I’ll be honest, some weeks I don’t know if I’m evolving to a higher ethical plane or losing my journalistic religion bit by bit as I struggle to communicate what I see as President Trump’s toxic effects on American media and culture.
In December 2016 just weeks after Trump’s stunning election, I wrote that if I were more religious, I would be convinced that God sent Donald Trump to test the press.
I totally meant it in a general sense, but in my heart of hearts, I didn’t think covering him as a media figure was going to change me in any major way. In addition to decades of writing about media, I had been teaching media ethics at Goucher College for 20 years.
I thought I had my journalistic values in order. You played it down the middle and you did not take sides. I totally believed in the righteous power of the core values I had been socialized to and then came to embrace on my own.
They held up during the long and nasty presidential campaign as I both praised Trump’s masterful use of new-media Twitter and old-media cable TV interviews, while denouncing his words and actions against his favorite targets like persons of color, women and journalists.
As critical as I was of Trump, I also trashed Vox for a post in which one of its editors urged readers to take to the streets to protest him, and I questioned The New York Times for its decision to call him a liar on its front page.
But more and more lately, I find myself reacting one way immediately to certain aspects of Trump coverage only to change my position significantly after later thinking it through in a systematic way.
That happened last month in the immediate aftermath of the Helsinki summit between Trump and Vladimir Putin.
When I heard Anderson Cooper tell viewers as CNN came out of live Helsinki coverage of a Trump-Putin press conference that they had just witnessed one of the "most disgraceful" performances by an American president that he had even seen, I thought, “Wow, Cooper should not have said that.”
I was on deadline writing another story at the time, and was dipping in and out of Helsinki coverage. I had a knee-jerk reaction based on the values to which I had been socialized my entire career.
But later that day, when I focused on the conference, Trump’s comments afterwards and Anderson’s assessment, I concluded Anderson said exactly what needed to be said, and God bless him for it.
Furthermore, as I tried to contextualize Anderson’s remarks historically, I realized that for all our legacy talk of the elusive and perhaps even mythical standard of objectivity, what two of the most honored TV journalists of all time, Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, are best remembered for is not their massive volume of down-the-middle reporting, but the times they stepped out of their roles and made moral calls.
For Cronkite, that was in a special report critical of the President Lyndon Johnson’s handling of the war in Vietnam, while Murrow is celebrated for his takedown of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s trampling of constitutional rights in searching for Communists in American government during the 1950’s.
The war in Vietnam and McCarthy’s destruction of careers and lives are deep stains on the American soul. I believe Trump’s presidency will come to be widely seen in the same way by historians. But we who are living in the eye of the storm need to denounce it now without worrying if we wander away from the middle a bit.
This last week certainly wouldn’t rank up there with Trump’s Helsinki performance of kowtowing to an enemy or his misguided decision earlier this summer to separate children from their parents at our southern border without any apparent sense of logistics or care for the trauma that was sure to result. But in his tabloid war on former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman, the president reached another shocking low when he called her a “dog” on Twitter.
I am no fan of Omarosa, and I tried to avoid the orgy of cable TV coverage about her new book until that tweet. But what kind of human being calls another a dog? I’ll tell you what kind: someone who is trying to dehumanize the other. It is a tactic the Fascist leaders of Europe in the 1930’s knew well. There is no way to be down the middle about it — no way. Don’t tell me Trump means something other than dog when he says dog. Just stop it.
It’s like all the arguing that is still going on about calling Trump a liar in mainstream media. In May, we had another flareup when Maggie Haberman, of the New York Times, used the term “demonstrable falsehoods” to refer to Trump lies.
The argument for such language is that the person propagating a falsehood has to do so with the intent of deceiving before you can properly call it a lie. Maybe Trump was only confused or didn’t know what he said was false.
Please. I know I was one of those two years ago questioning whether or not Trump should be called liar. But we should now be way past such semantic silliness given the astonishing regularity with which our president lies and lies and lies.
How can you ever truly know intent — especially with someone like Trump who changes his story on a dime? Given this standard, you could never call him a liar.
But while we in the press argue such matters to an almost Talmudic degree, or get lost in our shame and outrage as citizens for having elected a president who calls other human beings dogs, we lose sense of the creeping, deeply corrosive, sickening effect he has on the entire media landscape and culture.
In trying to avoid hearing about Trump and Manigault Newman this week, and then realizing that was impossible, I came to understand that Trump has so sleazed out and tabloid-ized the culture that even staying peripherally informed these days drags you into the dirty, dirty gutter where our president lives.
It is the same thing with his lies. Certainly he is only one factor among many, including massive changes in technology and media business models, but Trump’s acute mendacity has contributed to an information ecosystem steeped in disinformation, propaganda and hate.
Words are one thing, actions another. One of my own recent acts showed me just how much I have been changed by Trump in the last year.
Last summer after writing several columns denouncing an effort by the Trump-friendly Sinclair Broadcast group to acquire Tribune Media, I was asked by a group of area citizens to speak on how they could learn more about the issue and be most effective in opposing it.
As much as I admired what they were doing, I decided after talking with my editor, that my involvement could be construed as activism, and I declined.
This month, after writing a column and cutting a video on the evils of dark money and how it was already affecting the Maryland governor’s race, I was asked to moderate a panel on the issue. I accepted, even though it could also be construed as activism.
Such money from the Republican Governor’s Association was funding attack ads on Baltimore TV against Democratic candidate Ben Jealous, and my denunciation of dark money could be seen as opposition to Gov. Larry Hogan, whose re-election campaign obviously benefited from the attacks on his opponent.
But I decided that dark money is bad for democracy, and it needs to be exposed and opposed with all our might now. Journalists are citizens, too. And sometimes what we write on a website or say in front of a video camera is not enough.
You have to be willing to be called an activist or partisan, even as you hold fast to your core commitment to fairness and balance. I would now speak to those citizens about Sinclair in a heartbeat.
I’d like to think of that as evolution. But, in truth, I don’t know whether to thank or curse Trump for his role in bringing me to this uneasy journalistic space I now inhabit.