Even if Donald Trump were not such a looming threat to the United States and its traditions, he would still be a perfect teaching tool for use in Introduction to Journalism classes. If I could go back an redesign my syllabus for this fall semester, I would make it all about the coverage of Trump—not about Trump so much as how the news media have reacted to him. The assumptions American news media have acted upon at least since Watergate are suddenly showing their vacuity.
Emblematic of press failure was the November 29 edition of Meet the Press where Trump, via telephone, left host Chuck Todd with little more than a confused, open-mouthed attempt at a smile—though Todd had clearly thought he had all of his facts and questions in order. Trump condescended to him, talked over him and twisted him, leaving Todd with (to his own mind) no option but to abandon each line of questioning for another. His fact-checking was to words Trump had uttered earlier; he had no ability to directly challenge new statements or to respond to evasions and appeals to common knowledge:
–based on re-tweets and based on hearsay. You’re running for president of the United States. Your words matter. Truthfulness matters. Fact-based stuff matters.
Take it easy, Chuck. Just play cool. This is people in this country that love our country that saw this, by the hundreds they’re calling, and they’re tweeting. And there’s a lot of people. In Sarasota, people were telling me yesterday they used to live in New Jersey. They remember it vividly. They thought it was disgusting.
So, these are people that saw it, too. The Washington Post reported it. Many, many people have seen it. I have a very good memory, I’ll tell you. I saw it somewhere on television many years ago. And I never forgot it. And it was on television, too.
Let me ask you about your reaction to what happened in Colorado.
This was pathetic, so much so that I could not help but feel a little sorry for Todd. Trump had no respect for him, no fear of him as a representative of news media and absolutely no willingness to engage Todd on his own ground. Trump simply pulled the rug out from under him.
To make matters worse, a cowed Todd, at the end, promoted a future face-to-face interview with Trump. What he should have done, of course, was tell Trump, quite bluntly, that he could not continue speaking with him unless Trump were willing to conform to a few basic rules of honesty. When Trump would bluster a response–as he surely would–Todd could have said, “It’s that simple. I am not here as a conduit for lies. Goodbye.”
But Todd would never do that. It does not conform to his vision of his profession. Trump knows that, and takes advantage of it.
Also on the 29th, NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen posted about Trump and the media on PressThink. He wrote, “To an extent unrealized before this year, the role of the press in presidential campaigns relied on shared assumptions within the political class and election industry about what the rules were and what the penalty would be for violating them.”
When the wheels fall off a vehicle—as they are now falling off the political press—one has a chance to see, in ways never before possible, exactly how that vehicle worked.
Which is why, of course, this entire political fall has become an extended ‘teachable moment.’