The Huffington Post recently announced that it will add the following disclaimer to all future stories about Donald Trump:
Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist, birther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.
This comes on the heels of Trump's decision to fire himself from Thursday night's Republican debate in his ever-escalating feud with Fox News host and debate co-moderator Megyn Kelly. Instead, Trump is hosted his own event to raise money for veteran's charity Wounded Warrior Project.
The Huffington Post's disclaimer is a highly questionable move, even in light of the most extreme facets of Trump's candidacy. By now, most of you know at least the basic history of his campaign -- his call to ban all Muslims from entering the country, the eviction of protesters from his rallies, war with words with Kelly, etc. So I don't want to waste time rehashing things which by now are fairly common knowledge (just see the links within HuffPost's disclaimer above to read up on some of the highlights).
I want to focus instead on just what The Huffington Post's decision does both to their own brand and to Donald Trump. Over the years, HuffPost has evolved into a well respected media outlet with tremendous appeal and relevance just as other well-known outlets such as ABC, CBS, and CNN. While decidedly liberal/Democratic in tone, my experience with the site has been that it has kept away from such potentially inflammatory statements as this new disclaimer, which I believe has helped to establish its prominence within the media. I believe that the new disclaimer and its application to Donald Trump may tarnish that image.
Admittedly, I was among those who found it comical when HuffPost originally announced its decision to relegate its coverage of Donald Trump's campaign to the Entertainment section. Things were much different then; we all knew the history of Trump's previous presidential runs, and basically nobody felt that his campaign would last for more than a few months at the most. Given the circumstances at the time, I believe their initial decision to distinguish Trump's campaign as more showmanship than serious political news was more justifiable. With his campaign -- even to this point -- has certainly come a circus of controversy and ego, as one might expect.
But things are dramatically different coming into Iowa. As polls show him pulling farther ahead of Ted Cruz, it will take something relatively catastrophic to prevent him from seizing the Republican nomination for president. For all of the showmanship, bluster, criticism, and controversy, Donald Trump is now a serious contender, someone we must monitor closely heading past the Iowa caucuses on Monday. So from a journalism standpoint, The Huffington Post's disclaimer forfeits a primary tenet of journalism, that of covering stories objectively. With its words, now to be attached to every article about the front-runner, The Huffington Post makes no attempt to disguise its contempt for Donald Trump and his rhetoric. As an op-ed piece, this is fine. But as a footnote to every major article about a major presidential candidate, I believe that this causes considerable harm to The Huffington Post as a serious media source.
And now that Donald Trump has achieved significant political clout with America and with Republican voters, he needs to be scrutinized like any other serious political candidate. A quick search on HuffPost's site did not turn up any specific piece explaining in detail why they have chosen to add this disclaimer to their future coverage. If the reason is to inform the public about Trump's faults, it will neither serve that purpose nor serve as the appropriate mechanism for doing so.
The problem with attempting to inform the public about his faults is that, by and large, the American public already knows. And yet this knowledge has done little to dissuade voters from supporting him; in fact, it is likely expanding his appeal among many voters -- including potentially some Democrats. Whether we like it or not, Donald Trump has managed to tap into the angriest part of America, the side that is anti-Muslim, anti-immigration, anti-Black Lives Matter, and anti-establishment. Donald Trump would not be ahead in terms of polling if these sentiments were not already deeply rooted in America. He is simply capitalizing on that anger, which has become a dominant theme among the Republican candidates for president. If anything, The Huffington Post's disclaimer may have the effect of boosting Trump's popularity even more, because it adds another major media outlet (Fox News and, by extension, Megyn Kelly, being the first) leveraging unfair (by his campaign's definition) political coverage against the Republican front-runner. Historically, this has translated into even higher poll numbers and an expansion of his overall support. By that metric, The Huffington Post is doomed to failure if they are hoping to combat his growing hold on the American conscience.
The real issue is in combating the roots of our sexist, racist, overly-biased society, and this cannot be done with a footnote linking to a few different articles discussing the faults of a single presidential contender. And that's The Huffington Post's other major mistake: Not leveraging its appeal to properly speak out against Donald Trump and the overall culture embedded within America which says that it's okay to support someone who is a demonstrated racist, sexist, and Islamophobe.
No, instead of a disclaimer, I believe that The Huffington Post needs to publish an op-ed which not only addresses Donald Trump's biases, but also addresses the far more serious fact that such views are ingrained into American life. This op-ed then needs to be linked from the top of every future HuffPost article on Trump, right below the title. Candidates like Donald Trump only thrive because there is an actual, legitimate audience for their rhetoric. This also means that the only way to truly combat them is by attacking the ideas themselves, as well as those who support them. Those who see racism, Islamophobia, and so forth as the way forward in America need to have their voices silenced by those who fight for equality and for the elimination of such biases. Donald Trump has shown us that attacking the messenger directly only serves to embolden the messenger and his/her supporters. It is Trump's supporters who need to be addressed most directly and shown the damage that their beliefs are causing to America. When we can change the culture within America, candidates with messages similar to Donald Trump's will no longer gain a foothold in American politics. I believe that The Huffington Post is missing an opportunity to leverage their position in the media to address this problem far more effectively than by tacking on a disclaimer to the end of their stories about Trump.
By attaching a disclaimer to the end of future coverage of Donald Trump's campaign, they are potentially damaging their brand as a serious media resource, as well as missing an opportunity to have a more important conversation with America about the deep-seated biases within our society. The Huffington Post cannot possibly hope to use this disclaimer to change voter minds about their support of Trump as the majority of Americans are already familiar with his rhetoric and temperament. It is this temperament which has in fact helped to fuel his campaign, which in itself speaks to a much larger problem which has yet to be resolved in America. Until we can change the minds and moral compasses of those who seek to restrain equality in America, there will always be candidates like Donald Trump, Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee, and the like to give a voice to their cause. The Huffington Post is perhaps missing a great opportunity to start a conversation in America about the damage they and their candidates are causing the country. And the United States may end up being worse off for it.