Reports started bubbling up in the press this spring about how the corporations that provide millions of dollars to fund the Republican National Convention were suddenly skittish about participating in their traditional role of facilitating the GOP's quadrennial confab. The reason: Donald Trump.
As The New York Times' Jonathan Martin and Maggie Haberman reported at length, big corporate brands like Walmart, Coca-Cola, Apple and Google had become alarmed that Trump's "divisive candidacy [had] alienated many women, blacks, and Hispanics." In other words, being seen as too closely tied to the GOP front-runner might be bad for business.
A few weeks later, Politico's Anna Palmer and Brianna Gurciullo reported on the somewhat-predictable twist: Trump was similarly imperiling the Democratic convention and the corporate funds they use to subsidize their gathering:
None of the firms are publicly pointing to Trump as the reason they're staying away. But the GOP's more well-documented struggles appear to be taking a toll on Democrats, since many companies prefer to give to both conventions or neither in order to project an image of balance.
That the party conventions -- ostensibly a public good and a vital part of our democracy -- require corporate boodle to even happen is something we could spend several paragraphs discussing. But for now, let's leave that aside. Here we have major corporations blanching at ponying up for a Trump convention because they properly recognize that he is, on every level, toxic waste in human form.
But in their next move, this recognition is overridden by something these corporations favor even more: the need to be perceived as neutral. And so, everyone who isn't "Donald Trump, madman," has to similarly suffer.
It's something of a deranged arrangement. But our noble corporate underwriters of democracy needn't feel alone. This is a conundrum political journalists are also wrestling with: How can you provide "balanced" coverage of a race in which one candidate is entirely unconventional? In fact, let us note, one of the things we often do as this struggle ensues is use the weasel word "unconventional," when we mean to say "dangerously unhinged and narcissistic autocrat." (And we are perhaps using the weasel word "autocrat" to stand in for "fascist," at that.)
The alternative, of course, is that the media might accidentally normalize Trump, in a witless abandonment of all the evidence that should objectively lead away from this conclusion.
On the May 13 edition of "On The Media," host Bob Garfield explicitly warned against this process of normalization.
Garfield was reacting to Trump's recent appearances on the Sunday morning political salons, during which the hosts genially asked Trump about his plans for trade, taxes and the like as if these policy positions were the matter of singular interest to journalists covering Trump. (Trump has indicated that he has no real interest in policy positions, characterizing them all as chimeric "suggestions" designed to provide no foothold for critique.)
The man is a menace of historic proportions, so who the Chuck Todd cares about his tax proposals? It’s like asking Charles Manson about his driving record. But here comes the political press, going into standard general election mode and treating a demagogue as a legitimate standard-bearer, as if the only thing he has to answer for is the latest blip in the news cycle.
With every oh-so-decorous question about tax policy or the national debt, the media are not simply abetting him but normalizing him. In effect, accepting his grotesque path to the nomination.
The necessary prescriptive, Garfield says, is for every Trump interview to "hold him accountable for bigotry, incitement, juvenile conduct and blithe contempt for the Constitution."
At the bottom of this post, my editors (perhaps lacking confidence in my ability to affirm these things about Trump, but that's a conversation for another day) will have affixed an editor's note confirming that we agree with what Garfield prescribes. Other media outlets have stirred in a similar direction. At PressThink, New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen provides a lengthy discursion on the topic of neutrality in the age of a Trump candidacy, citing two prominent examples of media leaders who are opting for a different approach.
One is BuzzFeed Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith, who issued a Dec. 8, 2015, social media usage directive to his staff in which he clarifies that it is "entirely fair to call [Trump] a mendacious racist," because he is "out there saying things that are false, and running an overtly anti-Muslim campaign." This is, Smith underscores, a matter of fact, adding that "there is nothing partisan about accurately describing Donald Trump."
A second example was the nearly simultaneous broadcast of a Tom Brokaw editorial on NBC Nightly News, in which the venerable newsman described Trump's proposed blanket ban on Muslims as "a dangerous proposal that overrides history, the law and the foundation of America itself," reminiscent of other historical moments in which "the consequences of paranoia overriding reason" were laid bare.
Smith's and Brokaw's actions did not go unnoticed. CNN's Dylan Byers, in a Dec. 10 column, made note of this "backlash" against Trump, calling it a "watershed moment" in which "news organizations [abandoned] concerns about impartiality and evenhandedness and stating what they believe are objective truths" about Trump.
Rosen discusses how "impartiality and evenhandedness" became a sort of "ritual," semi-divorced from "objective truth" at length. It would be of benefit to read the whole thing, because Rosen's discussion would help reinforce what "picking a side" means in this context. It's not advocacy for some sort of journalistic skullduggery. Telling the truth is still the order of the day: to lie about Donald Trump is to undermine the overall cause of integrity. This is about couching reporting in equivocating terms, which -- as I'm sure Smith and Brokaw would contend -- robs the truth of its vitality.
But in summation, Rosen notes that while the "ritual" of neutrality would normally lead news organizations to adopt some point of view high above the fray, Smith and Brokaw made a different call, one in which they either decided that they were not "vulnerable to criticism" for doing so, or "didn't care" if they were.
That's really what the "neutral" feint is: an effort expended by news organizations to insulate themselves from these type of attacks. This, Rosen reckons, is an "understandable" pose to take, but didn't, in and of itself, make journalism "legitimate."
