NY Times writer who urged journalists to abandon objectivity to defeat Trump now says media needs 'new strategy to cover him'

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Published by: Dan Calabrese on Thursday January 12th, 2017

How about telling the truth? Nah . . .

Let me introduce you to Jim Rutenberg of the New York Times, because he is not just a liberal Timesman. Those are a dime a dozen. Rutenberg is different because of this. He wrote it over the summer, and in it, he unapologetically urged the news media writ large to abandon all pretense of objectivity in covering Donald Trump, for the express purpose of defeating him:

If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?

Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.

But the question that everyone is grappling with is: Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?

Throughout the piece, Rutenberg gives his answer. No. Normal standards shouldn't apply. Instead, he wants the media to taken an openly oppositional approach to Trump because they, the journalists, view the prospect of a Trump presidency as dangerous. Thus, established notions of objectivity don't apply. And for this, Rutenberg blames Trump, for being such a departure from the norm of presidential candidates.

Now one guy writing something like this does not, in itself, make that guy extraordinarily important. But the Times did not relegate Rutenberg's piece to the opinion page as you would normally expect. It ran it on the front page, an extraordinary move that signaled the paper's total agreement with Rutenberg's position. And needless to say, the Times's coverage of the campaign reflected its editors' embrace of Rutenberg's suggestion.

Anyway, you know what happened. The media tried with all its might to defeat Trump. Trump won anyway. And now the media are gripped with anger and they've got their knives out for him, which culminated in yesterday's press conference - which was actually not all that confrontational except for the brief period in which Trump laid the smack to CNN and BuzzFeed for their spewing of the fake Russia story.

Now Rutenberg is deeply, deeply concerned, and he asserts that the media need a "new strategy" to cover Trump:

CNN drew Mr. Trump’s hostility by breaking the news on Tuesday that a former British spy had compiled the dossier on alleged efforts by Russia to compromise Mr. Trump and that intelligence officials included a synopsis of it in briefing materials for the president-elect. Once CNN opened the door, BuzzFeed followed by publishing the dossier.

But, as CNN pointed out, it did not share the details of the memos, and it did not even link to the BuzzFeed report, despite false claims to the contrary by Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s adviser. Its decision, the network said, was “vastly different than BuzzFeed’s decision to publish unsubstantiated memos.”

That, in turn, drew protest from Mr. Smith of BuzzFeed, who said he was “not going to participate in an attempt to divide the media against each other.”

And so, Mr. Trump won again, by succeeding in doing just that. It was all part of a show in which he used news organizations as props in their own lampooning while he played them off each other with labels of good and bad and selectively answered their policy questions.

A united front would have given the reporters a more even footing. But that was woefully lacking when Mr. Trump shouted down Jim Acosta of CNN, who said Mr. Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, threatened to eject him.

The other reporters in the room readily took Mr. Acosta’s place, happy to have their own questions answered. But they should realize that they could be next. They’re going to have to decide how much they want to abide by Mr. Trump’s decision to selectively quarantine colleagues whose coverage he does not like.

As he has so often done, Rutenberg bases his entire argument on a faulty premise, which is that Trump attacks journalists who engage in "coverage he does not like." If you watched the entire press conference, you'll see that's not at all what was going on. Trump takes question after question from reporters who have been tough, to say the least, in their coverage of him. The only reporters he won't take questions from are those from CNN and BuzzFeed, and it has nothing to do with "coverage he doesn't like." It's about publishing a bogus bunch of lies about the Russians having salacious compromising information about him.

Trump draws the line clearly and unmistakably for anyone who cares to recognize it: You can be critical in your coverage of him, but you can't just make s*** up, nor can you report information that is unverified and widely believed to be untrue. That's what CNN and BuzzFeed did, and that's why they got smacked.

What's more, Trump offered the exact right antidote for those wondering what he would like to see done about all this: Hire reporters with a moral compass who are interested in telling the truth. 

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Rutenberg does acknowledge in his piece that BuzzFeed handed Trump the stick with his reckless decision to publish the garbage dossier, although I think he let CNN too much off the hook for its own news judgment. Regardless, Rutenberg flits around the edges of the solution but can't quite bring himself to embrace it:

You can argue that the dossier was going to get out there anyway. But it hadn’t until BuzzFeed published it, even though many news organizations, including this one, had it for months. And had the documents leaked by some other means, it would be up to journalists to establish their veracity; ignore them if possible, debunk them if necessary.

That’s what BuzzFeed has done with its top-notch reporting on the “fake news” phenomenon, helping to shine an early light on the false stories so many Americans were sharing on Facebook and other social media platforms throughout the campaign.

But every journalistic misstep gives more fodder to people who want to stop the efforts against “fake news” by turning the tables and labeling those efforts — or any other solid journalism they don’t like — as “fake news” as well, corrupting the term for their own purposes (a classic case of “no, you are!”).

That’s what Mr. Trump did Wednesday morning.

So Rutenberg is troubled that BuzzFeed published fake news, not so much because the falsehood troubles him but because it gives Trump "fodder" to assail the media for doing exactly what the media does. The obvious solution for Rutenberg and his contemporaries in the media is to return to real standards of truth and accuracy in reporting. Publishing a bogus dossier just because "it's out there" is journalistic malpratice in the extreme. Airing an inaccurate story claiming Trump has been shown the dossier (he hadn't) and thus it's newsworthy is almsot as bad.

For far too many years, the media has believed it could do its job as badly as it liked and it should suffer no consequences at the hands of the elected officials it covers because they're the press and that makes them so important. Trump's view seems to largely hue to mine: Because the job of the press is so important, it's a very serious matter when they screw up and they need to be made to pay a price for that. Reporters got to ask Trump lots of questions yesterday, and CNN and BuzzFeed were free to report on what was said in any manner they wished.

But when you've been as reckless and irresponsible as both were, you absolutely should get called out, and you have no inherent right to get called on to ask a question.

If Rutenberg things the media needs a "new strategy" to battle against this reality, then he's part of the problem too. What they need is to tell the truth. Trump has no history of going to war against reporters who criticize him but do so truthfully. If Rutenberg doesn't know the difference, the problem here is bigger than anyone realized.

Dan's new novel, BACKSTOP, is a story of spiritual warfare and baseball. Download it from Amazon here!