Newsflash: The American Public is Uninformed

I took a little perverse pleasure in reading Charles C.W. Cooke’s richly deserved critique of Jonathan Chait’s latest pearl-clutching column. Obviously, it simply isn’t true that Chait was genuinely “shocked” at some epiphany he had last night watching Matt Lauer dumb down foreign policy for the hoi polloi.

I had not taken seriously the possibility that Donald Trump could win the presidency until I saw Matt Lauer host an hour-long interview with the two major party candidates. Lauer’s performance was not merely a failure, it was horrifying and shocking. The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists.

I’m not sure how the voice of his intellectual conscience didn’t regurgitate that paragraph the second he wrote it. Chait isn’t stupid and he knows that the American public wouldn’t be seriously considering making a Birther the next president of the United States if the masses inhabited the same news environment as professional journalists. If the American public shared even 25% of the value system of an American newsroom or any faculty lounge in the country, they’d be showing about the same polling support for Trump as the African American community, which is approximately zero support.

Educated people, well-read people, are already convinced that Trump is a charlatan and a demagogue.

But, as Adlai Stevenson once said, “Yes, but I need a majority.”

How does Chait think demagoguery actually works?

By making logical factually supported arguments?

As Republican elites discovered in the primaries, public opinion can be impervious to facts, and never more so than if you feed them a constant diet of bad predictions, bad-faith promises, half-truths and outright fabrications, and then demand that they believe the experts.

But the problem here is different, isn’t it?

The problem is the supposedly enlightened professional journalism class (as embodied in this case by the inestimable Matt Lauer) actually failing to make clear that there is a real difference between the two candidates, one of which is “a normal politician with normal political failings” and the other “an ignorant, bigoted, pathologically dishonest authoritarian.”

As Cooke points out, Chait was not “surprised,” not “shocked,” and he didn’t “realize” anything, unless he means that he never quite understood what a hack Matt Lauer is and how unsuitable a choice he makes to serve as moderator for our presidential candidates.

The public can go any old direction, which is why leadership is so important and demagoguery is so dangerous. This idea that Americans are too good or wise to follow a man like Donald Trump is its own form of American Exceptionalism. Call it the American Exceptionalism of the left-wing professional journalist class.

At one moment, they invest themselves with magical powers to “shape the debate,” and the next they’re shocked to learn that their colleagues pander to the lowest common denominator.

If there’s an “objective” press out there in the first place, it’s not really their job to make clear that one candidate is flawed but suitable and the other is pathological. Their job is to get the candidates to make that clear themselves by how they answer the questions.

Yes, Lauer did a shockingly poor job of that last night. I doubt he’ll be the last “professional journalist” to focus on vacuous but easily comprehensible questions.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.