It would be nice to live in a country in which we could just spend a few days focused on remembering and honoring the exemplary life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
But we don’t live in that kind of country any more.
Less than 24 hours after her death was announced Friday night, the media war was on to try and influence the political and public opinion battles that were already raging over whether or not her seat on the court would be filled before the Nov. 3 election. President Donald Trump promised a nominee this week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said there will be a vote on that nominee.
Here’s what the media war sounded like Saturday night on Fox News: one filled with rhetoric, smears and sheer meanness of words that highlight the advantage right-wing media has in what is going to be six weeks of epic warfare. The presidential race between Mr. Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden was already partisan enough, but when you add a fight for a Supreme Court seat that has direct influence on the balance of power on that court, you have to wonder if we are going to need a new definition for nasty before this is over.
“Mitch, don’t overthink this,” Jesse Watters, host of “Watters' World,” said looking into the camera and addressing Mr. McConnell directly. “Push hard for a vote before the election, whip the vote and pull the trigger.”
Then he gave Republican senators their marching orders from Fox News headquarters.
“And to Republican senators,” he continued, “Why give an inch to Democrats? … This is raw politics with our future at stake. The left keeps lecturing you about fairness, precedent, waiting for an election. This after they spied on the Trump campaign, sabotaged the transition, divided the country with sinister investigations and impeached the president during an election year. The Democrats have no credibility here. Remember what they did to Kavanaugh? And they have been rioting all summer. We are dealing with bloodthirsty political killers on the left. Buck up and do your job.”
“Bloodthirsty political killers"? Does anyone have to wonder why we are such a divided nation when you have a channel with “news” in its title pounding out messages like this to its millions of viewers at a time of heightened emotion.
Beyond the millions of viewers, the Fox News Saturday night prime-time lineup of “Watters' World” and the Jeanine Pirro hosted “Justice with Judge Jeanine” are among the president’s favorites, according to “Hoax: Donald Trump, Fox News and the Dangerous Distortion of Truth‚” a new book from CNN’s chief media correspondent Brian Stelter. And if the president watches, so do all those Republican senators and other members of Congress and the administration who want to be on his team. Mr. Watters’ words were a call to arms.
And how can those of us in the mainstream media possibly compete with that kind of partisan rhetoric and invective? The vast majority of us work on platforms founded as journalistic institutions with a primary mission of giving citizens fact-based, verified information they can use to make decisions about their lives.
Meanwhile, many of the leading platforms on the right were founded and operate as political tools or weapons: Fox News, Breitbart News Network, The Daily Caller. After Steve Bannon left Mr. Trump’s White House and returned to Breitbart, he said, “I’ve got my hands back on my weapons.” Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight" on Fox News, is co-founder of The Daily Caller.
If you are founded as a political tool, success is judged by how well you support the ideology and the mission of the politicians trying to get elected and make that ideology into policy. Winning voters and office are what matter, not giving citizens trustworthy information to use in making their own decisions. Propaganda, lies and smears are better if they achieve your ends. How do journalists from mainstream institutions compete with that? We have a different DNA.
I was on a panel with Mr. Stelter on CNN Sunday that discussed this issue, and I still do not know the answer to that question. I am not sure anyone does. But we in the mainstream media have to acknowledge and think about the disadvantage we face in the war over the presidency and the vacant Supreme Court seat.
We cannot operate like political tools. To do that would be to lose our souls and our role in this democracy. We have to believe and trust that facts and serving the public rather than trying to manipulate it will ultimately win the day.
David Zurawik is The Sun’s media critic. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @davidzurawik.