Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.” — Elie Wiesel, September 1928 — July 2016
In an admirable moment of humility, Peter Beinart admitted in The Atlantic a few weeks ago: “Donald Trump’s ignorance makes him challenging to cover. It’s sometimes hard to know whether his falsehoods are the product of willful deceit or mere lack of information.”
It’s a valid point. After all, the political currency of demagogues lies in spouting broad pronouncements that feel viscerally true to disgruntled masses. They appeal to pathos rather than logos, making it hard to perforate their overblown statements, much less their candidacies.
It’s why riffs like “we’re losing so much, we’re losing so much with Mexico and China, with China we’re losing $500 billion a year” are (besides their puerile reduction of issues like trade deficits) hard to pin down as untrue in the public mind when there are so many displaced workers in the electorate. Workers of modest means whose gut feelings of being wronged by outside forces are validated by Trump’s indignant finger-pointing and proposed policies.
Still, even in view of Beinart’s assessment, there are, unquestionably, times when Trump has knowingly misled or shamelessly lied, and still got off — if not through deflection or by creating another controversy, then by allowing the short-attention span of the 24/7 news cycle to churn towards the next sensational, shiny object orbiting the news sphere: Private Emails! Panama Papers! ‘Violent’ Bernie supporters! Superdelegates! Shootings! Sit-ins! Benghazi!
The problem amounts to a prioritization of partisan conflict and b-roll worthiness over informative substance. The aforementioned headlines are indeed newsworthy, yet they are newsworthy because of the revelatory information their deeper stories may provide about voter discontent and political dysfunction or bureaucratic opaqueness and tax policy. Each story’s relevance goes beyond how it may affect poll numbers and political spin strategies. Or at least that should be the case in a world where the press acts as the white blood cells in our body politic.
Instead, there is a media obsession with the media narrative — a self-reinforcing echo chamber in which anchors and talking heads, with apparently no allegiance but to the nerdish ups and downs of the horse-race, rarely take the depth of discourse farther than the boundaries of poll numbers or ratings-friendly segments. This is prime real-estate for a skilled reality TV mogul.
In a report titled ‘How Donald Trump Bent Television To His Will’ Kyle Blaine revealed the behind the scenes dynamic during primary season:
Network officials say the ratings have borne out commercial incentives to devote their campaign coverage to largely unfiltered streams of Trump talking. Trump’s presence in the race has also been good for local television stations who reap the benefits of increased spending on advertisements. CBS CEO Les Moonves quipped that Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS, that’s all I got to say.” But many inside the networks are growing increasingly disturbed with what they’ve helped create. “As a programmer, it’s an easy decision, people watch it,” said one producer. “As an American, I’m sort of troubled by it, because I feel like we contribute to it.
Obviously, certain factors in the media’s facilitation of Trump’s rise are unavoidable. When a plurality of primary voters in one of the two major parties choose Trump again and again in state after state news producers are not left with much of a choice. Nevertheless, the degree and nature of such coverage indeed is within each outlets control.
Let us put aside for a moment the openly discriminatory things Trump has said with bullish pride — apparently something now so normalized it is on the news cycle’s backburner — and focus solely on how steadfastly, or not, the media has scrutinized the merits of Donald Trump’s thoughts on economic policy.
A passerby who may casually flick on cable news or another mainstream network’s news hour from time to time most likely has no idea that Donald Trump has said, in all seriousness, that he would do as he did during his four corporate bankruptcies and allow the United States government to default on its debt obligations in order to ‘restructure’ them — a proposal which on its merits could be called, at best, idiotic, that would have catastrophic consequences for both the American and the world economy.
It is not within the realm of sane public policy. Many things in public affairs are a matter of opinion — defaulting on the treasury debt that anchors the world as we know it, is not.
In what one could suppose is a desperate attempt to maintain neutrality and strike balance in coverage, CNN hired a new contributor: Corey Lewandowski — Trump’s former campaign manager who, besides defending Trump’s objectively false proclamations all year, was filmed assaulting a reporter and who banned media outlets such as the Washington Post and Politico for giving Trump unfavorable coverage.
This decision makes mild their previous hire of Trump surrogate Jeffrey Lord who continues to defend Trump’s initial equivocating on David Duke’s endorsement. Not only did Trump act generally evasive when questioned about the former KKK leader, but in the same interview with CNN Trump was not forthright when stating, “I don’t know anything about David Duke.”
In fact, the New York business mogul denounced Duke in 2000 after flirting with the idea of running for president with the Reform Party. “The Reform Party now includes a Klansman, Mr. Duke, a neo-Nazi, Mr. Buchanan, and a communist, Ms. Fulani,” Trump then said in a statement. “This is not company I wish to keep.”
Politifact gave Trump’s lie a ‘Pant’s on Fire’ rating. But how widely has this clear contradiction, or unbelievable amnesia, even been reported? Many outlets post online fact-checks the week of Trump incidents, but ‘the media narrative’ seems to have a worrisome habit of resetting at the start of each cycle. CNN’s Reality Check team is granted on-air segments, but a literal segmentation of clarifying actualities comes across as problematic for a news organization.
