There’s a scene in the musical “Chicago” that could be adopted virtually intact when they make the one I’d call “Trumpistan.”
It’s the number in which a cunning criminal defense attorney, Billy Flynn, works the press as a chorus of puppets, dangling from strings, as they dance to his tune and parrot his words.
That Donald Trump did that with much of the media is, aside from the result itself, one of the two most uncomfortable truths about the 2016 election. The other is that truth itself didn’t matter to enough people.
The media is many things, as Washington Post Executive Editor Martin Baron remarked in a commencement speech last week. It ranges from responsible entities such as his paper and The New York Times to social media posts that are accountable to no one and are petri dishes for fake news. In between are the cable networks that let Trump mesmerize them.
The Post and the Times reported heroically. So did many others. As Baron put it, the mistake was in not catching on to how Trump’s bombast was working.
But as he added, “There were some lapses … For one, cable networks should not give any candidate hours upon hours of live coverage for virtually every rally held. That is not journalism.”
“All that breathless cable coverage of Trump’s Twitter wars and the live shots of his plane landing on the tarmac didn’t help either,” writes Susan B. Glasser, who edited POLITICO during the campaign, in a Brookings Institution essay, “Covering Politics in a ‘Post-Truth’ America.” Read it here.
Certain print and network editors relentlessly led their front pages and TV screens with more pictures and coverage of Trump than he deserved or any other candidate could command. He was, of course, the most repulsively hypnotic and the most outrageous. But for every voter put off by his mean looks and his lies, there was another who said, “Yeah!”
Trump played the media like a pipe organ. He also made it his foil, with nonstop attacks — still continuing — on what it said about his policies, his reckless tweets, and even his hotels and restaurants. Calling out, sometimes by name, the reporters who covered his rallies, he worked the crowds to frenzies and put the journalists in fear of their lives.
Glasser’s essay details the other uncomfortable truth of the election — that truth itself is losing its potency.
” …(T) he media scandal of 2016 isn’t so much about what reporters failed to tell the American public; it’s about what they did report on, and the fact that it didn’t seem to matter,” she writes. “Stories that would have killed any other politician — truly worrisome revelations about everything from the federal taxes Trump dodged to the charitable donations he lied about, the women he insulted and allegedly assaulted, and the mob ties that have long dogged him — did not stop Trump from thriving in this election year. Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work; the more news outlets did it, the less the facts resonated. Americans are increasingly choosing to live in a cloud of like-minded spin, surrounded by the partisan political hackery and fake news that poisons their Facebook feeds.”
Trump means to keep feeding on that. His postelection tour has been only to states that he won; he could not care less about voters elsewhere who saw him for what he is. Many of his voters don’t believe even the unanimous view of our intelligence agencies that Russia influenced the election. Trying to tell them otherwise recalls the old adage and attempting to teach a pig to sing: it does nothing but frustrate you and annoy the pig.
Glasser cites a Pew Research Center report that most Americans got their information from questionable sources. Social media were the primary source for 35 people age 29 and under. For those over 50, the leading source was cable TV. Among conservatives, nearly 50 percent relied only on Fox.
Trump’s percentage of the popular vote is 47th lowest among the last 49 election winners. Hillary Clinton led by nearly 3-million votes. But a half of all Republicans say they believe Trump won the popular vote. They will never believe otherwise because they just don’t want to.
If you’re looking for a simple solution to America’s crisis of willful ignorance, I don’t have one.
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, it’s too late for tears; the hour calls for ceaseless toil and copious sweat. We can’t persuade those who will not hear. Our call, rather, is to work harder to win the Electoral College as well as the popular vote in the next election and to take back the Congress. We need to work tirelessly to remind policymakers in Congress and capitols that the truth still matters to more people than those who ignore it, and remind them that Trump has nothing resembling a “mandate.”
Emails and calls to Congress cost nothing. The First Amendment belongs as much to the individual citizen as to the media. Use it.
And subscribe, if you don’t already, to a responsible newspaper or two. You need newspapers now, more than ever. They need you now, more than ever.
Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in North Carolina.