When considering Archon Fung’s contention “that no one really sees it as their job to save American democracy — not politicians, not owners of social media platforms, not advocates of conservative and liberal causes, and maybe not even citizens themselves,” it’s difficult not to think about Rick Perlstein’s disturbing overview of how the media covered the campaign. If Trump fatally wounds the republic, Perlstein writes, future historians will pin the blame for his ascent on “bad journalism”—on “the elite gatekeepers of our public discourse” who failed so spectacularly at their jobs that voters went to the polls in November convinced that Hillary Clinton was the more corrupt, untrustworthy one. Perlstein also suggests that what Americans weren’t told may have mattered as much as what they mistakenly believed. Only after the election, for instance, did we learn that Trump’s attacks on Megyn Kelly were inspiring so many threats that FOX News had to warn Trump’s lawyer to tell the candidate to cut it out before someone killed her.
If you don’t think that could have happened, read the news out of D.C. this week, where thankfully, no one was killed after a crazed man armed with a rifle walked into a pizza joint, fired shots, and pointed his gun at an employee because he wanted to investigate rumors of a Hillary Clinton-run child sex ring allegedly being run from (nonexistent) tunnels beneath its floors. That conspiracy theory has been promoted by, among others, the 9/11 and Sandy Hook truther Alex Jones, on whose radio show Trump appeared as recently as last year to heap praise on Jones’s “amazing” reputation. Promotion of the theory has also come from the son of the incoming national security adviser, who was only just dismissed from Trump’s transition team. What Perlstein concludes about Kelly now, unfortunately, has an even wider application: “apparently, America did not need to know that the minions of one of the candidates for president were flirting with loosing vigilante assassins upon a journalist.”
In my last piece before the election, I reflected on the disastrous state of TV news—especially cable news, which increasingly seems like an actively malignant force in American life. Consider CNN, for whom Trump was not “a news story in any recognizable sense, which would imply some sort of responsibility to inform. How could CNN possibly do that after hiring (nominally-fired Trump adviser) Corey Lewandowski to comment upon a man, Donald Trump, whose emoluments he still received, and who was under a binding legal agreement never to inform the public of anything disparaging about him?” But as Perlstein notes, these conflicts were no concern to the venal network heads who shrugged at the threat of Trumpism because he was so spectacular for ratings.
One might conclude from this observation that the push for advertising dollars explains the 2016 media meltdown. But the pressures facing networks like CNN don’t exactly explain why different outlets—especially NPR—also embarrassed themselves with coverage so feeble that it was downright misleading. (Perlstein, with devastating understatement, reproduces a “Morning Edition” interview transcript about Michael Flynn which is painful to read, but which also captures succinctly why NPR’s election and transition coverage is more or less un-listenable.)
If non-profit and profit-driven news sources alike are incapable of truthfully reporting on Trump, what does that leave? In considering this question myself, I’ve concluded (with some resignation) that whatever its imperfections, a broadly subscriber-based model for journalism works best. Perlstein notes that some of the bright spots in Trump coverage came from major newspapers like The Washington Post, even if fealty to bizarre editorial norms leads papers like the Post to compulsively balance their “critical” (read: accurate) reports on Trump with, as Perlstein writes, “something reassuring. Which is to say, something not true.” This is undoubtedly a problem, but for all their flaws, newspapers clearly outperformed both television news and NPR during this campaign cycle. That may be because both their format and their relative reliance on paying subscribers have partly insulated them from cable’s need to generate bombast and peel away viewers of other channels, as well as the terror of losing public and foundation funding that seems to animate NPR’s pusillanimity. If that’s the case, then we can take some comfort that print subscriptions have surged since the election. After all, we have to look for good news somewhere.