Slightly Off Track in Toronto

TorontoSomething was just a tad off. Here I was in the international city that is Toronto, Ontario, ready to embark on a brisk two-day jaunt through its much touted thoroughfares and neighborhoods, yet feeling rather indifferent. The scene resembled the U.S. cities from which I had just departed, recently visited, and would soon descend upon only with a small, almost imperceptible modification that couldn’t quite be explained. I felt the slight unease common to those traveling to an unknown land but without the attendant rush of excitement at new exploration. The surroundings were familiar enough to this American. But that was precisely the problem. Continue reading

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Integrity Versus Neutrality in Covering the Trump Campaign

The last two weeks have engendered serious soul searching in the professional media now that Donald Trump is the Republican Party’s presumptive nominee. Two general types of articles pleading mea culpa are now emerging. First, news outlets are lamenting the sorry state of their prognostication efforts after first ridiculing and then dismissing (in the face of contrary evidence) the chances of Trump’s eventual triumph. That this misstep has provoked so much handwringing might suggest that the media’s preoccupation with handicapping the horse race has become far too prominent in its political coverage. Regardless, news outlets are now rightfully expressing contrition for quite literally laughing at the chances of a Trump nomination for months, only to see him win comfortably after leading in the polls from start to finish. The second form of media self-flagellation this week has focused on its outsized role in Trump’s rise. By some measures, Trump has received over $2 billion worth of free earned media during the campaign through mid-March alone, totaling as much as six times the amount of coverage as his most covered opponent, Ted Cruz. Given that a demagogic populist has never before won a major party nomination, many have posited that celebrity-fueled obsessive coverage of the candidate is ultimately to blame. Trump played for ratings and the news media made sure that ratings translated into votes. This introspection, too, is a worthwhile endeavor.

Yet, there is a third and more important issue concerning the media’s relation to the Trump candidacy: how to handle the single most diversionary and dishonest presidential campaign in this country’s history. Thus far, the art of the forceful follow-up question appears dead. To be fair, Trump’s violation of the most basic norms of political campaigning makes it challenging to push back against his lies and nonsense. Trump is a master at issuing thousand-word non-sequiturs to difficult questions, leaving the examiner the choice of getting bogged down on a single topic or simply moving on. To make matters worse, Trump is also prone to denying that he ever said what he indeed said and turning viciously against the interviewer should he perceive a question as too hostile. In essence, Trump is taking advantage of the media’s adherence to journalistic norms of neutrality and respect to major political figures. All of which begs the question: given Trump’s unconstrained deceit, mustn’t the media abandon the pretense of neutrality in order to hold him to account? Continue reading

A Day After the Unthinkable, McConnell Learns Nothing

A view of the Supreme Court from the Capitol PlazaAt first glance, the two biggest political developments of the past six months seem unrelated. First, in February, Senate Republicans refused to consider any Supreme Court nominee, even with eleven months remaining in this president’s term. This appeared to be a continuation of the same old Tea Party extremism that led to multiple debt ceiling showdowns, a government shutdown, the resignation of Speaker of the House John Boehner, and the month-long inability to find his replacement. Then, this week, after a ten-month battle between seventeen candidates, the Republican Party made Donald Trump its de facto presidential nominee. This shocking development seems at first blush like a reversal of the Tea Party phenomenon, which forced the GOP ever rightward in the age of Obama. Trump is not terribly conservative, failing most tests of ideological purity. He is unbowed by the sort of rightwing pressures that have made even the most strident movement conservatives fearful of primary challengers. And when confronted by the tribe’s ideological gatekeepers and deans of Obama hatred, from Roger Ailes to Glenn Beck, Trump has counterpunched rather than yield.

The conclusion that Trump is a break from the recent Republican past thus appears sound at a surface level. And yet, viewing both situations—the conservative demand that Republicans prevent a liberal majority at the Supreme Court and the working-class Republican embrace of a demagogue unburdened by thoughts or ideals—through the eyes of elected and elite Republicans, it becomes clear that these two consequential party decisions are very much of the same origin. Donald Trump’s nomination is a disaster for the Republican Party, and yet for all the “Never Trump” talk, hardly any consequential Republicans bothered to raise a finger against him. Only Mitt Romney made a meaningful go at it, and even then, his efforts amounted to one speech and some fury, signifying nothing but a vote for Ted Cruz in Utah. Terrified of their own voters’ wrath, party leaders from Chuck Grassley to John McCain to Mitch McConnell stayed largely silent, offering no more than garden variety condemnations thrown in occasionally for posterity. In the same vein, the failure to confirm President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee harms Republicans politically without aiding conservative policy and legal goals. So it was striking that on the day after their nightmare became reality, when Donald Trump became the Republican nominee because party leaders were too frightened to stand up to their vocal minority and act in the party’s interest, that Mitch McConnell reaffirmed that he had learned nothing at all. Merrick Garland will not receive a vote. Continue reading