The last time a demagogue got so far in American politics — Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s — the press ended up hating itself the morning after. This time, the cycle of self-loathing, like everything else, is likely to come thicker and faster, and to importantly shape coverage of the 2016 campaign.
McCarthy’s rise, it was clear on reflection, would not have been possible without the press corps, even though most of them actually largely despised him from the first. McCarthy overcame their disdain because he saw flaws in the structure of press coverage itself and ruthlessly exploited them. The flaws were, first, that every story was presumed to have two sides, and that duly reporting both sides was sufficient; and second, that official statements by important people like United States senators needed, at least initially, to be transmitted to readers without much analysis or any comment.
The reality, of course, was that a baseless accusation of treason against an individual (some famous, many not) and a denial of that treason do not perforce combine into a fair story. And repeating new accusations by a public official with a track record of reckless falsehood serves no purpose except the demagogue’s own. When Edward R. Murrow concluded his historic denunciation of McCarthy — 49 months after the reign of terror had begun — by quoting Cassius from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in saying, “the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves,” he was referring to everyone in his audience. But the press ended up taking the message personally.
The adversarial press that flourished especially after Vietnam and Watergate was fueled by those debacles, to be sure, but also had the reaction against McCarthyism as a key underpinning.
And, yet, here we are again, 60 years after McCarthy’s fall. At the larger level, the lesson is the same: Donald Trump has read the media landscape more carefully than the media, and spewed racist venom and blatant falsehoods in a manner that has proven politically effective in the short run.
The self-correction of the press seems to be coming more quickly this time around, clocking in at about five months instead of nearly 50. Tom Brokaw is not the Edward R. Murrow of today, but he is probably the closest thing we’ve got. And he’s just as angry now as Murrow was then. What difference will it make?
Coverage of the 2016 campaign from here is likely to be even more skeptical than in recent years. Fact-checking is getting quicker, moving higher in stories, and becoming more mobile-friendly. Candidate claims may actually be challenged at the very same time they are published. When made by those not already well positioned in the polls (as Trump was not when he lied about Mexicans in June), it now seems possible to imagine false claims actually ending up not being published at all. Surely it has become clear that publishing and then fact-checking is not enough.
Most important of all would be if the former gatekeepers in the press girded their coverage to resume a bit of gatekeeping. If the issue of the day is how to counter ISIS, perhaps we won’t get as readily distracted by a proposal to establish concentration camps or suspend the Constitution or whatever it would take to shock us next. Maybe we could stamp our collective feet and insist on hearing just how a candidate proposes to do stop ISIS, and why it would work, rather than settling for conclusory assertions that things will all just magically fall into place. At the least, journalists will likely become more insistent that their questions be answered, and possibly, even, less critical of other journalists seeking the same.
There are, however, likely at least two ways in which the Trump Effect will be limited. First, it is far from clear that cable television news will begin its introspection before the dust of next November has settled. For one thing, there’s a lot of money at stake — Comcast and Time Warner, as well as Fox, have made millions on higher ratings, literally profiting from proto-fascism in America, and there is no sign that Brian Roberts or Jeff Bewkes, not to mention Rupert Murdoch, feel the least bit squeamish about that. Les Moonves of CBS is even cheering Trump on. Perhaps the others are wringing their hands privately.
Next, the never-ending mantra of every press critic of campaign coverage, from time immemorial — that we need less on personalities and the horse race, and more of about the myriad of “issues” — is unlikely to be stilled, or to be satisfied. For too many voters, as every editor in her or his darkest heart knows, reading about most “issues” feels too much like eating their broccoli. And presidential voters, just like presidents themselves, simply can’t be made to do it.
Richard J. Tofel is president of ProPublica.