|Edward R. Murrow|
This year's presidential campaign is proving to be a challenge, or maybe just a temptation, for some journalists. In the last week some have questioned the old standard of "objectivity" -- asking whether it's time to declare an emergency, jettison a disinterested approach to events, and ride like Paul Revere to the rescue of American civilization.
A front-page article in the New York Times asked rhetorically what reporters should do if they believe Donald Trump is a demagogue who would be dangerous with nuclear weapons. The answer: "you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, and approach it in a way you've never approached anything in your career." Really?
Looking back further than a half-century, some have described this as a "Murrow Moment." The reference is to 1954, when CBS Newsman Edward R. Murrow denounced Senator Joseph McCarthy on the air, calling his campaign against suspected communists a threat to American freedom. In his famous "See it Now" broadcast, Murrow said McCarthy had confused dissent with disloyalty in the public mind, and vowed "we will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason."
One of Murrow's successors, Dan Rather, wrote that Trump's threat of "second amendment people" doing something to Hillary Clinton, "cannot be treated as just another outrageous moment in the campaign. We will see whether major newscasts explain how grave and unprecedented this is..."
Grave and unprecedented it may be, but is it a "Murrow moment," requiring journalists to drop their professional neutrality, and sound the alarm to an endangered public? At least three differences come to mind:
1. McCarthy was riding high until Murrow faced him down, but Trump is already in a free-fall of his own doing. Every poll shows he stands little chance of being elected, and that chance fades further every day he opens his mouth. Sources close to the Donald have said all along that he didn't really want to be president, and he seems to be acting out that wish ever since he got the nomination -- probably as scarey a moment for him as for the rest of us.
2. While McCarthy was a threat to free speech, making his targets fear for their livelihoods if they expressed themselves honestly, Trump is doing the opposite -- pushing the limits of protected speech, saying whatever comes into his giddy head. He may well shout "fire" in a crowded theater before this is over. The judiciary, not the media, can judge whether that's a crime.
3. The press and the media no longer have a privileged position in society. Unlike 1954, they're not in charge of what the public reads, or sees, or knows. In today's internet culture anyone can be a journalist, anyone can sound the alarm. And they do, all day long.
For reporters to throw out the rules and start using loaded terms like "dangerous" on their own will just play into the Trump-serving idea of a media conspiracy against him. Reporters who want to point out the dangers can simply interview any sane observer, and get fresher quotes than their own wisdom could supply.
Those anointed (or self-anointed) as commentators can get all the material they need just by quoting Shakespeare, whose choicest insults were aimed at characters like the Donald:
"Mars of malcontents."
"He hath not so much brains as earwax."
"Idol of idiot-worshippers!"
"What, drunk with choler?"
"He raves in saying nothing."
"Bawling, blasphemous, incharitable dog!"
"He misses not much.
No, he doth but mistake the truth."
"I had rather be a tick in a sheep than such a valiant ignorance."
"Sound and fury, signifying nothing."
-- Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips