Seeking to understand how Donald Trump has gotten to where he has gotten in the presidential race is a big, long, hard project. He’s such a jerk and such a liar, but he’s entitled to run for the office and voters are entitled to vote for him and that’s step one and step two of the explanation.
Every day, I find myself drifting to Churchill’s famous statement about our cherished system of self-rule, that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (Actually, Churchill said that this “has been said,” and I haven’t seen the quip provably attributed to whomever may have said it first.)
But one of the dumbest ways of explaining the rise of Trump is to blame the news media for paying attention to him and especially TV for letting him come on the air.
Yes, he brings good ratings, and TV is a business that cares about ratings, so the networks’ motives are not pure. Yes, he has had more “free” air time than any other contender, but that is substantially because he makes himself more available and because he uses free TV time instead of ads. In general, interviewing candidates on the shows is better for democracy than having them rely on 30-second ads which, if they aren’t 100 percent lies are reliably less than 10 percent “truth,” as I would define the term.
There’s the bit about how the networks have been too kind to Trump by relaxing the usual rules that some of the shows have that require a candidate to be physically present for the interviews, allowing Trump to call in from wherever he is campaigning. Give me a break. It’s not really a rule. It’s a preference, probably because it looks better, and has often been waived to get a particular interview. I have seen this, absurdly in my view, compared to a multi-billion-dollar gift to Trump of “free” air time.
How absurd? I mean: How absurd! Having a presidential candidate interviewed on your show is not a favor the network does for the candidate. It’s a service to the viewers and to the democratic process, and if it slops over into the entertainment function, that’s not a fundamental problem. We should all want all the serious candidates on all the serious shows as much as possible, and if that comes at the expense of less time for punditry roundtables, that’s fine with me.
Lastly, there’s the criticism that the problem is that journalists don’t ask Trump tough questions and don’t do enough to stop him from lying or evading questions of distorting what we might laughingly call his “record.” Maybe, early in this fiasco, there was a bit of that, before it became clear that he was a serious candidate. But for months now, journalists, the best in the business, have been fact-checking the crap out of Trump. The separate, specific “fact-checking” function of journalism on sites like PolitiFact and FactCheck and others is a relatively new phenomenon in mainstream journalism, and I think it’s a great addition. Anyone who seriously wants to know which of Trump’s “factual” assertions check out can find out pretty easily. On nights when there’s a debate on, I never go to bed without reading — for free, online, requiring no special powers — an annotated transcript that highlights questionable factual assertions made by the candidates, certainly including Trump. If that’s too hard for voters to do, OK, let them waste their vote on a liar, but you can’t blame journalism, as an institution, for not doing it.
The awkward problem
But that gets to the more honest, if awkward, root of the problem. Everyone knows Trump is a lying blowhard. Some people don’t mind. They like him and support him anyway. Anyone who cares to know precisely when and about what and to what extent he is lying can know that too, although they might have to expend a small effort to keep up-to-date.
I’m not usually in the habit of particularly praising or defending the performance of the news media, but the particular effort to blame journalism for Trump strikes me as a bit like blaming the rooster for the rising sun, and I’ve been meaning to get it off my chest. I decided to let fly this little philippic when I saw smarty Frank Rich making a similar point in his regular New York Magazine comment, although he was not commenting on the particular silliness about the TV shows giving Trump free air. Rich was rejecting a similar comment from President Obama, who blamed the media for facilitating the rise of Trump by not being tough enough on him. That piece is here, and the stuff to which I allude is right at the top.