The Media Is down in the Gutter with Trump

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            How you respond to an attack defines you. Keep your cool, remain civil and others will respect the way you handle yourself, even if they disagree with you. Lower yourself to your assailant’s level and—at best—spectators will dismiss your dispute as a he-said-she-said between two jerks.

            So much has been written about Donald Trump’s debasement of rhetorical norms and his gleeful contempt for truth that there is no need to cite examples or quote studies that count the prolificacy of his lies. Trump’s attacks on journalists—“fake news,” mocking a disabled reporter’s body movements—are contemptible. They undermine citizens’ trust in news media, a serious menace to democracy and civil society.

            Less noticed is how major news organizations, incensed by the president’s trolling, have debased themselves to Trump’s moral level.

            American journalism used to adhere to strict standards. Though impossible to achieve, objectivity was paramount. At bare minimum, reporters were expected to project an appearance of political neutrality.

            Truth only derived from facts—verifiable facts. Not conjecture and never wishful thinking. Sources who wanted to be quoted had to go on the record. Anonymous sources could flesh out background but could not be the entire basis for a story.

            From the start of Trump’s run for president—before the start—Democratic-leaning media outlets abandoned their own long-cherished standards to declare war on him. Every day during the 2016 campaign The New York Times led its coverage with its forecast of Hillary Clinton’s supposed odds of defeating Trump. Setting aside the fact of the Times’ embarrassing wrongness—the day before Election Day they gave Clinton an 85% chance of winning—it cited odds rather than polls. Maximizing a sense of Clintonian inevitability was intended to demoralize Republicans so they wouldn’t turn out to vote. The two figures might suggest the same thing. But 85-15 odds look worse than a 51-49 poll.

            It’s downright truthy. And when truthiness goes sideways it makes you look really, really dumb. 51-49 could go either way. 85-15, not so much.

            The impeachment battle marks a new low in partisanship among media outlets.

            After Trump’s surprise-to-those-who’d-never-been-to-the-Rust-Belt win, outlets like the Times declared themselves members of a so-called “Resistance.” Opinion columnists like Charles M. Blow pledged never to “normalize” Trumpism; what this has meant, ironically, is that Blow’s essays amount to rote recitations on the same topic: normally, about the argument that Trump sucks. Which he does. There are, however, other issues to write about, such as the fact that we are all doomed. It would be nice to hear Blow’s opinions about taxes, militarism and abortion.

            Next came years—years!—of Robert Muellerpalooza. Russia, corporate media outlets said repeatedly, had “meddled” in the 2016 election. Vladimir Putin installed Trump; Hillary Clinton’s snubbing of her party’s 72%-progressive base had nothing to do with the loss of the most qualified person blah blah blah to an inductee in the WWE Hall of Fame.

            Whatever happened to the journalistic chestnut: if your mother says she loves you, check it out? Russiagate wasn’t a news report. It was religious faith. Russia fixed the election because we, the media, say so, we say so because we were told to say so by politicians, who were told to say so by CIA people, whose job is to lie and keep secrets. No one checked out anything.

            What we knew and still know is that a Russia-based troll farm spent either $100,000 or $200,000 on Facebook ads to generate clickbait. Most of those ads were apolitical. Many were pro-Clinton. The company has no ties to the Russian government. It was a $6.8 billion election; $200,000 couldn’t have and didn’t move the needle.

            Anonymous Congressional sources told reporters that anonymous intelligence agents told them that there was more. The Mueller Report implies as much. But no one went on the record. No original or verifiable copies of documentary evidence has been leaked. The report’s numerous citations are devoid of supporting material. By pre-Trump journalistic standards Russiagate wasn’t a story any experienced editor would print.

            It was barely an idea for a story.

            Russiagate fell apart so decisively that Democratic impeachers now act like the Mueller Report—a media obsession for three years—never even happened.

            Speaking of impeachment, mainstream media gatekeepers are so eager to see Trump removed from office that they’re violating another cardinal rule of journalism: if it’s news, print it. The identity of the CIA “whistleblower” (scare quotes because actual whistleblowers reveal truths that hurt their bosses) who triggered impeachment over Trump’s menacing phone call to the president of Ukraine has been known in Washington, and elsewhere if you know where to look, for months.

