Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
President Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey was like a speedball for the media addicted to Trump-hatred. The Dems came out with the usual hallucinatory hyperbole––“Watergate,” “Saturday night massacre,” “obstruction of justice,” “Constitutional crisis,” “coup,” “impeachable offense,” “treason,” “terrifying attack,” “despot,” and various other verbal convulsions. The NeverTrumpers joined the shooting-gallery, high on their seething resentment of the man who kicked to the curb these self-appointed arbitri elegantiae of conservative political discourse.
Nearly two years since Trump announced his candidacy, the media savants still haven’t figured out that the rule-book they wrote to suit themselves is obsolete.
Once television and mass advertising came to dominate the coverage of politicians, the media determined the protocols and practices that governed their interactions with pols. Because they manufactured and monopolized the images and analyses that the voters used to create their politics, the opinion writers and television anchors wielded enormous power. And the politicians knew it. So both political parties accepted the media’s rituals and made obeisance to the the media’s power.
A prime example of this baleful dynamic came in 1968, in the early days of the North Vietnamese’s failed Tet Offensive. In his evening news show, CBS’s Walter Cronkite pronounced, “But it is increasingly clear to this reporter that the only rational way out [of Vietnam] then will be to negotiate, not as victors, but as an honorable people who lived up to their pledge to defend democracy, and did the best they could.” After hearing the supposed communicator of facts make a geopolitical political judgment based not on facts but on erroneous perceptions, President Johnson said, “If I’ve lost Cronkite, I’ve lost Middle America.” In the end, nearly 60 thousand Americans and over a million South Vietnamese died for nothing.
The Watergate scandal, and the celebrity and wealth showered on reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, illustrated again that the media did not just report events, but interpreted them in a way that could bring down a president over electoral hijinks common in our history. Their egos inflated with self-importance, during the following decades the media’s biases, political prejudices, naked activism, and rank careerism dominated the news. It shaped the media’s coverage of political enemies like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, as well as the policies like supply-side economics that offended the received wisdom of the left. The apex of media hubris was the groveling, worshipful coverage of Barack Obama, and the continuing apologia and encomia for his disastrous presidency.
But in their toxic self-regard, the mainstream media have refused to acknowledge that they no longer enjoy the monopoly on information and opinion that had once empowered them. Talk-radio, cable news, social media, and the internet have created a wild-west marketplace of ideas to which the citizens have 24⁄7 access 365 days a year. Smart-phone cameras creating images in real time have made the television camera-crews slow-moving dinosaurs. National opinion-makers that once numbered maybe in the low hundreds now have to compete with hundreds of thousands of commentators churning out news and opinion nonstop nationwide.
Now there is competition and choice––true freedom of the press–– and the influence of the gate-keepers and filters of the legacy media has been diminished. The transformational event came in 2004, when CBS anchor Dan Rather was quickly exposed and brought down by internet sleuths for reporting “fake news” based on a fabricated document about George Bush’s Air National Guard service. Once the heir of the sainted Walter Cronkite, now Dan Rather is an off-brand scold wandering the internet like the Ancient Mariner.
But Rather’s fate didn’t lessen the media’s arrogance. During the 2012 presidential debate, the “moderator” Candy Crowley contradicted Mitt Romney with a slanted and selective “correction,” while Romney stood there in silence like a confused school-boy. Most viewers could see that the rule of neutrality governing the behavior of moderators, almost always journalists, applied only to Republicans, and that establishment Republicans accepted this double standard. Once again, the media indulged the same ideological prejudices that had perfumed Obama’s lack of experience, gaps in his biography, policy failures, worn-out leftist bromides, and numerous errors of fact.
Trump’s candidacy and campaign, then, were built in part on the diminishment of big media and on the citizens’ disgust with their arrogance and biases, not to mention the Republicans who meekly accepted these restraints and double-standards. Lunch-bucket Republicans were also annoyed by the media’s obsession with style and decorum, the way they harped on Trump’s vulgarities and verbal infelicities even as they played down Hillary Clinton’s numerous substantial and substantiated failures, crimes, and corruption.
