Media

The Media and the Earthquake

Our critic despairs of political coverage ever being put back together again.

The Media and the Earthquake

Panoramic image of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump and his wife Melania Trump talking to reporters in the ornate lobby of the historic Fox Theatre following a March debate in Michigan. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In the approach to Election Day, it becomes increasingly obvious that America has been situated on a fault line for a long, long time. Donald Trump was the earthquake. Whoever wins, the country has been damaged by that earthquake — perhaps irrevocably. We have told ourselves again and again that it can’t happen here; that despite our polarization, our democracy is strong and resilient; that the extremism that has afflicted other countries won’t afflict ours because we are fundamentally decent, and civility will ultimately prevail. Now we know differently. It can happen here. It has happened here. We are not who we thought we were. We have a lot of reckoning to do. I seriously doubt we can do it.

We are told that journalism is the first draft of history. But that hasn’t been true for a while.

The media have played a central role in this catastrophe, and here is what we may have learned from their behavior during campaign 2016: The more they focused on the narrative of the campaign rather than on its substance, the more they equivocated rather than report fact and truth when that might have required taking sides, the more they normalized the extremes, the more they acted as if the election was an ongoing disaster that they had risen above — in short, the more they indulged their worst but all-too-normal tendencies, the more they assisted the Trump campaign. I am not saying this was by intention; as the campaign wore on, the mainstream press actually challenged Trump’s lies and threats. I am saying that the political media’s now-standard operating procedure worked in Trump’s favor. In fact, there might not have even been a Trump candidacy without it.

This began long before the election. Over the decades that the country was cracking, the media failed to respond. We are told that journalism is the first draft of history. But that hasn’t been true for a while. As I wrote in an earlier post, the biggest political story of the past 50 years, a history-making story, was the hijacking of our center-right party by reactionary extremists who treated politics with a dogmatic, unyielding religiosity we hadn’t seen before in mainstream parties. Its aim was to impose a rigid set of values on the country, not to resolve disputes or govern, which is what parties traditionally did. Yet the media didn’t react to this geological change. They pretended as if it was politics as usual.

It can happen here. It has happened here. We are not who we thought we were. We have a lot of reckoning to do. I seriously doubt we can do it.

I suspect, as others have said, that the media were deeply afraid to call out the Republican Party when it lurched not only rightward but into extremism. They were afraid of seeming to compromise their alleged objectivity, afraid of being battered and belittled by a newly empowered right wing, afraid of losing readers and viewers who had been deeply politicized and who no longer wanted reporting but vindication. And in their defense (though not too strongly), because they had never really seen anything like this before, they didn’t know quite how to react. Do you declare war on the Republican Party?

So when Republicans twice shut down the government because they didn’t get their way, or when they refused to accept the concept of climate change despite the scientific evidence, or when they dragged their feet on priming the pump after the second worst financial disaster of the last 100 years and then had the chutzpah to blame President Barack Obama for a slow recovery, or when they led us into a tragic war in Iraq, or when they fought to suppress minority voting, or when they refused to hold hearings on a Supreme Court nominee — just to mention a handful of their self-serving misdeeds — the media didn’t pass judgment, which gave the Republicans cover. If Donald Trump is the inevitable result of Republican extremism, then the mainstream media, through their negligence, created the conditions for him to succeed.

The great fib of this year’s election coverage is that Trump is an aberration and that his transgressions may point the way for a revitalized Republican Party.  A recent column by the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman, the master of conventional wisdom, is a perfect example of the sort of journalistic wishfulness-cum-cowardice in the guise of even-handedness. It is worth quoting at length:

For starters, this version of the Republican Party has to die. I don’t say that as a partisan. I say that as a citizen who believes that America needs a healthy center-right party that offers more market-based solutions to problems; keeps the pressure on for deregulation, freer trade and smaller government; and is willing to compromise. But today’s version of the GOP is not such a problem-solving party. . . .

For the sake of the country, this version of the Republican Party has to be fractured, with the extreme far right going off with the likes of Donald Trump, the tea party, Ted Cruz — along with all the right-wing TV and radio gasbags who thrive on chaos — leaving behind a moderate center-right bloc, which, one hopes, one day would become the new GOP. But it will need to nurture a new base, one inspired by a Jack Kemp spirit of conservative innovation, not by Trump dog whistles of anger, xenophobia and racial enmity.

