by Mitch Croom
Since Donald Trump gained the Republican nomination for president, various news organizations have written articles following this question: “Is Trump stupid, or is he a total genius playing us all?” Until today, I remained firmly of the “stupid” opinion, a view validated by Trump’s shrinking poll numbers and the increasing endorsements of Hillary Clinton from Republican policymakers and publications. And yet, in the wake of recent scandals and pseudo-scandals, I feel obligated to reevaluate that analysis. Despite flagging poll numbers, particularly at the state level, Trump could still win. And here’s how: desensitization.
As I write this, the story du jour is about Hillary Clinton’s pneumonia, which forced her to leave a September 11 memorial event early. The press is giving air time to theories about her health, allowing conspiracy nonsense into the mainstream. No analysis of the situation is being offered by the press. No anchors are pointing out that it’s fairly remarkable for a 68-year-old woman to maintain a campaign schedule with pneumonia, and that it shows remarkable fortitude to be out of the house at all. In an effort to cultivate ratings, the media is betraying their public trust, letting people believe that there just might be something to the “theories” of her poor health, which are blatantly based on nothing but photos taken out of context.
But feckless cable news networks, unwilling to give up one inch of ground in the Great Ratings War, casually abdicate their journalistic ethics.
Instead of pointing out that people get pneumonia all the time, that it will be cured in short order, and that Clinton has shown serious strength in conducting her campaign while ill for several days, they simply invite people of all stripes, including rabid Hillary-bashers, to form panels. They “moderate” idiotic round robin discussions at which nothing of substance is said. They fill the 24-hour news cycle with garbage.
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If there were nothing else worth reporting, this would simply be crappy news programming. But there is something else of critical importance to the American voter that is being absolutely ignored to make room for pneumonia-gate. On the morning of September 12, Trump went on CNBC and demonstrated an appalling ignorance about economics that should make everyone fear for the American economy under his presidency. He called the US stock market “a false market,” which is insane. I literally do not know what he could have meant. The only way it could be a “false market” is if the massive bodies of information collected about the stock market at dozens of major financial institutions are somehow false, an allegation that is as shocking as it is stupid. To validate his argument, Trump claimed that his trust in the market is so little, he doesn’t even invest. While he hasn’t released his tax returns, we know this is a categorical lie, and he has millions of dollars of stock, not even counting his own companies.
That same day, Trump’s highest-profile foreign policy advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn (US Army Ret.), separately went on CNN and denounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) for giving too many concessions to China. And while I try my hardest to respect anyone in uniform, having grown up in a military town and possessing great respect for service members’ experience and expertise, I have to go full-on smug-liberal-on-the-internet right now. Because China is not a party to the TPP. The tacit goal of the TPP is to build stronger economic ties with smaller East Asian nations in order to counter Chinese influence. While reasonable people can have valid disagreements over the merits of the TPP, the idea that China is getting any kind of concessions from this deal is totally foolish.
In any other election, one surrogate saying something stupid on CNN is not newsworthy. But Trump is a complete novice in the fields of international relations or national security, and says it’s not a problem, because the real experts are stupid. He says he will depend on his “very good brain” and on his advisors to make up for his stunning and total lack of actual work in that arena.
So when one of the few foreign policy professionals to actually endorse him apparently hasn’t grasped the fundamental point of the most important trade agreement of the decade, it doesn’t inspire confidence, and the people should hear about it on the news.
And yet they don’t.
This disparity is more than a function of false balancing. Commentators have extensively remarked that giving equal airtime to Republicans and Democrats isn’t actually an equitable endeavor, since it assumes equivalence in the relative merit of the argument each side is presenting. For a long time, sensible Republicans have been shut out as the Tea Party fringe has dominated their party, leading to inane positions undeserving of airtime anywhere. But our present predicament is more than that. This isn’t high-minded news organizations trying to give the Reds and the Blues balanced broadcasting. This is the shameless pursuit of ratings.
Aaron Sorkin, for all of his insufferable smugness, had a point in HBO’s The Newsroom: the news should inform the voter of anything that might be relevant to their decision in November. Human interest pieces are fine, but they cannot be allowed to replace actual news. But as that show tells us, informing the voters is like forcing children to eat their vegetables: it makes you unpopular. And in a news establishment devoid of a moral center, popularity is everything. Ratings are king. Civic responsibility is not a factor.