            Federal law prohibits the government from revealing his identity, and rightly so. But it has leaked. It’s out. It’s news. Nothing in the law or journalistic custom prevents a media organization from publishing it. News outlets felt no compulsion to similarly protect the identity of Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden. So why aren’t newspapers and broadcast networks talking about it?

            “I’m not convinced his identity is important at this point, or at least important enough to put him at any risk, or to unmask someone who doesn’t want to be identified,” New York Times editor Dean Baquet said. So much for the people’s right to know. Why should subscribers buy a newspaper that doesn’t print the news?

            There is a because-Trump change in media ethics that I welcome. What’s suspect is the timing.

            Trump is the first president to get called out for his lies right in the news section. Great! Imagine how many lives could have been saved by a headline like “Bush Repeats Debunked Falsehood That Iraq Has WMDs.” A headline like “Slurring Sanders’ Numerous Female Supporters as ‘Bros,’ Hillary Clinton Lies About Medicare-for-All” could have nominated and elected Bernie and saved many Americans from medical bankruptcy.

            But all presidents lie. Why pick on Trump? His lies are (perhaps) more numerous. But they’re no bigger than his predecessors (see Iraq WMDs, above). Yet discussion of former presidents remains respectful and slavish as ever.

            I say, give coverage of Obama and other ex-presidents the same tone and treatment as the current occupant of the White House gets from the news media:

            “Wallowing in Corrupt Wall Street Cash, Obama Drops $11.75 Million on Gaudy Martha’s Vineyard Mansion Estate”

            “Ellen DeGeneres Sucks Up to Mass Murderer George W. Bush”

            “Jimmy Carter, First Democratic President to Not Even Bother to Propose an Anti-Poverty Program, Dead at TK”

            (Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of “Francis: The People’s Pope.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)


  • The more striking fact about Jimmy Carter, to me, would be that his administration ran diplomatic interference for the Khmer Rouge solely to annoy Vietnam. American foreign policy has often been much more destructive than that, but I don’t think it was ever quite as shameful.

    • Apart from Indochina, in his classic piece if the Nuremburg laws were applied … (then every post-war American president would have been hanged) Noam Chomsky has this to say about Carter:

      Carter was the least violent of American presidents but he did things which I think would certainly fall under Nuremberg provisions. As the Indonesian atrocities increased to a level of really near-genocide, the U.S. aid under Carter increased. It reached a peak in 1978 as the atrocities peaked. So we took care of Carter, even forgetting other things.

      With hindsight, many aspects of Reaganism / the neoliberal era began with Carter such as deregulation, political evangelicalism, and indeed the break with the New Deal momentum as Ted points out.

      To be fair, unlike every other recent president who have merely been cashing in their connections after their “service” has ended (and/or drawing disturbing pictures in the bathtub) Carter has since then supported proper causes like curing blindness and monitoring elections surprisingly evenhandedly.

      • “If the enemy had done it and couldn’t show that we had done it, then it was a war crime. So like bombing of urban concentrations was not considered a war crime because we had done more of it than the Germans and the Japanese. So that wasn’t a war crime. You want to turn Tokyo into rubble? So much rubble you can’t even drop an atom bomb there because nobody will see anything if you do, which is the real reason they didn’t bomb Tokyo. That’s not a war crime because we did it. Bombing Dresden is not a war crime. We did it. German Admiral Gernetz — when he was brought to trial (he was a submarine commander or something) for sinking merchant vessels or whatever he did — he called as a defense witness American Admiral Nimitz who testified that the U.S. had done pretty much the same thing, so he was off, he didn’t get tried. And in fact if you run through the whole record, it turns out a war crime is any war crime that you can condemn them for but they can’t condemn us for. Well, you know, that raises some questions.” — From your Chomsky link, Andreas

        Violations of the US Constitution are decided in a likewise manner.

        If one Party violates the Constitution, by such as making war without a Declaration of War, then the other Party can make war in violation of the Constitution with impunity. The Supreme Court defers such common violations to the Parties as political questions.

        Thus terms of the Constitution are rendered void by these means by the Parties without the use of the Amendment process.

