The 2016 election season, the presidential campaign in particular, can’t end soon enough for most of us. The “Trump Effect” of shameless disregard for facts and accuracy, topped off by a level of creepy, licentious vulgarity that would give Howard Stern pause, suggests the post-mortems on this episode should be long and deeply reflective. Not that there’s any guarantee of that, of course.
Political professionals, particularly shell-shocked “traditional” Republicans, will take each others’ pulse and examine their collective brain scans to see how something like this could have happened. But the establishment media should also examine its behavior in what has been a profound national embarrassment.
The late-in-the-game but welcome turn in coverage by The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post on Trump should become the standard for all news outlets in campaigns to come, especially if the so-called “Trump base” conjures up a reason to reject the results of next month’s voting and begins to search for “Trump redux” 2020.
As acknowledged leaders of traditional journalism, the Times (in particular) and the Post (and the Los Angeles Times) have essentially dispensed with the customary, which is to say anachronistic, courtesies routinely extended to anyone standing for public office. After well over a year of describing “misstatements,” “falsehoods” and “misrepresentations,” Trump’s post-convention behavior pushed those organizations to redefine his preposterous rhetoric for what it is, and what every adequately educated adult recognizes it to be: namely, “lies,” often absurd ones.
It will be fascinating to check in on New York Times Editor Dean Baquet at his first post-election journalism seminar for more thinking on how his paper and others in the media, network television in particular, covered the Trump campaign and to see what they do in the future. Thankfully, Baquet who came to the Times from the Los Angeles Times, has already been quite candid about decisions he and his editors made in order to deal fully and accurately with a national candidate with barely a carny huckster’s regard for truthfulness.
Talking to Ken Doctor of the Nieman Lab last month, Baquet responded to a question about the challenges Trump presented to journalism:
“I think that everybody went in a little bit shell-shocked in the beginning, about how you cover a guy who makes news constantly. It’s not just his outrageous stuff … he says things that are just demonstrably false.
“I think that he’s challenged our language. He will have changed journalism, he really will have. I was either editor or managing editor of the L.A. Times during the Swift Boat incident. Newspapers did not know — we did not quite know how to do it. I remember struggling with the reporter, Jim Rainey, who covers the media now, trying to get him to write the paragraph that laid out why the Swift Boat allegation was false. … We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.’ … I think that Trump has ended that struggle. I think we now say stuff. We fact-check him. We write it more powerfully that it’s false.”
In the same interview Baquet also said: “The dirty secret of news organizations — and I think this is part of a story of what happened with Bush and the Iraq war — [is that] newspaper reporters and newspapers describe the world we live in. We really can be a little bit patriotic without knowing it. We actually tend to believe what politicians tell us — which is a flaw, by the way. I’m not saying that with pride. The lesson of the Iraq war, which I think started us down this track, was that I don’t think people really believed that the administration would actually lie about the WMDs, or that they would say the stuff so forcefully.”
In the post-mortem phase that will follow Nov. 8, the question of whether and when to apply Trump-level fact-checking and “impolite” descriptors to all politicians from here on out needs to be asked. The assumption is that there will be a consensus view that we’ll never see anything as irresistibly egregious as Trump ever again, so the civil thing to do will be to modulate back to reporting as we’ve known it, where politicians only make “misstatements” and journalists “leave it to the reader/viewer to figure it out for themselves.”
More skeptical news professionals will take a more gimlet-eyed look at the post-Trump landscape. They will acknowledge the astonishing outpouring of support he got early and sustained from an enormous subset of the population through countless ludicrous assertions and frat-boy obscenities and recognize a reality unlikely to dissipate on Nov. 9.
Trump’s base is one informed largely by a toxic mix of pop culture and echo-chamber demagoguery, and Trump will not be the last of his kind to make a run for high national office. Who, for example, would rule out someone like Glenn Beck or some other right-wing radio star, or a younger version of Clint Eastwood, someone with vast “star appeal,” from rallying the same base with pretty much the same Breitbart News and Drudge Report talking points?
If they stayed on message and somehow managed to avoid insulting women and Latinos, they’d have to be considered to have at least as good a chance as Trump.
The direction the Times and the L.A. Times — and to a lesser extent The Washington Post — have taken regarding Trump should absolutely be applied to every election any reporter covers, from county commissioner to president. (Most of us will be content if they apply it to the latter.)
Politics, as Trump has demonstrated, is not a profession with static standards and practices. Unorthodoxy has substantial appeal in 2016. The profession of journalism needs to adapt to the era we are living in, and replace the classical chummy courtesies with a more acute standard befitting a time when competing (nakedly partisan) media has accumulated enough influence to create what is for all intents and purposes a separate reality for tens of millions of Americans.