I see plenty of people – who are themselves part of “the media,” – doing it, but I don’t blame the media for Donald Trump.
I’m looking right now at a New Republic piece, by Brian Beutler, titled “The Media Never Raised the Bar for Donald Trump.” In the late days of the campaign, Trump began exercising what was, for him, an unusual degree of what the smarties call “message discipline,” which means sticking to his assigned talking points, reading off the teleprompter and not ad libbing racist, sexist, Islamophobic, megalomaniacal or otherwise deranged-sounding things or encouraging his admirers to knock the crap out of protesters, such as he used to do in an earlier, less “disciplined” phase of his campaign. The other day, he went off script, to tell himself out loud to remain on script, bizarrely lecturing himself: “Stay on point, Donald. Stay on point. No sidetracks, Donald.”
Beutler is essentially arguing that “the media” is reporting that Trump is now staying on message, which distracts from the need to continue reminding voters that Trump is temperamentally unfit to be president. The subhead of his story summarizes it thus:
Reporters are treating his ‘discipline’ as a political masterstroke, when we should be horrified that his temperament remains an open question.
Here’s Beutler’s nut graph:
Donald Trump’s closing argument is that he can use a teleprompter. Not necessarily that the words he reads off the teleprompter are true or intelligent, just that he can say all of them out loud and in order. In the final days of this campaign, we have returned to where we began, with an odd fixation on whether this man who aspires to the presidency can avoid saying anything ignorant, bigoted, inscrutable, or otherwise disqualifying for an hour or so at a time, once or twice a day.
I don’t want to make Beutler’s piece into anything other than an example of the kind of things people say or write when they are trying to blame the media for Trump. His piece is not egregious, just typical. I note that he didn’t actually quote from a reporter who used the term “political masterstroke” to describe Trump’s new “on-message” persona. I don’t doubt that many reporters believe, and have written, that this is a smart move for Trump based on the assumption that voters are such idiots that if you can fake a new personality in the last week of the campaign, the electorate will forget everything you said and did before your sudden, unsubtle and unconvincing personality transplant. Beutler does quote from a “Yahoo News” piece in which the reporter, Holly Bailey of Yahoo News, wrote:
In what many around him took as a hopeful sign heading into the final stretch of the campaign, the Republican presidential nominee did not turn to Twitter to vent his frustration, as he would have in the past. Though he still regularly breaks from his prepared remarks — often to attack the ‘dishonest media’ to the delight of his supporters — Trump has been more pointed in making his case about why he should win the White House.
It’s a reasonable-sounding analysis of Trump’s newly discovered “message discipline” over recent days. It’s not close to describing it as a political “masterstroke.” But quoting one, not-exactly-world-famous journalist’s description of Trump’s latest attempted makeover, and pretending it was some kind of rave review, was necessary to Beutler’s effort to blame the media for the fact that Trump has recently managed a surge in the polls.
“The media,” and it’s certainly a term that requires some defining if one is going to make a case like Beutler’s, as a group is surely a powerful force in our nation. And the media aren’t perfect, far from it.
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But, contrary to that analysis, I would argue that “the media” as a whole have taken extraordinary measures to make sure the public knows who and what Trump is. They have certainly reported his ever-changing positions on issues, like exactly what he meant — and it turned out to be about eight different things and is currently in a state of near-nothingness, about his famous plan to create an exportation force to remove every undocumented immigrant, his laughable claim that he would get Mexico to pay for the magical border wall, or his math-and-logic-challenged “plan” to cut taxes massively for corporations and rich people while reducing the deficit. The point is, if you don’t know that Trump’s issue positions don’t add up, it’s because you don’t care to know, it’s not because “the media” didn’t report it.
The media have aggressively documented Trump’s lies, which should be a normal practice but in Trump’s case turned out to be a never-ending Sisyphean task because Trump, more so than any candidate I can recall, continues to repeat the same falsehoods after their falseness has been proven. (Regular readers of this space will recall my obsession with his lie to have been an early and outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq.) Same deal. If a voter cares about whether a candidate is telling the truth, the collective news media has gone to unprecedented lengths to help that voter know that Trump is the biggest liar in presidential election history. If they haven’t learned that, or if they have repetitively unlearned and re-unlearned it every time it has been reported, it’s hard to blame the reporters for that.
It is, of course, possible to believe that some people live, presumably by choice, in a cocoon of self-reinforcing messaging. They look for their information to Trump’s tweets or talk radio jocks or publications that they have learned will reinforce their beliefs. To me, this is sad and maybe a little frightening. But it is the right of every American to get their news and information from the sources they choose.
It’s fun and easy to blame the media for whatever bothers you. I have often criticized the mainstream media. Our understanding of what exactly qualifies as “the news media” has changed dramatically from the days when it pretty much meant newspapers and the three network TV news departments. But, personally, I think that major, serious, fair-minded media outlets have risen to the challenge of offering the public an accurate view of Trump and his qualifications and fitness to be president.