When faced with Trump's extremism, the media falter

When a group of "alt-right" white supremacists held a celebratory party in a Washington Trump's victory, it was treated as a bad-apple one-off.

When a group of 'alt-right' white supremacists held a party for Trump's victory, it was treated as a one-off

Extremism is being either ignored or glossed over by the press. (Jonathan Ernst/ REUTERS)

It's warming and bias-confirming to browse quotes about the importance of journalism to democracy. Thomas Jefferson said he'd vastly prefer newspapers without government to government without newspapers. 

Napoleon said four newspapers are more to be feared than a thousand bayonets.

But others saw into the reality most journalists know well, and live daily.

George Orwell noted that "anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness." Noam Chomsky characterized the media as the guard dog of the establishment, rather than the watchdog.

And Norman J. Ornstein said just the other day that the mainstream press, "behaving like a battered spouse," is knuckling under to the new president-elect, normalizing extremism, rationalizing boorish thuggery, "thinking 'Maybe it's us…we should be nicer to him.'"

Ornstein, a left-leaning resident scholar at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, has been on a Twitter tear since Nov. 8, adding his scorn of the media to that of Donald Trump's legions.

Righties have long despised what they call the "lamestream media," preferring, somewhat like the hard left, to swim exclusively in their own pool, eagerly consuming the demagoguery of websites like Breitbart, arguably the choice of "white nationalists" once led by Steve Bannon, Trump's new chief policy adviser.

There, they are reassured that Hillary Clinton is a criminal, that blacks are responsible for the treatment of blacks, that leftists are conspiring against Christmas, and so forth.

It's a cartoonish view, one cheered on by Trump himself, who liked to goad crowds at his rallies against the reporters following him, complaining media outlets were deliberately ignoring his popularity, even as they did just the opposite.

Fear of audience

Ornstein, though, is relentlessly grinding his fist into a vulnerability that mainstream reporters know actually exists, but which they seldom acknowledge. My craft is often corporatist, hopelessly bourgeois, genuflects to power and, ultimately, fears its audience.

Anyone who requires proof of that need only review the unhinged media madness after 9/11; suddenly, anyone who opposed invading Iraq was pro-terrorist. Entire cities in Iraq were populated by terrorists. Patriotic correctness eclipsed the political correctness, and George W. Bush quickly brought most of the national press corps, whimpering, to heel.

Now that Trump has been validated by a minority of American voters (Clinton won the popular vote by at least two million votes, roughly the population of America's fourth largest city), the collective critical faculties of the media are faltering again.

Ornstein is right; extremism is being either ignored or glossed over. When a group of "alt-right" white supremacists held a celebratory party in a Washington restaurant to celebrate Trump's victory, ending the night with Sieg Heil salutes, it was treated as a bad-apple one-off, even though Trump never proactively disavows his support from the extreme right.

Richard Spencer, president of the National Policy Institute, spoke at an 'alt-right' conference in Washington, D.C., where Trump’s victory was met with cheers and Nazi salutes. (The Atlantic)

"It is SO politically correct," Ornstein tweeted sarcastically after that episode, "to frown on Nazi salute, overt antisemitism, and rank racism."

Ornstein points out that Mike Pence, Trump's vice president-elect, is fighting in court to suppress emails from his administration as governor of Indiana, but you wouldn't know it, because the headlines remain focused on Clinton's emails.

"Remember when journalists had regular hissy fits over Clinton not holding a press conference?" tweeted Ornstein. Trump has not only refused to hold the traditional post-victory newser, he's pointedly travelled without the White House press corps in tow, something unheard of in modern America, where every movement of a president or president-elect is traditionally followed.

Then a group of media executives and stars agreed to meet with Trump, off the record, at his eponymous skyscraper in Manhattan. Trump used the occasion to attack them. The New York Times, on the other hand, doesn't appear to care what Trump thinks of it, and refused Trump's off the record condition for a meeting with its journalists, on the grounds that journalists and presidents shouldn't meet in secret.

Trump played the media

But what really angers Ornstein is how beautifully Trump was able to play the media for the last two years, regularly baiting them with vulgar name-calling ("Lying Ted Cruz," "Little Marco Rubio," "Crooked Hillary"), and crude language about immigrants and women and disabled people, resulting in rapt and sustained coverage.

Trump told colossal lies, so often that reporters began reporting them as merely one side in a debate: "false equivalence … a balanced treatment of an unbalanced phenomenon," Ornstein told me. 

There is no denying that. It's a devil of a dilemma for reporters. Candidates' positions are legitimate news, particularly when they're incendiary clickbait positions in an era of falling ad revenues.

Trump's crass insults sold newspapers and attracted eyeballs to screens. News outlets knew they were being used, but went along enthusiastically. Ornstein compares them to "puppies" fascinated with Trump's "shiny things."

On a much less pronounced level, the same thing is happening in Canada. Conservative leadership candidate Kellie Leitch is running what amounts to a one-issue campaign, warning Canadians about radical immigrants and inveighing, Trump-style, against "the elites."

Leitch has adopted Trump-speak, mostly to get attention. (CBC)

It's a transparent ploy to achieve name recognition, and the Canadian media is diligently helping her achieve it.

Again, there is journalistic justification for it. But ultimately, what motivates my craft is its love of the status quo.

There was sputtering and off-the-record outrage after the big shots met with Trump, but by Jan. 20, all will be normal, and everything forgotten, as though nary a disgusting word had been uttered, and the left-wing, liberal, Democrat-loving media will be singing Hail to the Chief as lustily as the alt-right.

There'll be honourable exceptions. Charles Blow of the New York Times tweeted he has no intention of using the fashionable term alt-right: "I'm going to just write 'racist white nationalists.' I'm old school. No need to rebrand racism."

But that takes courage. Mostly, the herd will move along, lowing and cud-chewing, to perceived normalcy. Just watch.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.