Yes, I know: We have a boorish, reckless television reality show host in line to run our country. But don’t blame just me and my brethren in the media. And yes, I know, the nation is now part of a 24/7/365 reality television show, with all the country a stage and we but bit players upon it. But again, don’t blame just me and the media.
Yes, the media could have done much better, and I’d like to offer some suggestions for how. But first some perspective.
The media cannot be blamed for Hillary Clinton’s festering e-mail controversy, her inability to put a lid on it, and the FBI director’s determination to keep it alive as a campaign issue. The media cannot be blamed for the Clinton campaign’s tone-deaf approach to the white working class that turned out to be critical to the election results in so many states, enabling Trump to win the presidency despite losing the popular vote by more than 2.2 million votes.
The media cannot be blamed for covering Donald Trump’s bizarre personal behavior. Mocking people with disabilities could not be ignored, despite the fact that it distracted the public from more substantial issues. And the media cannot be blamed for the fact that Trump used social media to spread his pronouncements, unfiltered by fact checkers and unchallenged by any opposing points of view.
But the media can be blamed for playing “gotcha” journalism and failing to pursue open-ended questions — particularly about the Trump campaign. The New York Times must have thought it had Trump in big trouble on May 14 of this year when it printed a front page expose titled “Crossing the Line: How Donald Trump Behaved With Women in Private.” The star witness was a woman who visited Trump’s home, was asked by Trump to change into a bikini, and then was paraded around the house in front of his friends. The Times’ trouble was that the woman in question was a professional beauty pageant contestant who liked Trump, later dated him, and the day after the Times ran its expose was on cable television denouncing the article, not Trump.
The gotcha hand against Trump was even played by Fox News, in the first televised Republican primary debate. Newsman Brett Baier asked all 10 candidates on stage to raise their hand if they intended to support the Republican nominee, no matter who it ended up being. Only Trump did not go along with the party line, thereby showing his stripes as a disloyal party man. The crowd booed Trump, but we can now assume that viewers at home were pleased. Trump got to show his anti-establishment cred.
What if the questions at that very first debate had focused on the nuts and bolts of foreign policy or trade agreements? Mr. Trump: Imagine that Russia has just sent troops into Ukraine. What would your response be if you were president? Trump: “I’m going to build a wall along the Mexican border, and I’m going to make Mexico pay for it.”
The media failed to ask Trump and other candidates about pressing issues. Climate change was never raised in debates. The media gave Trump a pass on his refusal to disclose his income tax returns — he was “under audit” by the IRS, after all. I saw only one journalist ask a Trump official if the candidate would at least produce the letter from the IRS announcing the audit. The official talked her way out of it — everyone else took Trump at his word.
So what should the media do now? Here some “facts and just the facts, ma’am” kind of stories that the press can and should follow.
Follow the money. The November 26 New York Times reported on a developer in the Philippines named Jose E. B. Antonio, who is completing a $150 million tower in Manila in partnership with Trump. In October Antonio was named a special envoy to the U.S. by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.
“Situations like these are already leading some former government officials from both parties to ask if America’s reaction to events around the world could potentially be shaded, if only slightly, by the Trump family’s financial ties with foreign players,” noted the Times.
Michael J. Green, who served on the National Security Council in the administration of George W. Bush, was quoted as follows: “It is uncharted territory, really in the history of the republic, as we have never had a president with such an empire both in the United States and overseas.”
Journalists don’t have to invade the president’s privacy to hold him accountable. It’s all business. And it matters: Trump’s personal recklessness didn’t bother the voters (nor did Bill Clinton’s) nearly as much as Hillary’s institutional recklessness and ties to Wall Street.
Report on the ground game at the state and even local levels. In our November 9 issue U.S. 1 reported on David Daley’s new book about gerrymandering, and how the Republicans set out to support legislators in key states who would help them with a redistricting scheme after the 2010 census. That work has practically assured Republicans control of the House of Representatives for years to come.
Here the media is challenged more than ever. The number of newspapers that even have reporters covering their state capital is dwindling. But even community weeklies could cast some light on races for state legislatures.
Stop trying to determine what’s politically correct or incorrect. Maybe the cast of “Hamilton” was out of line by reading a proclamation to Mike Pence when he attended a recent production. Or maybe it was just the “sound of freedom” as Pence himself said. Maybe Clinton is being hypocritical by joining in the recount effort initiated by the Green Party. Or maybe she is just making sure that all interests are being represented.
Either way, the wrangling over emotions and intentions just doesn’t matter. And it is a huge distraction. Long before journalists write about it, people have already made up their minds.
Make sure you cover “the other side.” For reasons I won’t go into here, journalists tend to be more liberal than conservative. But we still need to be impartial. Only a few national journalists really understood the depth and breadth of Trump’s support. In a May 19 Rolling Stone story, “Trump Isn’t the Campaign Media’s First Mistake — We’ve been getting this story wrong for ages, and Trump is the consequence,” Matt Taibbi wrote that the campaign media was a “weirdly celebratory . . . fairy tale of political athletes engaged in high-stakes rhetorical combat while chasing the ultimate power prize, the White House.”
But covering the rhetorical combat missed the political reality. America, Taibbi wrote, “is a place where a huge plurality of the population is underemployed, pissed off, in debt, and barely keeping their heads above water. A good 15 percent or so are not even doing that well, sitting below the poverty line, living in homes without adequate heat, sanitation, or food. That portion of America doesn’t appear anywhere in campaign coverage, not even as background.”
Finally, give “the other side” opportunities to express their views. Last week U.S. 1 ran a letter from John Clearwater, a conservative voice in our community, in which he noted that “the only public discourse and related media coverage occurs under the impenetrable umbrella of political correctness gone wild. No contrary viewpoints are aired in the public sector, at the school board, presentations in town hall, or elsewhere community-wide.”
After the letter ran Clearwater sent a note of thanks. Not every publication printed his letter. And what he appreciated most was the opportunity to engage in “unfettered discourse.” When we in the media get a shout-out for doing our job, something’s not quite right.