In the midst of all the hoopla over the Republicans nominating someone whose slogan, "Make America Great Again," includes bringing white nationalists back into the mainstream of the party, the political press is undergoing one of its periodic soul-searching exercises, asking whether it bears any responsibility for the rise of Donald Trump. The answer, of course, is yes. The amount of free airtime devoted by all three cable news networks to broadcasting his every utterance is estimated to be worth over a billion dollars in campaign ads he didn't have to run.
The question, however, is why they did this, and it's not really a mystery. Fox News' Chris Wallace was right up front about it last week when he said:
"I have to say -- I think to a certain degree, if it becomes a vicious or virtuous cycle, depending on how you view the Trump campaign, but I think we were followers, leaders in this. In other words I think that the reason we put him on so much -- and I think we did, all of us, whether it was cable, whether it was broadcast, all of us put him on too much. I think to a large degree, it was because every time we did, it spiked the ratings. We were in a sense following what the ratings were, which was the response to the public. Having said that the fact that we put him on so much, it did crowd out, take a lot of the oxygen away from the other candidates. But I think at least the initial impulse was if you put him on, you get ratings and we're in the news business."
It's not entirely fair to blame them for doing this. The days when the networks thought of their news divisions as loss leaders in the name of civic duty is long gone. Journalism is being squeezed in all directions and the prospect of big ratings was a temptation no producer responsible for the bottom line could be expected to pass up. They were giving the people what they wanted -- politics as entertainment. And say what you will about it, it has been entertaining, in a horrifying, exploding Hindenberg sort of way.
But let's be honest. Nobody forced Republican voters to pull the lever for Trump. The Party offered up a dozen and a half candidates and the networks gave them what seemed like hundreds of televised debates. It's not as if they had no exposure to the rest of the field or didn't understand exactly what they were voting for in Trump. But that leads to a bigger question of why they like him so much, and the press is doing some navel gazing about that as well.
Chris Cilizza wrote a short piece yesterday on the subject, quoting his boss, the editor of the Washington Post, Marty Baron (who also happens to have been the editor at the Boston Globe featured in the movie "Spotlight"):
What has taken hold is an alternate reality, a virtual reality, where lies are accepted as truth and where conspiracy theories take root in the fertile soil of falsehoods...
Fact-checking by mainstream media organizations has no effect. We are objects of suspicion, accused of hiding facts. Seeing opportunity, politicians exploit these fabrications for their own ends, repeating them — or staying silent when they know full well they are untrue...
“We must ask ourselves: How can we have a functioning democracy when we cannot agree on the most basic facts?”
Sadly, that ship may have sailed. The piece points out that the media have, in fact, done their jobs by fact-checking a massive number of Trump's claims and reporting his lies as lies. It has made no difference because the people who are voting for Trump don't believe a word the mainstream media says.
Cilizza blames this on the fact that people are insulated in their ideological silos, where they are fed a steady diet of information that only reflects their preconceived biases, and there is certainly some truth in that. For years, studies have shown that people who get most of their information from say, Fox News, are more misinformed than those who get their news well ... anywhere else.
The idea that everyone is living in an echo chamber is not a new idea, but unfortunately, Cilizza, as a member of the mainstream media, feels the need to create a false equivalence. He says that liberals are just as likely to do this as conservatives, yet there is just no evidence that this is true. Sure there are lefty media echo chambers where people reinforce each others' biases, but the right has long been the one to make a tidy profit at it. The Trump phenomenon should be proof enough of where it leads when people are unclear on that.
This media critique is nothing new. Read Jay Rosen at Press Think or Eric Boehlert at Media Matters going back at least a decade. Unfortunately, it seems to have taken an authentic proto-fascist winning the Republican nomination for the press to finally reckon with the fact that reality is no longer operative in the body politic. Let's hope it isn't too late.
Meanwhile, it's rich to see the right wing clutching its pearls over l'affair Ben Rhodes, the arrogant White House foreign policy communications guru who was the subject of a profile in which he admitted that part of his job was to try to get the press to report favorably on administration policy, specifically on the Iran deal. There are no smelling salts left in Washington with all the conservatives fainting dead away at the mere idea of such a thing.
As it turns out, the man who wrote the profile has been hostile to any Iran negotiations, a fact which he neglected to disclose, and the reporting was more than a little bit biased as a result. Still, the entire right wing media has been in a frenzy over it ever since it was published. Fox News has been particularly concerned about the ramifications of a White House cynically manipulating the press and they called in a resident expert to comment on the scandal:
"They are trying to issue a warning. That the media, an indispensable component, a pillar of our democracy -- the media are not doing their jobs. And I think it's a really important and I know that David Samuels was trying to warn all of us, because he and I covered national security -- we've seen this happen again and again.
"What happens when the next person comes along and tries to peddle lies, which is really what is starting to happen now. We're not only entitled to our own opinions, we're increasingly entitled to our own facts."
That was Judith Miller, the disgraced former New York Times reporter who was used as a conduit for the Bush White House's misinformation about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction which led to the misbegotten invasion of Iraq. And she said it with a straight face and a total lack of self-awareness.
Donald Trump and the political culture that enables him didn't just spring out of nowhere. We've been watching the phenomenon develop for for nearly two decades and the media has enabled it every step of the way. There are many highly skilled journalists with professional integrity involved in reporting on politics but the habits and conventions developed in an earlier era are often inadequate to the task.
They certainly haven't come close to figuring out what to do with people like Trump campaign consultant Paul Manafort who told Chris Matthews last night on MSNBC:
"This is the ultimate reality TV show -- it's the Presidency of the United States."
I'm pretty sure Manafort knows "Reality TV" is anything but real. The Presidency of the United States, however, is as real as it gets. It's important that the political media makes sure people know the difference. At the moment they seem to be in shock. Let's hope they snap out of it.