American print journalism (unlike the US) has always prided itself on balance and impartiality – to point where UK journalists can find it a little dull.
But the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency has prompted some US journalists to ask whether they should “throw out the text book American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century”, as New York Times media writer Jim Rutenberg put it.
Veteran writer Barrie Dunsmore has picked up this theme, writing in Vermont’s Rutland Herald, and quotes William Shirer’s Berlin Diary (written by the US correspondent in Germany in the 1930s) to powerfully make his point.
Shirer wrote: “We who have been so close to this German scene, who have seen with our own eyes of tramping of Nazi boots over Europe and heard with our own ears Hitler’s hysterical tirades of hate, have found it difficult to keep a sense of historical perspective…
“First Germany and then the world grossly underestimated him. It was an appalling error, as first the Germans and now the world are finding out.”
Dunsmore, a former foreign correspondent himself, writes: “I believe journalists covering the 2016 American presidential campaign are being tested in ways that I have never seen in six decades of reporting.”
And he quoted Rutenberg’s piece: “If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional.
“That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream non-opinion journalist I’ve ever known and by normal standards, untenable.”
For Dunsmore the time has come for US reporters to dispense with balance and call it as they see it.
“Trump is the ultimate outlier, and has demonstrated time and again that none of the old rules apply to him. Yet so many reporters, whatever their personal views may be, are still trying to apply the old rules. The result is they regularly draw false equivalents.
“Trump is a liar so Hillary Clinton is liar, too, and neither can be trusted. Never mind that the lies she is accused of telling are of a whole different magnitude (unless you are the chairman of one of the House’s plethora of investigating bodies, whose sole purpose is to destroy her candidacy — an admission once made in a fit of candor by one of its officials).”
He adds: “I believe today’s journalists could learn something from old foreign correspondents such as William Shirer, who chose to report the unvarnished truth from 1930s Berlin.
“A subsequent generation of foreign correspondents consciously or unconsciously followed that playbook as we travelled around the world reporting on wars, diplomacy, floods and famines. We were detached from the local politics, and basically called things as we saw them. I am sure we were not always right, but we were almost always on the side of right. It might have been dangerous to your person to report on Nazi outrages. But how much more dangerous to your reputation if not your soul, would it have been to ignore or soft-pedal them?”