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Donald Trump’s Challenge for Journalists: When to Shed the Ideal of Objectivity?

Donald Trump’s tightening grasp on the Republican presidential nomination puts the media in an interesting quandary. Because if the mogul/reality star is as much of a threat to the country’s future as many are saying (and much of that hand-wringing, notably, is emanating from conservatives), at what point is it incumbent upon news operations to shed the ideal of objectivity — to become, in essence, unfair, but balanced?

In the past, respected journalists have on occasion stepped outside of their traditional roles to take stands on issues. Edward R. Murrow publicly denounced communist-baiting senator Joseph McCarthy. Walter Cronkite used his platform to express skepticism about the Vietnam War, prompting then-President Lyndon Johnson to reportedly say, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.”

Today, an explosion of outlets represents a vast assortment of views. No one news figure has the sort of impact that Cronkite possessed. Indeed, amid so much rancor and partisanship, not to mention dilution of the audience, it’s hard to even think of a modern-day equivalent approaching that level of credibility and gravitas.

Increasingly, though, voices are emerging that take the media to task for not assuming a more principled posture against what Trump is peddling. The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald, for example, cited the lack of “journalistic alarm over Trump,” asserting that corporate journalism’s “fetishized reverence for ‘objectivity’” is “rotted and even dangerous.”

Of course, challenging Trump in the fashion that some have advocated isn’t without risks, not only because of blowback from his supporters, but access to the candidate himself. Trump has demonstrated throughout the campaign a willingness — even eagerness — to seek retribution against those whom he perceives as treating him “unfairly,” barring them from his events. The list of perceived offenders even included Fox News Channel, an outlet not normally branded an enemy by Republican candidates.

However unsettling and surprising the race has been, TV news has reaped dividends from this topsy-turvy election cycle. Thanks to high-rated debates and an appetite for coverage, news networks have seen their numbers grow, with one of them leading the pack in overall cable viewing for the last eight weeks.

On Tuesday, Megyn Kelly, the source of Trump’s initial friction with Fox News, laughed off the notion that the media had been hard on him, saying that his control of the media had been a major advantage. As for Trump, during his victory speech, he once again labeled the press “disgusting” and “horrible people.”

Much of the commentary and analysis of Trump has been pointed, including a #NeverTrump movement embraced and endorsed by many prominent conservative columnists. Some journalists were also vocal in expressing their concerns about the climate that Trump’s campaign is creating and the violent incidents at several of his rallies.

For the most part, though, straight news reporting about the candidate — including his ubiquitous interviews, many of them literally phoned in — have challenged him regarding the many false statements attributed to him, but seldom knocked him off balance or message.

It goes without saying that more hard-hitting coverage of Trump will trigger a shoot-the-messenger response, including cries of unfairness and denial of access. For news divisions that have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with him, that’s a risk, beyond the ethical considerations.

But if Trump is a looming disaster — “someone transparently unfit for office,” as the New York Times’ Ross Douthat wrote — might allowing his march to continue unimpeded be the greater sin? If so, then Murrow’s observation regarding McCarthy could take on special meaning for journalists: “He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’”

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