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The media, Trump, and the ‘normal standards’ of journalism

Crackpots and chronic prevaricators are a familiar feature of American politics. But journalists have never before dealt with one nominated by a major political party for President of the United States.

Donald Trump speaking at a campaign rally at the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida, on Thursday.
REUTERS/Eric Thayer

As of Friday, there are 88 days to go until the election. Almost three months. Which in the 2016 media environment translates to a minimum of 8,800 news cycles, most of them devoted to/obsessed with Donald Trump. Trump Obsession Syndrome, already a national mental health concern, could easily metastasize into something fatal. 

Three points of reference on today’s radar scan. In The New York Times, media columnist Jim Rutenberg (David Carr’s replacement) published a column Thursday, “Trump is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.”

Setting the piece up, he writes, “If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, non-­opinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable. But the question that everyone is grappling with is: Do normal standards apply? And if they don’t, what should take their place?” 

The difficulty of covering a presidential candidate who — let’s just say it, shall we? — displays an unprecedented, flagrant and routine indifference to civility, facts and forthrightness has been on journalists’ mind since Trump’s gilded escalator descent 14 months ago. To apply “normal standards” to Trump reporting, which would mean avoiding descriptors and characterizations like, well, “flagrant and routine indifference …” is to fail in the primary function of journalism, namely providing your audience with as complete and accurate a description of events as possible.

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Therein lies the dilemma for “normal standards,” which are heavily influenced by — wait for it — the long tradition of covering normal candidates playing by well understood standards. Crackpots and chronic prevaricators are a familiar feature of American politics (and human nature). But journalists have never before dealt with one nominated by a major political party for President of the United States, and a lot of us remember Richard Nixon.

I couldn’t help but wonder where our old friend Mr. Carr would have gone with the same column. He once conceded, when asked, that as biting and provocative as he was often described, he was very conscious of playing within boundaries set down by the Times. There were decades of tradition that he had no interest in challenging in any revolutionary way. 

In the end, Rutenberg settles for a survey of spokespeople and media beard­-strokers noting and lamenting everything any sentient reader can see, before concluding that the Times and The Washington Post certainly are performing nobly and aggressively in a turbulent landscape. 

Says Rutenberg, “It may not always seem fair to Mr. Trump or his supporters. But journalism shouldn’t measure itself against any one campaign’s definition of fairness. It is journalism’s job to be true to the readers and viewers, and true to the facts, in a way that will stand up to history’s judgment. To do anything less would be untenable.”

Well, he asked the question, at least.

•••

Also making news is NBC News­/MSNBC reporter Katy Tur, a fast­-rising media star for her non­stop coverage of Trump. In a piece for the tony, internationally-­scented women’s magazine Marie Claire, Tur walks us through, My Crazy Year with Trump,” including how Secret Service personnel escorted her from a Trump event after the candidate (again) singled her out for being a lousy, dishonest reporter and the crowd turned ugly.

Befitting the venue, Tur’s piece is peppered with references to her global life­style, (now-ex­) French boyfriend, “bright” London flat and difficulties getting her hair dry and re-­accessorizing her wardrobe — a pair of Jimmy Choos to make her feel “powerful” — for her incessant round of live­-shots. (Foof withstanding, she doing quite a good job.) 

At one point, she writes, “Timothy Crouse got a lot right in The Boys on the Bus, arguably the most famous book about the campaign trail. (Crouse was a Rolling Stone reporter covering the 1972 U.S. presidential election.) The trail combines ‘the incestuousness of a New England hamlet with the giddiness of a mid­ocean gala and the physical rigors of the Long March.’ It’s a little ‘womb­like,’ as Crouse puts it, and as a result, we risk stories that are too ‘inside the Beltway.’ In her essay about the 1988 U.S. presidential election, ‘Insider Baseball,’ Joan Didion was even more pointed about these perils, describing a political press that had forgotten its audience.

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“But a lot more has changed. For one thing, the boys on the bus are now the girls on the plane. Fellow NBC reporters Andrea Mitchell, Kasie Hunt, Hallie Jackson, Kristen Welker, and I are the first women­led politics team in the history of network news — just one remarkable shift in a campaign season where the only rule seems to be that there are no rules.”

That female component is another element in Trump coverage worth noting, or wringing hands over, considering the startling levels of disapproval for Trump among all women, even traditionally Republican women. How many times have reporters like Tur said to themselves, “I’ve met guys like this,” and not in a good way? How and when do they dial in —  or out — their life experience in the context of one of those guys running to be President of the United States?

•••

Finally, the anguish of establishment Republican players over Trump’s candidacy (and campaign) has been fairly well­-covered, albeit with the usual boilerplate opacity from party leaders. But fans of insider chatter owe it to themselves to check out the fairly new podcast, Radio Free GOP from veteran Republican campaign consultant Mike Murphy. For those unfamiliar with Murphy, he’s as much of an antithesis to the buttoned-­down, wouldn’t-say-bleep-if-his-mouth-was-full-of-it-party-apparatchik as the party can offer. Something of Hollywood player — “a movie nerd” is how he describes himself — Murphy has spent a career advising campaigns for John McCain, Tommy Thompson, Lamar Alexander, etc. and most recently led Jeb Bush’s SuperPAC, and has deep a institutional memory and blessedly little filter on his opinions. 

Here’s a good piece on Murphy from The Weekly Standard last spring. Matt LaBash, the author, writes, “Though we’ve never been close, it was good to see my establishmentarian acquaintance again. The word gets his Irish up. ‘I’m not an establishmentarian,’ he barks. ‘You think I really want the guys in polyester suits in Springfield, Virginia, running the f — ing country? .  .  . I’m an iconoclast, but I am an elitist — with incredibly popular taste.’ 

“No sense in giving the country over to total amateurs, as we now seem poised to do, Murphy implies. After all, when you need someone to fix your plumbing, you call a plumber — not a reality-show star whose only real accomplishment is ‘teaching Gary Busey to work the Snow­ Cone machine.’ If we need someone to fix the country, perhaps we should subject these applicants to at least the same expertise standards we apply to the Roto­Rooter man.” 

In the most recent podcast, Murphy brought in Stuart Stevens, who ran Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign and with whom Murphy has loudly feuded for 20 years. Both now are united in the belief that Trump, and more specifically forces coagulated around Trump via long­standing and ill­advised pandering, is taking their party over the cliff.

Murphy sees no conceivable way for Trump to win, and argues, based on his years dissecting polling data, that Trump may have already hit the absolute floor — roughly 40 percent — in terms of popular support. “Hell,” he says at one point, “a bag of cement with an ‘R’ painted on it will get 37.5 percent” in any election, loyal Republicans being that loyal.

Both he and Stevens advise Republican incumbents to renounce Trump now in order to acquire any sheen of respectability and courage for the rest of their careers. Because by October, they say, when everyone is diving from the burning ship, no one will notice or care that you were among the hundreds who waited until doom was upon them. 

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And these guys are Republicans.