Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy. The motto (dryly known as “the three most important things in journalism”) is drilled into the heads of any aspiring journalists. As the lines between judgement, opinion, and fact can become blurred, our choices of words matter, and we are currently in a national debate over a little three-letter word: lie.
Frank Bruni, an op-ed columnist for the New York Times (and former White House reporter) has a problem with the Wall Street Journal’s refusal to label President Trump’s falsities as lies. Language matters, but accuracy is key.
“I think that it is absolutely incumbent upon news reporters to not jump to conclusions about individuals, and to not use language that is unnecessarily loaded, because you are not there to sit in judgement, you are there to enlighten the readers, to inform, to discover, to uncover — so I think if you can avoid loaded language, you should,” says Bruni. “But if the only way to be accurate and to do justice to a situation is to use a word that’s a loaded word with pejorative connotations, then I don’t think we should shrink from it. Because shrinking from it is shrinking from the truth.”
Bruni is no political neophyte, having covered George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign and the first eight months of his presidency. After a brief stint as a restaurant critic, Bruni became an op-ed columnist for the New York Times in June 2011, a position he’s maintained since. While the majority of the columns he writes today are politically oriented, he says it’s a vastly different job from his White House reporting days, calling his contrasting coverage of Bush and Trump “an apples and oranges thing.”
“I was on the news side,” he says. “I was not supposed to inject my opinion in the coverage; whatever personal feelings I had, I had to tamp down. The difference is less to do with the president and more to do with what my job description is; I’m now supposed to have opinions about what’s going on and I’m now supposed to give vent to them.”
Currently, the media is dominated by coverage of Trump, and flush with debates over characterizing his actions and words; this has led to an uprising of protests across the nation (and, subsequently, the world) with the Women’s March, the No Ban No Wall protest, and various and sundry marches and gatherings. Bruni is an advocate of the protests, but urges caution in how we present these differing views and opinions: “[Trump] is someone who trades in such infantile and nasty language that it often provokes a commensurate vocabulary, be they critics in the media or critics out in the street,” he says.
“My concern is he has won one of the games he is playing if he gets us all to engage in a public debate at his subterranean level,” Bruni says. “You should absolutely be unsparing in your assessment in what he’s doing, but it doesn’t mean you have to adopt his vocabulary, it doesn’t mean you have to adopt his tone, because when you adopt his vocabulary and his tone, there are people who don’t pay minute by minute attention out there, who truly are in the middle of the political spectrum, who then just hear the same ugly noise from everywhere. And you’ve actually not brought them closer to seeing the situation clearly: you’ve given them a reason to tune out.” It’s true that while it may feel cathartic and deserved to carry a large sign saying “Tiny hands, yuuuge asshole,” it lowers to Trump’s level and is a distraction against the larger issues.
Many media outlets have spoken about difficulties they’re facing with the new administration, with threats from Kellyanne Conway to “rethink our relationship with the press.” There’s been calls for media solidarity in which journalists stick together and continue pressing the President or press secretary to answer their questions. If one reporter is dismissed, for instance, the next would repeat the question. Bruni, however, is uncertain about the strategy.
“It makes absolute sense for people to come up with muscular strategies for him to answer questions that he won’t answer, but let’s play this out in our minds,” he says. “If we tuned into a White House press conference where Trump was standing there and ten different reporters in a row asked the same question he refused to answer, that would carry such a risk that it looked like a stunt. After the third repetition of that question, it would be pretty clear that Donald Trump or Sean Spicer was not going to answer the question. So is it in the interest of democracy and informing the public to use the next 20 minutes to keep doing the same thing? At that point you’re engaging in theater.”
And theater is exactly how Bruni characterizes Trump’s behavior, recalling the President’s meeting at the New York Times following the election. Trump told Times reporters he respected the newspaper, calling it a “national gem,” but has since engaged in a slew of tweets calling the institution a “failing” one. “Is it because he genuinely hates the Times, or is that the public performance?” says Bruni. “When he came into the Times and said ‘I think you’re a national gem,’ did he really mean that or was that the theater of the moment?”
Asked if he believes the media can ever have good relations with such a volatile and antagonistic administration, Bruni is indifferent. “I’m not sure what good relations means. With any president, if the media organization is worried as a first order of business about having good relations with an administration, it’s almost already not doing its job. One hopes to have good relations with an administration by dint of treating it fairly while harshly.”