From A Murrow Moment To A Murrow Mindset: How Not To Normalize Donald Trump

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., July 5, 2016
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Raleigh, North Carolina, U.S., July 5, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

Donald Trump is fond of claiming that everyone loves him. Hispanics love him. African Americans love him. Women love him. The LGBT community loves him. And Texas won't secede because Texans love him, too. But there's one group he doesn't make this claim about. "I think the political press is among the most dishonest people that I have ever met," he said at a press conference last month, after reporters questioned his claims about donating money to veterans groups. "The press should be ashamed of itself," he continued. "You make me look bad." So far he has revoked the press credentials of, among others, The Washington Post, Salon and, of course, The Huffington Post.

But, as we've seen over the course of this campaign, Trump is as wrong about the press hating him as he is about Hispanics, African Americans, women and the LGBT community loving him. The press has had a very strange relationship with Trump since the beginning of his campaign. From the moment he descended the Trump Tower escalator in June 2015, his ascent has been aided and abetted by a very willing press. Trump loves collaborations and branding deals in which he supplies his name and the other parties supply the substance, which is exactly what the press did in the early parts of the primary campaign. Except in this case their role involved ignoring the substance of Trump's candidacy. Now that the general campaign has begun, the press has also attempted something of a "pivot," but their efforts to maintain it have been as fitful and halting as Trump's. "The game has changed," wrote Columbia Journalism Review's David Uberti, after Trump's disgraceful response to the Orlando shootings was, rightly, called out by many in the press. "The general election's political and media dynamics suggest Trump will be on the receiving end of more sustained and aggressive press coverage over the next five months." Well, let's hope so, but we'll see -- like waterfront real estate and casino developers, the press has a hard time quitting the Donald.

Just how important was the media to Trump's rise? Very, according to a report released a few weeks ago by Harvard's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. Researchers examined the political coverage from 2015, the period before the primaries known as "the invisible primary." What they found was that both the volume of coverage Trump got and the tone wasn't in synch with what a candidate with his poll numbers would usually get. "When his news coverage began to shoot up, he was not high in the trial-heat polls and had raised almost no money," writes study author Professor Thomas Patterson. "Upon entering the race, he stood much taller in the news than he stood in the polls. By the end of the invisible primary, he was high enough in the polls to get the coverage expected of a frontrunner. But he was lifted to that height by an unprecedented amount of free media."

The relationship was symbiotic, but it was Trump who was more aware of what was going on. "Journalists seemed unmindful that they and not the electorate were Trump's first audience," Patterson wrote. "Trump exploited their lust for riveting stories. He didn't have any other option. He had no constituency base and no claim to presidential credentials."

And it wasn't just about the amount of coverage Trump received, but how he was covered. The Shorenstein report found only 12 percent of pre-primary coverage had to do with his actual beliefs and stands on the issues. Over half his coverage "was in the context of the horserace and campaign activity, and was framed around his move to the top, a positive storyline." In fact, 79 percent was positive. "The volume and tone of the coverage helped propel Trump to the top of the Republican polls," wrote Patterson.

And who got the least favorable coverage of any candidate, Democratic or Republican? Hillary Clinton. "Whereas media coverage helped build up Trump, it helped tear down Clinton," Patterson wrote. "Trump's positive coverage was the equivalent of millions of dollars in ad-buys in his favor, whereas Clinton's negative coverage can be equated to millions of dollars in attack ads, with her on the receiving end."

As Patterson notes, the media like "the new, the unusual and the sensational." And with Trump, they had all three. They got what they wanted and Trump got what he wanted -- a mutual win unusual for a Trump branding deal. The result? "Trump is arguably the first bona fide media-created presidential nominee," concluded Patterson. "Although he subsequently tapped a political nerve, journalists fueled his launch." And that subsequent success was, of course, the retroactive rationale for the irresponsible coverage.

As late as last month, the AP reported that Trump still had only around 30 paid staff on the ground nationwide. He was, as MSNBC put it, "a candidate without a campaign." But, of course, the press has filled that void. While gleefully going into BREAKING-HAPPENING-NOW-TEAM-COVERAGE mode on every little tweet, they also largely ignored the seriousness and impact of his actual proposals. Like the "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States," which Trump announced in December. Or his plan to deport all undocumented residents of the U.S., which, as Josh Marshall note, has certainly not received the amount of attention proportional to its scope and potential human cost. "There's very little mention of what is undoubtedly the craziest, most dangerous, most expensive and brutal of his policies," he wrote, "his plan to deport roughly 3 percent of the current U.S. population in 18 months." These were essentially treated as just more colorful performances, courtesy of a blustery reality TV star.

