I always worry when people on one side of an issue praise a story I’ve done. Ideally, at least in the twisted mind of a journalist, all the parties should be upset. We should be viewed as equal-opportunity jerks.
But if one side was filled with praise, was I being fair to the other side? And what does being fair really mean? Can it be defined that we need to bring a 50-50 approach to each report? Should we deliver only “he said, she said” reporting?
Should we give equal weight to a known constant liar on one side and the occasional liar on the other? What about the fact-checkers who are having a field day during the Trump years? Donald Trump is that compulsive liar, but shouldn’t his adversaries also be held to account?
Many Democrats don’t think so. When these fact-checkers lay out the tedious specifics, which disprove what Democrats say, should they be treated the same as Trump? No, say these Democrats. They should be given preference, because Trump is incapable of telling the truth.
What a crock. We are not cheerleaders — at least some of us are not. Of course, Donald Trump thrives on lies; not just telling them, but acting wounded when all those “fake news” media have the audacity to correct him. He can play the victim, which gives voice to the millions in his base who feel they are similarly aggrieved.
We’ve said many times that Trump is the reporter’s “gift who keeps on giving” in that he always says or does something spectacularly outrageous. On the other hand, he clouds our product with the noxious fog of doing whatever it takes to get attention. So, when the president makes a relatively harmless gaffe about Alabama being included in the path of Hurricane Dorian, and the Birmingham weather bureau forecasters correct him to avoid a panic, in a sane environment, POTUS would apologize for having misspoken. End of story.
But this is not a sane environment. Trumpster realizes that he can always milk this, and milk it he does. Rather than say “my bad,” he has dragged this out for weeks as he fans the flames always burning in his put-upon base. What’s fascinating is that he can be heavy-handed while demonstrating such a deft touch. He can use a Sharpie to draw a clumsy extension of the hurricane projection maps — an obvious subterfuge. He can order his immediate subordinates to threaten those who contradicted him, and demand that their contradiction be contradicted.
This serial intimidation was easily documented, as he knew it would be, and all we could do is report it and wait for him to manipulate the paranoia of his followers. Still we must apply the same standards of facts and context to his adversaries. I don’t know how to break it to you, but most politicians stretch the truth. The ones who don’t aren’t around very long.
Based on the reporting, Americans can decide on all facets of the politician’s stated priorities, policies and, even more importantly, their overall character. Then it’s up to us to decide whom to elect, or throw out of office. As for those of us who cover these uncomfortable stories, hate us all. Everybody else does. That’s how it should be.
Bob Franken is an Emmy Award-winning reporter who covered Washington for more than 20 years with CNN.