Yesterday I went off on a Twitter tirade about al Jazeera intentionally changing the language of the European immigration debate in order to pursue a biased agenda. How acceptable should this sort of thing be?
This dovetailed nicely with Trump’s latest blowup with a member of the press, namely, Jorge Ramos. Basically, Ramos demanded to be heard at Trump’s press conference over immigration and, with his characteristic soft touch, Trump had him thrown out.
Just another day at the Trump carnival, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about what Ramos said later to George Stephanopoulos: “[A]s journalists, we have to denounce and espouse the dangerous words and extreme behavior of Donald Trump.”
Is this true?
Ramos does not position himself as an editorialist. He is a news anchor. He is regularly compared to Anderson Cooper. His job is to deliver the news. Nobody mistakes him for a pundit like, say, Matt Yglesias. And yet, despite holding himself up as a reporter, he believes he must “denounce” the “dangerous words” of the megalomaniac GOP frontrunner.
This flies in the face of established journalism ethics. In the traditional model, there must exist a wall between the editorial department and the news desk. This is because fairness, objectivity and accuracy are what people look for on the front page — at least, in the pages of a J-school textbook. In the Platonic ideal of this vision, the news articles of the liberal NY Times and the conservative Wall Street Journal would be virtually indistinguishable. One would have to turn back to the editorials to find their actual opinions on the news being reported.
Of course, this is hardly the case. The Times and Journal’s reporters may not engage in the theatrics of Jorge Ramos, but they do constantly let their biases show in what they cover to begin with. A massive pro-union rally might make page A1 of the Times, for instance, while the Journal may bury it with a three-graf mention on page 20. Another trick to put a little English on a story is by emphasizing the correct interviewees for your story. The Times may largely quote union workers and bosses; the Journal, meanwhile, would give plenty of room for conservative economists to let us know what they think about labor unions.
Neither reporter would lie, or engage in outright propaganda tricks such as Ramos’ dramatics or al Jazeera’s cynical word manipulation, but their biases would be there all the same. So perhaps the better question is: how much activism is acceptable from a news reporter, in contrast to a pundit?
As a graduate from Mizzou’s J-school, I’m obviously a traditionalist here. Al Jazeera’s policy comes off as straight-up Orwellian, while Ramos’ interjecting himself into the story was gaudy, and blatantly self-promotional. If the report becomes all about the reporter, then you’ve royally screwed up. At least, in my opinion. So, yes, everyone understands that the Times is liberal, but both sides must be able to consider it reliable and accurate lest the institution no longer have any relevance.
And dinosaurs like print media aren’t alone here. New media has come to loathe “hot takes,” which is a form of activist journalism, if much more reactive than Ramos’ proactive advocating for open borders. Ben Smith’s stable of news reporters at Buzzfeed try to be as objective in their stories as possible, preferring to let their comments sections do the editorializing for them. Any hot take on that site would be strictly limited to celebrity news, a genre which (to put it mildly) has always enjoyed a more relaxed ethical environment.
Besides, it is ultimately self-defeating. Not even pro-immigration conservatives who loathe Trump had Ramos’ back here, as the story was all about Ramos and not about immigration. Trump behaved exactly as he always does. There was no real news there. The news hook was Ramos’ rather extreme position on immigration and on Trump personally, which he had detailed a week before Trump’s press conference. A lot of people probably could never take anything Ramos reports about immigration seriously ever again after that clown act, while on the other hand, nobody’s opinion of Trump was changed one iota one way or the other. Therefore, Ramos lost that fight on points.
There are really not that many issues in the world that are so life-and-death that even the news desk must take a stance. ISIS, yes. Ebola, sure. Donald Trump? Sorry, no. If a reporter is going to lose his mind over something, it simply needs to be over something more significant than Donald Trump.