Donald Trump got so much airtime because he is entertaining, not because he is likeable. The news hates him, but to co-opt another advertising phrase, hate sells. Airing Trump’s face brings his fans and his opponents to your channel, either to cheer or hate-watch. Trump’s terrible summer came from this airtime, as he volunteered racist, sexist, and anti-American sentiments on live national TV. The people were rightly appalled. And as he cratered, our complacency grew. When he said more terrible things, what did it matter? No one cares what someone who’s down by 10 points in every swing state says. But in this apathy could hide our destruction.
Trump casually threw out baseless accusations about Clinton’s health a month ago. As with most of what he says, it was a blatant lie. Nothing has occurred to make anyone suspect Clinton’s health in all her time in public office. But this lie hit the jackpot – soon after, she becomes ill at a September 11 memorial event and takes time off from the campaign to recover from pneumonia. Cue internet conspiracy theorists, Fox News contributors, and the newly empowered “alt-right.”
With the smallest show of weakness, theories about Clinton’s health gained enough traction to get the attention of moderates, and suddenly that’s all we can cover on cable news.
No one wants to hear about one more crazy thing that Trump has said. People adapt to their environment. It’s the same fundamental reaction as not being able to smell your own cologne or perfume after wearing it for ten minutes. We expect Trump to be crazy, so when he is, we no longer pay attention. It’s been ten minutes, and the perfume isn’t noticeable anymore. The problem is, no prospective president should have said any of these things. But because of the sheer amount of absurd things he has said so far, he actually takes a lesser hit every time he says something new. What’s the marginal cost of one extra crazy statement? Apparently nothing.
The only people who could correct this dangerous ambivalence to a major party nominee’s obvious megalomania and ignorance are the media. They could take it upon themselves to consistently point out the insanity that is the Trump candidacy. Even when ratings flag and viewers complain about hearing the same story every day, they should continue to point out that a man who is within the margin of error of the presidency in some polls has zero understanding of basic principles of politics or policy. Why should they do this? Because we, the people, gave the major news networks access to the public airwaves for free, on the condition that they produce programming dedicated to the public interest – usually, the nightly news hour.
When they use this hour to focus on ephemera, on “scandals” that don’t exist, and on false equivalencies, lies, and distortion, they betray that public trust.
This isn’t a partisan issue. Of all the reporters in this campaign, the one who has done the single best job at calling Donald Trump on his BS is, by common agreement, Megyn Kelly. That is not an easy sentence for me to write. But she stood up to Trump during the campaign, during his coronation summer and during the general election. She has never cowered or groveled in the face of his misogynistic remarks about her or his threats against other reporters. She is no friend of Hillary Clinton, and that bias shows through consistently, but it’s not important that every journalist be perfectly fair all the time. It’s important that they keep putting the issues that matter on the table. So even though, as I write this, Ms. Kelly is contributing to those stories that legitimize foolish conspiracy theories about Secretary Clinton, I still praise her. If everyone in journalism took a page from her playbook, we would all be better off.
From the cowardice of Joe Scarborough to the sycophancy of Sean Hannity to the effective paralysis of Matt Lauer, the worst part of Election 2016 may be the total lack of journalistic integrity. We need a new Walter Cronkite or Edward Murrow for a new age, in which journalists have to reject the temptation to chase ratings, instead informing the public of information that’s critical to their decision at the ballot box. That information is not getting through. In the “age of information,” attention is the scarce commodity. News anchors at NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX command the attention of tens of millions collectively every night. They ought to use it better.
If we never get back our ability to smell this rancid cologne – if we allow ourselves to become desensitized to Trump’s ignorance, his arrogance, his shocking lack of compassion and his blatant bigotry – we may make a collective choice on November 8 that we cannot undo. If the media isn’t willing to hold up journalistic principles, then it falls to us to do so. So read that article about some Hillary email or illness – and then go look up what Trump and his advisors have said today. Evaluate their arguments. Listen to their blather. Think about who you want in the Oval Office in January. And then tell your friends about it.
Don’t let insanity go unchallenged. It’s our republic, but only if we can keep it.
Mitch Croom is a joint BA/MPP student at the College of William & Mary, where he studies international security, American politics, and civil rights. He is the current Senior Research Fellow at the Project on International Peace and Security, the only undergraduate think tank in the world. Also at W&M, he serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Monitor Journal of International Studies, the Chair of Student Life in the William & Mary Student Assembly, and the President of the Graduate Policy Association.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no institutional positions on matters of policy or opinion.
The image above was produced by Michael Vadon is under a CC BY-SA 4.0 and can be found here.