On CNN’s “Reliable Sources” on Sunday, host Brian Stelter began the program with a segment on the “troubling behavior by Donald Trump’s right hand man, campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski.” It was almost as if CNN just now discovered that there was anything “troubling” about Drumpf’s campaign at all, let alone what his gangsterish groupies, including those working for him, have been doing at his hateful rallies for months now. But at least, you may have noticed, CNN and MSNBC have lately been critical of some aspects of Drumpf’s effort to become con man-in-chief. That’s a good thing. But.
A guest on the segment, Jeff Greenfield—a television journalist whose political experience goes back to 1960s—made the point that “an appetite for the ratings” has turned much of cable news into Castro-like “state TV” on behalf of Drumpf. Greenfield also made an additional point about the kind of journalism we have been seeing since the GOP front-runner hit the stage with his bigoted act:
I think the desire to have him on—and the unpreparedness of so many of the people interviewing him—will stand for a long time as a serious black mark on the American press.
That indictment is true enough and bad enough. But perhaps Greenfield’s most important point was something else he noted, what he called “one of the essential questions.” He explained:
As the media, some of it, had gotten critical about Trump, it has had no effect on his support, and one of the really central questions we’re going to have to face is whether a chunk of the American electorate has been taught to distrust the media so long and so completely that even when the media zeroes in on some of Trump’s blatant falsehoods or the dangerous rhetoric, his supporters say, “Oh, that’s coming from The New York Times or CNN or in some cases even FOX. We don’t believe it.”
And the whole theory about what the press is supposed to do in a free society, to put spotlights on political people seeking power…we may be in a situation where a fairly large chunk of the United States electorate is saying, “We don’t care what you say. We don’t believe you. If Trump says it, it’s true.”
And that’s a real problem. I don’t know how we deal with that.
Yes. It’s a real problem. And I don’t know how we deal with it either. For years, going at least back to William F. Buckley’s dominance of the movement, conservatives have always distrusted journalists who weren’t conservative. Beginning in the 1980s, right-wing radio made a fetish out of attacking mainstream journalism, with Rush Limbaugh calling it the “drive-by media” because it was, in his paranoid, ideological mind, completely biased in favor of liberals. In fact, there was so much distrust of the press, so much of a market for niche journalism that would tell conservatives what they wanted to hear, that a new cable channel, masquerading as a news channel, was born. And now, ironically, many conservatives, as Greenfield noted, don’t even trust Fox to bring them “the truth.”
But, sadly, it’s not just conservatives these days who are sowing seeds of distrust by attacking the press. Some liberals are doing it too. And such liberal attacks would be okay, if they were actually making specific, valid claims of bias—for instance, lefty Amy Goodman was also on “Reliable Sources” and she made the point that, in 2015, Drumpf “got 23 times the coverage of Bernie Sanders”—rather than just blanket statements that, like what conservatives do, sow general distrust of mainstream journalism. If journalistic malpractice is going on, liberals (or conservatives) should point it out, but they should be specific and not generalize. A general distrust of the mainstream press hurts the country by making us collectively dumber.
Let me give you just one example of such a harmful generalization coming from a liberal, an example from this morning. Robert Reich—a man whose opinion I normally greatly respect—tweeted the following:
Now, I listened to right-wing talk radio religiously for almost two decades, mostly as a right-winger myself, and I can say that the phrase, “Pay no attention to the national media, who want you to think” is exactly the kind of phrase that would, day after day, slide off the lips of Limbaugh, Hannity, and all the other conservative zealots on the air. And it’s the kind of claim that goes to what Greenfield was talking about when he said a “large chunk” of the electorate so distrusts the press that they simply refuse to believe even basic facts.
I realize Robert Reich is a fierce Bernie Sanders supporter. Fine and dandy. He can say all kinds of nice things about Bernie and even tell people the race is not yet over if he wants to. But come on. Just because journalists are, quite accurately, reporting how exceedingly difficult the math is for a Bernie comeback, that doesn’t mean Bernie supporters should undermine the role of journalism by resorting to that old Limbaughesque “they want you to think” nonsense. I see no difference between saying, as Greenfield put it, “We don’t care what you say. We don’t believe you. If Trump says it, it’s true,” and “We don’t care what you say. We don’t believe you. If Bernie says it, it’s true.”
The press, particularly television journalism, has a lot to answer for regarding the Drumpfing of America, that’s for sure. The CEO of CBS, Les Moonves, did really say that Drumpf’s presidential run was a “good thing,” mostly, I am sure, because of what he also said: “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Thus, it is completely fair to criticize on-air journalists and their producers and their corporate bosses for specific cases of malpractice, like the way coverage of Drumpf has been handled since last summer. But the conspiratorial rubbish—“Pay no attention to the national media, who want you to think”—is the kind of paranoia that belongs on the right, not on the left.
We should be better than that.