The Media Has To Own Donald Trump Now
I don’t have to recite the litany of his flaws and failings and sheer ignorance. That has all been well documented over the past year or two. And yet, it would seem, a majority or at least close to a majority (we will all find out Tuesday) of Americans seem ready to go over the precipice, knowing full well what they are doing.
Yesterday, the British High Court ruled that only the Parliament could decide on whether the country would leave the EU or not, effectively removing, at least for the moment, the pistol from Britain’s head. Disaster has been averted, at least temporarily.
In America, there is no High Court to save us from President Trump.
In Britain, Brexit was voted upon by a very slim majority of the British population: 52% to 48%. A majority of those voting for Brexit were driven, more than anything else, to vote to leave the EU because of a fear of immigrants. This is the same kind of fear that Donald Trump used to well to break out of the pack of Republican contestants for the nomination, claiming, “I am going to build a wall.”
Brexit found a fertile home in a population that had for years been fed immigrant horror stories by the British tabloid press. Papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail made their living by stirring up the anxieties and fears of the British working class about ‘immigrants taking their jobs’. That Britain suffered from the recession of 2008 and austerity is true, but it had nothing to do with immigrants. They just made a simple and ready target. There was nothing new here, that is what the tabloids had always done.
But when the national debate over Brexit came along, the mainstream press should have presented a vigorous opposition to the tabloids. They didn’t. They felt the need to be ‘balanced’. And so, they presented the Brexit argument, most often a tissue of bald-faced lies about £350m a week going to the EU (not true), and so on, as facts. They gave the Brexit case equal time and in doing so, equal value. They gave equal weight to the Pro-Brexit people as to the anti-Brexit people in an attempt to avoid seeming ‘biased’.
In America, the US press, and particularly television news, did the same thing with Donald Trump.
That he was (and remains) a ratings machine for the networks is inarguable. His three debates with Hillary garnered the kind of ratings you only get with the Superbowl, or nearly so – 84m vs 111m. You just don’t see these kind of numbers for political TV in America. Face The Nation, the country’s #1 Sunday morning political news show gets 3 million viewers – and it’s #1! So Trump was (and is) heroin to TV networks.
As a result, the networks could not take out their collective knives and slice him to ribbons (which would have been easy to do once). That would have been incredibly self-destructive. Instead, they chose, (as The BBC did with Brexit), to present a ‘balanced’ view of the two candidates. Trump says the earth is flat. Hillary says it’s round. Let’s discuss. Good points and bad points on both sides.
In this kind of balance, they imparted a halo of credibility to someone who would have been, and still remains to many, an incredulous candidate. The networks made Donald Trump real, and, if things go as they might on Tuesday, they will have made him the President of the United States.
Where did this notion of ‘balance’ come from?
Many years ago, I took a video camera into Jabalya Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip and spent a month filming what life was like during the Intifada. I was trying to answer the question of what motivated young people to strap on explosives and walk into Israeli cafes and kill themselves and others. Spend a month in Jabalya, and you’ll figure it out.
I did the report for the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour on PBS. When I came back to NY and presented the film to the Newshour, anchor Robin MacNeil demanded a more ‘balanced’ piece. “Where is the Israeli side of the story”, he asked.
“For people living in Gaza, there is no Israeli side. The point of this is to show what life is like in Gaza. When you do a story on Soweto (this was the 1990s) do you also show Praetoria’s point of view? When you do a story on the Gulags, do you demand the Kremlin perspective?”
MacNeil made me screen the piece for a representative of the Israeli government and film and intercut a ‘balanced’ response.
They didn’t want to alienate any part of their audience.
When the networks do a story on Global Warming, they still insist on presenting the ‘other side’ of the argument.
So now we have had two years of ‘balanced’ coverage of Donald Trump. He may very well move into the White House because of that ‘balance’. No one has been ‘alienated’, no viewers lost. Ratings have never been better.
If Trump gets elected, the journalists and media companies will have no one to blame but themselves.
Where is a High Court when you need one?