At the Walter Cronkite Awards, Honorees Discuss When Journalists Should and Shouldn’t Be Neutral

Jorge Ramos, Jake Tapper, Katy Tur and Brian Stelter talk with Marty Kaplan

Headshot of Corinne Grinapol

Enemies of the People? was the name of the panel convened at the 2017 Walter Cronkite Awards ceremony this afternoon, held at the National Press Club. Taking on the root and aim of that idea, as well as questions on media neutrality, trust and fake news were this year’s national individual achievement award winners, Univision’s Jorge Ramos, CNN’s Jake Tapper, NBC’s Katy Tur and Brian Stelter, whose Sunday program Reliable Sources received the national network program prize. Marty Kaplan, USC Annenberg professor and director of its Lear Center, moderated.

The panel’s dynamic moment began with a question Kaplan asked of Tapper, about the network’s infamous panels, and more specifically its infamous panelists, with no specific named offered, initially.

“Do you think that paying surrogates, whose job it is to deliver the talking points of an administration,” asks Kaplan, “Do you think that putting them in a co-equal position with everyone else on a panel is traditional standards of journalism?”

“I don’t think that that’s what we have,” says Tapper.

Kaplan responds back with the specific example we expected, Jeffrey Lord, asking, “Do you think paying him and others to be on these panels is what journalism at its best should be up to, or should the voices of criticism not be voices which you can predict bringing the White House line to the panel?

“Without getting into any specific commentators,” replies Tapper, “I think that we live in a nation that has President Trump as president. And one of the criticisms of media, and not without some basis, is that we live in a bubble…I think it is journalistic to go out and make an effort to hear from people who support President Trump. And no, I don’t see, really, that much of a difference when it comes to having a liberal, Democratic pundit who shares his or her views and maybe sometimes sounds as though he or she is reciting talking points, and somebody who supports Donald Trump. I really honestly don’t see much of a difference.”

Ramos, going off Tapper’s response, says, “And this raises the issue–it’s not only among journalists but in academia, on neutrality. Should we be neutral all the time with Trump? I don’t think we should.”

Ramos then unfolds a piece of paper, and proceeds to quote a Walter Cronkite report from 1943 Germany. “‘In my lede I wrote that I had just come back from an assignment from hell. No one attacked attacked our stories because they lacked objectivity. If neutrality is the test of integrity in journalism, then we failed in our duty to accord the Nazis fair and balanced coverage.'”

“He used the term fair and balanced?” asks Tapper. “I wondered where that came from.”

“Mr. Cronkite, what where you thinking?” jokes Ramos before going into another quote from Cronkite, this time from the Civil Rights era. “‘Basic human decency was making editorial neutrality futile. Not since World War II had right and wrong seemed so clear-cut. But no amount of editorial neutrality could now rescue the South from itself.'”

“Walter Cronkite, when it comes to Vietnam, when it comes to Second World War, when it comes to the Civil Rights movement, he took a stand. He put neutrality aside because neutrality was not an option,” says Ramos.

At this point, Tapper, morphs into moderator mode, leading Kaplan to joke, “Some of these people run panels.”

“I’m sorry. I’m used to being in the middle chair,” responds Tapper before directing a question to Ramos. “So do you think that, do you view the position that the media should not be neutral towards President Trump, do you view every action and every policy position he takes that way? I don’t think you do based on your coverage.”

“Absolutely,” agrees Ramos, pointing to Trump’s remarks about immigration, racism and women as areas in which he believes neutrality should be set aside.

Tur closes out the exchange, saying, “But Cronkite, in cutting through and taking a position and not being neutral, in those circumstances, I think the reason he did cut through, and the reason somebody like Edward R. Murrow cut through, and the other examples you can pull from history, a journalist taking a stand and having it resonate, is because the level of rhetoric, from everybody, wasn’t up here, all the time,” she said, holding her hand above her head to illustrate. “I mean you turn on [pause] anything and the level of vitriol against Donald Trump is always up here no matter what he says. It’s very hard to cut through that and say, ‘no, no, no. This, what he’s saying here actually is appalling, or actually is very dangerous, or it really is important.”

“If everything’s a crisis, nothing’s a crisis,” agrees Tapper.