As each new day brings yet more evidence of just what a truly awful human being Donald Trump is, some liberals have decided that the fact that Trump still has a reasonable chance of becoming president can only be explained by the failure of the media to do their jobs.
This belief is both naïve and dangerous, because it misunderstands not only how contemporary media operate, but also fails to reckon with what American voters actually believe.
Yesterday, celebrated filmmaker Ken Burns delivered the commencement address at Stanford University, and in remarks that have since gone viral, he offered an extended critique of Trump, which included this statement about the media and its failures:
We no longer have the luxury of neutrality or “balance,” or even of bemused disdain. Many of our media institutions have largely failed to expose this charlatan, torn between a nagging responsibility to good journalism and the big ratings a media circus always delivers. In fact, they have given him the abundant airtime he so desperately craves, so much so that it has actually worn down our natural human revulsion to this kind of behavior. Hey, he’s rich; he must be doing something right. He is not. Edward R. Murrow would have exposed this naked emperor months ago.
For the youngsters among you, Edward R. Murrow was a legendary newsman in the early days of television whose 1954 report on Joseph McCarthy’s campaign against alleged communist sympathizers in and out of government was widely credited with contributing to McCarthy’s downfall and helping to bring the Red Scare to a close. It was Murrow’s straightforwardness that at the time was so striking: he used McCarthy’s own words to build a powerful indictment, then offered a blistering critique that didn’t pretend to be objective.
Ken Burns isn’t the only one seeking some kind of repeat of Murrow’s efforts; this weekend, I discussed this idea on NPR’s “On the Media” with co-host Bob Garfield. He has been arguing that Trump is so profoundly anti-democratic that he can’t be treated like any other candidate, and that everyone in the media — not just opinion writers like me but reporters as well — needs to stand up and call him what he is and make clear the threat that he poses.
The trouble I have with that recommendation is that I’m not sure just what it would look like in practice. Does it just mean turning the questions journalists have been asking into statements? Instead of asking “Isn’t what you said racist?” they could just assert, “What you said is racist.” They certainly could do that. But what effect would that really have?
And with all due respect to Burns, whose sentiments about Trump I share, the idea that we’re waiting for a courageous Murrow-like figure to finally “expose” Donald Trump is absurd. What is it exactly about Trump that we have yet to be told? That he’s a bigot who appeals to voters’ basest instincts? That he’s an ignoramus and a fool? That his ideas about how government operates are ludicrous? That he regularly proposes things that are not only unconstitutional but an obscene affront to fundamental American ideals? That his business career is filled with fraud? That a Trump presidency would be a horror show in too many ways to count?
Well guess what: all those things have been written, spoken, explained, and shouted thousands and thousands of times during the year of Trump’s candidacy. The real problem people like Burns who are waiting for the media to save us have isn’t that Trump hasn’t been “exposed,” it’s that he’s been amply exposed, but that exposure hasn’t done him the damage they would have hoped.
I certainly share their distress. It would be much more heartening if, after having gotten a look at Trump, 90 percent of Americans reacted with the disgust he so deserves. Or even 80 or 70 or 60 percent. The fact that it hasn’t happened isn’t because key facts about Trump are being hidden, or because no one has confronted him on the noxious brew of hate and fear that spews out of his mouth every day. It hasn’t happened because a lot of Americans are just fine with what Trump is offering. There’s a good-size market for xenophobia, bigotry, misogyny, and a crypto-fascist approach to government unconcerned about the niceties of constitutional democracy. And there are many people who are a little uncomfortable with Trump, but will tolerate him if it means that Republicans can be in charge.
There’s another key reason why a different approach by the media isn’t going to completely alter how the public views Trump. Back in 1954, people got information in very different ways than they do now. There were three TV networks, which, collectively, almost everybody watched every night. There were plenty of newspapers and there was radio, but there was no cable news and no internet. A figure like Murrow could have the influence he did because newsmen (and of course they were all men) had a stature and authority no single person in the media has today. To take another example, when in February 1968 Walter Cronkite told his viewers that the Vietnam War was mired in “stalemate,” it had a profound impact on the nation because he was “the most respected man in America,” and by stepping out of the ordinary commitment to two-sided “objectivity” he signaled that he was revealing a critical truth they had to confront.
But nothing like that is possible today. There is no single media figure who has the audience or the stature that Murrow or Cronkite had. The multiplication of sources has led to a Balkanization of information — there’s no common text among voters functioning the way the evening news functioned a half-century ago. Furthermore, the profusion of opinion available to everyone means that there’s no perspective or analysis to which the public doesn’t have access.
To be clear, there have been plenty of problems with how Trump has been covered. The cable networks in particular have given him huge amounts of free airtime to spout his bizarre and often hateful ideas, because the spectacle has been good for ratings. But it’s important to remember that just as Trump was winning converts within the Republican primaries, he was alienating other Americans. If you repeat a hundred times that Trump wants to build a wall along our southern border, it makes some people cheer, but it makes just as many or more people recoil in disgust.
And the belief that Trump’s success is primarily a media failure has a parallel in the way conservatives have always explained their own defeats. We would have won, they insist, if only the media hadn’t been against us! If only they had told the voters just how much Barack Obama hates America, or if only they had explained what a reprobate Bill Clinton is, then of course we would have won, because the truth is so irrefutable.
It’s now becoming clear that this kind of thinking is rampant on the left as well. “I think if we had a media in this country that was really prepared to look at what the Republicans actually stood for,” Bernie Sanders said in March, “It is a fringe party. Maybe they get 5, 10 percent of the vote.” That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how Americans think and what they believe. There are plenty of critiques you can make of how Republican policies are described in the press while still granting that they have substantial support. Conservatism isn’t going to disappear once Bernie Sanders has the opportunity for a full airing of his views, any more than Donald Trump’s support will fall to nothing once he’s “exposed.”
Here’s the truth: journalists are exposing Trump every day. How do you know about what a scam Trump University was? Because journalists told you. How do you know what a liar Trump is? Because journalists explained the difference between the truth and what he says (and yes, they need to do it more often and more quickly). Want to know more about the extent of his business shenanigans? Here’s an article on how he stiffs his contractors and workers, and here’s an article on how he bled investors for millions while mismanaging his Atlantic City casinos into bankruptcy. It’s solid investigative journalism, and it’s vitally important to the public understanding who he really is.
There are a hundred opinion writers like me who will tell you what we think it all means, but having otherwise neutral reporters do more editorializing isn’t going to change things in a meaningful way. Trump is going to get lots of votes — maybe 40 percent at the absolute lowest, and depending on what happens between now and November, maybe even something approaching 50 percent. Does that make you fear for the future of America? It should. But it’s not because the media hasn’t exposed him.