Killing the messenger

When a general overseeing a battle in ancient Persia was approached by a scout reporting that the conflict was going badly, the commander, in a fit of rage, killed the person who had delivered the bad news.

Or at least that’s the story that’s been passed down for centuries and in recent decades has resurfaced as “to kill the messenger” morality tale. Such scenarios especially seem to take place in American politics every four years where at some point at least one presidential candidate blames the news media – the messenger – for his or her poor performance and low polling number in the run-up to the November election.

And Republican candidate Donald Trump’s omnipresent diatribes against journalists are no exception. What does appear unusual this time around, however, is both the vehemence and frequency of his “the media are biased” utterances. He says this on a near daily basis, he snarls when he says “media” during debates, his surrogates repeat the charge and his minions mimic these accusations.

Thus the question arises: How should journalists respond when a political candidate is, shall we say, not your average political candidate?

There is no question Trump is not your ordinary political personality. A billionaire, a television personality, a real-estate tycoon, a person who shoots from the lip at every opportunity. So what’s a journalist going to do? How does a political reporter fairly cover such a character?

There have been at least three elections in recent history where journalists were faced with similar challenges. While none of these modern-day scenarios featured candidates identical to Trump, they all provide examples of how political reporters and the media covered such unusual candidates.

David Duke

In 1991, New Orleans Times-Picayune editor, Jim Amoss, had a dilemma. Running for the Louisiana governor’s race was former Gov. Edwin Edwards, an individual considered by many to have been at the very least borderline corrupt and somewhat sleazy. Running against Edwards was former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.   Amoss said at that time it was “a far trickier ethical morass covering a former Klan leader whose newfound rhetoric disguised his longstanding beliefs, whose following among one’s readers is sincere and massive, whose election would mean social and economic disaster, but whose opponent is a scoundrel.”

Not only did the Times-Picayune run a number of editorials denouncing Duke, but news coverage was directed by African-American city editor, Keith Woods, who unleashed some 40 people to put together massive reporting on the election and on Duke.

Such reporting provided case-study fodder for journalism ethics books, including Jay Black, Bob Steele and Ralph Barney’s Doing Ethic in Journalism, where Woods was quoted as saying he “did not have people trying to uncover new truths about Edwards…. And for a lot of people there was no distinction between the editorials and news coverage…. It wasn’t a blurring of lines. It was an erasing of the lines.”

While the New Orleans newspaper did not print mindless allegations, reported both candidates’ comments and did not avoid negative reporting on both candidates, the paper’s agenda was clear – to uncover everything it could about a racist candidate whose election could be harmful to the state. And since readers already knew much about Edwards, who had been in the news for years, the newspaper had an obligation to make up lost ground and tell voters about a candidate about whom they knew little.

As Amoss subsequently said, the Duke story was “all-consuming” and “to a certain extent, the ethical dilemmas were solved by the momentum of the story itself. Duke was the story for the media, the readers, and the voters. You either voted for Duke or you didn’t vote for Duke. To a great degree, that exonerates news organizations. They are tracking what the story has become. The focus already was on Duke. It was incumbent upon the newspaper to explore that phenomenon.”

And Black, Steele and Barney ask: Was the paper fair in its journalist mission and its reporting? How do you define “fairness” in a story like this?”

Jesse Ventura

Former professional wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura was running in 1998 for governor in Minnesota against two well-known politicians, Hubert “Skip” Humphrey III and St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman. Humphrey’s running mate, Roger Moe, chastised the media, saying, “I really think you folks (broadcast and print journalists) let him (Ventura) off the hook. You let him get free ride, the press did, and nobody knows anything about him. He wasn’t pinned down on any of his issues – not like Norm Coleman and Skip Humphrey were. So I think he’s been treated with kid gloves….”

As the Silha Center Bulletin reported in 1999, “Before Mr. Ventura surged in the polls a few weeks before the election, the broadcast and print media viewed him as it would an amusing sideshow at the State Fair. Once he reached 20 percent in the polls, however, and he was seen as a ‘viable’ candidate, he received similar coverage to that given to the two major party candidates, even though he was still depicted in some stories to be little more than a political freak with no real chance of winning the election. By covering him in the run-up to the election as they did Mr. Humphrey and Mr. Coleman, the Twin Cities media gave Mr. Ventura’s candidacy a huge boost.” Thus, by not covering Ventura more extensively the Minnesota media were unfair to the other two candidates.

Without serious media coverage, residents of this progressive state that had spawned Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale seemed to go politically brain-dead and voted for a man whose major claim was faking athleticism in the wrestling ring and wearing a pink boa.

After Ventura’s election, journalists through that Midwestern state began covering him more extensively, though such after-win coverage seemed a bit like learning to drive after one has crashed.

Arnold Schwarzenegger   

In 2003 California journalists faced Minnesota déjà vu with body builder and Hollywood action figure Arnold Schwarzenegger. In his recall challenge to Gov. Gray Davis, whose views and policies were well known, journalists could have concentrated most of their ink and air time as he was a political unknown.

Instead of covering the Hollywood star like a blanket, California voters were shortchanged, and Minnesota’s one-act Ventura production gained a second act, with Schwarzenegger getting top billing by media default.

Voters in the Golden State “knew” Schwarzenegger, having for years gone to bed with his flickering image on their television sets. And journalists did little to inform the electorate of plans for the state or policies he hoped to enact – assuming he had any.

According to a Minnesota Star-Tribune opinion piece, “His only political experience (was) marrying into the Kennedy clan, and Democratic osmosis doe not make sense for a Republican film star and former bodybuilder.”

Donald Trump

This is not to equate Trump’s verbal histrionics with Duke’s racist past, even though this year Louisiana’s former KKK leader has endorsed the New York billionaire for president. Rather, based on the media’s past experience with Duke and celebrities Ventura and Schwarzenegger, it seems a shame the media this time around didn’t examine the non-traditional presidential hopeful more carefully in the run-up to Nov. 8.

But given the outcome of the Ventura and Schwarzenegger contests, that should come as little surprise. Both “entertaining” candidates won their respective races where they seldom if ever were seriously questioned by a star-struck media that all but rolled over and played dead. So have the media been biased this year against Trump, as Trump and his followers have charged? Hardly. Rather, he usually has been treated with kid gloves, much as was the cases in Minnesota and California.

Strenuous, serious, unrelenting coverage of Trump was particularly needed this year as so much had been reported about Hillary Clinton for some 30 years. The electorate knew of her policies, enacted legislation, foreign policy initiatives, plans for the economy – the works. Voters had no such book on Trump.

Political journalists thus should have spent most of their time since his nomination this year:

  • Doggedly questioning him on his views on education, taxes, federal budget, health care, diversity, energy, environment and related issues, and not accepting simplistic answers.
  • Creating investigative teams of top reporters to discover more of his past, to interview his current and former associates and to put together truly comprehensive profiles of the candidate.
  • Barraging him with tough questions.
  • Writing extensively about him on tweets, blogs, editorial and op-ed pages.
  • Treating him as a candidate, not as a billionaire curiosity.

That means by Election Day, voters should have known one presidential candidate as well as they do the other. That means this year the media should have spent much more time than they did covering Trump in a substantive manner, to reduce voters’ knowledge gap between him and the well-known, extensively covered Clinton. That means treating voters fairly.

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