Much is being made of the president’s targeting of CNN’s Jim Acosta, but TV news bears as much blame as anyone for our democracy’s dystopian decline, culminating in the presidency of an ignoramus with a personality disorder.
With Congress supine and the courts packed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, readily consumable news stands as the last guardrail of American democracy. Yet rather than fulfilling that vital role, TV news unwittingly amplified Donald Trump’s propaganda during the 2016 presidential election and now perpetuates it with such blind reliability that it must surprise even him.
They must immediately stop doing three things: repeating his demagoguery verbatim, playing the outrage game, and focusing on him to the exclusion of other important stories. Instead, they must embrace their solemn duty and educate the population about our great challenges — ratings be damned.
A famous journalist once said “The vitality of democracy itself depends today upon the popular knowledge of complex questions.” How far we are from that ideal — and President Trump needs it that way.
His strategy to distract and divide the country is so obvious at this point that we have no excuse not to counter it. He has stated repeatedly that “all press is good press.” He intentionally does something outrageous, such as insulting a sexual assault survivor or prisoner of war, and TV news always reacts predictably. In their shameless quest for ratings, anchors read his tweets verbatim or show clips of his vile behavior. They then spend hours fomenting outrage instead of covering myriad other worthy stories. They project him into our subconscious from TVs in airports, gyms and office buildings. Reluctant Trump supporters feel the backlash from the media, whom they already distrusted, which drives them closer to him.
We’ve seen this strategy before — from terrorists. Driven by hatred and nihilism, terrorists commit deplorable acts knowing that they will drive their enemies mad with anger, and that overreaction will help them consolidate tribal support. They encourage their followers to hate the other side more than they love their country. President Trump terrorizes in word and deed every demographic who voted against him, and relishes their public pain.
President Trump swore an oath to defend the Constitution “against all enemies foreign and domestic,” yet he violates that oath nearly every day. Sadly, due to either myopia or greed, TV news has abetted his effort to remake America in his image, making them currently no less destructive than he.
If they intend by their behavior to protect American democracy, it isn’t working. Domestic terrorism is on the rise. Meanwhile, Brett Kavanaugh got confirmed to the Supreme Court in part because major news outlets ran with some salacious but dubious allegations of sexual assault. By stooping to his level, CNN gave Sen. Lindsey Graham an excuse to draw moral equivalency and remind Trump supporters why they hated the media. Democrats lost major ground in Senate races.
We are re-learning old wisdom: “Never wrestle with a pig; you’ll both get dirty, and the pig likes it.”
In short, American democracy’s Achilles’ heels are ignorance and demagoguery, and the amoral Donald Trump will exploit them as long as we allow him to. If we keep behaving in the way that fueled his rise, we should not expect a different result. That isn’t fair, but fairness isn’t on the menu. We should not expect fairness in an existential fight against an amoral man.
TV news must therefore stop rewarding President Trump’s behavior, even if it means their ratings decrease in the short-term. We can only stop terrorism if we stop rewarding terrorism. For example, Israel learned that instead of granting Palestinian attacks wall-to-wall coverage and living in fear, they should focus on cleaning up each terrorist attack quickly and returning to normal life. In doing so, they dried up terrorism’s sustaining resources of publicity and hatred.
When I was deployed to Kuwait and Iraq in 2015, I watched disgustedly as CNN focused for months on Rachel Dolezal, Caitlyn Jenner and Malaysia Flight 370, instead of the war we were fighting or the climate change destroying our future. CNN followed this debasement with a year of wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump, becoming his useful idiot.
It is not a coincidence that the stupefaction of CNN immediately presaged President Trump’s rise. TV news has dug a hole, and it’s time to stop digging.
Dr. Rob Cohen (Rob.L.Cohen.MD@gmail.com) is a physician, Army veteran and host of The Democrises Podcast. His book, “Democrises: Solving Our Struggles with Democracy, Demography, and Demoralization” will be published in 2019.