Day #2: The New Normal

 

A collection of German newspapers at the office of the Taz newspaper in Berlin. Photo credit: Kate Harloe.

By Kate Harloe

We came to Europe in part to study the past, but it’s been hard to stay away from the present — especially for the journalism fellows. In the roughly four months that President Trump has been in office, he’s called the news media the “enemy of the American people.” He has repeatedly called factual journalism “fake.” He’s mocked journalists and lied, over and over. When I arrived in Europe, I met one of the FASPE business teachers; when I told her I was a journalist, she asked: “How are you going to save us?”

It’s a question I’ve heard before. There’s suddenly enormous attention — and pressure — on journalists. How should journalists cover a Trump administration? Constantly declaring “panic” could gradually desensitize the public; to treat it as business as usual would normalize a moment that could be a historical turning point.

This was the theme of one of the sessions we had today, organized around something that’s become a buzzword lately: normalization. To frame our conversation, we leaned on one article, in particular — a piece by journalist Ron Rosenbaum, which appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Rosenbaum wrote a book called Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of his Evil; during Trump’s campaign, he began to receive requests from editors to offer comparisons with Trump. “Until the morning after the election I had declined them,” he wrote. “But after the election, things changed. Now Trump and his minions are in the driver’s seat, attempting to pose as respectable participants in American politics, when their views come out of a playbook written in German.”

There are plenty of parallels, but Rosenbaum focused on one example: Trump’s — and Hitler’s ­– relationships to the media. Both are characterized by antagonism, of course, and a specific kind of rhetorical control exerted by each respective demagogue. But what was most interesting about Rosenbaum’s story was one particular sub-narrative that followed a small but fierce opposition paper called the Munich Post.

The Post began covering Hitler as a “canny organizer on the Munich streets,” where he appeared on the political scene in 1921. According to Rosenbaum, “The Munich Post never stopped investigating who Hitler was and what he wanted, and Hitler never stopped hating them for it.” It became known, at least in Rosenbaum’s telling, as one of the chief anti-Hitler papers — a battled bravely waged until the very end. In 1933, after Hitler came to power, the Post was “legally” shut down. But even its final headlines didn’t diminish — or normalize — the horror of the Nazi takeover. “Germany Under the Hitler Regime: Political Murder and Terror,” one read. “Blood Guilt of the Nazi Party,” read another.

The Post resisted. We held its example up against a number of others; namely, a recent NPR interview of a white supremacist, Richard Spencer, by journalist Kelly McEvers. This interview stood as a counter-example to the Post. While it might have set out to expose the views of Richard Spencer, an avowed white supremacist, it ended up normalizing them.

In our discussion, one of our fellows, Amanda McGowan pointed out that instead of speaking on her own terms, McEvers repeated Spencer’s. Another fellow, Astead Herndon, pointed out that Spencer made multiple comments that were demonstrably false and McEvers didn’t correct him. I noticed that instead of introducing Spencer by calling his views racist and sexist, she says that he’s of a movement — the “alt-right” (Spencer’s own language) — that’s “associated with” racism, sexism, and antisemitism.

Trump is not Hitler. (Though, with each passing day of the FASPE program, the parallels between the two become more uncanny.) But this specific comparison between the Munich Post and NPR raised a question for me: What compels some journalists — and journalistic institutions — to resist and what compels others to normalize, even unwittingly?

I can’t help but think the answer to this question lies somewhere in contemporary journalistic ethical standards. Specifically: the ideal of the “objective” journalist.

For years, journalists have debated objectivity as a standard for good journalism. In my experience, most journalists are eager to point out that the term is problematic. But in newsrooms and classrooms across the United States, the objectivity standard still stands. It’s like a Freudian slip: Journalists will tell me that they think objectivity is a poor term, and then in the next sentence, use it to describe their journalistic goals.

This debate became especially pronounced during Trump’s campaign, as journalists warred over what it meant to be “objective” in this shifting political landscape. Was it objective to try and get “two sides” of each story if one side stood against basic human rights?

Part of how McEvers normalizes Spencer is by sticking to conventional journalistic standards — standards which are formed around this ideal of objectivity. For fear of appearing opinionated, she doesn’t call his views what they factually are: racist. She validates Spencer by talking with him, she mimics his own terms and language, and she puts him in the NPR box — a framework for interviewing that makes it extremely hard to fact check him on the fly, and that gives him a lot of air time. It seems that Spencer understands this perhaps better than McEvers does. He’s articulate, calm, and sounds, at least in terms of tone and diction, like so many other NPR guests. By putting him on the air in this way, McEvers affirms the rhetoric and movement that helped put Trump in the White House.

The Munich Post resisted Hitler from the beginning. Although it failed, the Post’s effort was worth something; at the least, it challenged and evidently deeply upset Hitler. As we travel through Germany and Poland, and reflect back on the news in the United States, we watch many American journalists trip over themselves as they try to remain objective and cover an administration that forces them to admit that every journalist brings preconceived beliefs, biases, and experiences to their reporting. As journalists try to remain objective, all too often they can end up normalizing extreme and frightening people and beliefs.

As we study this history and continue our trip, I find myself hoping this: That journalists today keep our commitment to facts, accuracy, and fairness. That we continue in our effort to hold power accountable. But I also hope that we find a way to let objectivity go. It’s critical for journalists to be transparent about the perspectives they bring to their work, but it’s not possible for journalists to be objective.

Time is of the essence. If there’s one thing that I’ve gained from our readings and discussions on resistance during the rise of Hitler, it’s that it was never too early to resist. So many people thought: This will never really happen. Or: It won’t really happen here, to me. There will be more time to prevent the worst.

Trump is not Hitler. But the fact we even have to say that is scary; the parallels, scarier. For objectivity to be the thing that’s holding up and muddying journalists’ ability to cover a Trump ­­­administration — we don’t have time for that.

 

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