        For example, both parties recognize corporations as [super human] persons, and so they are, and no viable challenge from any quarter will have standing in the Supreme Court.

      • If one Party violates the Constitution, by such as making war without a Declaration of War, then the other Party can make war in violation of the Constitution with impunity.


        since Bush sr. wasn’t caught lying about boinking an intern (who talked about it on a monitored line and didn’t wash the dress) -> Clinton was fair game for impeachment.

        since Biden didn’t, ok so what didn’t he do: so his son did blatantly sell out his name to a Ukrainian oligarch, so Biden openly bragged about extorting a sovereign (sic) country to make judicial changes or have their foreign aid frozen [without that action necessarily benefiting Hunter Biden directly, just goes to show how important he was]…

        but he didn’t do it in order to investigate e.g. McCain’s dealings there -> Trump is fair game!

  • Great column, Ted.

    But, too much truth burns bridges.

  • American journalism used to adhere to strict standards.

    When was that, Ted ? My memories of US politics and journalism go back to the Truman administration (I was around when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was US president, but have no memories from the period), and I don’t recall those «strict standards», at least not as applied to, e g, foreign policy. Not to mention things that were before my time, like, e g, the first «Red Scare» ; any readers here remember the case of Fernando Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti and the manner in which it was reported in the US press ?…


    • That may very well be so, alas newspapers of yore were at least a half-inch thicker in circumference to say nothing of style and register !click here! Top 10 things that will surprise you about the death of journalism !click here!

      [No way this comment is getting past the trigger-happy monitoring system?]

  • Conversely, giving Hillary odds of 85-15 may have actually kept some of her voters from the polls. Why go out on a cold day, stand in line, rub elbows with the riffraff if Hillary is a shoo in?

    In a previous column you wrote of the media support for the Afghan war. The connection is that certain kinds of events sell media. Media has been taking it to the bank over wars and Trump. Ted Rall will not be allowed to upset the cash flow.

    It seems to me that the talking heads and pundits are working from a script. Why else the constant emphasis to come to the “middle” and avoid those “extreme” views that might make things tougher on non-taxpaying corporations like media companies?

    Follow the money.

    • Blame the crappy anti-democratic Constitution, too.

      Democratic states Illinois and California, and the 25 least populous states have approximately the same population and have 4 Senators and 50 Senators respectively, giving the least populous states a 46 vote advantage in the Electoral College.

      I didn’t vote for either of the self dealing parties in 2016, but Hell-ery Clinton had about 3 million more votes than Dumpf.

  • Matt Taibbi – of Goldman-Sachs = Vampire Squid fame – observed that Trump had a knack of bringing his opponents down to his level: that very same gutter.

    Naturally his opponents will then lose – not that it would matter much at this point.

    Last week the Rolling Stone (where Taibbi is on staff) had 4 out 5 trending stories about Trump – and it is nominally music and lifestyle magazine?

    If they cannot resist Trump (because of ratings) then they have no right to complain…

    • I’m looking forward to reading his new book, Hate Inc. He says political news coverage, especially on TV, has degenerated into the style of sports coverage, with a 2 teams mentality(Red states vs. Blue states), it’s for ratings and $$, not public good.
      And who was the idiot who picked Red for Republicans? This is ahistorical, red was for the left(though it can be argued how left the Dems are).

  • Except more often the coverage is not so critical, they cite Republicans who say nothing at all as a legitimate counterpoint and don’t call it out. The current “what is the point of the impeachment the senate will never do it” line of coverage is a great example. Instead of earnestly holding R senators feet to the fire about why they are prejudicing their decision and making them publicly defend the inane Trump excuses they let the R off the hook as if it is OK and makes sense to go along with this Fascism.

    The complaint that it wasn’t better with Bush or Obama is lame. Appreciate what we have now and build on it. Stop echoing RT talking points.

    • Yes, it’s not just about winners and losers horse race. What about accountability?
      Reagan richly deserved impeachment from Iran-Contra as well as other issues other presidents presided over, but we have to move on. I sort of agree with the Chris Hedges argument that impeachment does not solve the problem since our government system is rotten to the core. However why not use impeachment, we have that tool(however subverted the Repubs are making it)