How Trump gets away with spouting half-truths

Most politicians massage the truth when it suits them, no matter their political allegiance. Ross D Franklin / AP Photo
Most politicians massage the truth when it suits them, no matter their political allegiance. Ross D Franklin / AP Photo

Most politicians massage the truth when it suits them, no matter their political allegiance. This truism is particularly salient in the US presidential election. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has struggled throughout her campaign to fend off criticism over a private email server she used during her time as secretary of state. But it is the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, who has taken the art of the political lie to previously unfathomable levels. Mr Trump has uttered so many half-truths, falsehoods and racist statements that his policy platform resembles little more than a confusing set of conflicting positions.

How has a candidate such as Mr Trump risen to such a level in American politics? How can a serious contender for the White House so effortlessly bend the parameters of truth on a regular basis? The answer partly lies in the changing nature of the American media and its obsession with objectivity in journalism.

The notion that journalists should suspend all personal judgment of the events they cover to present a balanced view for their audience sounds sensible in theory. In practice, the obsession with balance has stifled fact-based coverage and transparency in journalism. The result is a climate in which journalists and media outlets have been reticent to reject the overtly racist statements by Mr Trump and accurately report on a slew of other topics.

This objectivity principle didn’t manifest itself out of thin air. It is exemplified in how the Middle East is covered and understood in the US media. How the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is portrayed in the American press demonstrates the nefarious role that this interpretation of objectivity plays in media.

The conflict between Israel and Palestine is, at its core, a battle over narratives. Thus, facts are often perceived as antithetical to the ends each side seeks to achieve. The facts on the ground – a decades-long military occupation and the continued dispossession of human and civil rights by one side over the other – are stacked against Israel. That is why Tel Aviv has spent millions of dollars crafting a public-relations campaign that includes targeting the credibility of some reporters covering the conflict.

The formula is simple. Journalists filing factual stories from the West Bank or Gaza that challenge the Israeli narrative are attacked. Websites administered by individuals associated with the government in one way or another have been created with the sole purpose of damaging reporters’ credibility by raising the objectivity issue. Often, the facts of a specific story are irrelevant, only the personal thoughts or affiliations of reporters. If you can’t dismantle the reporting on a factual basis, go after the messenger. This is part of a general resentment of the press.

The result of this objectivity crusade has been the destruction of transparent reporting of the conflict and a climate of self-censorship. While Israeli PR goes after journalists, mainstream media outlets staff their bureaus with pro-Israel reporters who claim objectivity.

While covering the conflict as The New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, Ethan Bronner did not disclose that he had a son fighting in the Israeli military. Neither did the Times. This conflict of interest didn’t result in a reassignment because Bronner claimed to remain objective in his coverage. The newspaper’s current deputy bureau chief, Isabel Kershner, found herself in hot water a couple of years ago when it was revealed that her husband had worked for an Israeli government think tank dedicated to crafting Israel’s image abroad. She still hasn’t been reassigned to a different role in the paper.

Wire services are not immune to this problem. Some have hired Israeli reporters who remain active in the military reserves while they are reporting on the conflict. Can you imagine a situation in which a wire service employed a reservist in the Hamas military wing or the Fatah armed brigade?

The proliferation of social media has dented the mainstream media’s ability to conceal the conflicts of interests that might exist within their ranks. When Bronner stepped down from his post in Jerusalem, his replacement’s pro-Israel leanings were thoroughly debated on Twitter and Facebook. Only after the uproar did the Times hire a reporter based in Ramallah who spoke fluent Arabic.

How the American media covers the Israeli-Palestinian conflict provides a window into Mr Trump’s ability to say overtly racist things in his quest for the White House and get away with it. Journalists are fearful for their careers and the media now rewards this kind of “objective” coverage over transparent fact-based reporting. Put simply, the media is too afraid to confront Mr Trump for fear of not appearing “fair and balanced”.

When a candidate insults a federal judge based on his Mexican heritage, mocks the disabled, ridicules women, calls for a ban on Muslims and generalises about entire cultures, journalists shouldn’t sit by idly and let these comments pass into the public debate unchallenged.

The issue is not about increasing advocacy journalism – there is plenty of that and it suffers from its own problems – but creating a transparent environment in which journalists can do their jobs without fear of unfounded attacks. This is all the more critical given the changing nature of the media.

In the age of instant information, where history-changing events are broadcast in real time from several perspectives, journalists have an increased responsibility to be transparent and attentive to factual reporting. We should judge reporters and media organisations on their ability to stay true to the facts, and to disclose potential conflicts of interest and other pertinent information.

If nothing is done and the US continues down the Israeli rabbit hole of objectivity obsession, the effects will be profoundly dangerous. After all, a recent poll found that 72 per cent of Israelis don’t believe Israel’s control over the Palestinian Territories constitutes an occupation. That type of cognitive dissonance cannot happen without the guiding hand of the media.

jdana@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @ibnezra

Published: September 5, 2016 04:00 AM

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