In a battle over basic norms, the press cannot be neutral

February 2, 2018

As we await the release of the Devin Nunes memo, my attention was drawn back to a piece Dave Roberts wrote on Vox back in May, 2017, titled “Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology.”  Very worth a read even/especially because it’s long and a great deal aligned with its core argument has happened in the past eight months.  He raises these questions:  “Are we a multiethnic democracy committed to equality under law? Do we respect science and scholarship? Do we expect public figures to tell the truth?  This, finally, is the question the media must face: Can it be neutral toward a political movement that explicitly rejects core American institutions and norms?”

Here’s a long section towards the end:

To understand the media’s dilemma, let’s revisit the classic liberal view of democracy, in which there is an area of normal politics bounded and structured by a set of shared rules and norms, enforced by institutions. This is still the view accepted, consciously or unconsciously, by most of the mainstream political press. It prides itself on being a neutral referee, enforcing shared standards of accuracy and honesty. (Yes, I am aware the reality falls painfully short.)

But what happens when political participants step out of bounds and violate shared norms? Is it the press’s role to defend those norms, to push back, or merely to report on what has happened?

It’s a dilemma. For one thing, no clear line separates legitimate subjects of political dispute from what is off limits or out of bounds. As circumstances change, those lines shift and warp at the margins. Collective values are always in flux. Things that were subject of dispute get put off limits (slavery, spousal rape), and things that were subject of consensus get opened back up to dispute (trans rights, marijuana legalization).

Instinctively, US journalists tend to see their role not as taking sides in those fights, but as accurately reporting on them.

They have faced the question again and again over the past few decades. From Gingrich’s rule changes in the House through Clinton’s impeachment through George W. Bush’s theft of the 2000 election through adamantine GOP intransigence under Obama to widespread state-level efforts to suppress the votes of minorities, the US political media has watched the right traduce one norm after another.

Each time, it has simply taken a step back and adjusted. A major political party will simply reject the consensus of the world’s scientists on climate change? Okay. Senate Republicans will filibuster every bill now? Okay. House Republicans will routinely threaten the solvency of the country by refusing to raise the debt limit? Okay. The Senate will refuse to vote on a Supreme Court nominee in the last year of a presidency? Okay. The party will unite behind a serial swindler and self-confessed sexual predator? Okay.

It’s been one step back after another, adjusting and readjusting to a new normal in politics.

And it’s been the same with the profusion of right-wing media. One side of America’s two-party system will build a giant parallel information apparatus operating on tribal lines, pushing one nonsense conspiracy theory after another into the political mainstream? Okay.

It’s all been, to use a term much abused and misused lately, normalized.

With Trump — his candidacy and now his presidency — the trampling of norms has become a stampede. The offenses range from small to large, petty to sinister. ….

The norms are falling like dominoes. We’re bumping up against core principles. Are we a multiethnic democracy committed to equality under law? Do we respect science and scholarship? Do we expect public figures to tell the truth?

This, finally, is the question the media must face: Can it be neutral toward a political movement that explicitly rejects core American institutions and norms?

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Democracy and Rights, Meanings, Responsibility and Ethics and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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