For some reason, I found myself awake earlier than usual this morning. Perhaps I was eager to begin the new year or something; who knows. Whatever the reason, I started perusing my Twitter feed. There, I once again came across the biggest problem with journalism today.
It started with a nice piece of basic “Twitter journalism” from Kenneth Vogel of the New York Times:
Trump is planning to attend the NYE party at Mar-a-Lago, where they increased ticket prices to $600 for dues-paying members & $750 for guests. Last year’s tickets went for $525 for members & $575 for guests. https://t.co/LF9pcCXepw
— Kenneth P. Vogel (@kenvogel) December 31, 2017
Once again, the Trump family and their organization are making chumps of all taxpayers, by using their status as public servants to personally enrich themselves, led by the creep-in-chief himself, one Donald J. Trump. If the press would report on all such instances, the public would be more familiar with this trend.
Then came the first response by another journalist of some note, Sam Stein, who is no slouch, usually, noting the hypothetical “Imagine President Hillary Clinton…” argument:
Imagine President Hillary Clinton hosting a NYE’s event at the Clinton Foundation HQs and charging people to attend. It would cause a country-wide fever panic… and for good reason. This isn’t even for a charity. It’s for his own club. https://t.co/4UGUNk6l5i
— Sam Stein (@samstein) December 31, 2017
Kind of innocuous, to be sure, but there is no journalistic value in a hypothetical about Hillary Clinton being president, except to note that the right wing jumps on everything the Clintons do as proof that Democrats are as corrupt as they are. In other words, Sam makes an interesting observation, I suppose, but one with no real value, outside of a conversation piece around the dinner table with a crazy right wing uncle. Yes, we know; the right wing is obsessed with the Clintons and they jump on everything a Democrat does as if it is the most corrupt thing to happen in the history of the Republic. The real problem is, the press too often helps them do that.
Of course, what Sam Stein said begs the question; what are you, as a journalist, going to do about it?
But then came a response by none other than Ezra Klein, who is usually one of the finest minds in the journalistic community:
Seriously, check out that last line. “… at least while the opposition party is powerless.” This line is troubling, to say the least, because the ability to take down the powerful is not the job of the “opposition party,” it’s the job of the press.
This is why the press is so important, and why what journalists do matters. What Ezra Klein says here shows a major weakness in journalism. Too many reporters seem to believe that they report facts and someone else takes down the powerful, when that is not at all what happens. It is the job of the press to report everything, to note patterns and to keep the public informed. When the public is fully informed, they will put the pressure on the politicians and create conditions that are impossible for the party in power to ignore. If the press does its job, the GOP would be scared to death to ignore Trump’s corruption. Instead, the press is sitting around waiting for Robert Mueller to get through his investigation and putting everything on the Trump-Russia probe. And while they wait, the ongoing corruption and the pillaging of the Treasury for personal gain goes on unabated. See the problem?
Think a little; the last time a president was impeached, the press led the way, and the press informed the public, who determined at the time that a single sexual encounter in the Oval Office was not serious enough to derail a presidency that was otherwise great for everyone. Republicans went against the public and lost, as Bill Clinton’s approval ratings soared, even as the Republican Senate was trying him for having sex with an intern.
The same is true of Watergate. Democrats didn’t bring down Richard Nixon, the press did. The press reports made it clear there was a problem, and that led the Democratic Congress to hold hearings, to figure out what was going on. And let’s be clear about something else; at the time of Watergate, a lot of right wing politicians were still Democrats. There wasn’t yet the clear red/blue line of demarcation there is now. My point is, the “opposition party” wasn’t the key to Richard Nixon’s downfall, the press and the public were. Nixon resigned because there was no other way out where he could save face.
If the press was doing its actual job – the job they are given by the democratic system – they would have been on the constant and natural corruption of the Trump family from the very beginning. Donald Trump’s entire business career was built on a corrupt base, and an examination of his financial and business history would have made his corruption clear from the very beginning and it would have kept him away from the Republican nomination. I mean, it wasn’t like he was enormously popular, even among Republicans. In the early primaries, two-thirds of Republicans voted for someone else.
An accurate depiction of his business career would have revealed him as a terribly corrupt businessman. Instead, the entire press corps was apparently under orders to normalize him, repeat right wing smears about Hillary and to create a horse race. If the press had told the truth about Trump from the very beginning, we wouldn’t be here right now.
When someone as savvy as Ezra Klein says something like, “Trump keeps proving that if you simply refuse to be ashamed of your corruption and lying, there’s not much the media can do to you…” we have a serious problem. The Republican majority only wants power; they will never do anything about Trump on their own. However, if the press does its job, the public will know what is actually going on. They will know that Trump is enriching himself with every aspect of his presidency and it will motivate them to go to their Republican Congresscritters and do something.
The press is the key to everything. if they don’t realize this, then we have pinpointed the problem we need to fix. The only reason Trump is getting away with everything he’s doing is because no one is calling him on anything. “The media” is so intent on normalizing him, many press outlets are falling over themselves to make him fit into the presidency, when nothing he does actually falls into the traditional role of the position.
If journalists want to be lauded for their work, they will have to realize they have the power and the duty to hold those in power to account. The GOP will only act if they feel the necessary pressure and they will only feel pressure if the public applies that pressure. That’s the key; the importance of the press is to inform the public, so they act.
Every journalist wants to be Woodward and Bernstein, but they don’t seem to understand the basics. It’s time they learned.
Also published on Medium.