We seem to have gotten into a national free-for-all over the behavior of the media — my profession for half a century. I am on the side of both sides, the pros and the cons, the booers and the booed. It is what likely comes from a half century of attempting to sort out the perplexities that come from informing, or, alternatively, misinforming the citizens of a great free land.
Donald Trump is not wholly right about the “fakeness” of the news he delights in castigating. He is not wholly wrong either.
I hope none of this sounds like mealy-mouthed, goody-two-shoes why-can’t-we-just-all-be-friends talk. We can’t all be friends, in the political sense anyway, owing to cavernous philosophical divides that the 2016 elections exposed, rubbing our noses in realities too long hidden under piles of newspapers and film cans.
The President is dead wrong to call the media “the enemy of the American People.” The media hate their customer base? Likelier the media don’t understand their customer base, and in many instances don’t care to. A four-decades subscriber to the New York Times, I gag when Times columnists spit venom at Trump for violating ideals the Times is smugly convinced nearly all Americans embrace, or would if offered a calm, intelligent explanation. For which explanation the Times itself has no time. Not with so much righteous indignation to vent against a president its tribunes regard as banal and dangerous.
So, from the New York Times (which can be seen as standing for the whole body of media hostile to Trump) there proceeds spluttering and nose-thumbing, answered, inevitably, by more spluttering and nose-thumbing. The Washington Post, in a story about Trump supporters and their frustration with the President’s foes and critics, quotes Patricia Melanie of New Jersey as declaring, “There’s such hatred for the man. I just don’t get it.”
Neither do the foes and critics get the reasons behind the frustration. They should try. To begin with, nobody anywhere on the political spectrum likes being lectured to: being informed haughtily, snippily, how stupid his vote was.
“So’s your old man, buster,” is the tried-and-true reply to media types unable to speak of Trump without fear and loathing. That the election of such a Public Enemy might reveal real anxiousness about jobs, taxes, immigration policy, and personal powerlessness is a possibility too awful for Times columnists and CNN anchors to contemplate. Thus the blather about Threats to the First Amendment and America’s Coming Descent into Fascism.
Now. For the other side of the question. Trump has a Ph.D. degree in exaggerated rhetoric. Some find it charming. Plenty of others, for logical reasons, don’t. These say, can’t we at least state our cases without igniting forest fires? The President has the pyromaniac’s love of forest fires: except he isn’t the only one around here playing with matches. The major media’s liberalism — brighter, smokier than in Vietnam-Watergate days — is a problem more intense than when Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, at Richard Nixon’s bidding, lit into the media’s “nattering nabobs of negativism.” Agnew-Nixon policies and strategies confirmed the media in their pride of place, their wish to see themselves as endowed with the right to show America the right, bright way through the darkness of racism, male chauvinism, &c., &c.
And so it’s been since then: media and customers, media and people increasingly separated from each other by mutual incomprehension; unable to agree on basics; tinder awaiting the lighted match.
What’s the way out? I can tell you the way out. It’s old style “Just the facts, ma’am” journalism of the sort still alive, if in decline, when I joined the profession during the Johnson presidency. Don’t take sides. Play it straight. Let readers decide without coaching. I used to tell audiences, when I spoke about the media, “I’m your eyes and your ears; I’m not your brain.” We’re not here, we ink-stained wretches, to run the country; we’re here to help you run it.
That was the idea, and a great one, I still think. Are we up for it? Umm… possibly not just this minute.
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