The problem with this analysis, aside from how familiar it sounds, is that there is no moderate center-right bloc in the Republican Party and there hasn’t been for years. This is a pundit’s fantasy. It indulges the Republican mythos that the GOP is for sensible deregulation, free trade and smaller government, and that it has magical market-based solutions to our problems, while the Democrats, I suppose, are all socialists. So don’t wonder where Trump came from. He came from Thomas Friedman and his ilk — the so-called sensible, centrist people who were all too eager to show that they harbored no antipathy to Republicans, only to this lunatic element.

That is long term: the basic predicate of American political coverage. In the shorter term, the media, which have always tended toward entertainment over substance, finally succumbed wholly this year when they had an entertainer to cover. Indeed, Trump could only succeed because the media had abdicated policy for entertainment. In my recollection, there has never been a campaign in which the political reporting was as light on policy as this one and as heavy on show business. This had a defining impact on the election — much to Trump’s advantage. It was only because the reporters and pundits were in the entertainment business rather than the journalism business that “bombshells” like FBI director James Comey’s surprise letter on additional Clinton emails could seize headlines the way they did. We had become acclimated to a political serial rather than a policy discussion. Inevitably, Trump was the star of that serial.

And because the values of entertainment obliterated the values of political reporting this year, the media were obsessed by plots. Clinton’s emails became her central story not because there was any inherent importance to them (has anyone found national security compromised?), but because they kept the drama going. The irony is that the media have complained about this state of affairs — the reality show campaign — when they were the ones principally responsible for it. They could have focused on policy. They chose not to.

This was a capitulation not discussed in the media for obvious reasons. Early on, Trump stole the narrative. He understood that drama was irresistible and politics were boring, and he basically wrote his own script. The media, accustomed to creating the narratives, were flummoxed. At first, they gave him adoring coverage, either besotted by his ability to manipulate them or cowed by it. When they finally fought back, it was too little, too late. He had already set the terms. You had to cover him his way — as an ongoing show. Clinton, on the other hand, a typical, plodding politician, never even tried to grab the narrative — and she suffered for it. The press bullied her in part because they realized they couldn’t bully Trump. We have to think about what this portends for political coverage going forward.

The two other media features of this campaign that bear commenting upon are the press’ shock at Trump’s success and their later apologies for having missed it, and their general derisive characterization of the entire campaign. In the first case, the media had initially treated Trump as a kind of exciting diversion, a novelty act among the routine players. When he turned out to be something more, the press scrambled to make sense of it. This led to a new journalistic sociology in which older, less-educated white males have suddenly been rediscovered and valorized. (Hillbilly Elegy, a best-seller, is also the best example.) It indicates both just how little the media understand America outside the Beltway and Manhattan and how willing they are to overcompensate for that lack of understanding by justifying the worst excesses that emanate from real grievances. Let’s face it: Trump’s authoritarian threat to democracy is possible only because of his supporters’ anger over democracy. What we have seen in this campaign is that just as the media have normalized right-wing extremism, they are now normalizing rank-and-file bigotry. Some people really are deplorable, even when they have been neglected. The media are now giving them a pass.

But even as some in the press were exhibiting sympathy for white anger, the general tenor of the coverage remained cynical. I have harped on this before, so I won’t belabor it here. But the snark and superiority with which so many in the media covered this campaign was self-aggrandizing condescension at the expense of democracy. In effect, the media never really took this campaign seriously as a contest to see who will govern.

Sadly but all too predictably, none of these things is likely to change the next time around. Press critics have been issuing the same charges from one election to the next without the press taking them to heart. Because the real problem with the media isn’t that they overreacted to Trump or that they went nuts over emails or that they gave almost no attention to policy. The real problem is that our political coverage is loaded with everything but hard-nosed political reporting. That is the media’s proclivity, and there is no going back.

Neal Gabler

Neal Gabler is an author of five books and the recipient of two Los Angeles Times Book Prizes, Time magazine's non-fiction book of the year, USA Today's biography of the year and other awards. He is also a senior fellow at The Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California, and is currently writing a biography of Sen. Edward Kennedy.