Guest commentary by Randy Covington
Editor’s note: Randy Covington is a Presbyterian elder and journalism professional. He was recently asked by his presbytery to present a workshop at their annual retreat addressing the role media plays in politics and how people of faith should approach discerning truth in an age of great division and accusations of “fake news.” Randy notes, “This is a difficult subject for churches and for all of us. We have Presbyterian friends … good people … with whom we cannot discuss politics. Trump has been that divisive and the role of the media has become a flash point of contention and disagreement.” This is an adaptation of that presentation. We are sharing it in the hope that it will give congregations useful information as they seek to be the Body of Christ during a season of acrimony and division.
What should Christians expect from the media? The presidency of Donald Trump has divided churches, friends and even families. For many, it’s a topic we try to avoid for fear of starting an argument or losing a friend. However for someone who teaches media ethics, the subject is unavoidable.
- Is President Trump a victim of a “witch hunt,” as he calls it, slandered by fake news?
- Are journalists modern-day prophets, speaking truth to an audience that does not always want to hear it?
- Ultimately, what should we as citizens, as Presbyterians and as Christians expect of the media?
If you look back to the campaign for president, the media did not acquit themselves very well. We obsessed over contradictory polling, most of which was inaccurate. Meanwhile, we largely missed the most obvious story of all: the passion and enthusiasm of those who supported Trump.
However, Donald Trump does not make the media’s job any easier since he often inserts himself into their coverage through inflammatory tweets, demonstrably false statements and personal attacks.
Since the election, tensions between Trump and the media have escalated. Perhaps this was inevitable. For decades, Republicans have used criticism of the media to fire up their base. Trump, largely using Twitter, has taken these attacks to a new level.
Quoting from his Twitter feed, Trump called TV host Megyn Kelly “crazy” and “unwatchable.” He said, in a refrain that would be repeated often, “The failing @nytimes is truly one of the worst newspapers.” Then there is “psycho” MSNBC morning host Joe Scarborough and his co-host, “low IQ, Crazy Mika” Brezinski. The list of Trump Twitter insults could go on.
As Trump once stated, “I’m not running against Crooked Hillary, I’m running against the Crooked Media,” something that was obvious at his large campaign rallies. Members of the media typically were put in a pen, where Trump could point to and criticize them. That often led to insults and threats from Trump partisans.
It is fair to say that the populist approach of Donald Trump does not always bring out the best from his ardent supporters. For example, some have directed anti-Semitic abuse at Binya Appelbaum, a New York Times correspondent who occasionally tweets about the president. One Twitter message from a Trump supporter showed a picture of an oven and said, “Get in the oven, jew.”
This sort of insult, unfortunately, is not unusual on social media, and Trump himself has contributed to the hate. In November 2015, Trump retweeted a graphic about crime and race. It claimed that blacks are responsible for more than 80 percent of white homicides in the U.S. The actual percentage, according to FBI statistics, is just the reverse. More than 80 percent of whites are killed by other whites. At a time of racial tension in the U.S., Trump spread false information that only could inflame his base and heighten those tensions. When challenged, Trump refused to correct the statistic or delete his Twitter post.
Then there is Charlottesville, Virginia, where torch-carrying protesters rekindled images of the Ku Klux Klan and a protester opposing the hate groups died after being run down. Police have charged a man who is said to admire Adolf Hitler with second-degree murder.
The president’s response was slow and equivocating. As this is written, the arguments continue to rage and Trump is being criticized for his lack of moral authority at a time of tragedy. In response, the president has, not surprisingly, attacked journalists, calling them “truly bad people!”
It is difficult to write anything negative about Donald Trump without being criticized for being unfair. But what is fairness? Do we serve our readers and viewers by providing less critical coverage of things that are controversial or sometimes inaccurate?
Historically, the media have tried to maintain balance by letting everyone have their say, with each opinion given fairly equal weight. But what should the media do when the president says something that is demonstrably false, something that happens quite often?
In June, The New York Times published an entire page in small type of what it called “Trump’s lies.” CNN sometimes uses on-screen graphics to correct Trump and CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta is known for his adversarial questioning of the president and his administration.
