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Posted by on Oct 25, 2016 in 2016 Elections, 2016 Presidential Election, Journalism, Media, Politics | 13 comments

The lap dogs of democracy who don’t bark at Trump


WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s closing argument has been to blame his fall on the dishonest, corrupt, horrible, poisonous and biased media.

Trump is correct that there has been something wrong with the coverage. But the problem is that the media didn’t show bias against Trump earlier and more often. I’m not talking about partisan bias, but a healthy and necessary journalistic bias against authoritarianism.

Press treatment of Trump has, gradually and belatedly, become much tougher. But we in the media made Trump possible in the first place and enjoyed the entertainment (and ratings) he provided for far too long. When the election ends — if it ends — there needs to be some newsroom soul-searching.

Journalists for generations styled themselves “watchdogs of democracy,” growling at falsehoods and barking at abuses in the system. David Fahrenthold, Glenn Kessler and many of my Washington Post colleagues have upheld this proud tradition throughout the 2016 campaign.

But in general, watchdogs until recently were outnumbered in this election by those who cover politics as horse race, praising the maneuvers of whichever candidate is ahead in the polls. This avowedly neutral approach — process journalism — is apolitical. But it’s also amoral. a he-said-she-said approach that in this case confused tactics for truth and what works for what’s right.

Consider Trump’s refusal at last week’s debate to say that he would respect the results of the election, a violation of the indispensable notion of the peaceful transfer of power.

But on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” the next morning, the process journalists had a different view. “It’s the revenge of the elites,” Mark Halperin of Bloomberg Politics said. “Elites do not accept that that was an appropriate answer.”

Host Joe Scarborough agreed that the issue was only of concern to “people in newsrooms … with their soy lattes.”

Halperin and Scarborough were wrong; a Post-ABC News poll found that 65 percent disapproved of Trump’s refusal. But that’s beside the point: What Trump said was reckless and dangerous — and saying so has nothing to do with soy lattes.

“Morning Joe” has come in for a large share of criticism for cheering on the rise of Trump. And contributor Halperin’s praise for Trump’s tactical genius has been particularly soulless.

In March, Halperin declared on “Morning Joe” that Trump is “one of the two most talented presidential candidates any of us have covered.” In January, also on “Morning Joe,” he said Trump’s attacks on the Clintons were “politically brilliant.”

In June on his Bloomberg TV show, “With All Due Respect,” Halperin asserted that “it’s not racial” for Trump to attempt to disqualify an Indiana-born federal judge as a “Mexican” because of his ancestry. His reason: “Mexico isn’t a race.”

When Trump named Stephen Bannon to head his campaign, coverage noted the publisher’s strong ties to the racist alt-right. Halperin argued that Bannon “should not have let himself be so defined by others. The guy’s got an impressive resume.”

Earlier this month, when a New York Times lawyer responded to Trump’s threat to sue the newspaper, Halperin said the lawyer’s letter was a “big mistake” because “we have to be fair and even in this campaign and not basically take sides.”

And when Trump was widely panned for calling on Russia to find Clinton’s missing emails, Halperin said, “There is a lot of fault on both sides.”

This is not to pick solely on Halperin, with whom I have clashed over the years. Trump exploited a profession dominated by process journalism, and the entire cable news industry irresponsibly gave Trump unfiltered coverage — the equivalent of millions of dollars of free ads.

In an ordinary presidential campaign, press neutrality is essential. But in Trump we have somebody who has threatened democracy by talking about banning an entire religion from entering the country; forcing Muslims in America to register with authorities; rewriting press laws and prosecuting his critics and political opponents; blacklisting news organizations he doesn’t like; ordering the military to do illegal things such as torture and targeting innocents; and much more. In this case, attempting neutrality legitimized the illegitimate.

It’s not just a concern of the “elites” — nor a dismissal of the real grievances of Trump’s followers — to condemn a candidate’s reluctance to accept a bedrock principle of democracy. There’s nothing “brilliant” about a campaign for the presidency that makes scapegoats of women, immigrants and racial and religious minorities. It’s not “impressive” to consort with white supremacists. It’s not “fair and even” to ignore that much of what Trump has done is a threat to democratic institutions.

And it is absolutely appropriate to “take sides” in a contest between democracy and its alternative.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group

  • The Ohioan


  • rudi

    Let’s not forget Trump’s threat to change libel laws.

    Donald Trump said on Friday he plans to change libel laws in the United States so that he can have an easier time suing news organizations.
    During a rally in Fort Worth, Texas, Trump began his usual tirade against newspapers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, saying they’re “losing money” and are “dishonest.” The Republican presidential candidate then took a different turn, suggesting that when he’s president they’ll “have problems.”

    “One of the things I’m going to do if I win, and I hope we do and we’re certainly leading. I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money. We’re going to open up those libel laws. So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected,” Trump said.

    Under current law, largely determined at the state instead of federal level, public persons, such as politicians, can win a suit against a media organization only if the person can prove that the publication published information with actual malice, knowing it to be wholly incorrect, as well as in cases of reckless disregard. The case that set this precedent — New York Times Co. v. Sullivan — was decided by the Supreme Court in 1964.

    “You see, with me, they’re not protected, because I’m not like other people but I’m not taking money. I’m not taking their money,” Trump said on Friday. “We’re going to open up libel laws, and we’re going to have people sue you like you’ve never got sued before.”

    Trump also wants to abolish the “death tax.” This is all about Trump and his family. He doesn’t give a shit about lower middle class whites.

    • The Ohioan

      Tyrant’s first principle – control the press.

      • dduck

        AT&T+ TW

        • moonlitknight

          Speaking as someone who was working for AOL when the AOL/TW “merger” happened I only have one question. “Are you out of your freaking minds?”

          • dduck


          • KP

            moomlitnight, the TW AOL merger looks like a disaster to me.

            Are you referring to that as a harbinger?

          • moonlitknight

            It was a miserable failure for a myriad of reasons and in a sarcastic way I guess I was indicating that as a harbinger. In recent reading though I was reminded that AT&T is a mature company while at the time AOL was an adolescent. Shareholders(of which I still am one) and customers must hope it will be handled better this time around.

  • JSpencer

    Thank-you Mr. Milbank for taking Halperin and ilk to task. If only we can manage to learn a few things from this election cycle… too much to ask?

  • Robert P. Coutinho

    This article (and many, many more like it) needs to be run in January and February of next year. These people need to be held accountable for what they did and said.

    • rudi

      Come January Hillary will be POTUS and Republicans will hold a slim majority in the House. Trump will be forgotten; the press will cover the impeachment of Hillary for using BleachIt to wipe her e-mail server, or some other phony high crime or misdemeanor.

      • JSpencer

        Right rudi. If only there was some important governing that needed doing. All that last days of Rome stuff must be a potent lure for some folks. Nothing like a little self-fulfilling prophecy to spice things up!

  • Bob Munck

    Least we forget, the WaPo is not entirely without sin in this regard.

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