since 2003), that’s an opinion.
It is not, however, an opinion that ICE has thrown children in camps, or deported people who have been law-abiding Americans for decades, or separated families, or privately shared photos of dead migrants. Just this Thursday, video came out showing that border agents lied about the death of 16-year-old Carlos Hernandez Vasquez in their custody this May.
These are facts. Truthful reporting on them is not bias, even if it implicates ICE’s supporters in callous disregard for human rights.
If the facts show that the Trump administration is fundamentally incompetent, or that Justice Brett Kavanaugh perjured himself during pre-appointment hearings, or that the President continually violates the emoluments clause of the Consitution by accepting gifts from foreign powers, describing those facts doesn’t mean a journalist is a liberal shill. It means they’re doing their job.
The role of journalism is not to act as a megaphone for public figures. If our headlines read “Trump says so-and-so” instead of “Trump lies” every time the President lies to the American people, we cannot pretend to be objective journalists. We are doing a disservice to the people who rely on us to stay informed. If we write “Dems clash with Republicans over election security,” and we neglect the necessary information that Republicans are threatening that security, we aren’t being objective.
Objective journalism isn’t about aligning with an imaginary median voter’s position, nor is it about presenting unqualified statements from proven liars without clarifying that they are false.
Objective journalism is about the truth. Even if liberals are more likely to believe it than conservatives, we should not forgo honesty in an attempt to accommodate the ignorant.