Pressing Issues

Does Legacy Media Want a Repeat of Election 2016?

Even after January 6th, much of the mainstream press still fails to take seriously the violent, fascistic threats of multiply indicted former president Trump, the GOP frontrunner of the 2024 presidential race.

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In his Veterans Day speech, former president Donald Trump promised to hunt down and murder his political enemies. 

“In honor of our great veterans on Veterans Day, we pledge to you that we will root out the Communists, Marxists, Fascists, and Radical Left Thugs that live like vermin within the confines of our Country, lie, steal, and cheat on Elections, and will do anything possible, whether legally or illegally, to destroy America, and the American Dream.”

He reiterated these threats in his social media posts, in case they weren’t loud enough for those in the back—like the legacy media, who still seem to think Trump’s ravings are some kind of cynical joke.

Lest they doubt him, he is dead serious. Just as every genocidal dictator and authoritarian who preceded him, who derided their foes as subhuman. Consider, for example, Adolf Hitler, who persuaded the Germans that Jewish people were the source of the nation’s ills because they were “traitors from birth” who needed to be eradicated—and with his military and allies, executed millions of Jews, Romanis, LGBT people, disabled people, resistance fighters, among many others he deemed to be enemies of the people. Members of the Tutsi ethnic group in Rwanda were deemed “cockroaches”; the ruling Hutus massacred them without remorse. 

Trump’s words resonated like a chilling, shocking echo, but the New York Times presented them as … an alternative rhetorical choice:

“Trump Takes Veterans Day Speech in a Very Different Direction.” 

What are we supposed to take away from that? It could mean anything? Warmth, perhaps, or a seriousness unheard-of in the Trump years? It certainly does not convey his characteristic vicious, outrageous lies as when he called fellow Americans invaders and pests. 

It was not until readers called out the paper of record that the Times changed the headline, this time to a direct quote. But even that  defanged the racist hatred contained in Trump’s words. 

“In Veterans Day Speech, Trump Promises to ‘Root Out’ the Left,” the headline read,  with subsequent text citing verbatim paragraphs from the former president’s speech, things like  “the illegal aliens pouring into our country” and promises to summarily execute anyone accused of drug dealing. 

Trump was not speaking metaphorically or using hyperbole for dramatic effect, as the press should know well by now after four years of making good on his words. In 2015 and 2016, they discounted Trump’s words as the ravings of an incoherent lunatic, not a viable candidate. And by not taking him seriously and being so eager for the clicks, they helped usher in the most dangerous president ever to enter the Oval Office. Now, former President Trump with his multiple indictments is making his presidential bid once again, leading a pack of GOP candidates by a landslide and echoing the calls from dictators worldwide who inspired their followers to violence. At this particular speech, Trump was promising to hunt down and extinguish other Americans he considers to be subhuman. In the plainest terms, he told us he would kill anyone who stood in his way. 

And he kept saying it. Less than a month later, TFG gleefully declared that he would be a dictator “on day one” in order to punish those who opposed him politically. 

Did the media get it right on the second go-round? Not even a little bit. The Associated Press characterized it thusly:  “Trump declines to rule out abusing power.” The backwards, passive construction implies abusing power is just one of a series of valid choices available to him. 

Legacy media had an opportunity to reset their approach following Trump’s rise, during his disastrous presidency. Instead, the mainstream press spent the entirety of Trump’s administration euphemizing their way through his every fascistic act, calling a ban on Muslim immigrants “controversial” and daily diatribes against minorities “racially charged.” That’s some weak tea.

Trump might as well have been running news meetings, setting the agenda for what was covered and what wasn’t. When nonwhite congresswomen like Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar opposed him, his outrage led the news. But if his supporters fought at rallies and promised to overthrow the government, even nominally liberal publications like The New Republic told everyone to calm down, it was just alarmist talk.

“Outlandish scenarios about democracy in peril flourish on the left in times of stress and uncertainty like today,” wrote TNR staff writer Walter Shapiro in October 2020. “Democrats are afflicted with constant anxiety that once again defeat will be snatched from the jaws of victory.”

Less than three months later, Trump’s people smashed down the doors of the Capitol. 

News editors and producers initially covered Trump’s attempted coup on January 6 with the horror and urgency it demanded—calling it an insurrection and a breach of democracy. They should have treated anyone who defended the MAGA mob as disgraced, utterly discredited, and as unworthy of airtime or newsprint as they would any common criminal.

