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Seven Years Ago
We recently saw people sharing on social media a piece we published on Facebook seven years ago, September 16, 2016. After rereading it, and re-remembering it, we felt it was worth sharing again in this forum. It was posts like this one that evolved into this Steady newsletter.
It is surreal to return to a moment in that presidential campaign. At the time, there was a sense of foreboding, but none of us knew the shocks that lay in store — this was before the presidential debates, the “Access Hollywood” tape, the damaging actions of James Comey. Each of these events would shape, in their own way and in concert, the momentum that would take Trump to the presidency. And all that has followed.
Back in September 2016, the safe money still was certainly on Hillary Clinton’s becoming president. But there were troubling signs of the existential danger Trump posed to American democracy. A particular strain of concern was his attacks on the press. They were unrelenting, and they inspired this post. But there is also the matter of how the press responded to the candidate and his menacing words.
Looking back, much of what we warned about came true. But there is no satisfaction in being proven correct. Damage is the ultimate legacy.
Below is the 2016 piece:
Donald Trump’s disdain, mockery, and antagonism of the press, whose freedoms are enshrined in the Bill of Rights and whose presence has provided ballast to our democracy since its inception, raise grave questions about his fitness for the presidency of the United States.
For a long while, these thoughts have coursed through me with concern and disbelief, and yet my abiding loyalty to the notion of fair, accurate, and unbiased journalism held me in check from saying it out loud — much as I suspect it has muzzled the true feelings of many of my colleagues. But we must remember that Donald Trump knows this and cynically plays the press corps’ deep desire for fairness to his undeserved benefit. The latest, barring the traveling press from covering an event and ridiculing them in a speech, are but the most recent chapters in a novel full of outrageous acts.
I am well aware that I will be met with bile and venom for saying this, called a communist, a liberal in bed with Hillary Clinton, a washed-up joke. But to quote Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, “frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Let others attack my motives. My conscience is clean. This is not about partisan politics, about who is right on immigration or gun control. This is about the very machinery that has allowed our American experiment to persist and thrive, a machinery that is far more fragile than we would like to believe.
Trump’s relationship with the press is at the heart of so much that is troubling about his candidacy — the secrecy, the lack of transparency on something as normal as tax returns, the flouting of the very rules by which we elect our leaders, the appeasement of hate groups. And his embrace of Fox News and Breitbart, institutions that have undermined press freedoms, is a further dangerous sign of decay.
And yet when presented with this challenge, too much of the press has been cowed into inaction. This is a man who can be fact-checked into obscurity by any second grader with an internet connection. And yet when he issues a mealy-mouthed non-apology about President Obama’s obvious pedigree as an American, here we are with too many in the press not acknowledging his years of lies. All of this, of course, sets the stage for Trump to lie again about birtherism somehow being Clinton’s fault.
I fear that this mindset will infect the debates. Trump is already setting the stage for that. If you are moderating and are not going to fact check him, you might as well just roll campaign speeches live — far too many of which have been shown on television without being subjected to journalistic context. If these debates will be debates in name only, merely another opportunity for Trump to flout fairness by spewing his venom and bullshine, I say cancel them.
Enough is enough. It is a reality with which every reporter must come to grips. Trump is not a normal candidate. This is not a normal election. He will set a precedent that other demagogues will study and follow. Fear, combined with the lure of ratings, views, clicks, and profits, has hypnotized too much of the press into inaction and false equivalency for far too long. I am optimistic the trance is being broken. Fear not the internet trolls. Fear instead the judgment of history.
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