Donald Trump’s greatest contribution to America will be his stripping the media, particularly the overpaid and undereducated television media, of its last pretense to fairness and objectivity.
Most of these correspondents of the “legacy” media no longer even want to be called objective. They’ve heard a higher calling, to commune as equals with the high priestess of Delphi at the Temple of Apollo.
The natural antagonism between politician and oracle is an old one, and in earlier days the needling and teasing was good fun, harmless entertainment for the reading public. Some of the jabs occasionally drew a little blood, like nicks on the chin from an errant razor, but nobody required a transfusion. It was sometimes hard to see who suffered most, because one of the characteristics shared by pol and pundit is a skin approximately the thickness of bible paper.
Once upon a time a conscientious reporter or even the pundit with license to fire both barrels, understood that staying out of the tank was more effective, and more comfortable besides, than firing from inside. There were editors to keep the correspondent impressed by himself from embarrassing his newspaper.
The late A.M. Rosenthal, the executive editor of The New York Times who died disappointed because he failed to restore the newspaper’s once-high standard of objectivity and fairness, understood that a good editor’s first responsibility is to keep his troops working from the neutral zone. Once, when a female reporter sought permission to march in an abortion-rights demonstration and cover the story from there, Rosenthal the demanding editor became Rosenthal the Solomonic arbiter of rights.
“Sure,” he said. “If you want to [have sexual congress with] an elephant, be my guest. But if you do, you can’t cover the circus.”
Such distinctions are lost now in many newsrooms, though they occasionally survive among newspapers. In television, not so much. Oracles cannot tolerate such restrictions. Barack Obama’s last press conference on the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump would have embarrassed the Oracle. Mr. Obama had some important things to say to them — avoid the bubble, where only parrots thrive, and remember that a reporter’s job is to ask the tough question but play no favorites. (The president knew they would understand that he wasn’t giving advice about how he wanted to be covered.)
The effect was electric, though blowing no fuses. Grown men cried, and the ladies stopped just short of throwing their panties at the podium. Barack Obama was the liberated rock star at home with his own.
The cruelest thing a reporter can do is to quote a politician accurately. This week the Media Research Center unearthed some of the things media notabilities, proud of their wisdom, insights and infallibility and who never resist the urge to preen, said when Donald Trump threw his hat in the ring 18 months ago. The assembled worthies, who had rather be accused of molesting 4-year-olds than of saying anything nice or neutral about a conservative or a Republican, professed to be “horrified” that the Donald would damage the very efficacy of the Republican primaries.
Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC asked a former governor of Pennsylvania whether “you have any doubt that this is anything more than a carnival show?” Ashleigh Banfield of CNN called the Trump candidacy “hilarity run amuck.” Mark Lamont of the Huffington Post assured everyone that “of course he’s not going to win.” Nancy Cordes of CBS News told her viewers that “no one expects Trump to get close to winning the nomination.” A grieving Carol Costello of CNN mourned that it was sad, so sad, that “the media” would suffer the indignity of covering the Trump campaign. She held up the front page of the New York Daily News portraying the Donald as a clown.
Chuck Todd, the moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” threw the reputation of the iconic Sunday morning program to the trash. “On the one hand,” he said, solemnly pursing his lips as if a judge handing down a death sentence, “he’s a late-night joke. On the other hand, he’s the proverbial skunk at the garden party. How does the Republican Party handle a political streaker who knows how to get attention.”
At noon on Friday the streaker, the clown, the late-night joke, the fool, the carnival barker and the skunk at the garden party; the man that E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post, thinker only of social justice, said “can never win,” will raise his right hand, put the other on the Bible his Presbyterian mother gave him, and repeat the 35 words that will render him the president of the United States.
If that’s a last laugh rumbling from deep in the belly of Donald Trump, the man’s entitled.
• Wesley Pruden is editor-in-chief emeritus of The Times.
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