When The New York Times changed its front-page headline on the president’s Tuesday address from “Trump Urges Unity vs. Racism” to “Assailing Hate but Not Guns,” the paper made an important concession. Factual coverage is insufficient without framing to “contextualize” it.
Obviously even the most objective outlets frame and contextualize facts every day. Both headlines were factual. Trump urged unity versus racism. Indeed, he assailed hate but not guns. Yet the framing of the second presupposes a viewpoint that assailing guns was necessarily relevant. (Fair enough, but a viewpoint nonetheless.)
It is clearly less favorable for the president. It was also changed only after the Times received a deluge of liberal complaints on Twitter. “Contextualize,” as the Times believes it failed to do, is a euphemism for “inject anti-Trump opinion.” That’s not a stretch, it’s actually the argument critics peddled.
Here’s Jack Shafer in Politico: “Read or listen to Trump’s speech. He literally condemned racism and called for unity! While it’s fair to ask whether Trump was sincere in damning bigotry and white supremacy, there’s only so much work you can expect a headline to do in such a small space.”
In the Trump era, it’s no longer enough for news outlets to present facts, liberal media critics believe it’s the job of the press to answer the questions those facts raise. For instance, “Was the president sincere?” Readers, of course, don’t need journalists to spoon-feed them those answers. The left just doesn’t like the conclusions some readers have drawn.
The original headline factually encapsulated Trump’s speech. But because it didn’t also answer the question of “whether Trump was sincere in damning bigotry and white supremacy,” it failed to meet the liberal standards it later acceded to. The paper’s acceptance of those standards is what’s important about this entire situation.
The left’s demand for “context” (but only of the proper slant, of course) is predicated on the argument that Trump is exceptionally bad and thus deserves exceptional coverage. Implicit in that argument is that Trump warrants a shift in journalistic standards. Whether or not you accept that assertion, understand this will not be confined to the Trump era. It will be applied to all opponents of cultural leftism after the president leaves office.
The Times’ decision indicates the establishment media has accepted the left’s argument. The purveyors of that argument will not stop at Trump. Before Trump, they were already applying the same wildly broad definitions of racism and white supremacy and violence to mainstream conservatives, and even to others whose expression simply deviated from progressive dogma. (This isn’t to say Trump has never made racist comments, but that overly broad definitions of the label are often applied.)
The Times, as a whole, did not intend to willfully aid Democrats’ partisan mission. The paper seems to genuinely accept as objective reality the premise that Trump is exceptionally bad and warrants exceptional coverage. That’s fine, but it still implicitly involves a shift in standards. If the left’s pressure campaign successfully earned a concession from the Times this time, there’s little reason to believe these shifted standards aren’t here to stay.