Last year at this time, I wrote that we in the media had failed miserably in trying to cover Candidate Trump.
Some cable news hosts and producers had given Trump largely uncontested chunks of time worth millions of dollars because he drove ratings. Meanwhile, on the other side, some reporters and hosts abandoned long-held mainstream-media values of nonpartisan coverage in the face of his attacks.
The good news today: We still haven't figured out exactly how to cover President Trump. But we are getting there by working harder and behaving better than him, doing both our job and his in some cases, particularly when it comes to moral leadership.
For some readers, moral leadership might not seem to some as if it belongs in the same sentence with media. But consider for a moment the most significant cultural story of the last two years: the naming and shaming of sexual predators in media, government and business. Again, we don’t have best practices exactly figured out yet. How could we when getting it right will involve unpacking centuries of patriarchy?
But great progress was made in the last year in removing men who allegedly used their positions of power to sexually exploit others: Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer — big, big names.
And the most impressive thing about their banishment: They all made big, big money for their corporations, and yet they were still sent into professional exile.
So, how did that happen?
Surely, the driving force and the people who deserve the most credit are the victims who came forward and bore witness to what they experienced — all at considerable risk, some at great damage to their careers and lives.
But their stories might not have been heard or given the amplification needed to resonate the way they have if not for media consistently providing a supportive forum in which those stories could be told, believed and discussed.
The exemplary reporting of The New York Times in corroborating allegations against Weinstein is probably the best example of the media leading the way to righteous social change through fact-based journalism. But the good work extends far beyond the Times and continues today through much of the media.
I am not saying all media. Certainly, Fox News didn’t contribute anything beyond unavoidable firings. Thanks in large part to the late Roger Ailes, its founder, it was itself a sick, predatory, sexually exploitative culture.
As to what Fox has or has not learned in the last two years, consider the comments from owner Rupert Murdoch earlier this month.
'It's all nonsense,” he said of the criticism of Fox News for allowing such a culture of sexual exploitation.
He further dismissed some of the allegations by saying they "probably amount to a bit of flirting” — nothing more — in an interview with Sky News.
If you want a real sense of what went on, check out the video of former Fox legal contributor Tamara Holder’s explanation on CNN’s Dec. 17 edition of “Reliable Sources” as to how a Fox executive physically tried to force her to perform oral sex on him in his office. Some “bit of flirting,” Rupert.
But many platforms can be proud of the work they did: ranging from a show business trade publication like Variety to such legacy mainstream outlets as the the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, CNN and NBC.
Nor is it limited to reporting. In November, Alisyn Camerota, co-anchor of CNN’s “New Day” show, hosted one the finest TV town halls I have seen in years, “Tipping Point: Sexual Harassment in America.”
Her guests spanned from Anita Hill, the pioneering lawyer and educator who testified in 1991 at the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court nomination hearings, alleging he sexually harassed her, to Gretchen Carlson, the former Fox anchor who put her career on the line in 2016 by suing Ailes over sexual harassment. Their words were moving, enlightening and inspiring. They provided context, passion and new ways of thinking about the issue.
Carlson urged viewers, for example, to quit worrying so much about the high visibility of alleged male predators who lost their careers and start thinking about all the unknown women who for decades had their careers ruined before they had barely begun if they resisted such men. Bring those women back into the work force and give them the careers that were stolen from them, she said.
Historically, the White House plays a major role, if not the leading one, in such epic cultural change. Think of Lyndon Johnson using the power of the presidency to secure passage of civil rights legislation in Congress, and then using the bully pulpit of the White House podium to try to convince Americans to accept the new law of the land codified in the The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Or, how about Dwight Eisenhower sending elite troops from the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Ark., to make sure African American students could enroll at Central High School in 1957? Perhaps Ike could have secured their enrollment in other ways, but he and others in his administration knew the power of those images in reinforcing the social change ordered by “Brown v. Board of Education.”
While media fragmentation makes it much harder today to place an image or idea on the front burner of public consciousness, the White House still has tremendous power to shape the civic conversation and national imagination through words, actions, pictures and, yes, tweets.
But what has Trump’s role been on sexual harassment?
His most resonant words are the vulgar ones boastfully uttered on the “Access Hollywood” tape about how and where he grabs women he finds attractive.
As for a moral stand, he most recently endorsed with a rally and robocall a U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama who was credibly alleged to have sexually assaulted teen girls while in his thirties and employed as an assistant district attorney.
That’s what I mean about the media having stepped up to fill some of the moral vacuum at the White House on certain issues.
It is not just sexual harassment.
Take civil rights an evidenced by his reaction to the conflict at Charlottesville in August following a torch-lit march in the college town that included Nazis and members of of the Ku Klux Klan. One anti-racism activist, Heather Heyer, was killed while protesting a white supremacist rally the day after the torch-lit march. Two Virginia state troopers also died when their surveillance helicopter crashed during the confrontation.
A Vice News report titled “Charlottesville: Race and Terror” not only captured the images of hate on the march and the next day’s conflict, but correspondent Elle Reeve and a seven-person production crew took us deep inside the thinking of some of the white supremacist leaders who planned and triggered events. The report was the most illuminating and powerful piece of short-form video journalism I saw this year. You could not see it and deny the reality of racism and hate on the rise on the right.
Journalists like Reeve did their job in responding to it, but how about our president?
"I think there is blame on both sides," Trump said in an impromptu press conference in the lobby of Trump Tower three days after the deaths. "What about the 'alt-left' that came charging at, as you say, the 'alt-right,' do they have any semblance of guilt? What about the fact they came charging with clubs in hands, swinging clubs, do they have any problem? I think they do."
It was not only journalists who stepped in to provide moral leadership this year -- others in the media did as well. None did so perhaps as powerfully as late-night comedian Jimmy Kimmel personalizing the health care debate through the story of his son, who was born in April with a serious heart condition.
Trump’s assault on the press and government itself has made this a year of soul searching for me. After decades of believing without doubt in down-the-middle journalism as the key to a healthy democracy, seeing Trump appointees like Ajit Pai, chair of the Federal Communications Commission, shred federal regulations designed to protect citizens made me question that core belief. I started thinking maybe those colleagues who said Trump demanded a new kind of activist “resistance” journalism were right.
But thinking back about all the excellent and brave work done this year by many in the media to make this a more just and equitable society renews my faith.
We don’t need a new kind of journalism. All we need to do is keep working harder and being better than our president.
If he wants to call the White House a “dump” and spend more than 100 days of his first year at Trump properties, according to CNN, let him. Let him play golf every day if he wants.
We’ll just keep working harder investigating him, comparing his performance to those of past presidents and chronicling the real effects of his policies on American life.