I have avoided writing about Donald J. Trump during this election cycle. I felt the same way when Sarah Palin snagged her party’s vice-presidential nomination. In fact, in the only newspaper column I wrote about her in 2008 I referred to her as She Who Will Not Be Named.
Like Palin, Trump is an entertainer. Like her, he’s an expert at shock-and-awe (slack-jawed awe, as in “Did he really say/do that?”). I vowed not to write about him, despite his bombast, his bullying, his fear and hate mongering, his nativism, his misogyny, and his rampant sexual aggressions. Because he proved so skilled at controlling the national narrative, I didn’t want to give him one more column inch.
But now he has created the chant of “media bias” against his campaign, and I’m compelled to write. He may call it “media bias.” I call it media responsibility.
I graduated from the University of Kansas School of Journalism in 1971. In the news-editorial sequence, as it was called then, we were taught to report the facts fairly and objectively. We worshipped at the shrine of “objectivity.” Many years later, we all recognize that “objectivity” is a lofty and nearly unattainable goal since our own perceptions and experience filter and inform the facts. Still, we aimed high, though sometimes we missed the mark. Likewise, we were taught to uncover corruption, to be gadflies (what a term) to those in power, and to expose charlatans.
Unmasking charlatans is where Donald Trump comes in.
At the outset of the campaign, the media did not take the Trump candidacy seriously. He was a novelty, a circus act, “the pig who could dance” as it were, a reality TV star and real estate mogul who obviously was running for president to garner more attention for his brand. When it became clear that he was the anointed contender who spoke to large segments of the population, the media bent over backward to cover his campaign with as much gravity as Hillary Clinton’s.
Many people have written about the dangers of such “false equivalence,” of straining to apply the same level of scrutiny to the campaigns of a pathological liar with no political experience, and a seasoned politician whose long career of public service has pockmarks, peaks and valleys.
As a journalist, I have mostly freelanced for newspapers, which are inherently conservative. They are owned by folks whose eyes are on the profit margins, and who are concerned about offending advertisers. Significantly, over 150 newspapers have now endorsed Hillary Clinton, according to Business Insider.
One of those newspapers is the Dallas Morning News. Since my family lives in Dallas, I have read the paper on visits to the city for over 35 years. The Dallas Morning News is an excellent paper, with a talented staff, but of a conservative editorial bent. In fact, until Clinton, the paper had not recommended a Democrat for president in more than 75 years. The editorial board wrote on September 7: “There is only one serious candidate on the presidential ballot in November. We recommend Hillary Clinton.”
So, when Trump takes on the media, including newspapers, he is not only taking on editorial boards headed by business-minded publishers, who should be his natural constituency, but he is also taking on ink-stained professionals who have gone out of their way to treat his nutty campaign with gravitas.
But, let’s face it, Trump is the quintessential cable candidate, and I have spent countless evenings during this campaign watching CNN cover his campaign. Because Trump tends to do or say something newsworthy every day, I would say, without hesitation, that he has received more air time than Hillary Clinton.
This week, a CNN correspondent, Jim Acosta, appeared visibly shaken on the air. He was reporting on a Trump rally in Florida during which Trump had called the reporters covering his campaign “crooks and thieves.” Acosta, a Cuban American who has been insulted by Trump in the past, was yelled at by Trump supporters chanting “CNN Sucks.” One of these supporters, he said, hit him with a sign.
Nobody goes into news-gathering looking for a cushy job. But Trump displays little understanding of the Fourth Estate. The professionals in the shrinking newspaper industry busily double- and triple-checking facts, seeking attribution and the “other side” for news stories, do not deserve Trump’s abuse. Nor do the television journalists recording the drama unfolding at the brutal Trump rallies deserve to be yelled at, much less struck.
Before bashing the media, Trump needs to know what I learned in J-School, that the media do have a bias – for fact-gathering and for trying to tell the truth. And that’s a fact, and that’s the truth.