As anyone should know by now, the American news media shoulder a great deal of the blame for the success of Donald Trump. Though some outlets, like The New York Times, are now trying to atone, they still can’t help continuing to enable him: witness the recent puff piece on Trump’s daughter Tiffany. Trump sells, and the press has been in thrall to the dollar at least since shortly after the Watergate scandal—since the days of William Randolph Hearst, actually, or before. In addition, today’s press has been further blinded by its own dubious ethic of objectivity, something that has led it to insist on symmetry even in the face of the clearly asymmetric Clinton/Trump electoral contest.
Three articles over the past week or so show that even this last bastion of journalism’s self-congratulatory image, this weakness of the news media that Trump plays on so well, is beginning to crumble and that at least some people are waking up to the role of money in press coverage this year. The first, by one of the country’s premier journalism scholars, New York University’s Jay Rosen, concludes:
If journalists are to rise to the occasion in the final six weeks of this campaign, they will have to find a style of coverage as irregular as Trump’s political style. There are powerful forces working against this. But if they don’t try, they are likely to regret it for the rest of their careers.
Journalists have been played for suckers since Trump rode that escalator down into his campaign—and even those in the mainstream are beginning to realize that. Knowing the media’s passion for “balance,” Trump has offset everything that could be criticized in his own life and campaign through accusations that his opponents has done exactly the same things. “Well, he/she does it, too,” has been a constant refrain. Hillary points out the racism of his campaign, he calls her a bigot. Concerns are raised about his foundation, he calls the Clinton Foundation corrupt. It goes on and on. Most of the news media, unable to break out of a code of performance created for a very different era, can’t help themselves: they can’t write about Trump without finding something to “balance” their points, something about Clinton. No matter that this sort of false-balance has been scoffed at since the rise of the Holocaust-denier movement, it is so engrained in today’s journalists that they actually don’t feel they are doing their jobs unless they provide something that they can point to as providing equal weight on the other side.
Rosen does see that journalists are beginning to understand that business-as-usual no longer works:
He’s been hugely challenging. I don’t think we’ve ever had somebody who in my time as a journalist so openly lies, and that was a word that we struggled to actually utter. We’re used to, I think as journalists, we’re used to philosophical debates, like one party thinks we should go to war on Iraq, makes its case—exaggerates its case, we now know. But there are warring philosophies. I’ve never quite seen anything like [Trump], and I think it’s a real challenge for us.
Elections were about warring philosophies. Journalists sat in the press box and brought you the action. Baquet admits: this organizing image no longer organizes much.
This, unfortunately, may be too little too late. We’ll see on November 8th, but Trump’s failure to succeed, if he loses, may come more from his own weaknesses that from any change in press coverage. Exploitation of the weaknesses of the media may prove just short of enough for ensuring his victory.
The second, an op-ed by Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, includes this about the first Clinton/Trump debate: “tens of millions of Americans saw the candidates in action, directly, without a media filter. For many, the revelation wasn’t Mr. Trump’s performance, but Mrs. Clinton’s: The woman they saw bore little resemblance to the cold, joyless drone they’d been told to expect” through earlier media depictions of her. Krugman is optimistic that the candidates will shine through (for worse and better) the weaknesses of their coverage, though he admits that “things should never have gotten to this point, where so much depended on defying media expectations over the course of an hour and a half. And those who helped bring us here should engage in some serious soul-searching.” This last, of course, is something many of us outside of the ‘mainstream media’ have been saying for a long time, now—but it is good to see it again.
The third article, by Thom Hartmann, a radio host and long-time media watchdog, makes another point: “As long as the ‘news’ media covered the Republican primary like a reality show instead of a real contest for the leadership of the free world, Trump prevailed.” He’s right—and that, as Rosen and Krugman hope, may be changing. But Hartmann goes on to point directly to the influence of money on press coverage, though he probably overstates the case. He is right, however, when he states that “Corporate media executives know that four years of Trump will be incredibly profitable for network television.” Trump has been a cash cow for the news media his whole life for he has always been a performer adept at turning eyes toward him and keeping them there.
If Trump prevails next month, the press will have a lot to answer for—even as their owners rake in the cash. It’s nice to see that even the most prominent commentators now understand that.