Donald Trump and the Death of Objectivity

Objectivity: the word tends to draw snickers nowadays. Many would say objectivity isn't even possible. Nonetheless, there are observers who still strive to be objective or at least to be seen as objective. That includes old-school reporters like me, judges, historians or other academics (depending on their fields, it seems).

 But now the last bastions of objectivity seem to be falling to the Donald Trump phenomenon. The nation's best historians, a Supreme Court justice, and some journalists have dropped the measured style of communication that objectivity seems to require and denounced Trump as a danger to the nation. As Jim Dwyer reported in The New York Times, historians such as David McCullough, Robert A. Caro, Ron Chernow, David Levering Lewis, William E. Leuchtenberg and Vicki Lynn Ruiz have formed a group essentially to oppose Trump's candidacy.

McCullough said he reached out to Ken Burns saying that

despite 40 years of avoiding advocacy in his work, he no longer had “the luxury of neutrality or ‘balance’ or even of bemused disdain.” After a few conversations, Mr. McCullough said, the two men came up with a plan: “Why don’t we see if we can round up some other people who care about the American story, and who have given so much of their life’s work to it, see if they are willing to step out and make themselves heard.”

They formed a group, Historians on Donald Trump.

Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has also denounced Trump, of course, a move many have questioned. Despite the deep partisan divide in the court, it seems many of us still hold out the hope that the justices are objective. As The New York Times editorialized, "Washington is more than partisan enough without the spectacle of a Supreme Court justice flinging herself into the mosh pit."

People like McCullough or Ginsburg don't come lightly to their decisions to speak out. The same goes for journalists, who have struggled with how to cover Trump. The news media, especially cable TV news networks, were criticized for letting Trump sail along mostly unchallenged for months because his celebrity attracted big audiences. When NPR commentator Cokie Roberts wrote a newspaper column in February urging Republicans to defeat Trump, her boss responded with a memo basically saying that she got away with it only because she was a columnist, and a part-timer at that. In his memo to the NPR staff, Michael Oreskes wrote:

Our journalists have clear instructions. We do not support or oppose candidates. We don't advise political parties. We gather the news and seek as many points of view as we can. Cokie's role has evolved into being one of those points of views.

It is a view, to be sure, informed by her many years as a journalist explaining Washington to the world. In the coming days we will be working with her on how her role as a commentator might now be shaped and how NPR will clearly communicate that role. We decided to start by clarifying for NPR's listeners that she is, in fact, a commentator.

 As the son of a father who grew up Jewish in Nazi Germany, I can well understand the danger of muffling or muzzling criticism of a would-be leader who builds a movement based on antipathy toward immigrants and a minority religious group, joined to an exaggerated nationalism and violence-tinged rhetoric. Even so, I would say that something is being lost each time we see a Supreme Court judge, a respected historian or  journalist find it necessary to cross the line into partisan advocacy. That's not to say they shouldn't make that decision if conscience calls for it, as I think is the case.

My own take, as I've written previously in Commonweal, is that objectivity in journalism doesn't mean allowing the wool to be pulled over your eyes. It means a commitment to the truth, rooted in determined reporting and a fair-minded consideration of the facts. Whether that's adequate for reporting on the current presidential campaign is something I'll be thinking about as I prepare to teach a college journalism course in the fall on covering the presidential race.

I often find myself wishing that my father were still alive to size up the situation for me. Trained as a historian, he spent his career working in city government. He was a great believer in rational, fair-minded discourse -- and also quick to detect demagoguery. One shouldn't preclude the other.

Paul Moses, a contributing writer at Commonweal, is the author of The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam and Francis of Assisi's Mission of Peace (Doubleday, 2009) and An Unlikely Union: The Love-Hate Story of New York's Irish and Italians (NYU Press, 2015). Follow him on Twitter @PaulBMoses. 

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