So Trump, the master of all media (pace Howard Stern), careened down the campaign trail, leaving behind the wreckage of every rule and shibboleth. And getting away with it. He sneered at the media, insulted his rivals, was rude to debate moderators, indulged in braggadocio, seemed indifferent to facts, spoke his mind directly without the spin-doctors’ filters, and displayed open contempt for the media “experts” and their received wisdom. Trump’s iconic moment came when he booted the arrogant Univision anchor Jorge Ramos out of a press conference. Where a typical Republican would have deferred to Ramos because he is a “Hispanic” ––that electoral unicorn the party keeps hunting–– Trump saw instead a privileged, wealthy Caucasian manipulating our preposterous identity politics for his own gain. And while Trump’s critics focused on such breaches of decorum and deference, his voters were enjoying the action––an arrogant, entitled ideologue masquerading as a reporter “of color” being ignominiously sent packing.
As president, Trump has continued to break the rules. His changes, real and threatened, to the White House morning briefings and who gets to participate, and his blowing off the “nerd prom” ––the White House Correspondents Association’s annual orgy of self-congratulation and abuse of Republican presidents––are a few examples of Trump scorning “traditions” that are no more substantial or meaningful than the fashion law banning the wearing of white after Labor Day. For the bulk of Americans, these “traditions” are just status-signaling by snotty elitists. The breaking of the media elite’s long monopoly, and their subjection to accountability by grubby “deplorables,” explains all the angst and fury.
The most infuriating insult, however, is that all these “gaffes” and violations of “decorum” didn’t keep Trump out of the White House, and in the end won’t be more important than what he accomplishes as president. That’s because Trump understands a simple fact about the new media: “news” and opinion have a shelf-life of a nanosecond. The squalls of outrage barely get going before they’re blown away and a new one arises. All Trump has to do is let loose a tweet, and while the media starts chasing it like a cat following a laser pointer, he is pursuing his policies and taking action. I don’t know if Trump is doing this on purpose, or from instincts honed by dealing with the New York media and starring on reality television. But its effect is like the magician’s misdirection or a point-guard’s head-fake. And the media just keep on falling for it.
The Comey firing may be the most representative example. The uproar is not about substance. Comey came off as a prima donna and a publicity hound, usurping the authority of the Attorney General even as he gave the felonious Hillary Clinton a pass. Even the Dems were for firing him before they were against it. He kept feeding the Dems’ conspiracy theories about Trump’s “collusion” with Russia even as legions of “anonymous sources” at the FBI and the security agencies were leaking classified information like a sieve. He needed to be fired, for he had tainted the prestige of the agency as an objective investigating outfit, and along the way undermined the foundational principle of our republic––that no one is above the law.
Apart from the Dems’ feeble claim that Trump is trying to stop the investigation into his still unsubstantiated ties to Russia––as though the 20 agents conducting the investigation will disappear after Comey cleans out his desk––most of the criticism once again has focused on style or violated protocols. Charles Krauthammer reminds us of Trump’s disrespect for “how things are done”:
No final meeting, no letter of resignation, no presidential thanks, no cordial parting. Instead, a blindsided Comey ends up in a live-streamed O.J. Bronco ride, bolting from Los Angeles to be flown, defrocked, back to Washington.
We’ll forgive Charles the mixed metaphor (O.J. was a murderer, not a priest). He usefully describes the protocols politicians are supposed to follow. But why should they? Why should they play-act in the hypocritical theater invented so the media have something to cover and gab about? Does Krauthammer or anybody else think that Trump’s base, the people who put him into office, care about such niceties? That in 2018 or 2020 they’ll go into the voting booth still upset over the mean way Trump fired Comey? Did they remember Trump’s vulgar insult of Megyn Kelly in 2016? Did it damage Trump with women voters, who voted for him at about the same rate as they voted for John McCain and the courtly Mitt Romney?
No, I’d wager most of the voters who pushed him across the finish line are delighted that the stuffy, self-important politicians, preening political appointees, and virtue-signaling journalists get taken down a few notches. And who deserved some humbling more than the self-righteous political hack James Comey?
All the sound and fury over Comey’s firing in the end will signify nothing. The Democrats who hate Trump will hate him no matter what. The desperate dudgeon of NeverTrump pundits whom the majority of voters have never heard of is not going to swing many votes. In the end, what will matter are the deeds Trump accomplishes. If he follows through on his promises about illegal immigration, job-creation, economic growth, slapping down political correctness, and restoring America’s prestige abroad, he and the Republicans will continue to win. If not, his base will defect, along with independent and cross-over voters eager for real change. And they won’t abandon him because of his brash style or lack of decorum, but because he didn’t deliver the goods.
And that’s what we should be talking about––deeds, not words; substance, not style. Everything else is just a distraction.