It’s Time to Show Trump Speeches Again

Let’s say we produce one of those news shows where four to six people sit around a desk in business suits of various shades and debate the subjects of the day. We want to be trusted, entertaining, and, perhaps most important, rich in perspectives. Ideally, each of our pundits represents some loosely defined portion of the American voting public, such as the Black community, rural Christian conservatives, or suburban liberal Democrats. Authenticity is television’s most prized currency—although nobody really knows what the word means, there’s an overriding belief that, if you lived through something, you can speak on that experience with the emotion and authentic passion that makes for good news segments.

If our show is airing on CNN, MSNBC, or one of the network news stations, we likely have a giant hole in our garden of viewpoints. The missing target demographic is the Trump voter, which constitutes a sizable portion of the country. Hardly any of the pundits in regular rotation on those channels would ever endorse Donald Trump for President, even though many of them identify as conservative. Should we, the producers of this show, break ranks with these norms and put Trump advocates on the air in the name of balance, fairness, and exploring all perspectives?

Balance, of course, is a journalistic parlor trick. You can create the appearance of a fairly matched debate without actually giving each side fair weight; one dynamic partisan opinion can feel equal to twenty in opposition. But the relevant political divide in this country right now isn’t conservative versus liberal, or even Democrat versus Republican. It’s Trump versus anti-Trump. And, instead of stocking these opinion panels with Trumpists, the decision-makers at these outlets frequently put Beltway-friendly, anti-Trump establishment Republicans on the right-wing side of the scale. If your goal is to reflect the American populace, at least to some degree, then the staff of the American Enterprise Institute and a dozen or so Republican lawyers in McLean, Virginia, should not receive as much representation as, say, every Latino in America. Beaming in the famed Never Trump Republican George Conway via live stream for a six-minute segment might be nice on its own merits, but, if the idea is for him to stand in for “the right,” it’s a bit like asking a Michael Jackson impersonator to fill in for an injured shortstop because they’re both performers with gloves.

The conservatives on these shows aren’t there to draw in conservative voters who will suddenly start watching because there’s someone expressing their views on the air. They’re there for the benefit of the mostly liberal audience, both as a way to signal a type of fair-mindedness and, occasionally, to act as punching bags. This voyeuristic dynamic was on display in a recent CNN panel that was hosted by Dana Bash, which did feature someone who defended Trump—Marc Lotter, a former Trump special assistant. He was joined on the panel by the former Republican congresswoman Barbara Comstock, who took Lotter to task for dismissing concerns about Trump’s use of graphic and violent imagery on his social-media accounts. The two had a spirited exchange that was punctuated by Bash declaring, in almost anthropological fashion, “What we just witnessed are two Republicans having a very real debate—a very passionate one—about some of the things that Donald Trump is doing.”

I do not think that the majority of TV executives have purposefully tried to block pro-Trump voices in the hopes of preserving democracy. (The talent on these shows are a different matter, which I will come back to.) Rather, they seem to suffer from a much more boring but also persistent and process-driven challenge. We’ve stipulated that our television debate show wants to be trusted, so it aims to put out largely factual information, even when it’s contained within a shouted opinion. It’s possible to hire a Never Trump talking head who will rail against wokeness, Black Lives Matter, and whatever campus controversy has lately triggered the rhapsodies of the commentariat, and who will do so without egregious fabrications. But, if you put an actual Trump supporter on the panel, you can basically never talk about who won the 2020 Presidential election. Any mention of President Joe Biden risks some comment about the alleged illegitimacy of his office. You cannot run a news show with such potential chaos lurking around every commercial break.

I got to thinking about these television news panels while watching the unfolding saga of Ronna McDaniel, the former chair of the Republican National Committee, who was hired and then let go by NBC News within a period of five days, after many people in the NBC family, including Joe Scarborough, Chuck Todd, and Rachel Maddow, publicly criticized the decision to bring her on. Her hiring was born out of a desire to bring in what an NBC executive called a “diverse set of viewpoints and experiences,” which I imagine would’ve meant the sort of restrained pablum that we see from conservative talking heads on the mainstream networks, where they spend more time defining what they are not than what they actually are. According to the Washington Post, McDaniel was offered more money if she would also agree to appear on the more openly left-of-center MSNBC, which suggests that she was going to be filling the role of the reasonable Republican who talks almost exclusively to liberal audiences and that any whispers of election denial would have been immediately stamped out with theatrical vigor.

