Lionel Barber: Trump & Truth
Facing a dishonest president, journalists sought “moral clarity.” But the press must now resurrect a much-maligned principle: hearing both sides.
My test came one drizzly afternoon in March 2017 when I was escorted into the Oval Office. Seated behind the Resolute Desk, President Donald J. Trump declined to rise or extend a handshake to me and my two senior colleagues from the Financial Times. I thanked him for making time—and for subscribing to the newspaper that I edited.
“That’s OK,” the president replied. “You lost. I won.”
At a stroke, Trump had reframed our meeting as a contest: the FT as representative of the liberal global elite, himself as triumphant populist-nationalist. He boasted about his more than 100 million followers on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and declared no need to go to “fake news” media like us. My goal had been to employ a basic practice of journalism: the interview as means of eliciting information. But he wanted a fight, with himself as the preordained winner.
Trump’s aggression repelled me. But later, the tables were turned. We, the journalists, got to write our story. Most commentators considered the newly inaugurated president to be mad, bad and dangerous. They would have preferred our full-page interview to conclude with words to that effect. With hindsight—and bearing in mind Trump’s brazen efforts to overturn a legitimate presidential election—I have sympathy for their views. But I believed then, and I believe now, that good journalism required that the president get a fair hearing.
Four years on, my hedged appraisal sounds like a classic example of the journalistic tradition of granting space to both sides of a story, even if one side appears detestable or, worse, is spreading misinformation. In the Trump era, “bothsidesism” has become a derogatory term, described by Merriam-Webster as “when a journalist or pundit seems to give extra credence to a cause, action or idea that on the surface seems objectionable, thereby establishing a sort of moral equivalence that allows said cause, action, or idea to be weighed seriously.”
So how should the news media cope with political figures like Trump and my own prime minister, Boris Johnson, who command the respect of high office but violate the norms of honesty assumed to go with that office? Equally, how do we stop skeptical reporting from turning into bias? And how, in an age of hyperpartisanship, can journalists preserve a degree of professional detachment?
These questions go beyond journalistic practice. They go to the heart of our liberal-democratic heritage, which is itself under siege. The rational and open exchange of ideas is an essential part of that heritage. Expressing empathy—Where is your side coming from?—derives from the spirit of inquiry whose roots go back to Ancient Greece, the cradle of democracy. Critics of bothsidesism in journalism may consider the practice moral cowardice and complicity in evil. In intent, it is the opposite.
These issues weighed heavily on my mind in my last years as FT editor. Brexit and Trump’s election in 2016 challenged our core values of pro-market liberal internationalism and democratic capitalism. Journalists were under increasing pressure to take sides. The victory for “Leave” in the June 2016 referendum on Brexit was a particular shock for a generation of pro-European journalists like me. The temptation to strike back only grew when our opponents branded us unpatriotic “Remoaners” on the wrong side of history.
Despite enduring much personal invective, I continued to argue for a distinction between the FT’s support for EU membership, and its reporting on Brexit and the consequences. To abandon all pretense of nuanced reporting in favor of untrammeled partisanship went against my gut instincts and, crucially, against the interests of our readers. Having spent four decades in journalism, starting in a hardscrabble newsroom in Scotland, I clung to the belief that Accuracy, Balance and Context were the ABC of good journalism.
To be sure, my commitment to “bothsidesism” became harder to defend in the Digital Age. Traditional journalistic lines between facts and opinion were blurring, alongside the rise of information giants like Facebook that deemed themselves mere platforms but were de facto publishers, making decisions through their algorithms about what information hundreds of millions of people saw every day. Journalists were also sending mixed messages. Most still asserted their profession’s neutrality, yet many became so eager to develop their own brands (as measured by number of Twitter followers) that they were more willing to muddle personal views and reporting.
One consequence of the free-for-all on social media is that news organizations are held to account as rarely before. This can be good: The #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter, for example, has forced editors to think harder about the stories they commission, and to answer for the diversity in their newsrooms in terms of gender balance and ethnicity.