To the president and his supporters, this aggressive coverage is proof of media bias. “Fake news!” they exclaim in tweets, interviews and even TV commercials.
During the campaign, the term “fake news” emerged to describe stories that had no basis in fact: stories that said the Pope had endorsed Trump or Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring out of the basement of a Washington pizza parlor. Those stories, which got amplified enormously on social media, were unquestionably fake news.
For Trump, the term has come to mean something different. A story is deemed “fake news” if the president dislikes it. The argument isn’t as much about accuracy as it is importance. The president believes the media are overlooking his achievements while blowing negative stories out of proportion.
In my media ethics course at the University of South Carolina, I define journalism as the search for the truth. Sometimes that process can be messy. Sometimes the media get it wrong. However, there are many, many examples that demonstrate how the journalistic search for the truth benefits society.
I recently was in Boston and took a group of overseas journalists to The Boston Globe, where we spent time with its Spotlight Team. You may have seen the movie “Spotlight,” which won the Academy Award for Best Picture two years ago. The film shows how the Spotlight Team exposed the Catholic Church for protecting pedophile priests. The stories, as with coverage of Trump, were controversial. They challenged authority and were criticized and dismissed by many church supporters. However, as a result of the newspaper’s investigation, the church was forced to confront a problem it had tried to hide and today Catholic children are safer.
This points to another quality journalists value and respect. It is standing up for the disadvantaged. That’s another point of conflict with President Trump, who says he doesn’t have time for political correctness.
Trump once mimicked a handicapped reporter. And he made protecting the country’s borders a key part of his campaign, often highlighting crimes committed by illegal immigrants.
As Americans debate immigration policy and as we see acts of terrorism committed both domestically and overseas, it’s important for both journalists and individual Christians to educate themselves both about the policies involved, the impact of those policies on people and the specifics of those situations. Quality, in-depth journalism helps us all understand complexity better.
One example: If you have 17 minutes, watch this video produced by The Guardian newspaper in the U.K. It tells the story of a group of Syrian refugees, victims of the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, who decide to walk across Hungary in hopes of reaching Germany.
Erecting barriers to keep out immigrants may be popular — and it may be good policy – but is it contradictory to our obligation as Christians?
The Bible is very clear on how we are expected to treat immigrants. To quote just one of many passages, Isaiah urges us to share our food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter so our “light will break forth like the dawn.” The contrast with the president’s rhetoric is obvious.
So what should Christians expect from the media? Here are three key points:
- Commitment to seek the truth. I work in countries where the media cannot speak truth to those in power. The result is fawning coverage that often ignores the society’s problems. If we want to know about misspent tax dollars, contaminants in drinking water or abusive priests, the media must be free to do their job and that inevitably results in ruffling some feathers.
- Fairness. I think Donald Trump is correct when he says that he has not been given credit for the things he has accomplished, such as regulatory reform. It could be said he has no one but himself to blame as he seems to lurch from one controversy to another. However, we in the media do need to look beyond the crisis of the moment and to remember the bigger picture, treating the president with the respect his office deserves.
- Compassion. As we focus on Trump, his supporters and his critics, we can’t forget about the challenges average people face supporting their families, bringing up their children and pursuing happiness. Those these are the stories that give the media credibility and moral authority.
My list is a short one and it certainly does not guarantee popularity. However, I am convinced that this approach will produce the greatest good for the greatest number of people.
Finally, I think we have to ask what should we expect of ourselves? We can’t assume news somehow will find us in our Facebook newsfeed. One of the lessons of the last election is that social media was a breeding ground for false information.
We also can’t assume our favorite news channel or website is accurate or even fair. Much coverage is highly partisan. If you depend upon one media outlet, you risk hearing only part of the story.
If ever there were a need for media literacy – for seeking out different points of view from different media outlets– it is now. That’s the best way to hold the media and our president accountable to our values and our nation’s goals.
RANDY COVINGTON teaches media ethics at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, South Carolina, and is a member of Shandon Presbyterian Church there. This story is adapted from a presentation he made at a recent meeting of Trinity Presbytery.