Last week, Donald Trump started naming and shaming journalistic outlets he deemed guilty of something called “media bias.” Thus far, the outlets so judged include MSNBC; the Washington Post; the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; and Politico.
Trump issued his latest pronouncement with a statement critiquing Politico.com’s choice of lead stories on Monday, when they opted for “anti-Trump stories” instead of “unbiased reporting” on his Detroit speech. The statement is illustrated with an annotated screencap of Politico’s homepage, Trump-related headlines circled in digital highlighter, a practice that recapitulates his long-standing practice habit of printing out copies of articles he doesn’t like, scrawling notes across the page, and mailing them back to the author. The charges are also stamped with the words “MEDIA BIAS OFFENDER.”
All of the MEDIA BIAS OFFENDER announcements feign the same exhausted knowingness: “This website usually tilts to the left, but today’s online edition of the Post doesn’t even try to hide the fact that they are essentially a propaganda arm for Hillary Clinton and her campaign.” Meanwhile, Politico, “operates with a click-bait model that places a premium on sensational stories and pushing an anti-conservative viewpoint.”
“It’s no wonder that the online publication has continued its downward spiral from a legitimate political outlet into gossip and tabloid journalism,” Trump’s statement read. But what’s wrong with gossip and tabloid journalism? And what happened to “Why didn’t the National Enquirer get the Pulitzer Prize for Edwards”?
Trump’s ostensible commitment to the purported journalistic values of “objectivity” or “neutrality” is, obviously, part and parcel of his ongoing appeal to right-wing conservatism—consolidating his base of support around his cult of personality, and delegitimizing all truths other than those he provides. This makes it all the more uncomfortable when he identifies something that really is gross, as when journalists at the NABJ/NAHJ conference cheered for Hillary Clinton. (Granted: It was a private event, not a press conference; it’s still gross.)
But even if we take as a given that Trump does not actually believe in anything, and that any values he claims to hold are simply a matter of political convenience—in the manner of, say, a fascist running for elected office—the fact is that his campaign and candidacy has triggered a whole lot of journalistic handwringing in the institutions that sincerely believe in the ideals Trump cynically endorses. Like, for example, the New York Times, where David Carr’s replacement recently ruminated on how “Trump Is Testing the Norms of Objectivity in Journalism.” He wrote:
If you’re a working journalist and you believe that Donald J. Trump is a demagogue playing to the nation’s worst racist and nationalistic tendencies, that he cozies up to anti-American dictators and that he would be dangerous with control of the United States nuclear codes, how the heck are you supposed to cover him?
Because if you believe all of those things, you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, if not longer, and approach it in a way you’ve never approached anything in your career. If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.
“We are a nation protected by norms, not just by laws,” Vox.com’s Ezra Klein, who claims to explain the news, solemnly wrote after the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. In this election, Klein explains—not argues, but explains—Americans are faced with an unfamiliar choice: “The Democratic Party is a normal political party that has nominated a normal presidential candidate, and the Republican Party has become an abnormal political party that has nominated an abnormal presidential candidate.”
The Columbia Journalism Review called it “a Murrow moment,” meaning that journalists should feel free—nay, compelled! obligated!—to say that Trump is being fear-mongering racist, when he is being a fear-mongering racist. CNN’s Brian Stelter (why always him?) took up the cause.
A Murrow moment, indeed. Of course, journalists needn’t even go that far for Trump to brand them as media bias offenders: All one has to do is report unflattering facts about him—and there are ever so many—and he lashes out. That is because Trump is a narcissist, and, by his own admission, this is all a game. “Hope [Hicks, his press secretary] said, ‘Don’t call back because she is only going to write bad things; that is all she knows how to do.’ Then you will write bad, and I will tweet badly about the Times: that they are inaccurate and don’t know what they are doing,” he told Susanne Craig, the New York Times reporter who broke the story about his private jet being unregistered. “And that is what we do. We play the game.”
I am happy to hear how badly the @nytimes is doing. It is a seriously failing paper with readership which is way down. Becoming irrelevant!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2016
To dub behavior like this abnormal—or, to be more explicitly sociological about it, deviant—is to immediately obscure any analysis or interpretation of how a man who played a real estate developer on reality television came to be the Republican Party’s nominee for President of the United States. If your theoretical framework does not account for reality, it is not actually a theory at all, but fantasy—and then we are talking about what we wish were true, rather than what is true.
There is no “normal,” there is only the world as it is. To redefine something unexpected or unanticipated as “abnormal” is to privilege one’s ideas about how the world ought to be over how the world actually is. The wunderwonks of 2012 might not have seen Trump coming, but that doesn’t mean that nobody else did, and it certainly didn’t stop voters from supporting him anyway.
Donald Trump is the Republican nominee. To treat this as meaning anything less than what it does is to erase the individuals who voted for him and the structural conditions that made him an appealing candidate to begin with. Whether that erasure is motivated by ignorance, disingenuity, or laziness makes no difference—the consequences are the same: Whatever comes after Donald Trump loses in November will stretch the norms of journalistic objectivity once more, and this argument over “media bias” will have to be litigated all over again.
I am not just running against Crooked Hillary Clinton, I am running against the very dishonest and totally biased media - but I will win!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 7, 2016
Assuming, of course, that there are even any journalists left by 2020.