Trump: A new risk for journalists, an old one for journalism
What to remember when covering
the Trump-mocks-reporter incident
By Peter Szekely
NewsGuild of New York President
The list of on-the-job hazards for reporters got a little longer last week. Besides death, kidnapping, arrest, lawsuits and subpoenas to worry about, journalists now risk having a Republican presidential candidate make fun of their physical disabilities.
Really? Maybe this is what you did in the eighth grade, but in presidential politics?
It happened last Tuesday when Donald Trump, frustrated that the facts failed to support a xenophobic narrative that was key to his campaign, mocked a disabled New York Times reporter's appearance. Even more disturbing is Trump's claim that he didn't do what we saw him do.
By now, the story has received a lot of attention. Once again, here’s how it unfolded.
UNFOUNDED CLAIM OF CHEERING ON 9/11
Trump claimed on Nov. 22 that “thousands and thousands of people were cheering” in northern New Jersey's Arab neighborhoods as the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, 2001. He said he saw it on television at the time. Apparently, no one else did. He later cited a Washington Post story co-written by Serge Kovaleski, who is now with The Times, to support his claim. For a candidate who wants a national database for Syrian refugees and hasn't ruled out one for all Muslims living in the country, an image like that would be worth its weight in votes.
But the Sept. 18, 2001 Post story didn't say what Trump wanted it to say. It said Jersey City “law enforcement authorities detained and questioned a number of people who were allegedly seen celebrating the attacks and holding tailgate-style parties on rooftops while they watched the devastation on the other side of the river.” It never said “thousands,” and Kovaleski has since said he had no recollection of anyone citing thousands of celebrants. In fact, the allegations in the story were never substantiated, and the New Jersey attorney general who investigated them at the time concluded “it simply never happened.”
So Trump took it out on Kovaleski, who has a congenital joint condition called arthrogryposis that leaves his right arm and wrist chronically bent. At a campaign event in Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Nov. 24 Trump jerked his arms and held his right hand at an angle, saying, “Now the poor guy, you ought to see this guy. 'Uh, I don’t know what I said! I don’t remember!’ ”
To keep all of this in perspective, reporters face far more dangerous occupational hazards than having public figures mock their disabilities. For starters, 109 journalists around the world were killed doing their jobs since the beginning of last year, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Still, a little civility among those seeking the highest office in the land is not too much to ask.
So, what's a journalist to do with a subject like Trump? When I was in the eighth grade, I would have shot back something like, “Oh yeah? Well, your mother wears Army combat boots.” But that was a long time ago. Since Kovaleski is a Guild member, it would be easy for us to demand that Trump apologize. But apologizing would require at least an iota of class. As a union, we try to confine our proposals to the attainable. So, we’re not going to waste our time.
HOLD TRUMP, OTHER CANDIDATES ACCOUNTABLE TO THE FACTS
What we will do, however, is urge journalists covering the 2016 presidential race to hold Trump and other candidates accountable to the facts as they are, not as they want them to be.
Already, the reporter-mocking incident has devolved into a sideshow of Trump's three-ring campaign. Even though it's on video, Trump denies it. And now, Trump wants The Times to apologize to him.
Undeterred, Trump still insists he saw people on TV cheering the fall of the twin towers, even though no one else saw it (Sure it wasn't a Saturday Night Live sketch?). Statements like that and other falsehoods, like made-up, racially charged crime statistics, have earned Trump several of PolitiFact's false-as-you-can-get “Pants on Fire” ratings.
Journalists need to make these labels stick. If journalists don't uphold the truth, Trump and other self-serving politicians will take us deeper into what is already becoming a post-fact age. Too often, reporters kiss off factual disputes by giving them the safe “he said-she said” treatment. I was guilty of it myself in more than 25 years of reporting for Reuters. We have a responsibility to do more.
Here’s my message to reporters covering Trump. The reporter-mocking incident will be regurgitated numerous times going forward. When you report on it, you'll need to mention that Trump denied it, of course. But you saw the video. You heard the words. You know the truth. Don’t hide from it. Say something like: “Trump denied mocking the reporter, even though he was seen doing it on video after saying, 'Now the poor guy, you ought to see this guy.'”
“A lie told often enough becomes the truth,” as Vladimir Lenin said. If there’s one mission all journalists should share, it’s not to let that happen.
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