Finding a TV journalist who can take on Trump

Waiting to see if there's a TV journalist strong enough to take on Trump.

It's time for someone on TV to step up and take Donald Trump down — or, at least, put him in his place.

The situation has not risen to the level of Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy. But it's definitely in a league with Katie Couric and Sarah Palin.

And every day that Trump gets away with driving the vast majority of political coverage on network and cable TV with his reckless, tabloid-style attacks and unsubstantiated claims is another day that the nation loses having an informed discussion about where it wants to go in terms of leadership after Barack Obama.

Coarsening the conversation of democracy hardly starts to describe a candidate for president collectively characterizing Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, or questioning the war record of Sen. John McCain, who spent five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.

Compared to those ignorant and ugly acts, Trump calling South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham a "stiff" while giving out his cellphone number seems like mere high school bully-boy stuff. But is this really the tabloid, reality-TV level at which we want our most important civic pageant to play?

Trump drags almost every part of the presidential selection process down to his level. Graham, one of the most thoughtful and civil national leaders I have ever encountered, responded to Trump by calling him a "jackass" and appearing in a video that featured him destroying his cellphone with everything from a meat cleaver to a golf club.

It was kind of pathetic, but what else could Graham do? Trump laughs in the face of civility. He's like McCarthy in that respect.

Two big-name, prime-time TV interviewers had a shot at Trump last week: Bill O'Reilly of Fox News and Anderson Cooper of CNN.

Cooper tried to squeeze Trump on specifics and pin him down for evidence on some of his more bombastic claims in a Wednesday interview. But in the end, he barely laid a glove on the real estate mogul.

He tried playing by the rules of traditional journalism, and it failed.

The portion of the conversation that dealt with Mexican immigrants offers a snapshot of how ineffective even a well-researched, tenacious interviewer can be in the face of a performer like Trump. Notice how the candidate disrupts any sense of linear continuity in Cooper's line of questioning by introducing hot-button topics — first the Mariel boatlift from Cuba in 1980, then the murder of Kate Steinle earlier this month by a man who had been deported to Mexico five times. And all of it is a smoke screen to avoid providing evidence to back up his outrageous allegations.

Cooper: "You keep saying Mexico is sending these people across. … But you have offered no proof."

Trump: "Well, you may have proof very soon. … All you have to do is pick some of the border people. Some of the border people tell me …"

Cooper: "But we have talked to immigration officials who have said, 'Look, they have never heard of that. There's no evidence of that.' Wouldn't somebody have — of all the people who have been arrested, you're telling me there wouldn't be proof by now?"

Trump: "Do you remember — do you remember, many years ago, Fidel Castro, when he emptied the prisons and sent everybody into the United States. … This is a much more sophisticated version of the same thing ..."

Cooper: "But there was clear evidence of that at the time."

Trump: "This animal — excuse me — this animal that killed Kate, he came across five times — five times. Now, maybe he came across because he thought the weather was nice. Maybe he was pushed across by Mexico officials."

Cooper: "But you have offered no proof."

Trump: "Look, Mexico's leaders are much smarter and sharper and more cunning than our leaders. They're doing things that we don't even know about. Let's see what happens. I'm going to speak to a lot of people. … I may never see you again, but these are minor details."

Trump's rhetorical jujitsu played just fine on TV. Short of jumping out of his chair, putting his hands around Trump's throat and demanding a direct answer, there is not much more Cooper could have done.

O'Reilly, though, is another story.

The highest-rated host on cable news TV had his shot Monday night. It was an important moment because it came as many conservatives were suffering cognitive dissonance over a GOP candidate saying McCain, the Republican presidential nominee in 2008, "is not a war hero."

While a couple of online sites like Salon, which have an ideological interest in seeing right-wing infighting, said O'Reilly "ripped" into Trump, that's not what happened.

I have written that in terms of performance O'Reilly is to prime-time cable what Johnny Carson was to late-night network television. He has absolutely mastered the genre. And, in fairness, he did press Trump on what he said about McCain — to an extent.

But it was theater, not journalism, with Trump insisting to the end that he had said all along over the weekend that McCain was a hero, and the press had misrepresented his words. O'Reilly, who took on the TV persona of a family patriarch benignly sorting out a misunderstanding between two alpha uncles, ultimately let it slide.

And just in case anyone wasn't clear about O'Reilly's feelings toward Trump during the interview, he said in his "Tip of the Day" segment Tuesday that "the media" is out to get Trump and that viewers shouldn't be misled.

"The media," O'Reilly said, are trying to "punish" Trump for being "disrespectful and not cowering before them."

So now, O'Reilly is the protector of Trump against the media — as if O'Reilly weren't part of the media.

What troubles me most about that phony stance is that O'Reilly is the TV figure best positioned to rein in Trump and put this campaign back on track. In the "Wonderland" world of cable news performers, he is the one with the "moral" authority to make the GOP portion of this campaign about citizens and not show business. And if he is the champion of the people that he presents himself to be, he will.

The popular appeal of O'Reilly and Trump comes from the same well: viewers and voters who are angry about the indifference those in Washington seem to show to their daily struggles in a rapidly changing world. They feel they have been exploited, lied to and taken for fools by their elected leaders. I believe those feelings are legitimate.

Trump speaks directly to that anger, and even though he has no real solutions, it's as attractive for 2016 as it initially was when Palin tapped into it in 2008.

But he needs to run a campaign that doesn't debase the process and denigrate others. And no other candidate or elected official seems to have the power — or willingness — to force that truth on Trump.

It's scary to contemplate what Trump might do to the genre of presidential debates at the Aug. 6 GOP event on Fox, which could be the highest-rated primary debate in history.

Maybe that's the problem. Maybe Trump's ugly behavior is too good for business at cable channels like Fox, with candidate super PACs buying millions of dollars in ads and huge ratings anticipated.

Maybe that's too much for O'Reilly to address honestly at this stage of his career.

Maybe Megyn Kelly, who will be one of the three Fox moderators, is the one to bring The Donald to heel Aug. 6. Now you're talking cable TV spectacle.

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

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