There is an interesting debate developing about how the media should cover demagogue Donald Trump’s “hillbilly Nuremberg rallies” (h/t Bill Maher) in which he encourages his lunatic Qanon supporters to attack the media covering his events in Stalinist terms, as “the enemy of the people.” Trump’s rally rhetoric is going to get somebody killed.
As frequently as Trump attacks the media as “fake news,” he needs the media in the room to use them as a foil for his incitements to hatred among his sycophant supporters. His supporters, in turn, are seeking their 15 minutes of fame by participating in attacks on the media, as they did last week with CNN’s Jim Acosta.
Trump is a master of manipulating the media. The media cover his rallies like people watch NASCAR racing for the crashes — they are there for the sickening event to see what crazy shit might happen. The media has allowed Trump to create a reality TV show presidency.
I caught a segment of The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell last week in which Republican strategist Mike Murphy suggested that the media stop providing coverage of these Trump rallies to deprive him of the oxygen he needs. Send just one AP pool reporter and a photographer to cover his rallies so that Trump is denied the bank of cameras and the pen of reporters that he can use as a foil, and potentially put their safety genuinely at risk.
This makes sense to me on some levels. But Amanda Marcotte at Salon argues otherwise. Should media quit covering Trump rallies? Absolutely not:
Donald Trump is upping his rally schedule dramatically. There’s a thin pretext that these rallies are about bolstering Republicans in the midterm campaigns, but even the more cowardly media outlets seem to have given up the farce of pretending that Trump, who can barely be bothered to mention the candidates he’s allegedly supporting, is doing this for any other reason than old-fashioned Goebbels-style propaganda. And, of course, feeding the narcissism vampire’s endless appetite for attention. As CNN reported, aides are trying to cram more rallies in, “partly to boost Trump’s mood and distract him from the headlines about Russia.”
Because of this, an idea is starting to bubble up on the left, boosted by social media, that the press needs to stop covering Trump rallies. The rallies have no purpose other than spreading lies and whipping up the masses, the thinking goes, so by covering them, the press is being a handmaiden to propaganda. To make it worse, Trump has been putting the journalists who attend on display, and encouraging the audience to heap vitriol and threats in a two-minute hate designed to sow even more hatred towards the media and turn conservatives audiences increasingly towards conspiracy theories like QAnon.
But journalists are pushing back, arguing that it’s their duty to cover the news, and that these rallies put a spotlight on a very real and troubling shift towards extremism in America that needs to be documented. Many reporters feel that these liberal pressure campaigns are based on the false notion that ignoring a problem makes it go away, and instead believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant.
This is one of those situations that are hard to discuss in our overly emotional, nuance-free times, because both sides have a point. On one hand, we are witnessing a terrible moment in American history, the rise of a bona-fide white nationalist and perhaps fascist movement that sees these rallies as a flashpoint. That fact needs to be documented. On the other hand, it’s also true that Trump is trying to exploit the mainstream media for propaganda purposes, and that journalists should resist being used in this way.
It’s also true that the media tendency to simply run the cameras on every Trump rally or event in 2016, while refusing to give Hillary Clinton anything close to equal coverage, was an invaluable contribution to the Trump campaign that led to the horror show we’re in now, and that mistake should not be repeated.
But the answer to this conundrum is not to stop covering Trump’s rallies or even, as some have suggested, to whittle it down to a couple of print reporters who offer no images or video. Instead, the key is to be strategic about coverage, by focusing on the real story, which isn’t whatever nonsense Trump is spewing, but the fact that this fascistic movement is forming at all.
I would agree, but this is not how television news coverage works. They stenographically report what Trump said and allow themselves to be used as a broadcast outlet for his fascist propaganda. I can’t recall a single “hard news” reporter pointing out that this is a fascistic movement, because that is not how they report on political campaigns. Reporters are concerned about their objectivity and being “fair and balanced” because their objectivity has been called into question for years by the conservative media entertainment complex. They instead focus on the political horse race and how people reacted to what was said, and maybe take a snap poll. This is safe political reporting to avoid offending anyone. That is left to the talking heads on cable news, who have done a somewhat better job of covering what is happening.
To be entirely fair, the past week’s coverage of Trump rallies has actually been significant, from a journalistic perspective. The networks, outside of Fox News, have turned their cameras more away from the stage and to the audience. And the result has not been those soft-focus profiles of Trump supporters that the New York Times is fond of running, which end up papering over the truth instead of exposing it. Putting the spotlight on the people at a Trump rally inevitably shows viewers exactly what kind of jackals and bigots show up for this sort of thing, which is exactly the kind of unvarnished truth that liberals should want the media to be showcasing.
Take, for instance, the video that Jim Acosta of CNN posted of the crowd at a rally in Tampa, surrounding the media section and screaming invective at the journalists there. That video is horrifying and, more importantly, provides a valuable snapshot of how out of control the Trump base has become. As Trump’s scandals pile up, they are reacting by turning into monsters whose politics are solely those of destruction. These people are showing the world who they truly are and it’s not a good look, to say the least.
Clearly, many progressives don’t see it that way, because Acosta’s video seems to have precipitated the recent flood of calls to quit covering Trump rallies. The fear appears be that because Trump supporters and Trump himself have gloried in the video of the harassment, retweeting it and praising it online, then its value is greater as pro-Trump propaganda than as journalism exposing the true nature of Trump rallies.
That concern is overrated. No doubt it’s disconcerting to many liberals to realize that imagery that repulses them might read as exciting to someone else, but that doesn’t justify the panic attack and desire to shut it all down. Just because jackasses see other jackasses and feel proud to be a jackass doesn’t mean that everyone else who sees this will agree.
Screaming authoritarians playing to the cameras is nothing new, after all. Think of the crowds of people who showed up to jeer at black students entering Little Rock Central High School in 1957. They were proud of themselves, jostling to be at the front of the line where the camera could capture their image. But ultimately, even they realized that to most people, they looked like monsters. That kind of imagery helped shock decent people out of complacency then, and it could very well still have the power today that written descriptions never could.
This was known as “name it and shame it” during the civil rights movement. It was meant to shock the moral conscience of the nation. Unfortunately, the right-wing of today has demonstrated that they are well beyond shaming and are unapologetic, from the Access Hollywood video, to the white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, to their “Dear Leader” conspiring with the Russians to win an election and demonstrating he is Putin’s puppet in Helsinki right before their very eyes. Nothing shocks their moral conscience or can shame them any longer.
There have also been benefits in journalists covering the sheer number of QAnon conspiracy theorists that are showing up to these rallies. There’s a danger, of course, of spreading conspiracy theories by covering them — that may well have happened with birtherism, especially when Trump started pushing that on media outlets during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Literally every broadcast media outlet held interviews with Donald Trump to allow him to spread his birther conspiracy theory. Too many of them were not focused on discrediting this racist and his racist conspiracy theory.
But the problem with the coverage then was the hesitancy of too many journalists to immediately and assuredly frame the “questions” about Obama’s citizenship as the racist conspiracy theory they were. The QAnon coverage, on the other hand, shows a lesson learned. Headlines indicate that it is a conspiracy theory and, increasingly, it’s being framed not as some oddity but as a serious threat that it is.
I am genuinely divided on who may be right in this debate between Mike Murphy and Amanda Marcotte. Please discuss in the comments.