Finley: Press shouldn't take Trump's bait

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump talks with reporters in the Oval Office, Wednesday, Sept. 4, 2019, in Washington.

The most effective thing Donald Trump has done to erode public trust in the press is goading some of its members into abandoning journalistic standards in the name of a perceived greater good, namely discrediting Donald Trump.

Blame the president’s incessant attacks, if you like, for the fact that barely half the nation has confidence in the media’s ability to honestly carry out its Constitutionally assigned watchdog role. His “enemy of the people” trope is certainly oft-repeated by his acolytes.

But the fault also lies with some members of the press, particularly on the electronic side, for taking the bait and assuming there is a higher virtue for journalists than presenting the news accurately and without an agenda and allowing their readers to form it into opinion.

Since Trump, that core value has been too often tossed away, replaced by the notion that reporters and editors must assume the responsibility once relegated exclusively to opinion journalists to actively influence how readers and viewers interpret the news.

The activist streak that has emerged during the Trump era has led to sloppy reporting, rushed judgements, inaccuracy and embarrassment. And a sense by the public that the press is motivated by something other than giving it “just the facts.”

The latest example came this week from a familiar source, The New York Times.

Two Times reporters, Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly, who wrote a book that purports to expose conservative Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh as a serial sexual abuser, penned a synopsis of their tome for the newspaper.

Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh

They claim to have uncovered a bombshell – another allegation that Kavanaugh, the conservative Trump appointee whose confirmation process was marred by unsubstantiated allegations of boyhood sexual misconduct, had been involved in another incident while a student at Yale. Specifically, the claim is that friends of a pantless Kavanaugh forced his penis into the hands of a female student during a boozy dorm party.

A scintillating report, for sure. But problem riddled. First, the purported witness to the lewd act, fellow student Max Stier, Bill Clinton’s former defense attorney, didn’t speak to the Times reporters, who instead heard of the account from second-hand sources.

And the woman involved? More second-hand sources told the reporters she has no memory of any such incident, a detail that appears in the book but was curiously left out of the initial news story. The Times later added it as an editor’s note.

I’ve been in the newspaper business for more than four decades and I can’t think of an example in which The Detroit News would publish such a damaging article based on anonymous second-hand sources, particularly when the person at the heart of the incident denies it happened. I don't believe most other reputable newspapers would, either. 

I also don’t believe the Times would present such unverified gossip as "news analysis" if the subject involved were anyone other than Trump or his appointees.

But the Times and some others in the media have allowed their disgust with Trump to change the rules. 

The Associated Press has decided not to wait for others to categorize Trump’s remarks as offensive. It’s asking its reporters to do so themselves. So AP news stories definitively declare the president’s tweets as racist, leaving no room for debate with those who may see things differently.

I recently interviewed respected television journalist Soledad O'Brien, who argued the uniqueness of Trump’s presidency creates an urgency for reporters to add context to the news. But context too often appears to the reader as commentary. That detection of bias in the news erodes trust.

In divisive, disruptive times, Americans need honest brokers of information. When it is most objective, the media has the most influence.

Rather than abandon the traditional principles of its profession, now is when the press must most faithfully honor them. 

Twitter: @NolanFinleyDN