Journalists Who Normalized Trump Betrayed the Public Trust

You know, it’s not like they weren’t warned.

CNN’s Brian Stelter was generally spot-on this morning in pointing out the dangers of the rhetoric that flowed from Donald Trump’s mouth Saturday night in Pennsylvania, but he could have gone a little further–hell, a lot further:

Here’s the problem: Trump has been this way for years. There has never been a time when he wasn’t vulgar or vicious or vainglorious. However, from the outset from his campaign, the Fourth Estate has generally sought to downplay and normalize this abnormal figure in our politics.

How many times did the press run stories about Trump “pivoting” to becoming “presidential”? How many times did major American newspapers–most notably the New York Times–run insipid, mawkish, borderline-unreadable “into-the-heart-of-Trump-country” stories? How many times did cable news networks–including CNN this morning–give valuable airtime to shameless Trump lackeys?

Journalists who genuflected to both Trump and the voters who either embraced or ignored his bigotry bear partial responsibility for this madness. Those journalists had a moral and ethical responsibility not to downplay the threat this man posed to the civic soundness of this nation–and they neglected that responsibility.

I have observed that Trump and George W. Bush should be regarded as equally vile and equally injurious to our democracy. Trump and Bush are also equal in terms of the extent to which Fourth Estate figures kissed their rear ends in the interests of false balance. Remember the coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign, when Bush was depicted as a nicer, funnier, more interesting figure than the allegedly dour, boring, overly wonky Al Gore? Remember the coverage leading up to the Iraq War, when the press refused to ask the hard questions about whether or not we were being sold a bill of goods?

Journalists who normalized Bush in the 2000s effectively aided and abetted Bush’s deadly deception in Iraq (to say nothing of his hubris at home). Journalists who normalized Trump in the 2010s made the same despicable decision, for the same rancid reason.

Reporting comprehensively on the profound character flaws of Presidents or presidential candidates who happen to be Republicans is not, and never was, a form of “liberal bias” or “Democratic cheerleading.” Kissing up to those who are comfortable with racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia is not being an “objective journalist”; it’s simply being a fool and a chump.

In response to Trump branding him a “son of a bitch,” NBC’s Chuck Todd kinda misses the point:

“I bring my kids up to respect the office of the presidency and the president,” Todd said during a brief appearance on NBC’s Washington affiliate. “I don’t allow them to say anything negative, ever, about the president.” He added, “It creates a challenge to all parents when he uses vulgarities like that.”

What happens when a president doesn’t respect the office of the presidency, or the people that president is supposed to serve? What happens when a president willfully divides a nation, pits group against group, lies on a seemingly minute-by-minute basis and attacks the Constitutionally-protected press and his political adversaries in the most diabolical of ways? What happens when a president cultivates support from white nationalists and voters who don’t think white nationalism is a problem? Doesn’t the press have an obligation not to sugarcoat the hazards of this sort of behavior? Todd didn’t play pattycake with Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin this morning, but how many times have we seen Todd’s colleagues play pattycake with Trump acolytes in the name of “respecting the office of the presidency and the president”?

In the wake of Trump’s repulsive remarks in Pittsburgh, it’s time for the press to pivot, and stop normalizing this nonsense once and for all.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.