But as the horrors they saw through their own camera lenses faded, editors and producers backpedaled, quoting Republican lawmakers who were hedging on whether Trump had tried to overturn the election and downplaying the violence he incited. If a Republican pundit or congressman wanted to defend Trump and the insurrectionists, they were invited back on NBC and CBS to do so.

After the Jan. 6 insurrection and the days of tension leading up to Trump leaving the White House, Black journalists like Karen Attiah and press critics like Dan Froomkin and Jay Rosen urged self-reflection, accountability, and most of all changing practices in media coverage to reflect the threat to democracy that a Trump resurgence would pose. They urged TV news and opinion pundits to focus on the stakes for women, immigrants, people of color, LGBTQ people, and other people on the margins, as well as the environment should the former president return. 

In the months that immediately followed the Jan. 6 insurrection, Trump and his supporters threatened to suppress Democratic votes, restrict individual rights, and “rip out” the “rotten system” of federal bureaucracy that runs most government functions.

With Republicans eager to re-nominate the former president—he is far and away the most popular choice among the Republican base even as he refuses to debate his opponents—2024’s election season promises more of the same behavior. And despite all the constructive suggestions to improve their coverage, editors and producers are doing nothing new.

Fox and CNN continue to air his rallies, sometimes live, and describe them in coverage as a “spectacle and phenomenon.

Times and Washington Post reporters interview his employees and allies alongside legitimate members of government, giving convicted felons and conspiracists the legitimacy of senators and ambassadors.

Political reporters at major papers quote and amplify Trump’s social-media posts, even when he’s sharing personal information about the judges in his ongoing trials, encouraging his followers to attack law enforcement, or calling American cities hellholes.

His violent threats are ordinary “campaign promises.”

The criminals he’d fill his cabinet with are prized for their “loyalty” and ability to “stretch legal and governance boundaries.” 

He’s  the main character of every news story, even those about debates he refuses to attend.

All of this feeds into the idea that Trump is a legitimate candidate, one with genuine policy positions, worthy of making the case for his leadership. It does not present him the corrupt and venal autocrat he is, one who wants nothing more from a second term than revenge and the protection from incarceration should he be convicted of even one of his many criminal charges.

Trump has said so, in about as many words. And still the editors of America’s newspapers devote their opinion sections to the minds and hearts of Trump voters, who bray their racism and grievance from the rooftops when they’re meant to be expressing economic anxiety.

Reporters and producers assess his actions not based on how many lives he has ruined and will continue to ruin, but on how his every outrageous statement affects their favorite story: Who really “won” the news cycle? Who’s up, who’s down, no matter what’s really at stake. They amplify his lies, mostly without identifying them as such.

The problem extends beyond Trump. The Republican Party is rarely named as the driver of American discontent. Health care costs, wage stagnation, counterproductive immigration laws, climate inaction, an overloaded service economy too burned out to serve—all these things are the sole creation of the modern GOP. The party stalls progress and solutions on every level, and actively supports gerrymandering and voter suppression that makes any movement on anything that matters—student debt, prison reform, drug policy—impossible.

But everything the Republican Party does, including actively destroying the American system of government and enabling this autocrat, is carefully portrayed as the fault of “politicians” or “Washington.” A responsible press would examine the overall aims of the party today, including an obstructionist history dating back to the Clinton Administration. Instead the determination to appear non-partisan in political coverage—no matter how little sense it makes—infects even the best reporting on the current state of affairs. 

The Atlantic magazine recently commissioned a 24-story package on the express danger of a second Trump term, laying out what is at risk if the former president returns to power. And even that explicit examination of one party’s nominee and his assault on the rule of law contained a howler like this: 

“It’s not about Republicans and Democrats,” argued Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg. Except one little thing: There is only one political party trying to restrict voting across huge swaths of this country. There is only one political party that from the top down rejects the results of the last presidential election and plenty of local ones besides. There is only one political party saying that individual freedom no longer matters and submission to authority is the only way forward.

It’s impossible to solve a problem we can’t even name.

Reporters would rather tie themselves into literary knots than say what’s actually happening, and they’ll bully their fellows into behaving as one. Any journalist who says this too clearly gets characterized as a “pro-democracy activist,” as if that’s something an American journalist isn’t supposed to be.

None of this is about semantics. Journalists are meant to accurately describe and explain events to their audiences. At its core that is all the job is. Tell as many people as you can the truth about what is happening, as clearly as you can discern it.

Instead, the corporate press is spending Trump’s second campaign deliberately obfuscating his war on America, so that they can continue entertaining us with it, and telling us who’s winning the news cycle.

They don’t seem to care that Americans are the ones losing it.

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