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The battle over objectivity intensifies

“Many of the nation’s most influential news outlets continue to apply standards of objectivity that were designed for more normal times. They turn presidential statements, even if patently false, into credulous headlines.”

Most people who spend their days thinking about or doing journalism have strong opinions about how to cover President Trump and his administration. Few of them seem to believe the answer is “objectively.” Objective reporting, the argument goes, simply wasn’t designed for a president who lies compulsively and shows a reckless disregard for democratic norms.

And yet many of the nation’s most influential news outlets continue to apply standards of objectivity that were designed for more normal times. They turn presidential statements, even if patently false, into credulous headlines. They respond earnestly to promises to abrogate the Constitution through executive action. They remind the audience that “both sides” engage in unsavory political behavior, even when the two sides’ actions are far from equivalent.

Each time this happens, there’s a furious reaction from journo-Twitter, and the offending news outlet often scrambles to make amends. For editors and reporters who remained wedded to pre-Trump ideas of objectivity, these dustups must have a cumulative effect: Either you become a convert to the notion that normalizing Trump is a grave journalistic sin, or you become even more determined to fight those who would undermine a cherished principle (and with it, perhaps, the press’ remaining credibility).

In 2019, with the Mueller investigation potentially wrapping up, the Democrats empowered by their takeover of the House, and the next presidential election coming into view, the antipathy between objectivity’s proponents and detractors is likely to rise.

In many ways, this battle mirrors what was happening in American journalism 50 years ago. Faced with the Vietnam War and the Nixon administration’s onslaught on the press, many journalists believed it was time to drop objectivity in favor of a more honest, transparent approach to coverage. But that viewpoint never prevailed at the country’s leading newspapers and networks, who fought off the challenge to objectivity by the late 1970s.

Of course, newspapers and networks don’t hold the same sway today as they did in 1969. Still, I doubt 2019 will mark the death of objectivity in American journalism. The real test will come in 2021 or 2025, when Trump is out office and journalists must decide whether it’s still an option to “normalize” the president.

Matthew Pressman is an assistant professor of journalism at Seton Hall University.

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