Free speech and a free press were deemed key to American discourse, identity, endurance and strength from the founding. Hence their enshrinement in the very First Amendment, not the Second or Fifth.
The contemporary press has fallen on tough times for a variety of reasons we’ll explore. But in the summer of 2016, news media have found, not of their own choosing, a major new role in this cycle’s politics of presidential selection: whipping boy.
Hillary Clinton ignores the mainstream media, granting few interviews and only to select mainstream outlets that don’t pose the kinds of persistent hardball questions Republicans confront.
She even prohibits members of the traveling press corps from photographing her boarding her private jet. See, Ms. Transparency used to be “dead broke” and is above traveling on the same plane with reporters and TV crews who might overhear something.
Perhaps you’ve noticed, Donald Trump flaunts wealth with his own gold-fauceted 757, which bears his trademarked name in large letters visible from the ground. He even does flyovers before outdoor events to allow supporters to witness the arrival in his aluminum chariot.
More importantly, the reality-show celebrity has made media-bashing a regular talking point and easy applause line.
This is no accident, and it has several purposes. First, it was and remains very popular among enough members of the Republican base in flyover country to make Trump the party’s presumptive nominee next month in Cleveland. The fact that it appalls Eastern elites is a bonus.
And every candidate – even Don Quixote Sanders – wants TV sound bites of applauding, adoring fans.
How this press-bashing flies later with a broader, less involved electorate now packing for vacations is yet to be determined.
And what about all those back income tax returns he promised to release? Never mind, the show must go on.
Trump’s extended riffs on the biased media distract from his largely content-free speeches. Maybe you’ve wondered exactly how he’ll make Mexico pay for that wall. What he might do about the U.S. military’s global role if allies don’t pay more. Precisely how a real estate developer will defeat ISIS with our kids.
And what about all those back income-tax returns he promised to release? Never mind, the show must go on.
Assaulting the media is not new. Before President Richard Nixon was forced to resign, his vice president, Spiro Agnew, had to quit, but not before uttering speechwriter William Safire’s iconically alliterative line, “nattering nabobs of negativism.”
What’s different with Trump is the frequency, the intensity, the unfiltered crudeness. His suggestion that a determined reporter had “blood coming out of her wherever.” His physical mocking from the podium of a reporter’s palsy. His name-calling of individual reporters, even as he used them for political props.
According to Gallup, Americans’ confidence in many national institutions has plummeted during President Barack Obama’s reign, most dramatically for newspapers. That legacy medium’s standing has been hollowed out by its perceived biases and its inept, tardy responses to the challenges of new technologies and information sources that are often more available than reliable.
What is important is what such verbal behavior reveals about a candidate’s preparation, character and knowledge.
No one is concerned here about reporters’ feelings. Being labeled scum by a politician can actually add fame to a journalist’s résumé. What is important is what such verbal behavior reveals about a candidate’s preparation, character and knowledge.
Campaigns are both learning and testing experiences. They’re also grueling, as they should be for commander-in-chief applicants.
Remember, in 1999, a Boston radio reporter’s question that revealed George W. Bush didn’t know who Pakistan’s president was? Then in 2007, Clinton’s mumbled butchering of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s name and Obama’s incomprehension of capital gains tax cuts. Now it’s Trump’s ignorance of the nuclear triad. As president, he would possess Armageddon’s launch codes. It’s a 0.53-second Google search!
All are pieces of evidence that accumulate in the impressions of inattentive Americans in their messy, raucous decision-making process during these next 20 weeks to select the most powerful person in the world.
Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s. Follow him @AHMalcolm.