It will be remembered as one of the most dramatic moments of this dark era.
Tuesday night, after another sleazy speech by Donald Trump, Don Lemon of CNN set aside fears of being accused of “liberal media bias” and spoke the unvarnished, unfiltered truth about arguably the single worst Commander-in-Chief in United States history:
Those words had more power than all of Trump’s armies. Those words were a hard rhetorical slap in the face of the 45th President–a linguistic smackdown of this wrestling-obsessed fool in the White House. Four decades after Peter Finch’s commanding performance in Network, a real-life Howard Beale declared that he was mad as hell, and he wasn’t gonna take this anymore.
It’s a shame that such naked honesty is in short supply in the mainstream press. Had more cable- and broadcast-news personalities taken a firm stand against obvious extremism, our democracy would not be in peril today.
We needed a “Don Lemon moment” in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan oozed his way into the White House. The rise of Reagan coincided with the rise of the organized Right, which struck down upon reporters who asked serious questions about the Reagan agenda with great vengeance and furious anger. Reagan and his cronies were able to intimidate the press, a key step in radically remaking American politics.
We needed a “Don Lemon moment” in the 1990s, when the nasty and grotesque Newt Gingrich seized control of the House of Representatives and began the process of fully radicalizing the GOP. Looking back, where was the truly critical coverage and analysis of just how rabid the Republican Party had become? Where were the broadcast- and cable-media figures who would stand up to the nascent conservative-entertainment complex and declare that Gingrich’s agenda was at odds with fundamental American values?
We needed a “Don Lemon moment” in the early-2000s, when George W. Bush began to hustle us into Iraq. Why didn’t broadcast- and cable-news entities subject the Bush administration’s claims to the strictest possible scrutiny? Why did reporters allow themselves to be swindled by known con artists?
We needed a “Don Lemon moment” in the late-2000s, when the Tea Party began to harness racism and resentment into a truly potent political force. Why didn’t the Fourth Estate point out the fact that this was a moment formed solely to a) obstruct the first African-American President and b) enrich right-wing billionaires? Why didn’t reporters realize that they were normalizing bigotry by covering the Tea Party as though it were a legitimate movement, and not just a front for the “alt-right”?
It is not “liberal bias” to point out that one of America’s two major political parties has, for the past five decades, been committed to promoting racial discord, funneling wealth to the very top, denying overwhelming scientific evidence and defending the most extreme elements of American society. If facts are considered “liberal” or “partisan,” well, as Walter Cronkite put it, that’s the way it is.
If a political party threatens democracy by making it harder for citizens to vote and opposing any and all efforts to prevent billionaires from effectively buying elections, then reporters have both a professional and moral obligation to subject the party’s actions to intense scrutiny.
If a political party’s leader tacitly embraces the heinous ideology this country fought in World War II, and uses the power of his office to aid convicted felons who share his racist views, then reporters must make it clear that such actions are radical and irresponsible.
As Keith Olbermann observed seven years ago:
Insist long enough that the driving principle behind the great journalism of the [Edward R. Murrow] era was neutrality and objectivity and not subjective choices and often dangerous evaluations and even commentary, and you will eventually leave the door open to pointless worship at the temple of a false god.
And once you’ve got a false god, you’re going to get false priests. And sooner rather than later, in a world where subjective analysis is labeled evil and dangerous, some political mountebank is going to see his opening and seize the very catechism of that false god, words like “objective” and “neutral” and “two-sided” and “fair” and “balanced,” and he will pervert them into a catch-phrase, a brand-name. And he can create something that is no more journalism than two men screaming at each other is a musical duet.
Members of the Fourth Estate–especially those who work for the cable and broadcast news programs from which so many Americans still take their cues–have an obligation to take an adversarial position against obvious lying and obvious bigotry in Washington. If obvious lying and obvious bigotry come disproportionately from one specific party, that’s not an excuse not to be adversarial. Especially now.