But these weren't just throwaway lines -- they are Trump's signature policies, however much he's trying to rhetorically massage them now. But we're now four months out from the election -- where the rubber should be meeting the road. So how about some details? How much would it cost to deport $12 million? How many tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of personnel would it require? Would a new agency have to be started? How many orphans would be created? A million? What does a country do with a million new orphans? Who pays for them? How much would our taxes have to go up? Would they have to double? And how does a religious test to enter the country -- whether from a "terror state" or not, work? How do we determine who's a Muslim? Someone that goes to services once a week? Once a month? Someone just born to Muslim parents but who isn't practicing themselves? Do we give them lie-detector tests? Given that these are Trump's signature policies, it's now time to fill in the details and costs.

And it's not just Trump who should be asked. Yet as he has consolidated the nomination, Republican politicians have been allowed to get away with endorsing Trump, yet at the same time distancing themselves from Trump's signature policies. Saying you endorse Trump but not his attitudes about race, religion and immigrants is like saying you endorse Bernie Sanders, except for his attitudes about inequality, Wall St. and campaign finance. It's like saying you love LeBron, except for all that basketball, or Usain Bolt, though you're just not comfortable with the idea of someone running fast. Or that you approve of Cookie Monster, but not his approach to sweets. Trump's xenophobia, racism and extra-constitutional strongman bullying are the entire package -- and no politician should be allowed to endorse Trump without being forced to own that package.

Which isn't to say that covering Trump isn't without its challenges. When his campaign first began, at The Huffington Post we decided to cover him out of our Entertainment section -- like the buffoon that he clearly is. As Seth Meyers put it at the White House Correspondents' Dinner in 2011, "Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican -- which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke."

Covering Trump in our Entertainment section was a rhetorical device, meant to signal to our readers that this was not a normal candidate and that we're not going to pretend otherwise. After he proposed banning an entire religion from entering a country founded on religious freedom, we decided to add an editor's note at the bottom of every piece about him, which reads: "Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S." All of which is backed up by corresponding links.

This note was part of our commitment to do our part to not let what Trump represents to become a normal part of acceptable political discourse. But with so much of the media locked into of what Jay Rosen memorably dubbed "the view from nowhere," in which balance is the paramount virtue, even over truth, the laundering of Trump's ugly rhetoric has been happening anyway. It was something Vox writer David Roberts warned about back in May. "There will be a tidal pull to normalize this election, to make it Coca-Cola versus Pepsi instead of Coca-Cola versus sewer water," he wrote. "The campaign media's self-image is built on not being partisan, which precludes adjudicating political disputes. How does that even work if one side is offering up a flawed centrist and the other is offering up a vulgar xenophobic demagogue?"

A few days later, On the Media's Bob Garfield weighed in, reacting to an interview in which Chuck Todd was breaking down Trump's tax policy. "The man is a menace of historic proportions, so who the Chuck Todd cares about his tax proposals?," Garfield says. "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." While Garfield notes that "journalism subordinates old news to the latest development," it would be "malpractice" do allow that to happen in this case. "Every interview with Donald Trump, every single one should hold him accountable for bigotry, incitement, juvenile conduct and blithe contempt for the Constitution," he says. "The voters will do what the voters will do, but it must not be, cannot be because the press did not do enough."

And there are of plenty instances of the press not doing enough. HuffPost's Senior Media Reporter Michael Calderone has written two pieces just about Trump's claims of having been against invading Iraq. These claims were repeated again and again in the early stages of the campaign when Trump was attempting to establish himself as the shrewd outsider whose powers of judgment had ultimately been vindicated against the establishment. Except for the fact that, as Calderone put it, "there doesn't appear to be any evidence that he publicly opposed the invasion until after it had occurred." Yes, Trump criticized the invasion in the summer of 2004, but by that time, the Iraq-was-a-disastrous-decision-train didn't have many seats left. That didn't stop most in the media from letting the claim go unchallenged, over and over. And it's still going on. Reporting on Trump speech in late April, the New York Times wrote how Trump "pointedly rejected the nation-building of the George W. Bush administration, reminding his audience that he had opposed the Iraq war." Unfortunately, the Times didn't pointedly reject Trump's lie, and failed to remind its audience that the claim is false.

