Trump and the Journalist’s Dilemma

When (self-reported) billionaire and minor TV personality Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015, he entered the race as somewhat of a novelty – running as a Republican, his views were far from mainstream within the party (even as the GOP had already accelerated its decades-long movement to the extremes), and his antics and bombast seemed so foreign – and let’s be honest, entertaining – compared to the dredge of modern politics. 

Against relative moderates like John Kasich and Jeb Bush, rising conservative voices like Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, looney tunes like Ben Carson and Chris Christie, and the slew of other rank-and-file Republicans in the race, Trump was certainly an X-factor. And that intrigue – which we now know was the result more of political and campaign incompetence rather than some nuanced campaign strategy – garnered him the uncontested media limelight in the run-up to the primaries: A spotlight that we realized too late would help him sweep the primaries and become the Republican contender. But to beat a qualified and experienced career politician like Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton? No respectable polls could be twisted to predict that kind of a result. 

Nevertheless, “fair and balanced” reporting at the time meant giving the Republican candidate his fair share of air time. After all, our democratic process depends on informed voters, and if the p*ssy-grabbing racist from New York is who we, the people voted for, then he would be our president. Fair is fair. And even though his opponent did win close to 3 million more popular votes, the electoral college dubbed Trump our 45th president – a race which Clinton reluctantly but gracefully conceded. 

The next four years would see the dismantling of trade relations, withdrawals from treaties, domestic policy that further institutionalized poverty, support of strongman dictatorships abroad, destruction of bipartisan legislation for the sake of destruction, and a climactic final year that included two impeachments and over a million deaths due to a botched pandemic response. This disastrous period in American history was annotated in live-time by the Destructor in Chief himself via outrageous rants on Twitter, often claiming that he was being politically castrated by some conspiratorial effort of the mainstream media and establishment Democrats. 

As his wanton behavior wound back decades of political and social progress, he used his presidential megaphone to further entrench his MAGA base in a foundation built not upon the truth but on what Senior Counselor Kellyanne Conway so brazenly termed “alternative facts.”

Hindsight being 20/20, many have held the press responsible for giving Trump such a spotlight early on and profiting on his circus of a presidency. But he did hold the most powerful seat in the world, and the press had a responsibility to report on what he was and wasn’t saying or doing. In many ways, journalists had to step in and moderate the haphazard stream of unfiltered consciousness that was coming from the President, for example, hoping to add context to reckless comments that may have been interpreted as bold-faced threats to opposing nuclear powers or confirming in case after case that the 2020 election was, in fact, conducted fairly. 

But here we are in 2023, preparing for another presidential election next year, and in what feels like a strange case of deja vu, the media will be given another chance to live up to its unofficial role as the Fourth Estate, a watchdog of government and protector of democracy. 

As much as Ron DeSantis might be an unpalatable character, the media (lacking a crystal ball to see how his positions might play out in a presidency) has done its job of both spotlighting and scrutinizing him as a first-time prospective presidential candidate. But as the DeSantis star seems to fade, how should the media treat the specter of twice-impeached, indicted, heavily charged, and thrice-electorally defeated Donald J. Trump? 

CNN gave us their answer in hosting a town hall on Wednesday, May 10, giving the former president his first appearance in mainstream outlets for his 2024 campaign. Under fire from those who have decried this action, CNN Chairman Chris Licht has defended this as a core component of his gambit to reinvent the channel as one that elevates voices on both sides of the aisle in pursuit of what they are now calling “fair and balanced” reporting. 

It is no such thing. 

The Society of Professional Journalists – “the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior” since 1909 – has a Code of Ethics that every journalism student learns in their first class. At a glance, the Code has four simple tenets:

  1. Seek Truth and Report It
  2. Minimize Harm
  3. Act Independently 
  4. Be Accountable and Transparent 

In hosting the town hall, CNN has grossly misinterpreted its ethical commitment as journalists. While I certainly commend anchor Kaitlan Collins’ effort to steer the conversation towards honesty, she was ultimately faced with a Sisyphian task, and I condemn CNN’s choice to host. 

I should mention that I did struggle with this conclusion, because I do understand that Trump is the current Republican frontrunner, and good media should strive to give the general public access to all of the relevant information. But that superficial interpretation of a journalist’s ethical obligation must be about as deep as Licht went, because a deeper examination reveals just how unethical this forum was doomed to be. 

First, balanced reporting doesn’t mean lifting up all voices, and it certainly doesn’t mean elevating voices that promote disinformation or cause harm. At every opportunity, Trump does both of those things. He constantly weaponizes his “alternative facts” for his own benefit. 

Second, as much as the definition of “truth” is perhaps a philosophical one, we know now after years and years of court cases, that almost everything Trump says is either a bold mistruth or a misrepresentation of the truth, no matter how you interpret it. In giving him a platform in 2015, any news outlet might be forgiven; but with the experience and knowledge now abundantly available to us, giving him a platform in 2023 is simply irresponsible. Trump is not a government official anymore, so the press can be relieved of their responsibility to act as his watchdog. It is finally time to let his political ideology and that of his MAGA acolytes fall into the dustbin of history. We know that no amount of additional information or fact-checks can be provided that contextualize Trump’s remarks within the realm of truth. 

Third, the SPJ clearly states that “legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” If CNN or any other news station chose – at this early juncture in the race – not to give Trump airtime, they would not be robbing him of an outlet. Between Truth Social, his reinstatement on Twitter, and the well-funded conservative media, Trump has plenty of outlets to express his opinion. All CNN does by hosting him is validate his lies as the legitimate views of a Republican candidate; they provide a way for a broader audience to fall victim to his pathology. In the same tenet, the SPJ states that journalists should “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

Finally, they have failed to justify why they gave Trump a 70-minute primetime platform. 

“We all know covering Donald Trump is messy and tricky, and it will continue to be messy and tricky. But it’s our job,” Licht is quoted in the New York Times. “I absolutely, unequivocally believe America was served very well by what we did last night. People woke up and they know what the stakes are in this election in a way that they didn’t the day before. And if someone was going to ask tough questions and have that messy conversation, it damn well should be on CNN.”

Yesterday’s town hall has not “woken up” Americans to the stakes of a Trump candidacy. Anyone who is invested enough in politics to have read or watched at least the highlights is certainly informed enough to know how much of a threat a second Trump presidency (or even candidacy) would be. I grant that Collins asked the tough questions, but Trump dodged answers and lied his way through his responses, like we all knew he would. 

We can forgive the 2015 media for failing to predict the devastating consequences of the spotlight they gave to a novel primary candidate. But there could be no ethical acquittal of the media’s responsibility if they knowingly, willingly, and complicity pave the path to a second Trump presidency. 

Published by Brian Bayer

With a degree in journalism from John Carroll University, Brian's post-collegiate road took him to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where he spent three and a half years wearing various hats, including as a teacher, a community outreach volunteer, and a freelance writer focusing on themes of social justice, poverty, and healthcare. While bearing witness to incredible injustice and inequity, he decided to seek the solutions by returning to his hometown of Pittsburgh and to pursue a graduate degree in International Development, which he earned in 2021. He is a proud fellow of the New Leaders Council, alumni of the Johnson Leadership Portfolio program, and serves as a board member with the Sto-Rox Neighborhood Health Council. As the founder and editor-in-chief of The Progress Pages, he hopes to provide a creative outlet for innovative minds seeking to elevate progressive ideology.

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