The following phrase, and its variants, has become ubiquitous: “Donald Trump’s baseless charges of election fraud.” Mainstream news outlets have accelerated its use during the congressional hearings on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
The phrase is accurate. Though American elections have historically been marred by fraud and outright subversion, no evidence has surfaced to suggest that any such improprieties occurred during the 2020 presidential election that were substantial enough to change the result. As far as we know, Joe Biden was legitimately elected.
But is it journalistically kosher?
Fairness, accuracy and integrity are the core of journalistic ethics. Those values are compromised when they are applied inconsistently, as do American news companies.
Republicans, conservatives and supporters of former President Donald Trump in particular have long complained that corporate media outlets have been harder on him than on other politicians or previous presidents. It’s hard to disagree. Journalists’ labeling of Trump’s allegations that the 2020 election was stolen as a lie is a case in point; it’s impossible to think of another American politician who has been so repeatedly editorialized against in nonopinion news stories or to have his claims — no matter how untrue — repeatedly denied in headlines.
Biden and fellow Democrats, for example, have taken to calling high gas prices “Putin’s gas hike.” This is just as false as Trump’s election BS. The Wall Street Journal notes that gas prices were “turbocharged by a rebounding economy after a pandemic-induced slowdown” well before Russia invaded Ukraine. Anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the West, led by the U.S., exacerbated the problem. Whether or not Biden is responsible for \$5 gas, no one can credibly blame Vladimir Putin for the effects of sanctions Biden imposed against him.
You won’t see headlines describing Biden’s spin on gas prices as “baseless” or “false.” As they do when any politician other than Trump lies, the press acts as stenographers, dutifully passing on communiques regardless of their truthiness. “Biden blames Russia for gas prices,” reports Politico. “Biden slams ‘Putin’s price hike,'” says CNN. Calling out Trump for lying is great. Doing so is a reporter’s job. Why not Biden?
Willful inconsistency is the hallmark of how reporting becomes propaganda in the 21st century. As coverage of the Jan. 6 hearings keeps reminding us, Trump tried to steal the presidency. The same reporters had little to nothing to say about George W. Bush actually stealing the presidency; because Bush hates Trump, they treat the architect of torture, drones and Gitmo like an elder statesman. When the U.S. invades a foreign country, there’s almost no attempt to humanize civilian victims, but when the invading army belongs to a U.S. adversary, coverage of the human cost — even the cost to animals — is exhaustive.
The facile defense to this critique is that reporters are setting the record straight when they label Trump’s lies as such. Trouble is, there are so many lies being told by so many politicians of every conceivable ideological orientation that limiting fact checks to one individual, even a former president and possible future one for whom the truth appears to be a mortal enemy, looks exactly like what it is: choosing sides by giving your fellow partisans a free pass. Further, because the press’s anti-Trump bias is so over-the-top, there is a natural tendency to dismiss it.
I’m not arguing that journalists should stop writing that Trump is a liar. To the contrary, holding politicians accountable for untruths is long overdue. I’m saying they should do the same thing to other politicians as well.
Now that Russiagate has been thoroughly debunked, it would be nice to see news media say so. Instead of,”US is worried about Russia using new efforts to exploit divisions in 2022 midterms,” CNN could say, “US officials revive discredited claims on election ‘interference.'”
Instead of, “Iraq War role was a stain on Powell’s record — one he openly said he regretted,” The Washington Post could say, “A million dead Iraqis later, Powell regretted lying America into Iraq War.”
Surely the courageous journalists who call out “Trump’s election lie” for what it is can present other stories in an equally straightforward manner. ABC’s “Slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancee condemns Biden’s upcoming trip to Saudi Arabia” ought to be specific. After all, Khashoggi wasn’t passive-tense “slain.” In one of the most insane political assassinations in modern history, Khashoggi was viciously butchered in the Saudi consulate at the order of the Saudi crown prince. Biden isn’t merely going to Saudi Arabia; he’s planning to meet and shake hands with Khashoggi’s murderer. How about, “Fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi condemns Biden for upcoming visit with journalist’s murderer”?
Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of a new graphic novel about a journalist gone bad, “The Stringer.”