Does Donald Trump Deserve Press Neutrality?
In the United States, there is a high premium on press neutrality. We hold journalism to a gilded Platonic ideal: reporters are expected to present the news in a vacuum devoid of commentary or bias. We want the press to follow this model of objectivity at all times, especially during monumental events like a presidential election. A reporter’s personal feelings or opinions shouldn’t corrupt his or her work.
This neutrality business is supposed to protect the utopian role of the Fourth Estate, an 18th Century term for the press that means it should serve as a fourth branch of government. The press is vital for a healthy democracy, as it helps us to sort through a sea of information and make informed decisions. It should also serve as a watchdog that alerts us to any government dysfunction or shady happenings.
Recently, veteran NPR journalist Cokie Roberts came under scrutiny when she criticized Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump in her nationally syndicated column. Roberts suggested that “rational” members of the Republican Party should scramble in an attempt to block Trump from the presidential nomination. She wrote that if Trump becomes the nominee, the “United States would suffer a devastating blow around the world.” She’s right—this election season has been a dystopian, too-scary-to-be-funny affair. It is “American Idol” with white supremacists in the audience—and no catchy songs. Truth is becoming stranger than fiction.
NPR, however, forbids its journalists to broadcast their personal feelings when covering the news, no matter how bizarre or terrifying it is. After Roberts’ column gained attention, NPR scrambled to clarify her role within the network—she is a commentator who has not served as a full-time journalist with NPR for decades. That’s fair enough. NPR does not want to be viewed as a biased organization.
But is press neutrality always such a great thing? Journalist Glenn Greenwald asked this question in a thought-provoking piece for The Intercept. He argues that self-imposed neutrality in the mainstream media means that the press becomes gagged, “even in the face of the most extreme evils,” such as minority-bashing, violence-promoting Trump himself.
It’s worth stepping back and considering what, exactly, is being covered in this election. Does the man presiding over the increasingly alarming scenes at his rallies deserve unbiased treatment from the media? Trump often directs his crowds to physically remove protestors. He insinuates violence. Empowered, Trump supporters threaten to kill the opposition. Trump culture is a simmering, seething entity. It’s mob mentality at its worst. Angry men and women are emboldened by Trump’s own words.
Sadly, press commentary is barely needed to highlight the prejudice lurking in Trump’s language—just slap some of the candidate’s more incendiary quotes on a blank page and let them speak for themselves. Who knows if Trump really believes the venomous things he says? Perhaps he is simply following his supporters’ lead—he has tapped into a population that finally has a stage for its hate and bloodlust.
Now Trump followers have validation in the most mainstream manner possible. Are you really wrong for yelling racial slurs and assaulting a peaceful protester when you’re following the direction of a man who gets network news coverage like every other presidential hopeful? These aren’t clandestine Aryan Nation meetings in a barn in the middle of nowhere—this is primetime, baby!
Donald Trump constructs his campaign over a terrifying framework of racist and xenophobic rhetoric. Do these dangerous words and calls to action deserve neutral coverage?
It’s time for the press to act like the Fourth Estate—to warn, and protect, its public. It’s time to call a spade a spade, and a racist a racist.
In any case, we are dealing with a candidate who has promised to greatly restrain press freedom if he ends up in office. Journalists are advised to get any and all thoughts on Trump on paper before he gets his short fingers on the First Amendment.
Clementine is a graduate of Mount Holyoke, where she studied English and French. Her writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, the New York Observer, USA Today, BUST, and Odyssey. Clementine is an undercover short story writer, and in her spare time she’s on a quest to craft the perfect tweet.