Let’s play newspaper editor. Here is your green celluloid eye shade, your shirt garters and the stump of a cheap cigar to jam between your lips.
Close your eyes. Imagine: It’s mid-June 2015. A variety of news stories are vying for your attention. A crisis in Yemen. The resignation of Rachel Dolezal, president of the NAACP in Spokane, Washington, who, despite her vigorous posing, is not really black. The House delays a vote on aid to workers displaced by global trade agreements. Pope Francis calls for action on climate change.
And Donald J. Trump descends the escalator at Trump Tower in New York City to announce that he is running for president and will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created and, oh yes, Mexican immigrants are “bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
Squeak back in your chair, Mr. or Ms. Editor, gaze at the yellowed newsroom ceiling and decide.
Lead with the NAACP, right?
That’s what many news organizations did.
CBS News put both NAACP and Yemen above Trump, whose announcement was listed fourth on their daily roundup, under “Vanity Campaigns.” The New York Times listed Trump sixth in “Your Tuesday Briefing,” after Yemen, the House inaction, Rachel Dolezal and the pope.
As Trump’s march to the White House moves from farce to near inevitability, fingers of blame are shooting out in every direction. Quite a few are pointing at the media.
“The media gives him too much attention and exposure,” reader Milt Trenier wrote a few days back, reflecting a chorus of others, who insist the solution now is for us to divert our gaze.
“Let the media and press marginalize and ignore him,” wrote reader Richard Reifler.
That isn’t our call. The media report on what is happening, not on what they might wish was happening. At first, Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old self-proclaimed socialist, seemed a long-shot crank. Hillary Clinton was going to paste him. The Feel-the-Bern crowd was always crying that they were being ignored, that for no good reason the campaign of the former secretary of state, New York senator and first lady was getting more attention than the Quixotic quest of a radical from Vermont.
Then Sanders started to get turnout and votes, and suddenly the media woke up to him. He earned the media’s attention. Now he might beat Clinton, and if he doesn’t, no one can say he didn’t generate press.
“Media” is plural, of “medium.” “The media” are lots of folks, who aren’t examining Trump because it’s good for newspaper sales or viewers or clicks or whatever we’re trying to do nowadays. The media are thousands of reporters, editors, producers, anchors, columnists, pundits, half-wits, and anyone with a Twitter feed, all vomiting reportage and opinion into the vast swirling cyclonic wordstorm that is the Internet.
They make countless individual decisions of what to cover. Sure, we could ignore the guy calling for Muslims to be barred at the border. But is that really responsible? I’d say that would be reckless. The problem isn’t that we covered Trump too much; the problem is we aren’t covering him enough, not telling the American people exactly what kind of thug they’re flirting with.
There is something pitiable and nostalgic in the notion that the media could create Trump, a view that harkens to the days of moguls, of William Randolph Hearst sending his telegraph, “Puff Graham” to his California flagship to cover the handsome young evangelist’s Los Angeles rally in the 1940s. Maybe it did once work like that.
But it doesn’t work like that anymore. The media dulls its claws on a cause as often as it draws blood. The Sun-Times thundered away on the Koschman case for years. To me, we were straying away from journalism and into performance art, because nothing was happening. Then, mirabile dictu, the rusted gears of justice actually turned a bit, the exception that proves the rule. If the media had true power to change things at will, then everybody would subscribe to a newspaper.
If not the media, then whom? Blame Trump for spooning sugary hatred into the baby-bird yapping maws of everyone who’s afraid of immigrants, afraid of trade, afraid of Muslims, and, in general, afraid. Blame the Republican rank and file for gobbling it up so eagerly. Blame the Republican leadership for lovingly tending the loamy, fertile soil of backward-gazing nihilism that Trump is now growing and thriving in.
Blame yourself too. Because he is giving you what you want. Some of you, anyway. Don’t blame the media. We just report fires; we don’t set them, and we don’t put them out.