|ANDREW HARNICK / ASSOCIATED PRESS|
Aside from some exemplary individual work, the news media failed miserably in covering Donald Trump during the 2016 campaign. Now that Trump is president and has made it abundantly clear that the men and women responsible for following and analyzing his every word and deed are his greatest enemy, and by extension the nation's, the question is whether the news media is capable of facing down a man for whom being truthful simply is not possible after he pretty much got a free pass when he merely was a pretender to the throne.
How the news media responds to Trump -- and it must be in a forceful and effective way to have any chance of succeeding -- will say much about whether it is capable of reclaiming its vital Fourth Estate role as a guardian of our values, something it pretty much pissed away during the campaign. I for one am pessimistic that the nation's leading newspapers and their brethren are up to this hugely daunting task because it will require nothing less than blowing up the archaic professional model that has much to do with the media's malaise in the first place.
The task is so daunting because Trump and his minions have taken an extremely effective trick from the Joseph Goebbels playbook. (Yes, the Nazi analogy is appropriate. If you don't like it, tough.)
That trick is to create a lie-based alternate reality -- or "alternative facts," as Trump administration spokesmouth Kellyanne Conway unashamedly puts it -- to dispute the real facts presented by its arch enemy, a media vulnerable to bullying, its credibility in the toilet because charges that it is a purveyor of "false news" have been remarkably successful despite our historic reverence for constitutionally-guaranteed press freedoms that have been the envy of the world. That trick, with a big assist from the Kremlin, substantially helped Trump get "elected" and will grease the skids of his reality show administration unless the media fights back.
As the headline to the right from this past weekend would appear to show, at least The New York Times is fighting back, but The Times is on a fool's errand because it is unable to prove that its facts are right and Trump's are wrong. It is unable to do that because the professional model to which it has faithfully hewn is worn out. Then Trump came along and completely broke it.
Not only have the very foundations of American democracy been in jeopardy since Trump's emergence, so has the media's greatest asset -- its credibility. We live in an era of subterranean expectations, hyper-intense partisanship and seismic changes as technology has accelerated the transition from print to digital and video and unfiltered social media grab an ever large share of our already short attention spans. Yet The Times and the rest of the pack have continued to cling -- like a shipwreck victim to the hull of a leaking lifeboat -- to the now obsolete model of giving "balanced" treatment to presidential candidates and presidents alike.
Giving "balanced" treatment has been hammered into generations of reporters and editors as their holy grail, and it pretty much worked when it came to candidates and presidents past, but it has now collapsed under the weight of ludicrousness because of Trump, who shatters the comfy middle-of-the-road mold of yore by being an unapologetic racist, nativist and misogynist, and a raving liar.
The damning passage excerpted above is not from one of The Times's scolds, who were in full howl during the campaign as the first celebrity presidential candidate repeatedly played the Gray Lady like an about-to-be-fired sucker on The Apprentice, but from Liz Spayd, the newspaper's public editor, as it calls its in-house ombusdsman.
I'll reiterate that on an individual basis, some Times reporters did fantastic work during the campaign in getting past Trump's lies and penetrating his unsavory backstory, but it is now four for four on failing to properly cover the biggest stories of the millennium -- and it's long past time for it to wise up.
The Times was negligent in reporting government malfeasance before and after the 9/11 attacks, and buckled under Bush administration pressure to not reveal its failures.
The Times was not merely tardy in recognizing the inherent wrongness of the Iraq War, it produced some of the very reporting that prolonged the illusion of its rightness.
The Times was much too late to acknowledge let alone challenge the Bush Torture Regime, which was hiding in plain sight, let alone using the word torture (ew!).
And The Times was grossly irresponsible in failing to inform its readers -- when doing so might have changed the course of history -- that U.S. intelligence agencies were investigating credible reports of covert connections between Trump's campaign (the "bank server" in the above passage) and Russian officials trying to influence the outcome of an election Trump went on to win. As history now shows, Vladimir Putin's flunkies, with an able assist from FBI Director James Comey, succeeded.
Orwell's 1984 arrived 33 years late and nobody told The Times.
|SAVO PRELEVIC / AFP-GETTY IMAGES|
So if the hoary "balanced" treatment model is busticated, with what should it be replaced? How to reclaim that essential Fourth Estate role?
For starters, editors must acknowledge among themselves -- perhaps at one of those big national conferences where they love to preen -- that they cannot beat Trump at his own game, and despite the efforts of papers like The Times and Washington Post, as well as a few vigilant websites including Vox, The Atlantic Monthly and Daily Beast, they're getting clobbered in the battle of "alternative facts" versus "real facts." The traditional way of covering the president is dead, so perhaps they can dig a big hole out behind the conference hotel and bury it.
Then, having come to terms with that reality, publications with a conscience as well as cojones, must impose a new policy: Anything they deem untrue emanating from Trump and his administration will be embargoed until when and if its truth can be verified. And so readers will have to become acclimated to stories like this, and there should be a slew of them:
Will that work? Well, it has to work.
When Trump swore the presidential oath last Friday before a paltry crowd a fraction of that for Obama's 2009 inauguration and some 3 million-plus people were preparing to march in protest in hundreds of U.S. cities on Saturday, something considerably more important than bragging rights was at stake. That would be the credibility of America and its press.
Trump promptly lied about the inauguration and march crowd estimates, twisting and spinning like a banana republic dictator. Or his pal Putin.
Trump's lies were further validated on Saturday by press secretary Sean Spicer in a tantrum in the White House briefing room, codified by Kellyanne Conway on Sunday in her Meet the Press tutorial on "alternative facts," and followed by the inevitable disambiguating walk-backs by Spicer and Conway on Monday morning. But by Monday afternoon, the lie machine had revved back up with Trump using his first White House meeting with congressional leaders to yet again falsely assert that up to five million illegal immigrants had cost him the popular vote.
The conventional wisdom, so consistently wrong during the presidential campaign, is that Trump will quickly find that what worked in the campaign does not work well in government.
But that so-called insight fails because Trump's will not be a government in any traditional sense but rather a clique of oligarchs who are walking conflicts of interest worth an extraordinary $14 billion. Not counting the stray $100 million or so that one of his Cabinet nominees found in a pants pocket.
Trump is intent on creating his own reality, and that is considerably easier when you can simply make stuff up and get away with it. He also understands that the road to unchecked power begins by being able to control what the public reads and hears, and he knows he has nothing to fear from the news media. That must change.