But, after the 2020 election, McDaniel, who is the niece of the former Presidential candidate and famed Trump foe Mitt Romney, both privately and publicly supported Trump’s allegations of a stolen election. And although she has since said that Biden’s win was legitimate, her past did her in. Part of the issue was that McDaniel, rather than simply being someone who occasionally came on the air, was going to be a paid contributor. Maddow said on her show that the decision to put McDaniel on the payroll was “inexplicable,” adding that it wasn’t just that McDaniel supported Trump. It was that, as someone who “was about undermining elections,” McDaniel was “part of an ongoing project to get rid of our system of government.”

Not all of this was convincing. There were, after all, similar complaints from staffers at CBS News when that network brought in the former Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who can be criticized for much of what he did in that position, but who also resigned, albeit from a more modest Administration position—U.S. special envoy to Northern Ireland—after the insurrection on January 6th, in protest of what he said that Trump had become. The high tone of the criticism of McDaniel, the fevered pitch of the whole debate, seemed out of keeping with how much, or how little, was really at stake. You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t find it particularly dangerous for NBC News to platform a scion of the Republican establishment whose uncle is best known, at this point, for his fights with Trump, especially given everything else that’s going on in the world. Nor do I find all that much journalistic justification for the melodramatic way that McDaniel was ousted. Jen Psaki, a former Biden White House press secretary, has her own show on MSNBC, and though Psaki certainly never contested the 2020 election results, it does seem a little imbalanced that Psaki gets to inter her partisan past and start anew as a journalist but McDaniel does not. Psaki, for her part, passionately called out those who compared her to McDaniel. “This isn’t about Republicans versus Democrats. This isn’t about red versus blue. This is about truth versus lies.”

Do these types of exhortations—the press straightening their spines and screaming down the right—still work? In a recent Gallup poll, a record thirty-nine per cent of Americans said that they had no trust at all in the mass media. Gallup first polled on the subject in 1972, and Democrats have always expressed more trust than Republicans. That gap was fairly narrow in the nineties, and grew wider during the Bush years. Then the 2016 election completely blew the sides apart. By 2018, faith in the media among Democrats had spiked to seventy-six per cent, and had fallen among Republicans to twenty-one per cent. In the past five years, trust among both sides has fallen again.

Those of us who work in the media industry don’t need a Gallup poll to confirm that the credibility of the news is in crisis across the political spectrum—we can feel the precarity of our profession nearly every day, both in the economic hollowing out of trusted news organizations, many of which have been going through brutal layoffs, and in the relentless way that both public figures and regular citizens belittle and even threaten our work. But the size of that gap, and the reasons for it, are also worth thinking about.

After the 2016 election, many liberal media figures proudly assumed the role of protectors of democracy, in a way that alternately felt necessary and a bit vainglorious. Our audiences wanted us to fight, so we did. A liberal-media optimist, looking at the trend lines in the Gallup poll, might conclude that, after 2016, all the good and vital reporting that was done about the Trump Administration angered Republicans, who agreed with their leader that all of it was “fake news,” which, in turn, made the liberals trust the media even more. There’s some truth in that. But, at times, the spectacle of opposing Trump and his supporters seemed to become, in itself, a signal of journalistic integrity.

Last month, much of the liberal-leaning mainstream media went full red-alert about Trump’s use of the word “bloodbath,” with many interpreting it as a violent threat. “Trump says there will be a ‘bloodbath’ if he loses the election,” NBC News reported. CBS ran a TV segment with a similar headline. The Biden campaign also pushed the idea that Trump was promising violence. But, as others, including the Trump campaign, soon pointed out, Trump was talking about a coming “bloodbath” in the domestic automobile industry unless the strong tariffs that he was proposing in his speech were not put in place. Perhaps, on account of January 6th, every utterance of “bloodbath” by the former President should be taken as a direct threat to the body politic. But probably not. He, in this case, had been misconstrued. And many of those who misconstrued him did so in the name of brave, truthtelling journalism.

This was great for Trump, of course, who repeated the phrase “bloodbath” earlier this week, this time in a speech about the southern border, in which he referred to recent migrants as “prisoners, murderers, drug dealers, mental patients, and terrorists.” He even revealed a new Web site called bidenbloodbath.com. The association of the term with actual violence was much stronger here—and, for Trump supporters, the word was now also a byword for the perceived dishonesty of the media. But these more concerning moments came and went without wall-to-wall coverage on cable news and social media. At times, it seems as though those of us who cover politics for a living have grown used to Trump, and have begun to relate to him, as we might to any other person we know too well, with a kind of erratic familiarity. Little moments like the McDaniel affair can blow up into hateful dramas while the second “bloodbath” speech passes by with little comment.

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