COLUMN: Dishonest media 101: ‘Your bias is showing’

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Two weeks ago, I wrote a column about what Donald Trump calls “the dishonest media,” and I did so because as a member of the news media myself, I feel a sense of obligation to hold my profession to the same standard of accountability that I would expect for any public servants.

There are many decent, ethical highly professional people who work in journalism. I am happy to say that I work with a number of them at the Daily Inter Lake.

But sadly, the standards that we try to hold ourselves to here in Kalispell, Montana, seem to be foreign to many reporters and editors on TV and at other newspapers around the country. Because of that, I could probably write a column taking my fellow journalists to task every week and never run out of material, but honestly I didn’t expect to return to the theme quite this quickly.

Unfortunately, when I was working on the copy desk putting out the Sunday paper last week, I was so shocked by a story that I changed my plans for this column.

The story, which passed muster at the Associated Press and no doubt made its way into hundreds of newspapers and probably thousands of websites, was a report on a Trump rally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on Oct. 13.

It was so astoundingly biased that I had to extensively edit the story to remove the reporter’s personal opinions before running it on the following day’s front page.

The story was headlined, “Trump challenges legitimacy of election.” That was one of the few accurate statements in the report. It was all downhill from there.

I’ll provide a few examples to demonstrate how the reporter inserted personal opinions into a news story, and how easy it was for me as editor to correct them.

The lead of the story was as follows:

“A beleaguered Donald Trump sought to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. presidential election on Saturday, pressing unsubstantiated claims the contest is rigged against him, vowing anew to jail Hillary Clinton if he’s elected and throwing in a baseless insinuation his rival was on drugs in the last debate.”

There are three major examples of bias in this one sentence, which would have been fine if the reporter was supposed to be writing an opinion piece, not a news article. I’m sure I don’t have to explain this to my readers, but apparently the trained journalist who wrote the story (and her editors) were completely oblivious to the difference between a fact and an opinion.

BIAS 1: Trump “sought to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. presidential election.”

Wait a minute! Does the “reporter” really think that Trump’s speech was intended to sabotage the election? That would be quite evil, wouldn’t it? But that’s what “undermining” implies. In fact, Trump was saying that he does not trust the legitimacy of the election process. In my edited version, I wrote that Trump “questioned” the legitimacy of the election.

That was accurate, and substantiated as accurate by the Trump quote that followed: “The election is being rigged by corrupt media pushing completely false allegations and outright lies in an effort to elect [Clinton] president.”

BIAS 2: Trump was “pressing unsubstantiated claims the contest is rigged against him.” Hold on! How did the reporter determine that the claims were “unsubstantiated”? Calls to the Democratic National Committee? A Ouija board?

I easily corrected this example of bias by simply removing the conclusory word “unsubstantiated.” If you are a reporter covering an election, you are supposed to write down what candidates say, not tell your readers whether you agree with the candidate or not.

BIAS 3: Trump threw in “a baseless insinuation his rival was on drugs in the last debate.” There is no doubt that Trump, whether jokingly or seriously, insinuated that Hillary Clinton was pepped up on drugs during the second debate. How the reporter determined that the allegation was baseless is less certain. Did Hillary consent to a pee test for the Associated Press?

Solution: Take out the opinionated word “baseless.”

Here was the result as published in the Daily Inter Lake: “A beleaguered Donald Trump questioned the legitimacy of the U.S. presidential election on Saturday, pressing claims the contest is rigged against him, vowing anew to jail Hillary Clinton if he’s elected and throwing in an insinuation that his rival was on drugs in the last debate.”

So when it was all over, I had a lead paragraph that was just as full of information, just as provocative, but didn’t tell readers what to think about the information. It’s called the difference between reporting and analysis. Or more to the point, the difference between honest reporting and dishonest reporting.

Sadly, just as the rest of that story (before being edited) was also full of bias, so too is the broad spectrum of reporting on this election in general.

Take, for instance, the shocked reaction of the media to Trump’s refusal at the third debate to declare in advance that he would accept the results of the Nov. 8 election. The AP again declared that Trump was “threatening a fundamental pillar of American democracy,” but that assumes the results of the election will be fair and democratic. Such an assumption ignores the possibility of a stolen election such as has been alleged in both the 1960 and 2004 presidential elections, among many others. If one of the pillars of American democracy is quietly accepting stolen elections, then we truly have devolved into a Third World country.

Another irony of the press’s outrage over Trump’s response is that no one has noted the parallel to the GOP primary when Trump and the other candidates were asked if they would respect the outcome of the nomination process and support the eventual nominee. Sixteen candidates said that they would, but Trump said it depended on whether the process was fair. He later agreed to support the nominee as did Jeb Bush and John Kasich, but when Trump won, it was Bush and Kasich who went back on their word and refused to support Trump.

How about we let the facts speak for themselves in both elections and reporting? But if you want my opinion (and I’m entitled to one because this is not a news story), Trump would be a chump to accept the election results before the votes have been counted. Heck, President Obama has already declared that Trump is “unfit to serve as president,” so if anyone should be asked if he will accept the election results, it is Barack Obama. Does he really intend to turn the reins of power over to an “unfit” president if Trump wins? Inquiring minds want to know.

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