Equally, what is the value of a reporter’s fact-asserting follow-up in one interview if in a following interview Trump’s continued lack of ‘factual fidelity’ (this arose from a game I played with a friend of trying to come up with as many euphemisms for lying as possible) isn’t resurfaced and challenged again? A presidential race operates in a civic sphere not a courtroom. His campaign shouldn’t be allowed to object to further questioning on an “asked and answered” basis, especially if Trump’s initial answer was a dodge, a flip-flop, or as is common with Trump, a combination of the two.
The hard truth of voter disaffection and widespread ‘whateverism’ means the average American is not going to take the time to litigate the validity of a year’s worth of Trump-speak while also deciphering today’s talking points from truths. That’s where newspeople should come in, especially self-proclaimed nonpartisan journos who — despite surveys like the recent one conducted by Gallup that found confidence in media has hit at an all-time low — still, rightly or wrongly, have a great deal of power in setting the terms of debate (i.e. the marked shift from ‘gay marriage’ to ‘marriage equality.’)
In light of Trump’s June trainwreck — filled to brim with ill-informed, conspiratorial, and prejudicial statements — the Republican establishment’s tone on Trump shifted markedly, with the old guard, big donors and neoconservatives retreating to the sidelines, some switching to Clinton. The media’s framing of Trump accordingly became harsher, as did his poll numbers for a time. A relationship which, to be sure, is not necessarily causal — a new set of July polls showing Trump statistically tied with Clinton bears that out.
Yet what do we make of a legacy media apparatus that will not state what is inviolable fact until there is bipartisan agreement on that fact? That won’t call a lie a lie if doing so would embarrass the other half of the cocktail circuit whom they still want to have on for interviews and campaign strategy ‘analysis?’
If the only things that are unequivocally true are those few things which enjoy cross-partisan consensus, then it only makes logical sense that American political discourse has become ever more shallow and untethered to reality. ‘He said, she said’ reportage only works if what both candidates are saying is somewhere within the realm of reason and verifiable truth.
To critically assess Trump coverage is not to say that Hillary Clinton should be put on a pedestal. If anything, Clinton was hardly touched concerning the conflicts of interests surrounding the Clinton Foundation, the State Department, and foreign arms sales, among other things. The former First Lady also seems to have been given a pass on her lack of openness to the press: she hasn’t had a press conference since 2015, in over 210 days to be specific.
Her transparent political pivoting and pandering and her longstanding membership in what’s increasingly viewed as a cloistered rule-bending political class are perceived downsides, which should be taken into account by anyone who has read a poll in 2016. Many voters will likely turn to third-party candidates.
But — and it’s a crucial but — Hillary Clinton, on a policy level, generally operates with plausible regard to reality. Increasingly, Trump — who started his campaign with an unprecedented pledge to forcibly remove 11 million undocumented immigrants, which is simply not feasible according to former ICE officials, and who implied President Obama could have been involved in the Orlando shooting — does not. To not admit so is to be impaired by unconscious bias or to be intellectually dishonest.
Journalistic inaction has a real effect. People can and have become desensitized to Donald Trump’s brand of politics, which but for the silver lining of revealing the pretense of the Washington political economy, is drenched in an incivility and disregard for diligence that rivals the nasty dogma of McCarthyism. Jon Stewart is gone, mostly, and never was a straight newsman, but his popularity, and his effect, which was real, came out of a self-coined “war on b.s.” Non-satirical news, too, can without sacrificing objectivity war against Trump’s b.s.
The frustrated talk many journalists share only so frankly when with each other is true: among many white Americans (in a recent poll Trump beats Clinton 50-40 with whites) there is an angry longing for something lost that Trump, they believe, may restore; and they believe this deeply enough to ignore critiques of the ‘correctness’ of the businessman’s statements. Yet, that rejection of rationalism by such a large swath of America, conscious or unconscious, doesn’t have to be abided by the media — even if doing so might risk losing some viewers completely.
The time for euphemisms and beating around the bush about Trump’s bigotry and lack of, well, concern, concerning public policy has long since passed. For that moment in June, with Republicans joining the ranks of those condemning Trump en masse, it appeared the media might have its own general election pivot: one towards sober, urgent, no-nonsense coverage of Trump without toleration for the doublespeak of the businessman’s surrogates.
But alas, Trump’s buffoonery all too often is still treated as one overly wily side of a reasonable political disagreement. The Washington Post outlined ‘The GOP’s infomercial hopes to sell a likable Trump.’ Michael Steele, a former RNC chairman, and now a MSNBC contributor, is among those who have refused to disavow Trump. In fact, on a June 24th airing of Real Time with Bill Maher, the self-professed ‘party guy’ continually deflected when pressed by Maher (in the host’s typical friendly but prickly fashion) that his lite-pro Trump argument was “bullshi!#*.”
Instead, Steele pivoted to horserace prognostication: “Donald Trump is looking at this and going let me get this: ‘I spent $55 million over the last year, I bested sixteen other republicans, I’m now the nominee, and I’ve had the worst possible six weeks any Republican, any candidate, in the history of this country has ever had and the latest poll had me down by seven — where’s there a problem for me?”
“It’s a problem for us,” Maher retorted.
Indeed, it is. A batch of polls released after the Republican convention show Trump either in a statistical tie or leading by as much as 5 points.
As Elie Wiesel wrote: “Human dignity is in jeopardy.”
Question to Bush-Obama County journalists: Is there a point in Trump’s candidacy at which the media has had or will have an obligation to stop being even-handed, or neutral, in its coverage of him?