Protection will come from being specialists in verification who are allergic to any party line. Accountability journalism blows “balance” out of the water. Intellectual honesty is far more important than a ritualized objectivity. Recover your voice and people will have reason to listen.
Of course, it can be difficult for many news organizations to simply adopt a "bring it on" attitude about these things. Elections tend to be reported as events of warring, equally worthy ideas. Deference is offered to all comers out of both the desire to be polite arbiters, and to also maintain media access to the players. The political media tends to like their grand narrative of competition, with ups and downs, best weeks and worst weeks, stumbles and comebacks. So equivalences are drawn for the sake of staging.
In fairness to most other American presidential candidates, very few provide the media with a strong case for deviating from this approach. Trump is unique to this milieu in that he routinely, and intentionally, says highly disturbing and irresponsible things that can't not make one question whether he belongs within a country mile of the nuclear football. He's made it ripe to break with the ritual of even-handedness -- it should actually not be surprising at all to see people like Smith and Brokaw explicitly break from traditional paths.
But Trump is unique in another way that should make it easy for journalists to abandon this neutral pose. In another move unique among American political candidates, Trump has openly invited us to do so, by declaring himself, rather forthrightly, to be in open hostility to a free press. He's not merely complaining about coverage or carping about media bias, as Newt Gingrich famously did during the 2012 presidential primary debates. Trump explicitly talks about destroying the freedom of the press.
In other words, he's taken a side, which absolves the media of the consequences of doing the same.
Trump's promise to menace the media is something he has consistently voiced throughout this campaign season. For example, much attention has been paid to his threat to "open up" the libel laws, to enable him to take a measure of revenge against the media. As I've discussed before, I don't necessarily think of this as something that could be practically implemented. To change libel laws, Trump would have to convince Congress to take up his "protect me, specifically, from criticism" cause. It's unlikely the legislature would do so, unlikelier still that the courts would uphold this as constitutional.
But even if he could convince legislative majorities and five Supreme Court justices to go along with a plan to change the libel laws, it's highly unlikely these bodies would arrive at the standard that Trump clearly prefers. Current law mandates that the standard for demonstrable libel is a higher hurdle for people like Trump to clear, than individuals who cannot be reasonably thought of as "public figures." But even if the public figure/private citizen standard could be made square, there is a longstanding tradition in libel cases that the truth is always the best defense, and it's hard to see even hardened Trump allies changing this standard -- if only because it would greatly benefit their own political opponents.
But this is why it's useful to reflect on Trump's stated desire to "open up" the libel laws -- Trump doesn't distinguish between negative commentary about him and objectively true facts that cast him in a bad light. To Trump, these are one and the same. Reporting that makes Trump look good is permissible, that which does not is, as far as he's concerned, libel and slander. And Trump has more potent ideas about how he'd tear down media organizations that do not conform to his desires than simply altering libel laws.
New York Magazine's Jonathan Chait, in explicating how Trump's brand of "authoritarianism would actually work," seizes on an example that involves the press.
As Chait reports, Trump, in a rambling monologue recently delivered to Fox News' Sean Hannity, took issue with the negative coverage he has received from The Washington Post, along with the Post's stated intent to just go right along reporting true things about him. Seizing on the fact that the paper is owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, Trump sends this basic message: It'd be a real shame if something happened to Amazon because of the Post's reporting.
TRUMP: It’s interesting that you say that, because every hour we’re getting calls from reporters from the Washington Post asking ridiculous questions. And I will tell you. This is owned as a toy by Jeff Bezos, who controls Amazon. Amazon is getting away with murder, tax-wise. He’s using the Washington Post for power. So that the politicians in Washington don’t tax Amazon like they should be taxed. He’s getting absolutely away — he’s worried about me, and I think he said that to somebody ... it was in some article, where he thinks I would go after him for antitrust. Because he’s got a huge antitrust problem because he’s controlling so much. Amazon is controlling so much of what they’re doing.
Unlike his plans for libel laws, this is something that Trump could potentially pull off as president, in conjunction with the legislature. Trump would also command a host of regulatory agencies to do his bidding. As Chait notes elsewhere, Trump ally Roger Stone has already spoken about Trump using the office to "turn off" CNN's "FCC license."
Of course, every great con job begins with a kernel of truth, and as Chait notes, there is a decent argument that Amazon does have a "huge antitrust problem." But this isn't Trump advocating for fair business practices (that would sure be a first!). He's threatening to use anti-trust law exclusively against his perceived media enemies. By extension, it's clear that the reverse is true: Favorable coverage from The Washington Post would lead Trump to look the other way.
You see, Trump doesn't want the media to be neutral. He wants the media to shower him with favor, and he promises to reward those that do and punish those that don't. His hope is that by threatening to use his office to destroy the media, he will encourage fervent, hagiographic coverage of his candidacy, and limit its criticism.
Really, the best argument against attempting "neutral" coverage of Trump is that Trump has very plainly demanded that coverage of his campaign not be neutral.
This is, as with all things Trump, a "deal" he wants to make, with very clear terms. One can choose to join a Trump brigade of latter-day Pétainist sycophants, flatter Trump as a savior and be rewarded in kind, or one can factually condemn him, using his own words and deeds, as a dangerous presidential nominee and risk his wrath. But as the reporting of "true things that Trump doesn't like" is enough to earn this enmity, performing the old ritual of even-handedness no longer offers anyone any protection. There is no "third side." You can't go "down the middle" anymore.
This is, as they say, a time for choosing. However you decide, I suggest you go all in.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.