“You bragged that you have sexually assaulted women. Do you understand that?”
The second presidential debate opened with moderator Anderson Cooper directly confronting Donald Trump, who tried to ignore Cooper’s continued pressing until muttering “No, I have not” when asked if he had in fact sexually assaulted women.
It was an ugly debate in a campaign full of hatred, yet something felt different. Cooper’s direct, scornful questioning, felt like a clear turning point in this election. Co-moderator Martha Raddatz also dug into Trump with sharp follow-up questions. Now, after the second debate and the leaked video clip showing Trump bragging that he uses his celebrity status to get away with sexual assault, we’re seeing an avalanche of news stories featuring victims of Trump’s sexual aggressions from a wide range of media sources. The media floodgates are open, and Republicans, unwilling to appear publicly supportive of Trump, are mostly in hiding.
The question begging to be asked is: Why did it take the mainstream media so long to confront Trump?
“Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”
These words, delivered on national television by an irate Joseph Welch, the Army’s chief legal representative, marked the beginning of the end for Senator Joseph McCarthy. In the early 1950s McCarthy exploited a climate of fear during the Red Scare to baselessly attack political enemies.
At a time when careers were being destroyed for merely having their name mentioned in a blacklist, people were afraid to speak out against McCarthy’s fear mongering--until journalist and television news host Edward R. Murrow and his producer Fred Friendly decided to directly confront McCarthy. Murrow was trusted by millions of Americans who watched his weekly See It Now news series on CBS. When Murrow decided to challenge McCarthy in 1953, CBS, fearful of unhappy commercial sponsors, refused to pay for the show’s production, leaving Murrow and Friendly to cover the costs out of pocket.
After a series of programs showcasing the victims of McCarthyism, Murrow directly challenged McCarthy, broadcasting “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy” on March 9, 1953. Murrow used excerpts from McCarthy’s own speeches to showcase his contradictory statements and bullying tactics used in interrogations. Having used McCarthy’s own words against him, Murrow finished his broadcast with a poetic warning to the public:
“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it—and rather successfully. Cassius was right: The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
Murrow’s heroic confrontation with McCarthy, which led to McCarthy’s censure and downfall, is enshrined in our popular mythology, taught in high school history classes and dramatized in the 2005 Hollywood film Goodnight, and Goodluck ― but there’s a darker side to the story.
Due to Murrow’s focus on serious, often controversial issues, See It Now had trouble keeping a sponsor, and CBS eventually cancelled the program and replaced it with a popular quiz show. The need for high ratings and happy advertisers led to the loss of the hard-hitting journalism of See It Now; CBS had Murrow focus on his Person to Person celebrity interview series instead.
While Murrow was successful in taking down McCarthy, providing a powerful lesson in the dangers of demagoguery and showing how journalism could protect the public from abuses of power, the ultimate fate of Murrow’s program speaks to a bleaker reality of the commercial nature of our media.
Like McCarthy, Trump is (and has always been) dangerous. His promotion of wild conspiracy theories; how he championed the birther movement to kickstart his political career; Trump’s misogyny, racism and xenophobia; his lack of policy knowledge or experience to be president—Trump’s words and actions place him far outside the boundaries of acceptable politics.
None of this kept the media from giving Trump an unprecedented level of coverage, transforming the election into a form of Reality TV while generating record ratings. The CEO of CBS, Les Moonvez, was caught on tape bragging about how profitable Trump-mania was for their bottom line:
“It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun… I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald.”
Trump received so much television news coverage in the primary, more than all other candidates combined ― his free airtime was estimated to be worth two billion dollars. For much of the mainstream media, the drive for high ratings and entertainment outweighed any responsibility for journalistic integrity.
Speaking with CNN’s Brian Stelter, retired CBS news anchor Dan Rather summed up the media’s relationship with Trump, “Media wants the ratings. Trump delivers the ratings. So in a way, they’re business partners, where the role of the journalist is to be an adversary.”
Not all news outlets were so shameless in their embrace of Trump-mania. Many popular online news organizations confronted Trump early on; Vox repeated warned of Trump’s unprecedented danger, the Huffington Post initially put Trump coverage in their “Entertainment” section, then placed a permanent and explicit warning for readers at the end of any article on his campaign.
Notably, newspapers tended to have the most critical coverage of Trump and were often the first to denounce him. Unlike television news media, which is dependent on the daily ratings game, newspapers have a more stable funding structure, through subscriptions, which can mean they are less susceptible to the naked commercialism that drives television news.
“Resist the siren song of a dangerous demagogue. By all means vote, just not for Donald Trump.”
Concluding with these words of warning, USA Today published a scathing un-endorsement of Trump, despite having never made a presidential endorsement in their 34 year history. Trump hasn’t received a single endorsement from any of the top 100 newspapers by circulation, a first in presidential history. Even stalwart conservative papers refused to support him. The Arizona Republican endorsed a Democrat for the first time in 126 years. New Hampshire’s conservative Union Leader, whose late editor William Loeb was a vociferous defender of McCarthy in the 1950s, denounced Trump in the strongest words possible, writing:
“The man is a liar, a bully, a buffoon. He denigrates any individual or group that displeases him. He has dishonored military veterans and their families, made fun of the physically frail, and changed political views almost as often as he has changed wives.”
With millions of viewers, network news outlets are understandably cautious over appearing politically biased. Most television news reporters utilize a version of “he said, she said” objectivity; having one spokesperson for each side come argue with the reporter acting as a neutral moderator. This has always been problematic (see coverage of climate change), but especially with elections, reporters often retreat to the safety of this kind of objectivity.
There’s another kind of objectivity, one closer to that of scholarship, that demands evidence for claims, and evaluates the truthfulness of statements. The press often failed to confront Trump or evaluate his statements for truthfulness. Instead, the media depended on sound bites from his political rivals to do so, leaving the public to decide for themselves.
There were rare moments of integrity. In the wake of Trump’s proposal to ban all Muslims from entering the country, NBC brought in Tom Brokaw for a special two minute warning about Trump’s “dangerous” and “un-American” proposal, comparing Trump to demagogues of the past, like McCarthy. CNN’s Jake Tapper often displayed agitation with Trump’s rhetoric, challenging him for his racist accusations against judge Gonzalo Curiel and signaling to viewers that a line had been crossed.
Despite exceptions, Trump’s rampant lies, racism, bigotry and xenophobia weren’t enough to merit the media’s full condemnation, especially when he brought in the ratings; it would take a leaked video of Trump bragging about sexual assault.
“Unshackled” by scandal, Trump is now outwardly claiming the entire election is rigged by a globalist elite and promising to jail Hillary Clinton. The mainstream media seems unshackled too, finally emboldened in challenging Trump and calling him dangerous. Some in the press are even expressing remorse. “If we made a mistake, [it was] we shouldn’t have put on as many [Trump] rallies as we did,” CNN’s president Jeff Zucker told an audience at Harvard’s Kennedy School earlier this week.
If Trump wins, the media will carry a heavy burden of blame for being more interested in profit than holding candidates accountable. If he loses, we should remember that the next dangerous demagogue will probably not have an explosive tape or a history of sexually assaulting women that will be their undoing. It’s not hard to imagine another candidate who’s a little more polished and a little less reckless, following in Trump’s footsteps.
Will we be able to depend on the media to hold a president Trump accountable? Or the next demagogue that comes along?