In an influential New York Times op-ed headlined “A Reckoning Over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery connected progressive attitudes to diversity in newsrooms with the question of “moral clarity” in reporting. “Black journalists are publicly airing years of accumulated grievances, demanding an overdue reckoning for a profession whose mainstream repeatedly brushes off their concerns; in many newsrooms, writers and editors are now also openly pushing for a paradigm shift in how our outlets define their operations and ideals.”
The difficulties arise when emphasis on diversity no longer applies to a diversity of opinion; when the call for “moral clarity” and “journalistic integrity” turns into intolerance and censorship. Editors, commentators and even some news reporters may be targeted—not just by outside activists but by their fellow staff.
Perhaps the most notable case involved the forced departure of James Bennet, opinion editor of the New York Times. His exit last June followed the decision to publish an op-ed by the Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, calling for the deployment of troops in American cities in the wake of the police murder of George Floyd. Some in the Times newsroom erupted, with a number of Bennet’s colleagues saying that publishing the article had put black journalists’ in danger.
Part of the tension in newsrooms is generational, as noted by the journalist Bari Weiss, who quit the Times a month after Bennet was ousted. She wrote on Twitter that the controversy exposed a divide between young people more inclined to believe that only “onesideism” is legitimate and those over 40, who cling to liberal ideas such as the free exchange of ideas.
While the desire for moral clarity in the Trump era has been understandable, the push toward more activist journalism risks polarizing people further, driving everyone deeper into self-affirming news sources, and surrendering the notion that impartiality, let alone objectivity, can ever exist. In these circumstances, it is worth remembering that the goal of objectivity is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that lies at the heart of what used to be known as “liberal journalism.”
Objectivity in American journalism did not begin as a high principle; it was a commercial calculation aimed at maximizing advertising revenue. Back in the 1920s, newspaper mergers and closures began taking place. The publications that survived had to appeal more widely because “overt partisanship in the news pages would alienate large parts of the target audience,” according to Matthew Pressman, author of On Press: The Liberal Values that Shaped the News.
But after the Second World War, journalists bumped up against the limits of objectivity. Faced with Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist propaganda and lies, American reporters grasped that they could no longer be stenographers just taking down what powerful people said and did. They needed to provide context and analysis. The case for loosening the straightjacket grew stronger during the Vietnam War, when successive presidents from Kennedy to Johnson and Nixon systematically misled the public about the scope of America’s military engagement.
News reporting increasingly allowed a degree of professional judgment but not personal opinion. Nevertheless, there were plenty of journalists, from Hunter S. Thompson to William F. Buckley, who continued to attack the principles of neutrality and objectivity as either naive or bias in disguise. Nor can the more recent influence of academic postmodernist theories be ignored, with claims that truth is only a matter of perspective, and that what societies and their elites proclaim to be objectively so are in fact myths or half-truths aimed at perpetuating oppressive power structures.
In the end, the internet not only destroyed traditional claims of pure journalistic objectivity, it eroded the notion of “the trusted source,” whether it be the respected TV anchor in the mold of Walter Cronkite or “the newspaper of record” like the New York Times. The internet also lifted barriers to distribution and entry, leading to an explosion of news and views. The mainstream media’s role as gatekeepers controlling the flow of information was over. Everything accelerated, with the internet rewarding speed and controversy, all measured by clicks.
In the middle of this revolution, it was tempting to scrap journalistic traditions and practice. Demanding multiple sources and striving for fairness and balance seemed quaint to many, when watching the growing influence of unrestrained forms of expression such as blogs. During this period, my commitment to “bothsidesism” was regularly tested while FT editor, a position I held from 2005 until last year.
But I remained faithful to the proposition, and still do today. Many of the old rules should apply to new media, even if the journalistic form has changed and the surrounding political debate has become infinitely more intense.
To an impatient younger generation of journalists, I would say this: hear me out. What I am proposing is a world away from defending the status quo.
