Yesterday, Lawrence O’Donnell focused a segment of his show “The Last Word” on a tweet thread published by former Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times editor Mark Jacob. Having left the field of “official” journalism — the bubble in which most American journalists live, breathe and work — Jacob has come to see that the neutrality he thought was a hallmark of American journalism was actually a trap. Each and every time a reporter “balanced” something a Democrat said with something a Republican said, they weren’t actually presenting two equally valid points. The mistake “both sides do it” brand journalism makes automatically is in assuming that any two points of view — regardless of what they are — are equally valid even if one is based entirely on facts and the other entirely on feelings. It’s not for the journalist to judge validity, says the “both sides do it” school. That’s for their readers or viewers to decide!
Not a revelation: if you automatically give credence to bullshit, then bullshit instantly becomes credible when credible is the last thing bullshit is. But, if the news media is doing it, bullshit instantly gains at least a patina of Truth. So long as bullshit “could” be true, we’re all doomed. The moment you give bullshit the benefit of the doubt, doubt becomes the core operating principle and doubt is meat & potatoes to a fascist. Fascists, having created the doubt, step forward as its only real cure. That is precisely what the Republican Party is doing right here, right now.
For better or worse, Americans have short memories when it comes to history. At least, white Americans do. Our news media has always serviced white America’s short memory while insisting no other group’s memories (or stories) have equal validity or value. How many white Americans had ever heard of “Black Wall Street” before Black Lives Matter began to matter? Prior to the internet, the only people holding a megaphone were the media companies. They alone had the means to broadcast information far and wide. While there was less competition, at least most of the messages were relatively consistent and kept to a consistent narrative.
The advent of the twenty-four hour news cycle created both a new market for information and a monster. Filling that maw twenty-four-seven is a challenge. Or, at least it was until Donald Trump forced his way into the conversation and hijacked it. Our news media adore Trump. He’s driven their ratings to record levels. He’s made them richer than they were. And, as we all know, success teaches us only that our shit doesn’t stink when, in fact, it does. The word Jacob uses is “lazy”. Success makes people lazy. When you walk in the door lazy — as too many American journalists do, their laziness exacerbated by “both sides do it” thinking — you’re only going to get more lazy with time, as our news media has.
Donald Trump was demonstrably unethical in virtually everything he did and said. Hell, Trump’s projected most if not all of his criminality onto everyone else — a standard bully tactic. According to the Washington Post, Trump lied (or, in the WaPo’s softened version “mislead”) 30,573 times (as of January 24, 2021). You’d think after three or four times, journalists would “catch on” that Trump is “an unreliable witness” even to his own life. If you had even a modicum of analytical skills, surely you’d start connecting dots — adding verifiable information together to form a picture upon which you build an evolving narrative. After about five thousand lies, say, you’d stop giving this liar any sort of benefit of the doubt because the data says odds are, whatever just tumbled from Trump’s mouth, it’s not true. Rather than repeating everything Trump says verbatim — because he’s the POTUS — you’d contextualize this POTUS before any reporting began.
“While most presidents tell something like the truth most of the time, Donald Trump never tells the truth ever — even when confronted with it and — with that in mind — here’s what the liar-in-chief said today…”. Over the top, you think? Maybe in the olden days when Saint Ronnie Reagan was doing the lying. Today? It’s an understatement. Our news media set itself (and us) up for failure the moment they took up the “both sides do it” mantle. But it’s “both sides do it” thinking that caused our news media to quickly normalize “Mexicans are rapists” and “pussy-grabbing” because “But her emails!”
Stone cold fact: no one — no one — in the Republican Party (with two exceptions perhaps) is an honest actor. As I’ve squawked here time and time again, the GOP knew even before they nominated Trump in 2016 that he was owned by Russia. Current GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy said so out loud as he entered a meeting of GOP leaders on June 15, 2016 (the meeting was recorded and the recording played for Washington Post reporter Adam Entous a year later): “There’s two people I think Putin pays — Rohrbacher and Trump — swear to God!” No one in the room questioned the statement. No one rushed to Trump’s defense. No one doubt the statement’s veracity. No one called the FBI. Instead, per then Speaker Of The House Paul Ryan’s demand, they all agreed to keep this secret a secret. “That’s how we know we’re family,” said Ryan.
Though this conversation was reported first by the Washington Post in 2017, virtually no one in the press has gone back to it — even with the perspective of everything that followed it (including Trump’s “odd” relationship with Putin). The one time the press did ask McCarthy about it, McCarthy issued the standard response: “I was joking”.
Take this to the bank and prepare to get rich: no, he wasn’t.
Not everyone has a sense of humor. That’s a fact. What marks the presence of a sense of humor in people is their ability to laugh at themselves. For real! If you can’t laugh at yourself (but can only laugh at others), that’s not having a “sense of humor”, it’s being a bully. Not the same thing, right? Bullies laugh plenty — but only at other people and at other peoples’ expense. Having no sense of humor, a person like Donald Trump can’t see irony. Literally. It’s like the rest of us trying to see x-ray and gamma ray light with our eyeballs — they’re not equipped to see those kinds of light. So, when a bully like Kevin McCarthy says “I was joking”, he’s not.
Ah, but when our news media assumes everyone’s doing it — and everyone has a sense of humor — then we get cruelty reported as “humor” in the interest of “fairness”. When our news media refuses to discern truth tellers from bullshit artists, we get the distorted view of ourselves the news media presents and calls “truth”.
How one frames a story IS the story. Journalism is storytelling in real time. It’s goal should be exactly the same: to get at the core “why” inside every human action. Even if someone can’t articulate why they do something, there is a very real “why”; no one ever does anything “just because”. Our news media — incapable of adding information to a narrative (especially if it contradicts “conventional wisdom”) keeps returning to a bizarre “square one” every day. Whereas the framing of the story we’re living through should START with Republican corruption front and center — with Donald Trump’s treasonous behavior in the middle of it — our news media starts each day scratching their heads about the perverse hold Trump has over the Republican Party.
Yeah, yeah — Trump’s base plays a part. But that’s only if you discount the possibility that people might do things for the right reasons and not the expedient ones. To understand Trump and his presidency, you must remove your “normalcy bias blinders”. You have to appreciate what Fusion GPS appreciated when — after doing their due diligence prior to beginning their oppo research on Trump (initially for the conservative owners of the Washington Free Beacon) — they became convinced that Trump had used his bankrupt Atlantic City casinos to launder Russian mob money (for which Trump was repeatedly fined!) That’s a crime!
Fusion subcontracted their research into Trump’s Russian connections out to Orbis, the company run by respected, former MI6 Russia Desk jockey Christopher Steele because Steele had solid connections inside Russia — the context being that we’re talking about the “secret world” where you have to discern any smoking guns through the fog of deception. If our news media had done the same due diligence Fusion did — if they had aggregated the Trump story (especially their own reporting!) — our picture of Trump would be entirely different from what it is right now. For sure we wouldn’t be asking if Trump’s a racist or a rapist — the facts say “yes, he absolutely is, stop asking about it!”
We wouldn’t wonder “is Trump corrupt?” or “Is the GOP?” We wouldn’t ask why Putin and Russia still have such a grip on Trump and the GOP. We wouldn’t ask “will Trump run in 2024?” like he was some “normal” presidential candidate. Instead — because our news media had been fulfilling its Constitutionally mandated role as our final check on power’s corrupting influence — we’d already be at the part where a treasonous POTUS and his equally treasonous political party were being called out for who and what they really are by our press, while our Department of Justice was actively prosecuting them for same — because what they’re doing is criminal (for a political purpose), not political.