Journalists were aghast this week after news broke of Donald Trump’s singling out NBC reporter Katy Tur, drawing her to the attention of an angry Republican mob. According to the consensus on my Twitter feed, no one should treat journalists that way. The implication was that in attacking the press, and freedom of the press, the GOP nominee was attacking democracy.
I think that’s right, but something about the reaction to that episode, which we have seen time and again during this election (Tur is in good company), troubled me. In voicing outrage, journalists seemed unaware of the role they played in creating this monster who surely would, once in power, cultivate a long list of enemies in the press, and ponder ways to destroy them.
Journalists on the trail tend to act as if Trump were breaking an unwritten rule, which is that major party nominees are supposed to pretend the media do not exist. Of course, the media exist. Trump himself would not exist as an authoritarian threat to democracy without the media. His fortunes rise and fall according to his place in the media’s hierarchy of value. Is it any wonder he attacks whenever the media do not do what he wishes?
The thing about being outraged by a candidate not respecting the rule that the media do not exist is that the media, in not existing, get to be as responsible or irresponsible as it wants.
If reporting is merely a one-way street, in which reporters report and viewers/readers view/read, and there is no such as thing as power and influence doubling back and intensifying themselves in a self-reinforcing cycle, then reporters are freed from the obligation of being aware of empirical reality, of what’s going on. In reality, reporters are embedded in their historical movement, as much in control as out of it, and susceptible, like everyone, to the dynamic interplay between object and subject.
In other words, reporters have agency. Their actions have consequences whether they like it or not. That’s why part of the reaction among journalists to Trump’s singling out of the very hard working Katy Tur is that he’s holding journalists to account. I think he was wrong; he was plainly being his misogynistic self. Even so, he was holding the press responsible for its actions.
Trump isn’t the first to break that rule, but he may be the first to avoid being punished for breaking it. Gary Hart, in 1987, pleaded with journalists who pried into every aspect of his private life to stop. For his trouble, he was harried out of the race, and his once promising career as a Democratic Party reformer fizzled.
Privacy meant something then, and the norm among journalists before the 1988 race had been to respect it. But that norm collapsed after reporters, driven by a mix of careerism, fame, and sheer adrenaline, endeavored to reveal everything about Hart before rationalizing to themselves later that they were hounding the man night and day for the benefit of the American people.
But Trump is special in this regard. The media was not oxygen to Hart. The more reporters paid attention to him, the less attention he wanted. The media are Trump’s oxygen. The more he pushes, the more it pays attention to him. And the vicious cycle continues.
It’s an abusive relationship, and like all abusive relationships, it cannot change for the better if no one in that relationship takes responsibility for their actions. Given that Trump is preternaturally incapable of taking responsibility for anything that does not aggrandize him, the onus is going to be on individual journalists.
And that means reckoning with a horrible conclusion: Just as Trump is a threat to democracy, so too is American journalism as it is currently practiced. The more reporters do their jobs the same way they have been doing them since Gary Hart’s ignominious exit from the 1988 campaign, the more Trump, or his inevitable successor, will grow to be an authoritarian threat.
It’s unclear whether this is clear to my fellow journalists. There has been no indication through this election that journalists are aware of their complicity given the breathless coverage of emails from the Clinton campaign that were hacked by Russian agents, distributed by Wikileaks (whose stated aim is to harm Clinton) and then used by Trump to eat away at Clinton’s support.
Given that every single newspaper of merit, in some cases in spite of their natural inclinations, has expressed opposition to Trump’s anti-democratic and contra-constitutional candidacy, what does it say about journalism when their peers on the campaign trail refuse to concede their role in the rise of Trump?
If Trump is a useful idiot serving the despotic fever dreams of a former KGB agents drunk on power, then it’s not too much farther to conclude that journalists have been equally idiotic and useful.
One the one hand, I stand in solidarity with my fellow journalists in expressing outrage that a nominee of a major political party known for his rank misogyny would single out a woman amid a seething, testosterone-addled throng. But, on the other hand, I cannot stand in solidarity when those same journalists appear willfully blind to their role in feeding The Beast.