The Well Actually

Twelve NY Jurors Did What the Media Won’t

Trump has always shown us who he is. But neither mainstream news outlets nor GOP lawmakers would do what a dozen brave New Yorkers did yesterday: Call it like they saw it and hold the former president to account.

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When a New York City jury handed down 34 consecutive guilty verdicts against Donald Trump in his hush money trial yesterday, I knew I had to do two things quickly. First, I poured myself a celebratory bourbon, even if it was only just after 4 p.m. here in Texas. And second, I hopped back into the just-filed draft of a freelance column I’d written for another national news outlet to update my description of the former president from “criminally indicted” to, finally and with relish, “convicted felon.” 

It’s these little joys that make covering our American political hellscape occasionally tolerable. Writing here for DAME is one of those joys, too. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to be published in a women-led outlet that has long refused to treat Trump the candidate, Trump the president, and Trump the desperate, bumbling and blathering man on trial(s) as anything other than what he is: a fascist, a bigot, a grifter, a liar, a puppet, and an outright threat to our country and to our communities.

Now, even mainstream and legacy journalists can call him something else, something they know he is as well as anyone else does: a criminal. But calling Trump a criminal is only a small part of the solution to a nearly decade-long problem with the political press’s coverage of the man. 

For a long time, I and other left-leaning media critics have been fixated on semantics: lamenting that Trump’s lies are rarely called out as such, or that his behavior—unabashedly racist, xenophobic, bigoted—is rarely named as such in the mainstream and legacy press. 

But semantics are the symptom, not the disease.

Whatever the mainstream and legacy press has called Trump, they have rarely, and certainly not consistently, covered the man as the lying, grifting, bigot he is. Some, such as New York Times executive editor Joe Kahn, have been more honest than others about hiding their rank cowardice behind poor editorial judgment. Trump’s abuser politics depend on this fear. His continued success is built on the media’s terror at the prospect of being accused of “bias” if it dares describe his words and actions in plain language. His career is predicated on saying and doing things so outlandish, cruel, and incredible that the mere act of naming them makes his observers wonder if they are making it all up, and his winking supporters act as if it’s all just a show.  

Trump’s been defeated in courts of law before; in fact, he often loses in courts of law, with little negative effect on his public reputation. That’s his whole thing, really. But 34 guilty verdicts from a jury of his fellow New Yorkers will be hard to spin. To finally expect to see the words “convicted” and “criminal” and “felon” coming down the hopper is satisfying, but also deflating. Because, look: Did we ever really need those words? When the facts underlying them have always been right in front of us?

Facts matter in journalism. I respect that; I have to, and I want to, and I’ll say it even though I hope it goes without saying. I know we couldn’t always technically call the guy a criminal, even when the vibes (and the civil courts) said otherwise. But the vibes are, I hope, finally out the window when it comes to this one, very important thing: Donald Trump, the former president and presumptive Republican nominee for the White House in 2024, is a convicted felon 34 times over according to a hometown jury. He’s not “embattled.” He’s not just a controversial guy without a filter who speaks his mind, or even a right-wing firebrand playing to a base hungry for red, red meat. He’s not playing four-dimensional chess as a master negotiator, and he’s not just another crafty politician gaming the system. He’s not a victim. He’s a perpetrator.

Donald Trump is a criminal. 

Twelve New Yorkers, who were vetted by an actual court of law for their lack of bias and willingness to hear the guy out more thoroughly than any given bunch of supposedly undecided voters in a Rust Belt diner ever have been, heard the facts and issued the verdict. Thirty-four times. Unanimously. 

Donald Trump is a felon.

It’s not just correct to call him those things, though we should. It’s important that the media covers him as a criminal and as a felon. In the absence of meaningful change to the carceral state overall, a mainstream and legacy media ecosystem that has long normalized and legitimized Trump himself and Trumpian politics writ large ought to be poised to give Trump the same treatment it has given the Black and brown folks, queer and transgender people, immigrants, and other marginalized people who have been demonized and demoralized for vastly lesser infractions. 

I have always worked in alternative, progressive, or nonprofit media, and I began covering politics during the Tea Party’s initial ascendance during the 2010 midterms. It has been a strange and frustrating experience, over these last 14 years, to feel as though I’m living in a different America than the one making headlines in the mainstream and legacy press, and especially in broadcast news. Where many of my mainstream colleagues see “heartbeat bills,” I see abortion bans. Where they see “rising crime,” I see militarized, anti-Black policing. Where they see “controversial” politics around bathrooms and barbed wire, I see explicit attacks on transgender people and immigrants. And on and on.

As soon as Trump’s 34 guilty verdicts came down, the talking heads turned seamlessly to his convictions’ effect on the presidential race. And that makes sense—a convicted felon running at the top of the Republican ticket for the highest office in the country is unprecedented, and we are already living in unprecedented times. The question of whether Trump’s convictions will sway voters is an important and horrifying one. But the fact that we’re facing the question itself should make anyone’s blood run cold. It’s not “Can he win?” but “How did we get here that we’re even asking?”

That’s a question that the media should be taking on as a matter of deep and serious self-interrogation. Hush-money crimes are likely only the tip of the Trump iceberg; it’s the kind of thing you’d be hard-pressed to convince the average American voter that any given politician hasn’t engaged in. But Trump isn’t just a local politician or some mid-level chump; he’s a former president still vying for the Oval Office. He’s an insurrectionist goon who gutted the Republican National Committee and replaced its leadership with his relatives and cronies. He’s managed to secure a Supreme Court majority composed of right-wing ideologues who are enthusiastically in the tank for him. 

Trump has never hidden who he is, while at the same making a career out of threatening to destroy anyone who sees through him. Trump is a racist and a misogynist sexual predator and a rapist. He’s a liar who will say any self-serving thing at any moment. His lies are deadly. He is an unrepentant grifter whose scams include selling $60 bibles.

Any journalist with a jam-packed voicemail or email inbox knows the Trump type. We can tell endless stories about non-stories: the crap claims pushed on us by grifters desperate for a moment in the spotlight. The coffee and breakfast meetings, lunches, and drinks wasted on screwballs. The lawsuits that sounded interesting at first, but turned out to be the cock-eyed nonsense of crackpots with axes to grind.  

Trump is the Ur-screwball, the maximum crackpot, the king grifter. As a nobody, he’d be hung up on immediately by any journalist with a local car dealership ribbon-cutting to cover instead. He’s never earned anything in his nearly 80 years on Earth besides notoriety as a swindler, but he leveraged that into a brand and then into the presidency.

But just because a cowed and compliant media has too often allowed Trump to say and do whatever he wants while making threats and laughing in their faces about it all doesn’t mean we have to keep it up. We can stop any time, and what better time to stop than after 34 guilty verdicts? We needn’t put his surrogates on blast to launder his every grievance and crackpot lie. We needn’t continue to treat his every fit of pique and persecution fantasy as breaking news just because he’s a reality television star who occupied the Oval Office for four years. We can stop legitimizing his victim complex at any time. We don’t need to do any of that work when the guy’s already got a Supreme Court justice happy to turn the American flag upside down in his honor. 

Now, the media must finally drum up the courage to treat Trump like the criminal, the fascist, and yes, the former president, he is. It shouldn’t be hard; after all, a dozen average New Yorkers with more guts and gumption than scores of politicians and pundits have just shown us how it’s done. 

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