In the remarkably similar plots of the classic movies “Fail Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove,” the intricate system of the United States to prevent nuclear war completely breaks down, leaving only one last line of defense, which also fails, and catastrophe ensues. In many ways our election system has been set up to avoid a similar circumstance. However, it is becoming more and more apparent that the “goalkeeper” may not be up to their job.
In this crazy election, many observers (including myself) have always presumed that the news media, the once vaunted “fourth estate,” would be able, if all else failed, to prevent someone who was both completely unqualified and possibly dangerous to become president of the United States. Unfortunately, since this year both major parties somehow nominated people who could easily fit this description, that won’t be possible.
In the world I wish we lived in, Hillary Clinton would be the type of person who the media would, for the good of the nation, unite to destroy before she became the “Leader of the Free World.” But I am well aware that place doesn’t exist.
Consequently, a large part of my very empathic year-old prediction that Donald Trump would facilitate Hillary’s election was based in the presumption that the new media would want to destroy Trump, and save her, at all costs. Very rationally, I figured that Trump’s target-rich profile would provide more than enough ammunition them to leave him looking like month-old Swiss cheese and completely unelectable, even against a horrible candidate like Hillary.
It became very obvious early on that (as I first wrote about 13 months ago) the “conservative” media was going to malfunction as the second “Fail Safe” mechanism (the first was the Republican Party allowing him to gain traction in the first place). But it has always seemed a very safe bet that in a general election the “liberal” media would be willing and able to take Trump out pretty much whenever they wanted to do so.
I was confident in this analysis because of two basic concepts beyond the normal “liberal bias” element which, considering Trump himself is a liberal, may not play much of a role this year. The first is that, to most members of the news media, the only thing better than personal glorification is the self-centered sense that they have done something “good” for the world (ironically, I have found that this penchant for engaging in fake moralism has often led them to do some very bad reporting). The second is that when most of the news media unities in one focus, even in this very fragmented era, they can still produce almost any outcome they want.
During the past couple of weeks it has become clear that the news media may not really be fully devoted to disqualifying Trump and, to the extent that they are, they may be too badly broken as institution to pull it off. This growing concern has led to several interesting opinion pieces in the mainstream media which range from frustration/confusion to overt panic.
The rising realization seems to be, just as I wrote about a couple of months ago, that the modern media may just not be equipped to properly deal with a candidate like Trump. There are many reasons this is the case; his lack of any formal political record, his talent for bringing ratings (which is like kryptonite to the media’s intensity of criticism), his amazing ability to constantly make stuff up so that” lies” are no longer considered “news,” and a dramatic lack of public trust in the news media (especially among conservatives) are all significant elements of this phenomenon.
However, for my money, the three most significant explanations for the news media’s impotence (at least so far) regarding Trump have to do with their pathetically short attention spans in this ratings-driven environment, Trump offering too MUCH fodder for attack, and a “false equivalency” which results in a “fake fairness” of coverage effect.
It is very telling that the only three times that Trump’s poll numbers dropped significantly since clinching the nomination were when the news media, thanks largely to Trump’s own continuing mistakes, focused on the “Mexican judge” and the “Gold Star family” for more than just a day or two, and when the Democrats had their four-day convention. I am a big believer that when it comes to media coverage in the modern fragmented era, it is NOT what is reported that really matters, but what gets repeated which carries the day.
Here is where the news media’s constrained definition of “news” in this new two-hour news cycle, and Trump providing so many different compelling targets, conspire to bizarrely work in Trump’s favor. The news media covering Trump is like an oil driller so sure that a “gusher” is going to be easily found in their incredibly fertile field that they stop boring their holes after only a few feet because they are immediately distracted by a new enticing prospect.
If the news media really wants to “get” Trump (I also think their desire not to crush him too soon so as not destroy the drama of the race may end up being a bit of tragic overconfidence), they should do exactly what they have with regard to Hillary. That is, focus like a laser on one basic subject (her emails) for an extended period of time and watch how the impact takes hold. In short, a devastating revelation known by only 33% of mostly partisan voters is not nearly as crushing as a relatively minor allegation known by 80% of the general population (just ask Ryan Lochte).
As an example, take this Yahoo investigation of Trump seemingly using other people’s “charity” donations to fund a lawsuit by Citizens United (for whom I once worked) against a political enemy in an apparent attempt to avoid criminal liability over Trump University, before then hiring the notorious head of CU, David Bossie, as his deputy campaign manager. In a pre-Trump political universe, this story would be a potential game-ender. Instead, despite being a massive news-junkie with a connection to the story, incredibly and yet tellingly, I never even heard about it until I stumbled on it yesterday (the coverage is muted, I believe, because of “scandal” in the Clinton Foundation, as if they are the same or somehow equally bad, which they are clearly not).
Of all the many “disqualifiers” in the Trump biography on which the media has catastrophically so far failed, the one which stands out the most is the issue of his tax returns. Here is a guy whose ENTIRE campaign is based on nothing more than his alleged wealth and supposedly stellar business record, and yet it does not appear as if he is going to be forced to release any of his tax returns, or even pay any significant political price for not doing so. This despite promising that that he would release them, lying about an audit preventing him from doing so, and his own vice presidential nominee claiming that he would do so.
There was a half-hearted effort to boycott coverage of Trump over his tax returns, but his ratings power is far too great for the news media to ever take a risk for principle like that. Right now, it seems very possible that Trump, who is clearly, just as Mitt Romney predicted long ago, hiding something big, will slither out of this noose.
If the news media allows Trump to get away with this, when no other nominated candidate in the modern era has even dreamed of doing so, it will make letting Barack Obama escape from his “Reverend Wright” association seem like how Joe Paterno got (unfairly) treated in the “Sandusky Scandal” by comparison. In fact, much of the media’s inability, or unwillingness, to take out Trump has got to feel eerily similar to what haunted the Clinton campaign back in the 2008 primaries.
In short, the normal news media motivations are not in play and without most outlets all intensely on the same page, their influence to impact this result is now very much in question (something, which normally, I would be celebrating!). Because Trump is no conservative, he’s great for their ratings, they don’t like Hillary (partly because she’s a ratings killer), and they lack the discipline required to properly educate a very distracted and easily duped public, they may simply not be up to the task of preventing an unqualified conman from being president of the United States.
I still think Hillary will pull this out, but at the very least, the news media’s incompetence is allowing the once unthinkable to now suddenly become very possible.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.