When Will Reporters Stand Up To Donald Trump?

It's been 10 years since Trump's laughable charade over Barack Obama’s birth certificate, and the media still hasn't learned how to cover the presidential hopeful.
Former President Donald Trump walks out of Manhattan Criminal Court to speak to the press at the end of Friday's trial proceedings in the hush money case.
Former President Donald Trump walks out of Manhattan Criminal Court to speak to the press at the end of Friday's trial proceedings in the hush money case.

In a recent op-ed, the news and culture critic for the Los Angeles Times wrote that since there were no cameras in the courtroom, former President Donald Trump had already won a major victory in his hush money trial.

She’s joking, right? She should be. If we’ve learned anything about the cultural archetypes that have dominated American politics for the past three decades, it’s that politicians will do anything for attention. And there is no bigger whore for the spotlight than Donald Trump. Without cameras in the courtroom, neither he nor his attorneys can showboat for an audience, which denies him the adoration he so desperately craves and has sought all his public life.

Our criminal justice system needs to be a serious matter. Televising celebrity court cases turns them into circuses. This is not a reality TV show. It’s not “Judge Judy.” It’s a legal proceeding wherein only the jurors can determine the facts and apply the law. The only people who benefit from a cheapened and weakened criminal justice system are criminals. So, no, cameras would not be better.

Besides, we’ve all seen photos of Trump scowling, nodding off and looking the way an insecure narcissist probably looks when prohibited from being in control. If there were cameras, he’d find some way to use them for some perceived advantage that could distract us from what matters: the facts of the case.

Personally, seeing less of Trump is a good thing, or at least seeing him the way the media covers him, and that’s what the L.A. Times writer doesn’t get.

The media still hasn’t learned how to cover Donald Trump. They’ve had more than a decade, going back to his laughable charade over Barack Obama’s birth certificate, to figure it out, and they haven’t. In fact, the media has done a better job reporting on how it has failed in its coverage of Trump.

“Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect,” warned James Fallows of The Atlantic. “But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.”

Fallows wrote that in 2020. Here we are four years later, and the media still hasn’t adapted to a different set of rules.

When CNN gave Trump a “town hall” last year in New Hampshire in a venue filled with Trump-friendly voters, it wasn’t really the “town hall” CNN claimed it would be. It was the predictable disaster that comes with giving a lying blowhard an open mic.

Critics slammed CNN the next day, deservedly so, but that didn’t stop Anderson Cooper from trying to rescue the network with this arrogant tirade:

“You have every right to be outraged and angry. Never watch this network again. But do you think staying in your silo and only listening to people you agree with is going to make that person go away? If we all only listen to those we agree with, it may actually do the opposite.”

Oh, fuck off. This isn’t about what gets covered or who. It’s about how.

Are you going to cover the story? Yes. How so? That’s the crucial question. Are you going to sit there and tell me, Anderson, that there’s only one way to cover and report on such a unique and uniquely repulsive figure?

The other defensive chestnut is, “Hey, it’s not our fault.” Here’s New York Times columnist David Brooks on PBS NewsHour shortly after the town hall telecast:

“We in the media don’t get to decide who we cover. Basically, the American people get to decide. And they get to decide by their votes and their preferences in polling.”

If you’ll permit a stereotypical Valley Girl response: “Gag me with a spoon.”

In fairness, Brooks did say that “there are ways to cover and ways not to cover,” but “it would be disastrous if we appointed ourselves the censors or determiners of who gets covered in this country.”

Au contraire. There most certainly is a ”determiner,” ever-present: the almighty dollar.

Media costs money. There are bills to pay, everything from employee salaries to the light bill, and that takes revenue, and that requires traffic: TV ratings, radio ratings, subscription services and digital clicks to generate that revenue.

Or, as former CBS head Les Moonves said about Trump’s presidential campaign at a media conference in 2016: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”

The audience laughed.

“The money’s rolling in,” he added, “and this is fun.”

No, it’s sickening, but it was a perfect distillation of what motivated and continues to motivate every media outlet’s “all Trump, all the time” coverage. Except it’s less like coverage and more like gawking: Journalists standing in front of Trump, speechless, with their mouths agape as if staring at a train wreck (which defines Trump pretty accurately). They do it every single time he stands before them.

