Television created him. Now it’s being left to newspapers to rein him in.
I’m talking about Donald Trump and the role the media have played in his ascension. Here’s a man who became a superstar TV celebrity in collusion with NBC, which began airing the reality show The Apprentice a dozen years ago. The show took the Trump brand beyond its New York City roots and into the homes of everyday Americans, making him a household name just as people were looking disparately for a change in national leadership.
The problem with “reality TV” is that it’s not real but, for entertainment purposes, it’s dressed up as reality. It blurs the lines between reality and what’s staged, which helped create a news-as-entertainment mentality that permeates the airwaves these days.
Trump saw this as an opportunity and he took it. He used the media to fuel the “birther movement” with bogus questions about President Obama’s birth certificate and his legal qualification to be president. It was brilliant in its deception and, amazingly, it raised Trump’s political stature. He proved himself a master of the Big Lie and it helped him secure the Republican nomination for president.
When he was nothing more than an faux entertainer, Trump didn’t appear to be a threat, so TV execs rode the wave and hauled in some pretty good money—both as entertainment and as news. “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Leslie Moonves, the network’s executive chairman and CEO, famously said in a Hollywood Reporter story last February. America be damned, he seemed to say, Trump is good TV.
Central to success in the media business is the bottom line. If you can’t pull in readers, listeners or viewers, you can’t sell advertising, and if you can’t sell ads you can’t pay for reporters and fact-checkers, editors and producers, mouthpieces and talking heads. Nevertheless, some in the media still have the courage of their convictions—and, mostly, they’re showing up in newspapers.
Even conservative newspapers are speaking out against Trump’s baseless accusations, his mean-spirited demeanor and his willingness to run roughshod over anyone who gets in his way. The Dallas Morning News, fearing a Trump presidency, endorsed Hillary Clinton and took a big hit in subscription cancelations. So did the Arizona Republic, which has never endorsed a Democratic presidential nominee until now. And here in New Mexico, the moderately conservative Albuquerque Journal editorialized in August that Trump should exit the race despite Clinton being “an awful candidate in her own right.”
Newspapers, I’m proud to say, have a conscience. Perhaps it’s because we’re more closely tied to the democratic values that shaped this country, but whatever the reason, we speak truth to power more so than radio, television and even most social media.
We’re paid to dig up the facts and report them honestly and to the best of our ability, regardless of their entertainment value.
There are plenty of spineless newspapers, but there are more brave ones. During this election cycle, two big-city newspapers have led the way in speaking out about Trump’s deepest and most dangerous flaws: The New York Times and Washington Post. Both have been fearless in their reporting and outspoken in their editorials, and that’s put both newspapers in Trump’s crosshairs. When the Post editorialized in July that Trump is “a unique threat to American democracy,” Trump barred the newspaper’s reporters from his events. And when Times reporters broke the story about women accusing Trump of unwanted sexual advances, he called them every name in the book and threatened to sue the newspaper.
Of course, the Times and the Post have massive news organizations and can hold their own against the likes of Donald Trump. They’ll remain standing long after his candidacy is relegated to the annals of history.
And history will not be kind to Trump and his supporters. He isn’t leading a Reagan-style revolution, as some would have us believe, but more of a McCarthy-style slap in the face, and history will reflect that. So be careful how you vote this election, lest you end up on the proverbial “wrong side of history.”
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange and editor of the Roswell Daily Record. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.