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Trump, the Truth, and the Obligations of Journalism

Journalists have a responsibility, if not a moral obligation, to set the record straight, loudly and quickly, before the myth these politicians seek to perpetuate takes public hold.

November 24, 2015

It is the opposite of journalism to call something “controversial” when in fact it is demonstrably false. Now more than ever, when so much fiction and hoax is passed off as truth on the campaign trail, journalists have a professional responsibility, if not a moral obligation, to set the record straight, loudly and quickly, before the myth these politicians seek to perpetuate takes public hold. There is no room today for any sort of cheesy false equivalence, for pretending that one idea or thought or theory is equal to every other.

So when Donald Trump or his online handlers re-tweeted patently false statistics about black (and white) crime rates Sunday it was incumbent upon journalists covering that campaign to do more than merely mention the contents of the incorrect Tweet and then chronicle the predictably furious response to it. Trump’s act was “controversial” only because it reveals his flawed judgment, his disregard for facts, and the increasingly ugly direction of his campaign — a series of dog whistles designed to pit citizen against citizen. If Trump today uttered the words “The sun rises in the West” it would not be enough for reporters to run through the litany of people who disagreed.

To its credit, The Washington Post did not fall into the same trap that befell other news organizations. Hours after Trump passed along the incorrect tweet the Post published a story headlined: “Donald Trump retweeted a very wrong set of numbers on race and murder” which made it clear how incorrect the Republican presidential candidate had been. The Huffington Post got it right, too. “A wildly inaccurate graphic,” is how they described Trump’s re-tweet. These are not instances of reporters taking sides on a contentious issue; these are instances of reporters reminding their audience of where the truth lies. Many other outlets followed on Monday with trenchant coverage.

Less obvious, but no less absurd, were the weekend comments of another Republican presidential candidate trying to score points with the conservative base by downplaying or deflecting the notion of racial injustice in America. Ben Carson told an audience of black civil rights leaders Saturday night that he still is waiting for evidence of racial bias by police in America. When confronted with examples of such bias Carson deflected and demurred, saying that rogue cops naturally should be punished.

But the problem of racial bias in policing goes far beyond a few “bad apples,” to use the unfortunate phrase used Saturday night. There is a mountain of evidence proving the existence of racial bias in policing. Some of this evidence is old. Some of it is new. Either Carson either hasn’t seen this evidence or, more likely, has conveniently chosen to ignore it because he knows what his potential supporters want to hear. Either way, reporters today have an obligation not just to report Carson’s position but place it into its proper context and perspective: Carson is waiting for evidence of something that has been proven to be true over and over again.

I chose these two recent examples not because they came from Republican candidates — there are plenty of false things Democrats say, too. I chose them because they both sound in criminal justice and both will serve, I fear, to diminish the vital national conversation on the topic that is taking place and will need to continue to take place for reform to come to our justice systems. The changes that must be made will be hard enough to achieve as a matter of law and politics if everyone is operating from the same set of established fact. Hyperbole and demagoguery that seeks to undermine those facts will only make things worse.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan is credited with one of the great lines in American history; a line that resonates strongly today. In 1964, of a campaign opponent, he said: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not to his own facts.” If Ben Carson wants to pretend that there is no racial bias in policing, and if Donald Trump wants to believe a set of false statistics on race and crime, they both are free to do so. But the rest of us must be empowered through basic principles of journalism to offer an audience the context and perspective, and therefore the knowledge, to be free to understand how far these beliefs are from objective, verifiable truth.

The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

(Photo: AP)