What’s missing is the opposite. Despite what the bean counters, stockholders and CEOs might think — and I appreciate their fiduciary concerns — the job of a journalist isn’t to tell people what they want to hear because it’s good for business. It’s telling them what they need to know because that’s good for America (which I’d like to think is also good for business).

It’s the journalist who goes out to find those stories and report that information. What, you think the soccer mom shuttling kids from Little League to karate lessons has time to do that kind of investigative work?

What parent has the time, let alone the means, to expose corruption in government or business? What working-class person in 1904 would have had the time or the means to spend seven weeks gathering information about the horrid conditions in the meatpacking plants of the Chicago stockyards and then write a book called “The Jungle”? Do you think Upton Sinclair was worried about what readers wanted to read back then, or was he more concerned with what they needed to know?

Though he wanted to depict the hardships facing poor working immigrants in hopes of garnering sympathy for them, Sinclair admitted his celebrity arose “not because the public cared anything about the workers, but simply because the public did not want to eat tubercular beef.” Either way, the legislative reforms that followed were a win for the workers and meat consumers. In other words, “good for America.”

When I think about how many people still believe the lies that Trump has told, told in front of reporters, and continues to get away with telling (which has never been good for America), I say it’s because no reporter has ever stood up and said, “Sorry, Mr. Trump. That is absolute crap. You are telling a lie. You’re lying. Stop lying.”

I can picture the thin-skinned Trump responding as he did at the town hall, “Ya know what? You’re a nasty person.”

“Maybe so, but at least I’m not a liar,” would’ve been my comeback.

When Trump came out of the courtroom last week complaining that “I’m not allowed to defend myself,” did anyone speak up and tell him the obvious?

Excuse me, Donald, I thought you were a stable genius. You‘re being defended in court right now. You’ve hired lawyers to do that for you. Heck, maybe you’ll even pay them. And then, if you really want to defend yourself, it’s called the witness stand. Take the stand and defend yourself all you like. Instead, you come out of the courtroom whining like you always do in front of a bunch of microphones because that’s a lot easier than actually taking the stand, isn’t it?

That’s what I would’ve told him.

Too harsh? Too bad.

Does Trump even realize he’s on trial because he’s accused of paying to make sure alleged mistresses didn’t say whatever they might have wanted to say? That irony alone cries out for a response, but the reporters?

Not a peep.

Why do voters have to go to a fact-checking website to do the job journalists should be doing?

Oh, but at least we got some video. That should be good for business!

Is this the kind of political journalism we’re left with in the era of Donald Trump, or are we going to go back to a day when journalists were unafraid to shake the rafters, rattle some cages and go all “60 Minutes” Mike Wallace on them?

A rare exception was on Aug. 13, 2020, when HuffPost’s Washington correspondent, S.V. Dáte, asked Trump about his perpetual lying to the American public when he was called on at a White House press briefing. Trump quickly moved on to the next question.

But my guess is that most reporters shy away from that sort of muckraking because they’ve been schooled in one of journalism’s golden rules: Don’t become the story. Just report the story. It’s part of the Code of Ethics set by the Society of Professional Journalists.

But as James Fallows noted, Trump is a different animal. The rules are different. Journalists aren’t supposed to be part of the story, but when the story they’re being given is a load of bovine excrement (translation: every time Trump opens his mouth), they have a responsibility to hold him to account and call him out on it. Immediately. Vigorously. Mercilessly. Without apology. Live. In front of the cameras. Let him stumble all over himself in the face of indisputable facts. Let voters see him embarrassed as all liars should be. And if it means the reporter becomes part of the story, well, no one seemed to mind when Mike Wallace did it or when Tim Russert did it. They were heralded for it.

And for the bean counters, stockholders and corporate executives concerned only with profit, if you think Trump generates ratings when he’s not being held to account, think of the ratings you can get when journalists actually do hold him to account, calling out his bullshit, right to his face, metaphorically putting him on a public witness stand with the same zeal and grit as a prosecutor might employ in the courtroom.

Ya want reality TV? Ya want something people won’t take their eyes off of? Get that on video and watch how fast it goes viral.

If journalists are tasked with using credible sources to support a story, why do they continue to give credence to a person with absolutely no credibility?

We are long overdue for reporters to muster up the guts to jump down Trump’s throat and call him out for the fraud that he is. Every single time he opens his mouth.

Otherwise, as Mr. Fallows has warned, “the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.”

Anyone think that’s a good idea?

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