We have plunged into an emergency, and one reason is that journalists who are supposed to supply a picture of the world failed to do so. Not the only reason, but one reason, which is enough to prompt serious rumination.
I wrote last week about journalists searching their souls, trying to figure out what they did wrong in this appalling campaign. Like the rest of us — nobody deserves a free pass in an endangered world — they’re obliged to think deeply about what to do better. Is it too impossibly high-minded and do-goody to insist that their reason for being is to offer the American people what they need to know in order to better choose their course? If that is, in fact, their mission, they have failed abjectly.
Almost half of the voters have just chosen to be led by a profoundly disturbed ignoramus who refuses to understand he has obligations to Americans who are not members of his family. For journalists who persist in believing their leaders are chosen intelligently, the crisis is apparent and urgent. But the so-called learning curve is getting an appallingly sluggish start. Journalists who should know better are busy complaining about their lack of access to the bullshitter-in-chief, as if access were the golden road to truth and not, often at least, a shortcut over a cliff.
According to the conventions of journalism, access is fundamental. But access runs two ways. Access to “newsmakers” can be purchased with what is known in professional parlance as “beat sweeteners” — softball stories and non-threatening meetings that allow sources access to the journalists who cover them, and by extension, to the public. But these are not ordinary times. While journalists persist in playing by old rules, the president-elect has a different plan. Nor is Donald Trump an unknown quantity. By now it should be painfully evident how he rewards sycophants — with a slap across the face.
For evidence, reader, please peruse the transcript of Trump’s on-again, off-again, back-on-again meeting in a New York Times conference room last week. Read the whole thing. It’s not that long. Then consider the Times headline the next day: “Trump, in Interview, Moderates Views but Defies Conventions.” The lede: “President-elect Donald J. Trump on Tuesday tempered some of his most extreme campaign promises, dropping his vow to jail Hillary Clinton, expressing doubt about the value of torturing terrorism suspects and pledging to have an open mind about climate change.”
Nothing to worry about, then.
Other news organizations followed suit. “Trump brushed aside his campaign promises to jail Hillary Clinton … and denounced the neo-Nazi movement that is celebrating his victory,” CNN trumpeted, and followed with a subhead: “A new view on climate change?” Neither the Times gaggle nor CNN noted that Trump’s chief environmental adviser is an unregenerate paid-for fossil-fuel-happy hack. Trump did not use the “neo-Nazi” label — which would have been accurate — and insisted his campaign chief and very-far-right-hand man Steve Bannon’s Breitbart “News” is a “news organization” — and then came the man’s supreme compliment, “very successful,” later downgraded for no earthly reason to “pretty successful.”
It was Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet who asked Trump about the “alt-right” (read: neo-Nazi) “Hail Trump” rally that had just taken place in Washington. “First of all,” Trump said, “I don’t want to energize [racists.] I’m not looking to energize them. I don’t want to energize the group, and I disavow the group.” And now the whiplash again: “Then, again, I don’t know if it’s reporting or whatever.” What the last sentence appears to mean is that Trump reserves the right to withdraw his vague “disavowal” if he and his lying legions later maintain that the reporting of Nazi salutes, etc., was a distortion perpetrated by the “liberal media.” Trump added: “If they are energized I want to look into it and find out why.” This is supposed to be reassuring. The Timesmen and -women did nothing to break the spell. Among the follow-up questions they did not ask: “You’re not sure they’re energized? Have you heard of the hate crimes? When will you report to us on what your researchers turn up?”
Trump practices the dark art of the perfunctory reassurance and gets rewarded with passing grades: He “moderates” and is “tempered.” He teases one executive (“is he a tough boss?”) and compliments another (“very powerful man”). The article, as opposed to the transcript, gives the strongman an unearned gift: a veneer of coherence. Is this a moment to break into laughter or screaming or crying — this spectacle of bad cop Trump sending good cop Trump out to meet with journalists whom he has described as “sleaze,” and presto! emerging as a moderate who solicits the good opinion of Thomas Friedman.
When journalists sit down at a table with a man so fundamentally ignorant, self-seeking, unscrupulous and unreliable, a man who, when he doesn’t lie, characteristically emits bullshit — the now academically canonized term for propositions whose truth or falsity he doesn’t know or care to know — is it not evident that they must gird themselves at the first sign of flattery, to realize that his mission is to play them, to keep them off-balance?
Here were his first words to the Times group: “Well, I just appreciate the meeting and I have great respect for The New York Times. Tremendous respect. It’s very special. Always has been very special.” And then the lightning, bipolar pivot: “I think I’ve been treated very rough….”
“Failed” is one of Trump’s favorite adjectives for The Times. In his wholly amoral universe, “failed” is tantamount to “evil.”
And there was Friedman, sucking up to the billionaire by crooning about the splendor of his world-wonders on the way to asking about socially caused climate change, the existence of which Trump has frequently denied. This was not only shoddy questioning, it was a confession of weakness, which matters hugely, since the only human qualities that register in Trump World are strength and weakness. When you genuflect to the majesty of the man’s Pharaonic achievements, you show weakness, and so he proceeds to bullshit you. Thus on climate change: “I have an open mind to it. We’re going to look very carefully. It’s one issue that’s interesting because there are few things where there’s more division than climate change. You don’t tend to hear this, but there are people on the other side of that issue….I have a very open mind.”
Friedman’s response was a whimper: “But you have an open mind on this?” I suppose that is called nailing down news. It should be called: Giving Trump a gift by putting words in his mouth.
Trump was happy to play along: “I do have an open mind.” Instantly then, he switched the subject back to one of the science-deniers’ go-to canards: “And we’ve had storms always,” whereupon he lurched further into ignorance and irrelevancy: “You know the hottest day ever was in 1890-something, 98. You know, you can make lots of cases for different views. I have a totally open mind.” The man does not know the difference between climate and weather. Was Friedman off-duty?
Next, El Caudillo de Mar-a-Lago was off to a riff about “clean air” and “crystal clean water” and “safety.” He was an inch away from a reprise of Gen. Jack D. Ripper’s memorable, Strangelovian warning against the Communist conspiracy “to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” But not this time. His next lurch was to the “environmental awards” he’s received for his “very successful” golf courses. And there was this, on golf courses: “Some will be even better [as the sea level rises] because actually like [his Miami property] Doral is a little bit off … so it’ll be perfect….The ones that are near the water will be gone, but Doral will be in great shape.”
Trump’s Doral gambit was reminiscent of his declaration after the June Brexit vote that his Scottish golf course, Turnberry, was now well-positioned to cash in on others’ misfortune: “When the pound goes down, more people are coming to Turnberry, frankly. For traveling and for other things, I think it very well could turn out to be positive.” Friedman did not refer to Trump’s Turnberry Declaration. But not to leave any sycophantic note unsounded or untouched, he bade farewell with this penetrating observation: “I came here thinking you’d be awed and overwhelmed by this job, but I feel like you are getting very comfortable with it.” A few days later, the man whom Thomas Friedman found “very comfortable” let the world know, without a shred of evidence, that “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”
How much more of this garbage must spew from Trump Tower before one of our crucial newspapers — one that Trump himself, in full-on ingratiation mode, termed “a world jewel” — calls a halt to tiptoeing around? I cannot help but think that this is more than a tactic to earn access; it is abject servility. It is, as Trump might put it, a show of pathetic weakness. At this late date, do the standard-bearers of “neither fear nor favor” fear that a shortfall in deference will inspire some Trump hack or Breitbart clone to denounce them as “biased”? Are they capable of embarrassment? Have they no shame?