We are currently mired in any number of extremely contentious political and policy debates, with Republicans and “conservatives” on one side and Democrats and liberals or progressives on the other.
There is a pronounced tendency in the mainstream press to report on these debates as if they were purely political debates in which the position one takes is solely a matter of opinion or ideology.
This is stupid and harmful.
We can take as one example the very current, but relatively mild example of Donald Trump’s ill advised, ill considered, unnecessary trade war with China and the subsidiary issue of who pays those tariffs and related questions on trade policy.
There is a good article on the topic that starts out noting how Trump’s own economic adviser disagrees with him on this topic and goes on to explain methodically that Trump is wrong to claim that the Chinese pay the tariffs. At best, Chinese companies add the tariff onto the prices they charge, such that U.S. companies and consumer ultimately pay them. This is econ 101. He apparently sees our trade deficits with other countries as losses to us, and he thinks we run trade deficits only because of bad trade agreements, which is why he has insisted on renegotiating many of them, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA.
Trump does not seem to grasp that the trade deficit just reflect the ability of the U.S. to buy goods from other countries. We pay them and get products in return.
Whether NAFTA was a good or bad deal, and for whom, is a matter of considerable debate, but a former ambassador to Canada asserts that Trump’s trade representative handled the matter badly in not getting the new version signed and submitted to Congress before the midterm election, when Republican majorities in both Houses of Congress would likely have passed it easily. Now the Democrats who are in charge of the House of Representatives have their doubts about the new agreement, which reduces the chances of ratification.
Even as they report on specific problems with how Trump is handling these issues, what they tend to tiptoe too gently around is the real problem — Trump is not very smart, he does not learn, and he is often wrong. The article on China policy does quote one of his advisers on his frustrations with trying to change how Trump thinks about trade policy. The former ambassador to Canada says he thinks Trump sees the world in terms of winners and losers, such that, if he is going to win, someone else has to lose, which is not a useful framework for diplomacy, since the extent to which other sovereign nations will continue to negotiate with the U.S. varies quite a bit, but the Chinese clearly have zero reason to capitulate to Trump’s demands.
People who pay attention to the Chinese leadership believe they see Trump as the weak, unreliable president that he is and are not in a huge hurry to complete an agreement. They like Trump because they see him as reducing U.S. influence in the world as he alienates allies and announces an America first approach that is at odds with the stated diplomatic posture of the United States since World War II.
Reporters need to take care that their statements about events are correct and reflect those events accurately. Trade is only one area in which one could accurately state flatly that Trump is just wrong. Would “conservatives” scream about alleged “liberal bias” in the press? Yes, but they do that all the time anyway. Especially with Trump himself denouncing accurate reports about him as “fake news” any time something he doesn’t like gets reported about him, his toadies are only too happy to take up the chorus.
But that is wrong, too. Reporters do themselves, and the republic, no favors by not saying so.