Only a few minutes into Donald Trump’s acceptance speech Thursday night, he started his familiar attacks on the media:
“If you want to hear the corporate spin, the carefully crafted lies and the media myths — the Democrats are holding their convention next week. Go there.”
Casting himself as Truth Teller In Chief, he doubled down: “I will tell you the plain facts that have been edited out of your nightly news and your morning newspaper,” he said. And this: “Big business, elite media and major donors are lining up behind my opponent because they know she will keep our rigged system in place.”
His words brought roars of approval in the Cleveland arena at the Republican National Convention, and the next morning they brought approving smiles from Mary Sue McCarty, a delegate from Dallas who came to the convention bound to Trump.
Wearing a cowboy hat and pearls as she waited for her flight home, the vivacious car-dealership concierge told me that Trump’s media criticism hits home: “Somebody is finally saying what we think.”
“If it’s a Republican, it’s investigated to death. If it’s a Democrat, it’s breezed over,” she said.
I pointed out to McCarty that it was the New York Times that broke the story about Hillary Clinton’s email misdeeds, and mainstream media organizations (including The Washington Post) also have exposed the dubious financial practices of the Clinton Foundation and the special treatment for her friends at the State Department.
She shrugged that off. “You didn’t see the media pressing those as much. Journalists aren’t doing their jobs. They are protecting a certain class.”
And Trump hammers home that populist point.
“More than anyone I can remember, he lumps us in with the elite,” said Dean Baquet, executive editor of the New York Times. His criticism of the press, Baquet said, “is hypocritical because he attacks us but loves the attention from us.”
Of course, candidates including Sarah Palin (“the lamestream media”), Richard M. Nixon and Spiro T. Agnew (“nattering nabobs of negativism”) have vilified the press, and gained points doing it.
In 1964, Barry Goldwater got the Republican presidential nomination in California’s Cow Palace, where, longtime TV journalist Ted Koppel recalled, signs proclaimed “Don’t Trust the Liberal Media.” He said he saw similar words projected on huge screens on the streets of Cleveland.
“It’s a 52-year-old meme,” Koppel told me.
But perhaps no candidate has attacked the media as relentlessly as Trump — or with as little regard for reality.
The press may be vulnerable to these broadsides because trust in journalism is so low. A Media Insight Project study revealed that only 6 percent of Americans have much confidence in news organizations. That is in part the media’s doing, as recently as Rolling Stone’s disastrously flawed reporting of an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia and the revelation that a Politico reporter agreed to show his Hillary Clinton story to a Democratic National Committee source before publication.
So Trump’s attacks fall on fertile ground, despite the strong and important journalism that keeps coming from the best news organizations. (It’s worth noting that The Post led the way in setting the record straight on Rolling Stone’s screw-up).
American citizens certainly would be much worse off without the press, but Trump and his fans never connect the dots.
If these same pilloried news outlets hadn’t revealed and then written article after article about Clinton’s email practices, Republicans would have been deprived of their most powerful talking point. The press gave blanket coverage to FBI Director James B. Comey’s blistering criticism, which in turn led to a packed Cleveland arena thundering with cries of “Lock her up!”
What makes this candidate different from those in the past in attacking the press, Koppel told me, “is that Trump has no shame — he’ll say anything,” no matter how demonstrably untrue.
In this presidential race, falsehoods by both candidates aren’t hard to find. And yes, both candidates deserve to be called out — consistently, clearly, determinedly. But they aren’t close to equal. The nonpartisan PolitiFact project found that Trump’s untruths during the campaign have far outpaced Clinton’s. When it checked questionable statements, it rated 60 percent of Trump’s as false, as opposed to 13 percent of Clinton’s.
Trump’s charge that the mainstream media has hidden Clinton’s misdeeds — or “edited out” the truth from news reports — is another one of his falsehoods. There’s no more evidence of this than of the “thousands and thousands” of Muslims cheering 9/11 in Jersey City — or of his early opposition to the invasion of Iraq.
Trump has created a “win-win position” with the media, Koppel told me.
“If the coverage is positive, he pockets it,” he said. “But if it’s negative, he plays it as a battle he’s fighting” to fend off the apocalypse.
And as he benefits from free exposure, he attacks the messengers as dishonest and corrupt.
Now that’s what I’d call a rigged system.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan