Trump's Plagiarism Isn't The Scandal. Media Accountability Is.

To understand how the media lets the public down, there is a teachable moment in the current Melania Trump controversy. The alleged plagiarism of passages of a Michelle Obama speech from 2008 at the Republican National Convention on Monday night is one story. How the media handles scandles is the bigger one, when accountability takes a back seat to sensationalism and lightweight journalism. 

News organizations didn’t even catch the problem. The buzz on Twitter is where it began. When reporters and independent news people want traction, they tweet, which forces the story into the public space and establishes enough reactivity to “trend.” Then various media outlets get the green light to piece together the story.  Within an hour, MSNBC had the first side-by-side video of Melania Trump’s speech on Monday night, and Michelle Obama’s speech in 2008.

It appeared clear, from the video, that sections of a Michelle Obama speech were used in the Trump speech, word-for-word.

When Joe Biden was accused of plagiarism in a law article that he wrote in school, that was unearthed by the Dukakis campaign in the 1988 election, it was a scandal that sank his presidential aspirations for nearly two decades.

The reaction from the punditry of the day, in a much smaller world of print, radio and four major television news outlets, was uniformly harsh.  Plagiarism was a character flaw that did not fly from the editorial pages of the New York Times to the chattering heads of CNN’s Crossfire.

There will be a buzz, but there will be virtually no accountability for this incident. This is the 21st century, and our news media, along with our political systems, is horribly broken. 

Mrs. Trump claimed, in an interview with TODAY’s Matt Lauer, that she wrote the speech with “as little help as possible.” Perhaps she did. It would explain, if she was given other future first ladies’ speeches to review, how large chunks of one might have ended up in her script. She may not be as familiar with the rules on plagiarism.

That she had anything to do with it was immediately dismissed though.  Not even a consideration as a possibility.

Given the normal process it’s unlikely.  For any other speech at a major political event, both lawyers and political operatives usually vet it.  Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort should have signed off on it.  This isn’t a year of the normal though, and, with Trump and his people, including his family, really anything is possible.

The question should have been investigated. Discussed. Evaluated.

MSNBC pundits Chris Matthews and Lawrence O’Donnell, both of whom have worked on Capitol Hill, rightly observed that the Trump campaign should have identified and fired the speech writer quickly, if for nothing else to demonstrate that they handle mistakes within their organization appropriately, and that they have control of their internal operations.

That’s important for two reasons:

  • It buries the story and does not distract from the coronation of Donald Trump as the GOP standard-bearer; It demonstrates some proof of leadership;
  • If Trump indeed wants to make America great again, can he do that if he’s not willing to exercise one of his famous “You’re Fired” moments for such a colossal screw up?

As predicted by several pundits on Monday night, the Trump campaign went into denial mode on Tuesday Morning. It never happened.

Campaign manager Manafort tried to palm off media interest in the story as the work of Hilary Clinton, jealous of another powerful woman. Yep. You just can’t make stuff like this up.

Another operative tried to muddy the water with similar references in everything from John Legend songs to “My Little Pony.” Yep. You just can’t make stuff like this up.

New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a former prosecutor, who knows what evidence was in play, became the Tuesday morning Trump point man, appearing on NBC’s Today Show and CNN, among others, to defend Mrs. Trump.

“93 percent of the speech is completely different,” he told TODAY.

Reporters expect mendacities and backspin after a major political incident. They have a responsibility to push back, to seek the truth.

In the Christie interview, Matt Lauer, who has been around the business a long time, allows the governor to spin his yarn, and does kid glove pushback. Savannah Guthrie tried a little gentle pushback. Then off they went, next subject, to the governor’s future in politics. Would he take a cabinet post in a Trump White House? Catering to the nanosecond attention span that TODAY producers seem to think their audience possesses.

An excellent follow-up question would have been: “So if 93% of the the speech is completely different, isn’t the 6% that is the same, virtually word-for-word, plagiarism?’  

Of course Christie would try to duck it again, but, again, for a veteran interviewer, with THAT subject in the guest chair, wouldn’t you come back with something like:

‘Mr. Christie, you’re a sitting governor, and you were a candidate. If someone on your staff did something like that to you, or your wife, with one of your speeches, in your office in New Jersey, or while you were out on the campaign trail, what would you do? Would you deny it happened?’

Restrict wiggle room. Compel Christie to give a more meaningful answer. 

America’s largest media outlets are often so risk averse, so afraid of truth telling, offending GOP guests who have demonstrated that they will “boycott” stations that get tough on them, that they have lost the ability to hold our politicians, any of them, accountable.

The news is no longer about information, or truth. It’s about entertainingly filling time between the commercials in a way that will keep people “tuned in” without offending anyone, especially conservatives, who are a larger percentage of the American population, around 40%, and good consumers of news that is tailored to their belief systems, as the highly-rated Fox News demonstrates.  

Do some anchors ask tough questions?  There are a few notable exceptions: Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow on the liberal side, Megyn Kelly at Fox in the conservative space, and, in the mushy middle, Anderson Cooper at CNN.

Very few anchors will push a “guest” on factual inaccuracies, and seldom are they allowed to do it in depth.  When Candy Crowley fact checked Mitt Romney in one of the presidential debates of 2012, one of the few times a Republican trying to muddy the water was caught and stopped in the moment, the Right-wing noise machine went apoplectic.  

That politicians walk all over the news media gave Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert epic careers. They became iconic infocomic heroes. No anchors or pundits in the media, since the departure of the gregarious Keith Olbermann from MSNBC, speak truth to power the way that they, and the comedy writers and performers behind them, have done.

It may also be why only 4 in 10 Americans trust the media, as Gallup found last year. 

We hear a lot of propaganda about “liberal bias” in the media. The media may be full of people who happen to be liberal, but the Right largely sets the agenda and controls the news cycles, often by what they put into the news space.  

The more outrageous the language, concept, or proposal, from “You Lie” Joe Wilson to Donald Trump’s Mexican-built border wall, the more air time is drawn to conservatives, and the more news-oxygen starved issues like global warming, health care, and other liberal/progressive issues become.

Just as the Far Right talked about  the“activist judges” on the Left so they could place their own “activist” judges into play on the Right without criticism, cries of “liberal” bias in the media produces this paralytic smoke screen of “balance,” that hides the Far Right’s real agenda.

On the subject of “fair and balanced,”  ABC/CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour put it best in a 2012 Vanity Fair interview:

“You give all sides a fair hearing, and you also make it absolutely clear what the facts are and what the truth is. We’re having this debate at CNN now about this whole question of balance and neutrality. At least for me, journalism isn’t about ‘on the one hand ... on the other.’ In the end, it’s about accountability—holding power accountable.”

A free press is essential for a functioning democracy. A free press brings with it accountability. Accountability is the thing that the powerful do not want.  

So they go about owning media that creates a good deal of the polarizing toxicity in our politics, and diverts attention from accountability for themselves and their wealthy peers.

  • Viacom’s Sumner Redstone (CBS) flipped to the conservative camp in 2004, supporting George W. Bush and the Republican party; At the same time, the Killian Documents controversy with Dan Rather was gutting William S. Paley’s legacy to television journalism, CBS News, that Viacom had acquired;

  • Arch conservative Rupert Murdoch (News Corp.) set Roger Ailes into motion with Fox News and controls some of the top conservative print media in the world, including The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post (Ever the opportunist, Murdoch also owns the New York Daily News, the liberal-leaning publication). Many attribute the dumbing-down of news around the world to his brand of polarizing yellow journalism;

  • Mitt Romney’s old firm, Bain Capital, is a co-owner of Clear Channel, which stokes Right Wing Radio stations with the syndicated radio programs of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Sean Hannity;

  • Richard Mellon-Scaife (”Dickie”) recently passed. His family owns newspapers, television stations, and has spent millions to put conservative think-tanks into place to turn the media and our educational systems to an extreme conservative point of view that is out of step with the majority of Americans;

Sensationalism and outrage are not new components to the American political scene. Before Murdoch and Ailes there were the famed “yellow” journalists of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer media empires.

What is different, in 2016, are the hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into the political and media systems by a handful of ultra-rich Americans, much of which gets focused on manipulating the news media, to create complex misdirections that distract both the news media and the public.