Harness technology to enhance traditional forms of verification. The use of digital forensics, pioneered by the intrepid investigative outfit Bellingcat, involves combing through the vast heaps of data accumulating on social media, and seeks to verify further via online tools such as YouTube and Google Maps. This approach helped journalists at the New York Times pin down a chemical weapons attack in Syria, winning a Pulitzer Prize for their cutting-edge journalism. It has the added benefit of demonstrating, beyond reproach, that facts actually exist.
Adapt the journalistic form. At the FT, we launched an edgy online-only financial blog-commentary called FT Alphaville that recruited younger journalists, many of whom graduated to be frontline news reporters. We also invited reporters with specialist knowledge to write columns on the news pages, what former Washington Post editor Marcus Brauchli calls “reported commentary.” This not only reduced the division between workhorse reporters and elite columnists; it opened up a new career path for journalists who, thanks to Twitter and other forms of social media, were increasingly conscious of their own “brand.”
Maintain the same editorial standards throughout the newsroom. One of the unintended consequences of the division between news and comment in American newsrooms is that what newsroom journalists can do or say is more strictly policed than commentators who enjoy greater license both on advocacy and interpretation. This is a recipe for trouble. Making the executive editor responsible for both, as is the case in the British press, would probably be a step too far for American news organizations that are still set on the formal division between reporting and commentary departments. However, those writing opinion pieces must be subject to equally thorough fact-checking, as should outside contributors, including powerful politicians.
The importance of “a second pair of eyes.” One of the more pernicious recent developments in journalism is not the disappearance of newspapers—an inevitable consequence of the digital revolution—but the hollowing out of newsrooms. The result has been the weakening of the “revise” function, under which reporters (and commentators) are subject to at least one second pair of eyes holding them to account, at just the moment when more reporters have felt under competitive pressure to publish online immediately. This has led to a decline in factual accuracy. Also, a generation of journalists has grown up believing their words should pass unfiltered to readers, or else they are victims of censorship. “Digital does not just enable speed, it rewards speed,” Stacy-Marie Ishmael, a former FT journalist now editorial director at the Texas Tribune, told me. “But speed can inhibit judgment. Somehow we need to re-introduce friction into the process.”
A commitment to deep and original reporting. One of the greatest myths in the age of new media is that journalism is dead and we live in an age of alternative facts. Investigative reporting remains a vital aspect of contemporary journalism. In one respect, there has never been a better time to be a reporter because so much terrain is no longer covered. Bothsidesism at its best means more verified facts, more context and more of a sense of proportion.
But we come back to the test: Donald J. Trump. Almost four years on from my encounter in the Oval Office—watching his supporters rampage through the Capitol Building, egged on by the president himself—I could understand why some might be inclined to give up on seeking both sides of the story. The attempt to stop certification of Joe Biden’s victory was an attack on America’s democratic institutions, and confirmed many of the worst predictions about Trump.
But reporting—reflecting what other people think or say—does not amount to an endorsement of a particular point of view. Gathering of facts and varied views must adhere to the principle of fairness, a lower bar than objectivity. Crucially, fairness does not mean strict neutrality. As such, it does not preclude moral judgment, including a verdict on the insurrection in Washington.
The problem with “onesideism” is that it fits the facts around a narrative. Onesidedness is a product of ideology, of a belief that something is true because it ought to be true. This is not merely the stuff of 5-year plans in Soviet Russia—this is the essence of Trumpism, embodied in his false claims of victory in the 2020 election.
Principles of integrity—especially even-handedness and respect for other views—are the ideals needed for the challenging times, not for the easy times when (almost) everyone agrees. If we sacrifice our willingness to listen to each other, we lose the ability to engage in the exchange of views necessary for representative government to function.
Journalists have a vital role to play in informing and, yes, at times, mediating this debate. The pursuit of factual reporting is a pre-condition for regaining the trust of the reading public. This is a monumental task, but part of the essential mission of journalism. To abandon bothsidesism is therefore an abnegation of duty, leading to the degeneration of democracy itself.
Lionel Barber, former editor of The Financial Times, is the author of The Powerful and the Damned: Private Diaries in Turbulent Times.