Even worse was the Times' retreat into the safety of euphemism. In a piece in May, they wrote about Trump's "reductive approach to ethnicity," as if we don't already have a word for that -- racism. And in their long look at Trump's attitudes towards women, the Times it "a complex, at times contradictory portrait ... one that defies simple categorization." Really? Is sexism no longer a category? This isn't string theory or dark matter, so why the need for all the hedging, throat-clearing and clunky, evasive ambiguity?

Then there's the not small matter of Trump's claim to be a hugely successful businessman, which has been the foundation for his entire campaign -- I'm a mega-successful billionaire, so my ideas must be right! Except... well, except for that fact that he may not, in fact, be a billionaire at all.

In another HuffPost piece, Michael Calderone looked at the media's coverage of Trump's checkered business history, which "has been hiding in plain sight." For instance, reporters could just call Wayne Barrett, author of the 1992 book, Trump: The Deals and the Downfall, who has been on the Trump beat since the 1970s. And yet, Barrett told Calderone, though he's been approached by several journalists, mostly foreign, only one U.S. network reporter has contacted him.

In 2005, former New York Times and HuffPost editor Tim O'Brien, now at Bloomberg View, published his account of Trump's business dealings in TrumpNation: The Art of Being Donald. In the book, O'Brien pegs Trump's wealth at somewhere between $150 million to $250 million. If Trump is right because he's rich, that's a lot less rightness than $10 billion. After the book was published, Trump sued O'Brien for $5 billion. And lost. And yet the media continues to refer to him as a "billionaire," and allows him to get away with his claims of his incredible deal-making powers. In fact, as O'Brien writes, "Trump has made 'deals' the litmus test of his candidacy," even though "a well-documented and widely reported trail of bad deals litters Trump's career as a real estate developer and gambling mogul."

Another dean of Trump reporting is David Cay Johnston, who wrote about Trump in his 1992 work Temples of Chance: How America Inc. Bought Out Murder Inc. To Win Control of the Casino Business. Writing in the National Memo, Johnston came up with 21 questions journalists should ask Trump about his business history. "If Donald Trump were to become president," Johnston told Calderone, "he is the first person I know of who would be in the White House in modern times with deep, continuing associations with mobsters, con artists, drug traffickers, convicted felons -- gratuitously involved with these folks. That deserves enormous inquiry."

The pivot toward more inquiry, and more truth-telling about Trump, began early last month, in reaction to Trump's shameful attacks on U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel and his family's Mexican heritage. The press began using the R-word (and I don't mean "reductive"). It was the beginning of a Murrow moment for the press. Edward R. Murrow calling out Senator Joe McCarthy's redbaiting in the 1950s was a moment that became a tipping point, and helped bring about the end of McCarthy. While giving a commencement speech at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where Murrow's papers are housed, I met Edward Schumacher-Matos, the director of the university's Edward R. Murrow Center. I asked him how Murrow would have covered Trump. "He would have skewered him," he told me.

But we've already gotten glimpses of how tenuous and fleeting the media's Murrow moment may be. Just look at the coverage of the big speech Trump gave attacking Clinton and laying out his economic plan. Simply because he was able to read a speech from the teleprompter -- a speech that was barely coherent and full of lies - you'd have thought he had just delivered the Gettysburg Address. Pundits declared that he was finally making the "pivot" toward sounding presidential. Others began the normalizing process by focusing on meaningless details. "The themes Trump chose ... were well chosen," said Mark Halperin, adding that the speech was "decently written" and how Trump is "better on prompter. In other words, focusing on the weeds in the middle of a forest of lies.

GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak more aptly pointed out the curve Trump is being graded on. "He had one good day because he didn't vomit all over himself."

You can feel the press itching to normalize Trump, and relieve them from having to reluctantly abandon the safe shelter of "balance" and "objectivity," and call Trump out. But Trump is a candidate who has broken so many rules of the political process, so the press can use this opportunity to break, and discard, the obsolete rules of political coverage that are clearly not working this cycle. What we need is not just a Murrow moment but a sustained Murrow mindset.

"This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent," Murrow said on the air in 1954. "We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities... We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom wherever it continues to exist in the world. But we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home... Cassius was right. 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.' Good night, and good luck."

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.