In his latest New York Times op-ed, "When a Crackpot Runs for President," Nicholas Kristof laments the state of journalism and wonders if media has done enough to show that, according to him, any comparisons between Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump are false equivalencies.
I’m not sure that journalism bears responsibility, but this does raise the thorny issue of false equivalence, which has been hotly debated among journalists this campaign. Here’s the question: Is it journalistic malpractice to quote each side and leave it to readers to reach their own conclusions, even if one side seems to fabricate facts or make ludicrous comments?
We should be guard dogs, not lap dogs, and when the public sees Trump as more honest than Clinton, something has gone wrong. For my part, I've never met a national politician as ill informed, as deceptive, as evasive and as vacuous as Trump. He's not normal. And somehow that is what our barks need to convey.
I've written about media injustice and how it is killing black America here and here. And without fail, when I speak on panels about race in media and advocacy journalism across the country, one question that always arises is that of fairness and objectivity. I addressed that in June at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.:
If institutionalized racism is the poison, then mainstream media is the IV drip pushing it into society’s veins to distort the humanity of black people.
Positioning racism as only a belief system and not a capitalist power structure with tentacles in every corners of society is the greatest trick that white supremacy ever pulled and one of the lies that writers and journalists should expose at every opportunity. But when we, as black writers and journalists, make that plain we are often dismissed as “advocacy” journalists—as if advocating for the liberation of black people is somehow at odds with fairness and objectivity.
This responsibility is both legacy and tradition. It is Zora Neale Hurston and Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Toni Morrison and Vernon Jarrett. It is James Baldwin, who once wrote, "That victim who is able to articulate the situation of the victim has ceased to be a victim: He, or she, has become a threat." Black writers and journalists who report on race and racism in the United States are threats to white supremacy. Perhaps more white journalists are not because they would then be forced to cannibalize their own skin privilege.
In his piece, Kristof specifically addresses the need to either guard against Donald Trump or stand guard over Hillary Clinton. I'm not quite sure which one he means to convey—and I'm not convinced that he does, either. This is what I do know: While mostly white journalists engage in this "hot debate," black, Latinx and indigenous people in these so-called United States of America continue to navigate systems of oppression that we were never supposed to survive free.
From slavery to mass criminalization, from deportations to detentions, from school-to-prison pipelines to the Dakota Access Pipeline, what would mainstream media report if white America had experienced a fraction of the institutional violence that people of color in this country have labored under?
What would they report if white children were being gunned down by black cops who rarely suffer any consequences? More importantly, how would they report it? What would media "guard dogs" bark like then?
Advocacy in journalism may be urgent for white liberals now that Trump is on the loose, but where was this urgency when black media professionals were told we had to be "ethical" and say that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was "fatally wounded," instead of saying that he was murdered by Timothy Loehmann, a killer with a badge? Where was this urgency when it was "alleged" that Daniel Holtzclaw raped and sexually assaulted black women and girls?
Where was this urgency when black journalists were told by editors that we really didn't know what happened to Trayvon Martin on that cold rainy night in Sanford, Fla.; and we really didn't know if Daniel Pantaleo used an illegal choke hold to kill Eric Garner; and we really didn't know if Aiyana Stanley-Jones' grandmother lunged for Joseph Weekley's gun; and we really didn't know if Renisha McBride had given Theodore Wafer reason to fear her; and we really didn't know whether or not Michael Brown Jr. ran through bullets like a "demon"—so let's be "objective" in the language.
If it were left up to Kristof, there would not have been much media coverage of Brown at all, since there was just too much "ambiguity" in his case.
And Tamir's face was the most "compelling face" for these "problems."
Is that the job of media—to dismiss certain black lives as unmarketable to racists? The value of their black lives cannot and should not be measured by how comfortable or uncomfortable white people may feel.
That's fair, right?
Let's call a thing a thing: Donald Trump is not the exception here; he is evidence of what happens when "good" white people ignore their racist neighbors because at least they aren't bothering them. He is what happens when white fear and hatred of the browning of America is allowed to fester because "those are the kinds of things that happen in the backwoods of Mississippi and Louisiana and Alabama, not civilized society." He is what happens when good white journalists suggest that good black people would be better served erasing what Baldwin called "bad n—gers"—who in "America, as elsewhere, have always been watched and have usually been killed"—from the narrative.
Trump is what happens when a nation lies to itself about the depth of its character.
For those of us living in brown skin, who have been battered by racism, Islamophobia, misogynoir, xenophobia and a capitalistic system built on theft of labor, lives and dignity, the Donald Trumps of the world have always been—so have the Hillary Clintons—and there have been no "guard dogs" for our protection.
Some of them rape us. Some of them deny us medical treatment. Some of them cut our hours to just under full time so we can't receive health benefits at all. Some of them push us out of our neighborhoods, then call the police as if we're the invaders. Some of them are Democrats. Some of them are Republicans. Some of them pull the triggers that kill our children. Some of them cover up our children's extrajudicial murders from the safety of their offices.
Some of them are in newsrooms drafting "fair" reports and learning how to "bark."
There were guard dogs attacking water protectors at Standing Rock in North Dakota, and I didn't hear much barking from the press—even after an arrest warrant was issued for journalist Amy Goodman for doing her job. There were guard dogs trained on protesters in Ferguson, Mo., and I definitely didn't hear much barking from the press then. From my vantage point, guard dogs appear to be trained to protect the state actors and officers who hold them on leashes. Malcolm warned us about that press.
So, what do black journalists and writers do when those in power, as Kristof states, "fabricate facts" or make "ludicrous comments"? We fight back, just as we always have. When the weight of recurring history is your co-author, that choice is a lot simpler to make.
Kristof may believe that journalists have a special and urgent responsibility that has emerged this election cycle, but for many of us working in black media spaces, to paraphrase the great poet Darius Lovehall, "It's been urgent like a [mothaf—ker]."
And it is in the best interests of black Americans who believe in freedom to question any one person, organization or political party that dares to state otherwise.