In scrutinizing the Democratic candidates for president, the debate moderators largely restrained themselves from Trumpian fictional frames and themes, whether they are “walls,” “caravans,” “spying,” or even his fantasy about challenging the constitutional law of impeachment. The result was Drudge’s first post-debate headline: THEY IGNORE TRUMP!
Instead, the candidates expounded on reality—American economic immobility, the continued health care crisis, and the climate emergency. If journalists ask questions based on the truth, it will also expose the president’s exploitation of bigotry instead of helping to spread his lies.
This doesn’t come naturally to the media. Instead, they renormalize a habitually deceitful president in return for the perception of access. We saw this again Sunday, as some gloated about a groundbreaking presidential North Korea landing without appropriate context. A historic betrayal of American values and acquiescence to authoritarianism would be more accurate.
On last Sunday’s Meet the Press interview of President Trump, the first of his presidency, Chuck Todd replicated the approach of ABC’s 30 Hours special, enabling Trump to volley back and forth disinformation, like “votes cast that I don’t believe,” and personal grievances—without any merit or real public policy discussion. “EXCLUSIVE: President Donald Trump tells @chucktodd that impeachment is ‘a very unfair thing,'” retweeted MSNBC. Erm... that’s not an exclusive.
In a climate in which he has bashed senselessly their hosts, ABC and NBC chose to invite Trump back to the mainstream and legitimize his hateful rhetoric. They seem intent on giving a platform to the only president to call journalists the enemy of the people (which alone makes Trump the most un-American, anti-constitutionalist president in U.S. history).
In Trump’s recent Time magazine cover interview, there was a revealing postscript: “There’s no question Trump has significant advantages as he looks ahead to the re-election fight, beginning with time and money and the biggest megaphone on the planet.” Yes, but the media makes the megaphone so. And it must not.
Some broadcasters are exhibiting more discretion, and the public shows signs of tuning Trump out. According to ratings, Celebrity Family Feud bested the recent ABC News interview special. But that won’t stop some programmers from trying to revive the circus of 2016 for new ratings heights, and Trump will continue to profit if the press amplifies rather than diminishes his pollution of the public square.
In seeking to reach beyond his base, Trump wants to expand anew his lies to a non-loyalist audience, entrap the press in false equivalencies, and replicate his incestuous mainstream coverage from 2016. As Lawrence O’Donnell commented recently about Trump surrogates on television, “I’ve never understood the value of putting someone on television to lie, knowing that they’re going to lie ahead of time, knowing that that is their deal: to lie ahead of time. That is their deal.”
Some in the press are easily sucked back into what we might call the presidential restraint narrative — the misguided idea that “Trump is coming to his senses.” First it was his decision to pause military engagement with Iran. Next, his decision to stop ICE raids to deport millions of undocumented immigrants.
The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman tweeted about Trump’s empowerment: “A source told me 30 minutes ago that [he] was pleased with his own performance last night, loved being in command by ordering the strikes and by then ordering the stand-down.” The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Bender added: “After 29 mos. in office, Trump repeatedly has shown that — contrary to his reputation in domestic politics — he’s much more cautious on military matters.”
No, he confirmed his recklessness by making a public spectacle out a life-or-death decision. If this feels like déjà vu, it’s because it is. It wasn’t Fox News that was the sole Trump propaganda network in 2016 fueling inflammatory anti-immigrant bigotry. It was the chorus of news coverage, from network broadcasts to major newspapers, which parroted every faux Trump claim or outrage.
Yet again, the nation’s political journalists are gravitating to the stenography of Trump showmanship. The immediate headlines from the Florida re-election announcement mirrored this image: “POLITICO: Trump stages his greatest show yet: The president’s elaborate re-election rally in Florida featured thousands of adoring supporters. AP: Trump, in 2020 campaign mode, calls Democrats ‘radical.’"
Now tell me how these headline chronicles differ from Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro’s takes: “This kind of enthusiasm has never been matched in American history... there is a chord that this man strikes in the American heart."
Political scientists observe how Trump “takes credit for resolving the crises he creates.” As University College London professor Brian Klass notes, it’s the case of “The Arsonist & the Firefighter. Step 1: Create a crisis. Step 2: ‘Solve’ it, by reverting to the status quo. Step 3: Claim victory. Step 4: Fox News & deluded sycophants claim he’s the greatest dealmaker ever.” Except it’s not just Fox News.
Even as Trump and his family bash them, some journalists will revert to a 2016 mentality of balancing lies and truth. My message to them: Don’t let Trump and his extremism drive your airwaves and molest us. Be partisans for the truth.
This isn’t a show; it’s our country. We must inform and protect it.