An anonymous insider at The Wall Street Journal has shared the following anecdote with Politico: During a recent morning meeting at the paper, editor-in-chief Gerry Baker reminded his staff to be “fair” to Donald Trump, because “no matter what people think of him, Trump’s a serious candidate and lots of serious people are going to get behind his White House bid.”
This seems like a rather roundabout way of saying, “Rupert supports Trump now, so it’s time to pretend that he’s a normal Republican nominee.” Still, it’s worth taking Baker’s directive at face value since it illustrates two dangerous fallacies that are bound to plague the next five months of political coverage.
First, there’s the implication that being “fair” to Trump means portraying him as a “serious candidate.” Certainly, the Donald is a serious political figure in the sense that he commands a significant following and has a serious chance of becoming the next American president.
But he is – by his own account – not serious about many of the policies he proposes and ideas that he expresses. This is a candidate who centered his primary campaign on denying people entry to the United States on the basis of their religious faith — and now dismisses criticisms of that proposal on the grounds that it was merely “a suggestion.” He’s a politician who derided a primary rival as incurably “pathological,” just like “a child molester” — then explained months later that he only said that because “it was part of the game.”
More critically, he is a candidate who treats the foundational premise of political journalism – that a well-informed public is a democratic necessity – with utter contempt. Trump refuses to share the most rudimentary details of his foreign policy with the electorate on the grounds that he’ll need to be “unpredictable” once in office. He has boasted that he could commit murder on Fifth Avenue in broad daylight and still convince the public to elect him. He’s a demagogue who tells lies so obvious, so demonstrably false, they don’t merely insult the intelligence of his audience but the concept of empirical reality itself: The man claimed that a table covered in store-bought steaks – still wrapped in the branded packaging of a local butcher – was indisputable proof that his (long-dissolved) meat business was still in operation.
Would it be “fair,” under Baker’s definition of the term, to call this an “unserious” way of campaigning for the country’s most powerful office?
The second fallacy in his directive suggests that it wouldn’t be. According to Politico’s account, Baker didn’t justify his “reminder” by citing examples of reporters misrepresenting Trump’s positions in a prejudicial manner. The need for greater fairness was not explained with reference to any discrepancy between reality and the Journal’s reporting – rather, it was justified with reference to the evolving political whims of “serious people.”
If one defines fair as “consistent with demonstrable truths,” then Baker’s reminder would need no justification. But if one defines it as “deferential to the inherent ‘seriousness’ of any candidate who is supported by a sufficient number of elites” then his admonition makes sense: He isn’t reminding his reporters that they shouldn’t print lies. He’s reminding them that Trump is now a major party nominee and thus, their assertion of facts must not undermine the premise that Trump is a “serious candidate.”
The idea that journalistic objectivity requires treating any major party nominee as inherently “serious” – which is to say, fit for office – has always been a dangerous fallacy. But, as with so many other pathologies in our politics, Trump makes the absurdity of this convention more difficult to ignore.