The Koch Brothers, alone had a nearly $900m war chest ready in 2015 for the 2016 election cycle that allows them to execute their assault on the inner workings of government while distracting media with hot-button social issues in a bit of sleight of hand that would make David Copperfield’s disappearing pyramid pale by comparison.

It’s a Misdirection 101 that any magician could easily understand: Attack women’s rights on the one hand. Pass a few dozen bills to remove regulations on industry or “harvest” in a national forest with the other hand.  Generate controversial laws that persecute the LGBTQ community, or ethnic groups, and then dismantle agencies that inspect pipelines or off-shore platforms.  

Today we largely have pundit-lite, people who play the game, and serve up softballs or do the bidding of their bosses in the back to improve their appeal to conservative viewers by tossing up mushball questions or avoiding follow-up questions on statements demanding them for public accountability.

CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, former Meet the Press host David Gregory, and even current MTP host Chuck Todd, can tiptoe through an interview rife with inaccuracies and mendacities without offending those being interviewed by calling them out.  A Tim Russert, briefed, prepared, and fair, has not yet reappeared in network news.

Could Edward R. Murrow, long forgotten dean of the anchors at CBS, NBC’s Tom Brokaw, PBS Jim Lehrer, CNN’s Bernard Shaw, CBS’ Walter Cronkite, Charles Kuralt, Charles Osgood or Bob Schieffer meet the low bar of news division czars like former NBC News and current CNN Worldwide chief Jeff Zucker? 

Business-trained people like Zucker aren’t news people. He chases ratings and ad dollars. Period.  Fox News has pretty people. CNN has pretty people. Ultimately Candy Crowley wasn’t pretty enough, so 27 years of experience and news savvy was shown the door.  Trump? He’s nothing more than an ad multiplier.

“These numbers are crazy — crazy,” he told the New York Times’ Jim Rutenberg, speaking about ratings during the GOP debates earlier this year. “How crazy? Two-hundred-thousand-dollars-per-30-second-spot crazy on debate nights, 40 times what CNN makes on an average night, according to Advertising Age. That’s found money.”

Pimping for a candidate like Trump, simply to ride the cash tide, is not what the news is about.  The Fourth Estate serves as a filter, a magnifying glass, not a soapbox for people whose only purpose is to be famous. That’s what reality television, Mr. Trump’s true home, is for. Entertainment is a different division.

The billions touted being spent on elections go, mainly, to the news media outlets, or controlling them.  Republicans outspend Democrats routinely, which is why the news cycle, which is geared by people like Zucker towards chasing profit centers, skews to the Right.

CBS’ owner, William S. Paley, who established one of the best news organizations in the world, CBS News, never assumed his news division was going to make money. Neither did the other networks, 35 years ago. 

“They presented news programming for the prestige it would bring to their network,” Nieman reports notes, “to satisfy the public-service requirements of Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, and more broadly so that they would be seen as good corporate citizens.”

Entertainment made enough of a profit, and networks, largely thanks to Paley’s example, ran their news divisions at a loss. As a public service.

To make a profit, news divisions started telling more entertaining, compelling stories of human interest. Their morning programs became prettier, faster, and more superficial.

There is a way, though, back from the vacuous void of news without accountability.

Pay for it.

We do now. Well, at least via that oversized cable television bill, which dices a little money to CNN, MSNBC, Fox, etc.  We’re rapidly moving into the “App” age of television. We’ve seen that news shows on paid networks, likeHBO’s VICE, can be as good, if not better than some of the best journalism we’ve seen in the “golden era” of “free” commercial-driven TV news. 

We’ve paid for newspapers. Magazines. Via commercials, or NPR pledges, television. Is it worth $1 a day to get a quality video/internet news agency that is more worried about the substance of the news than the side show?   

 TV computers like Apple TV now have an app for CBS News. That’s the future. How it will be stocked by wealthy media magnates is really the question. Is there a new Bill Paley out there, who will stand up for that most American of values: A strong, free press.

The scandal isn’t Mrs. Trump’s speech. It’s the woeful state of the systems that bring that story to you.