The clock is ticking on Trump-age media

The American news media is facing an extreme challenge as it prepares to celebrate itself tonight at the White House Correspondents’ dinner. During normal times covering a presidential election is hard work. But the Age of Trump and the larger democracy crisis have made reporting and commenting about the news and current events even more difficult. How has the American mainstream news media as an institution met the challenge?

On one day the elite agenda-setting news media such as the New York Times and the Washington Post will publish excellent investigative reporting on subjects such as Donald Trump and his regime’s crimes, Jan. 6, and the authoritarian playbook of Project 2025 and Agenda 47. But as has been widely documented, in the interest of “balance” and “fairness” and a “diversity of opinion,” those same elite media outlets will the next day feature op-eds and other commentary from Trumpists and MAGA people and others who oppose multiracial pluralistic democracy – the effect of which is to mainstream and normalize their anti-democratic beliefs. As journalist Nina Bernstein told Dan Froomkin in a 2021 interview, “Many reporters across the traditional news media are struggling against institutional tics and timidities that make ‘balance’ a false idol.” The consequence: “The inadvertent normalization of existential threats to democracy and public health by one party and its right-wing media echo chamber.”

To that point, NBC News recently hired former Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, a Trumpist and Big Lie advocate, as a political analyst. After public outrage — and a revolt by several of MSNBC’s most prominent TV personalities — the offer of employment was eventually rescinded.

There is a focus on President Biden’s occasional lapses in memory – which mental health and other experts have concluded are normal for a man of his age. However, Donald Trump’s worsening and much more severe challenges in memory, speech, cognition, and behavior which may be indicative of an actual brain disease are often downplayed or ignored. Alternately, the mainstream news media tries to create a false equivalency between President Biden and Donald Trump’s challenges with memory and speech when they are in fact very different.

Slate magazine’s Alicia Montgomery recently reflected on her time working at NPR and how its leadership dismissed the mounting evidence that Donald Trump could win in 2016 and enforced a policy of normalizing his candidacy:

For most of 2016, many NPR journalists warned newsroom leadership that we weren’t taking Trump and the possibility of his winning seriously enough. But top editors dismissed the chance of a Trump win repeatedly, declaring that Americans would be revolted by this or that outrageous thing he’d said or done. I remember one editorial meeting where a white newsroom leader said that Trump’s strong poll numbers wouldn’t survive his being exposed as a racist. When a journalist of color asked whether his numbers could be rising because of his racism, the comment was met with silence. In another meeting, I and a couple of other editorial leaders were encouraged to make sure that any coverage of a Trump lie was matched with a story about a lie from Hillary Clinton. Another colleague asked what to do if one candidate just lied more than the other. Another silent response.

Public opinion polls and other research show that the American people have low levels of trust in the news media. This is in part a function of how malign actors such as Donald Trump and others on the right have for decades used disinformation and other propaganda tools to systematically undermine faith in the news media and other democratic institutions as part of their authoritarian campaign to create an alternate reality where the truth and the facts no longer exist.

But there is another compelling explanation for these declining levels of trust: The mainstream news media as an institution has been criminally late in consistently sounding the alarm about Donald Trump and the existential dangers that he and the MAGA movement represent to the country.

On this, philosopher Jason Stanley, author of “How Fascism Works,” told me in conversation:

It’s surreal. No amount of reality will change them. I’m shocked, by the way the media is reacting to every new claim that Trump is a fascist as if this were news. Those like me, you, and a select group of others have been saying for years that Trump was a potential fascist dictator and there is a movement behind him. They dismissed us and laughed at us. Now instead of turning to those of us who were accurate and sounding the alarm years ago, the media is turning to people, supposed experts, who only now are realizing that we’re facing a fascist, social and political movement. Such people should not be the ones turned to by the news media to be talking about the near-term future of Trump and this fascist movement and the danger. Why? They have quite clearly demonstrated total unreliability. For example, a person who is so late to this danger and reality can go back instantly to normalization. Who knows what someone who was so blatantly wrong for so long about social reality will believe or say? The current commentators were so far behind the fact that Trump is a fascist that they will not be able to properly comprehend such tricks. Most importantly, in 2023, they are just starting to think about fascism….

If you know how to read Trump correctly then you understand his intentions and plans. If you are just now realizing that Trump is a fascist, you’re going to be looking for signs to assuage yourself that you are just being hysterical, because you spent so many years calling those of us who have been correctly describing reality, hysterical. The people who the media are turning to now as alarm sounders are not equipped to understand what is really happening.

Doha Madani

Doha Madani is a senior breaking news reporter for NKY News.

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