This week noted scholar and author Todd Gitlin joins BillMoyers.com as a Media Fellow. You know him from his many years as an activist public intellectual who has written 16 books and hundreds of articles. Now a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in Communications at Columbia, Gitlin will bring his years of experience writing on issues involving the media to BillMoyers.com to blog about media coverage of the 2016 election.
Do my eyes deceive me, or are cable TV reporters — like drivers who’ve taken a wrong turn and suddenly pull off the road to take a good hard look at the GPS — recalculating their approach to Donald Trump?
Wouldn’t it be pretty to think so? A swerve in the mainstream TV approach is long overdue. As I wrote recently at The Washington Post, Trump benefited from many easy months of piling up attention while emitting pungent sound bites and swatting away demurrers like flies.
By one assessment, he accrued $2 billion in free media through February alone. He sidestepped questions as artfully as Stephen Curry sidesteps defenders from 3-point range. Follow-up questions were as perfunctory as coughs. He strewed non sequiturs about like party favors, expecting — realistically — that no one would probe to take listeners deeper. He left fact-checkers in the dust as he rattled off falsehoods faster than Google could keep up. He knew he could wait out reporters asking their one-liner questions, for they would champ at the bit to break for commercials or to change the subject themselves.
But there are some welcome signs of improvement. In recent days, the questions are coming thicker and faster, though not necessarily deeper. It may well be that some reporters feeling chagrined that a candidate so indifferent to fact and impervious to correction (“thousands of Muslims” in New Jersey cheered on 9/11, “There is no drought” in California; it would be tedious to go on) has fared so well in the Republican campaign and in polls.
Whatever the reason, we now witness reporters persistently questioning Trump about his much-trumpeted declaration that he would arrange for $6 million in charitable gifts to veterans’ organizations. At his June 1 press conference on that subject, his contributions to 2016 campaign rhetoric included: “You’re a sleaze.” “You’re a beaut.” “Extremely dishonest.” “Unbelievably dishonest.” This sort of “counterpunching” insult goes over well with his spokeswoman and his daughter, who view his counterpunching as an adorable mannerism no more objectionable than a scratch of the nose.
How well this sort of thing plays with doubters is impossible to say. Let us not draw foregone conclusions. It’s a tricky game Trump plays, because to benefit from attacking the news media, he has to demonstrate “sleaze” to Americans who, however skeptical they have grown toward “liberal media,” may not be persuaded that candidate Trump is a more reliable source.
On May 31, The New York Times’ Michael M. Grynbaum pointed out that something of a rethink was going on in televisionland. But in my judgment, his Times editor overreached, fastening a misleading headline (“Television Networks Struggle to Provide Equal Airtime in the Era of Trump”) onto a piece that offered more evidence of cable’s collapse into Trump’s arms than of network “struggle.”
Last week, none of the three major cable news networks — CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC — carried Mrs. Clinton’s speech to a workers’ union in Las Vegas, where she debuted sharp new attack lines against Mr. Trump.
Instead, each chose to broadcast a live feed of an empty podium in North Dakota, on a stage where Mr. Trump was about to speak.
The same discrepancy occurred earlier this month, when the cable networks aired Mr. Trump’s address to the National Rifle Association live from start to finish. A speech by Mrs. Clinton in Detroit days later, to a labor union, did not receive the same coverage; all three networks skipped the speech, with Fox News airing a lighthearted segment about a nationwide backlog of cheese.
A more accurate headline would have been: “Trump Persists in Claiming Cable TV Attention.”
Still, Grynbaum did note that “networks are seeking novel ways to maintain balance, like staging voter town halls that provide candidates with equal airtime; seeking a wider spectrum of on-air contributors and campaign surrogates; and bringing more fact-checking into segments, as Jake Tapper has done recently on CNN to some acclaim.”
CBS president Leslie Moonves has deservedly come in for scorn with his grotesque, though accurate, proclamation that the Trump phenomenon “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Let that Moonves statement be engraved in stone in the lobby of every journalism school in America, adding a single word in a grosser font: BEWARE.
But Moonves in mid-gaffe was only spilling the obvious (as in Michael Kinsley’s definition of a gaffe: when a politician tells the truth). Though journalists may chortle or blush at such eruptions of truth, they never stop to note the unseemliness of broadcast networks piling up profits while their stations are government-licensed at no cost. It would, I suppose, be indecorous to point out that the airwaves belong to the nation and that broadcast networks have obligations to public life.
But back to Trump coverage. Michael Grynbaum did discover, in his interviews with network people, “a bit of soul-searching.” And perhaps, if that search is indeed on, we are seeing some soul peep out. But it will take more than soul to do right by the American public. It will take practice in the unremitting pursuit of significant truth.
Grynbaum wrote of “Mr. Trump’s unrivaled ability to hijack a news cycle, a trait that producers are not yet sure how to handle.” Really? What are producers paid for? How hard is it to handle a candidate’s attempt to “hijack a news cycle?” As Ben Carson might say, it’s not brain surgery. Whatever the candidate’s preoccupation on a given day, journalists are obliged to bring up questions they wish to ask and ought to ask, the ones that bear most pointedly on the capacity of the candidate and on his or her judgment, the ones that matter most for the future of the Republic. That’s what professionals do — create discomfort in the name of public reason.
In this spirit, reporters have not hesitated to pepper Hillary Clinton with questions about her emails. Meanwhile, questions about Trump’s mob connections, amply documented by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Cay Johnston, have yet to penetrate onto TV. One can only hope such investigations are in progress.
Whatever the scale of the current cable TV rethink, Trump goes on trumpeting. He continues to rant his way through falsehoods — most recently spending 12 minutes at a rally denouncing the Indiana-born judge hearing the fraud lawsuit brought against his “Trump University” — a judge who, Trump said, “happens to be, we believe, Mexican.” In the spirit of informing the public of the character and prejudices of the candidates who come before them, it’s a good sign that many journalists took note of the ethnic insinuation. It’s a sign that they’ve stopped bending over backwards to avoid the obvious. It’s a sign that, at least for now, they’re walking away from the role of — in the late Village Voice journalist Jack Newfield’s memorable words — “stenographers with amnesia.”