The role of the journalist is to ask questions from those who have the answers.
It’s not to shut down a point of view as it's being expressed, but to challenge it after it’s been expressed.
Let's think about this today, after The Associated Press and the networks one by one declared former Vice President Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election on Saturday morning and ahead of what President Donald Trump vowed would be a fight to the finish. The Center Square vows to stay with this story until the end.
Journalism cannot be practiced fairly or ethically if we silence the newsmakers – whether their opinions jibe with the truth or our own beliefs of what is truthful.
It should be more than a bit concerning to all Americans – regardless of their political leanings or affiliations – that the national legacy news media are shutting off direct access to a seated president days after the most intensely contested election of our lifetimes.
ABC, CBS, CNBC, MSNBC and NBC each cut away from a live feed of Trump speaking from a podium Thursday in the White House about alleged instances of voter fraud. USA Today dropped its online feed.
“President Trump, without evidence, claimed the presidential election was corrupt and fraudulent. We stopped the livestream of his remarks early and have removed the video from all our platforms. Our job is to spread the truth – not unfounded conspiracies,” Nicole Carroll, editor in chief of USA Today, the country’s widest-circulated daily newspaper, said.
The networks offered similarly worded explanations and justifications for their actions.
Without question, Trump can be vitriolic and hyperbolic, but he’s the president and more than 70.6 million Americans appear to have voted for him. It’s the second-highest vote total for a president in U.S. history, and more than former President Barack Obama received in 2008. The 74.8 million votes Joe Biden has been credited with thus far in Tuesday’s election stands as the highest vote total. Keep in mind that votes were still being counted Saturday and both totals will change.
Americans have every right to scrutinize election results, and to be skeptical of them in an election such as this, amid a global pandemic, when virtually everything about our lives is slightly off or different from what we remember as normal. Pandemic aside, it would be reasonable to seek answers in these election results – simply because they are so very different in the volume of returns, the expansion of mail-in votes, counting method and tabulations than any election of our time.
Biden, who had run for president three times previously in a 47-year career in politics, who until 2020 never before won the nomination, whose candidacy for this year’s race started in obscurity and proceeded through perhaps the most low-key presidential campaign of the past 70 years, just scored the most votes in U.S. presidential history – more than 4 million more votes than Obama secured 12 years before.
Precincts in some cities are reporting turnout via ballot return or onsite votes cast above 90%. It’s been reported that some precincts have been above 100%, though that’s not verified. There is so much noise on this front that still needs to be reported accurately. Regardless, that should suggest to an objective media that something outside the norm has occurred, and it should be pursued – regardless of how outlandish any individual claim of voter fraud may sound.
The means by which those votes came in, trickling in via mail-in ballots whose counts are equally unprecedented, is new territory for all of us to observe and process amidst the backdrop of COVID-19. Voting and trust in voting protocols may never be the same. I write this from the shadows of Chicago. Voter fraud is not a fairy tale.
The Americans who voted for Trump, who were so enthusiastic about early results Tuesday evening, watched as Trump's lead dripped away in Georgia, Michigan and Pennsylvania because of massive numbers of mail-in ballots. They also watched as Arizona was called for Biden earlier in the night, probably prematurely, in a race that remained open and still was counting ballots as of Saturday.
While the high totals of mail-ins were anticipated, and delays in declaring state winners had been forecasted throughout the campaign, the sheer size and impact of these ballots could not be adequately foretold by the media covering the election.
Therein lies the rub.
You have – at the very least – the optics of a potentially stolen election, and fraud claims from a president whose leads in states critical to his reelection chances diminished by what is arguably the least-secure voting process we’ve ever allowed as a nation.
In the moment when Trump makes this claim to the American people, the networks – acting independently, but in unison – turned off the feed.
This did nothing but disenfranchise voters, stoke divisiveness and ramp up mistrust for the media. It’s absolutely the wrong approach. We should all be fighting for transparency and openness, integrity and truth.
And you cannot get that without allowing what is nearly half of the electorate to hear from their candidate and then determine the relevance of what has been said.
In the jeers and insults hurled each other’s way during the first debate, many more of them authored by Trump than Biden, it was Biden who said, “Will you shut up, man?”
But for media to willfully shut up a seated president, considering all the angst around this election, is reckless and dangerous.
When that silencing is done in what appears to be an act of unison, or comfort within a pack – as was the case Thursday night when the networks dumped the Trump feed – it further feeds the notion that media is a team sport rather than races run by individual, free-thinking journalists.
Americans have a right to hear from the president and the former vice president who may be our next president, uninterrupted, and to consider their words before journalists report on them in whatever way they may choose to interpret the news. Media cutting the cord and then taking the news wherever they’d like is not journalism. It’s censorship. It’s elitist. And it’s wrong.
When media companies say they are sparing their readers or viewers from the news, they’re taking a position that is not theirs to hold. Journalists are not arbiters of the truth. Live-action fact checking is not fact checking. It’s quite literally interference. It’s an attempt to control what is being said rather than reporting on what’s being said.
Look, we’ve watched the frustration that journalists have had in covering the Trump presidency. The flip side of that is that at least 69 million Americans have watched the president’s frustration with the media covering his presidency.
But what is our responsibility as an industry?
I look at it this way: Media silencing a president is a sin as great as – if not greater than – a president attempting to silence the media. Journalists must rise above not being appreciated, liked or respected and do a difficult job that this country needs to be done.
Chris Krug is president of the Franklin News Foundation, a non-partisan 501(c)3 non-profit news organization, and publisher of The Center Square. Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org.