Journalists can’t find coherence in 2016’s outrageous fray.
Many writers possess a visceral antipathy to politics, or at least to politicians. This may be because of politicians’ storied lack of integrity. But we know the constraints they face in our republic of laws, of soaring ideals, and of humanly selfish interests. Still, we’ve seen recently how shockingly low some can go. Yet what a politician does at her or his best is the same magic trick to which writers aspire. Which is channeling and kindling, through all America’s murk, our core truths flickering in overused platitudes. Those verities reflect historic and still-evolutionary ideals that are still evolving. Yes, America is exceptional. But our past is no guarantee. Hence our latent respect for our politicians who try to affirm and foster the best in us. Or in whom we intuit that, under the right circumstances, they will try.Even though on that score this presidential contest should be a boring no-brainer, writers have nonetheless ascended right and left—well, mostly on left but some on the right—to great work. Roger Cohen, a former foreign correspondent who writes columns for the New York Times, wrote a stunning news feature back in early September, “We Need ‘Somebody Spectacular’: Views From Trump Country,” subtitled “Appalachian voters know perfectly well the candidate is dangerous. But they’re desperate for change.”
The author of a memoir about his mother, The Girl from Human Street: Ghosts of Memory in a Jewish Family, Cohen went into the rural mid-South and Appalachia to interview and portray Trump supporters. He talked to a woman in Paris, Kentucky—a burg in horse country, right across the river from Ohio, that you drive through to Lexington—who voted for Obama in 2008 but now supports Trump. She operates a boot shop. Cohen’s interview with her, as with others in these travels, was sensitive and searching.
Although now a columnist, here Cohen was functioning as an “objective” journalist. Which usually means in practice that the writer isn’t free to state his thesis as his own but has explored it, tested it. And here, the notion seems simply an honest question. To ask, on our behalf, How can decent, tax-paying, idealistic Americans vote for a man who is anything but? These folks may trend conservative, but they try to be good—they aspire to macro ethics—yet many have supported Trump, the ultimate micro ethicist. Cohn writes freely, revealing his considered view, supported by the research he presents, but within bounds of American mainstream newspapers’ objective format:
The post-convention Trump free fall has run into the obstinacy of his appeal — an appeal that seems to defy every gaffe, untruth and insult. The race is tightening once again because Trump’s perceived character — a strong leader with a simple message, never flinching from a fight, cutting through political correctness with a bracing bluntness — resonates in places like Appalachia where courage, country and cussedness are core values.
Of course, this was before Trump’s latest debacle that revealed him to be in private what anyone could have guessed. In any case, I think what caused Cohen’s editors to slap “Opinion” on his article was this, four sentences in its middle:
Trump can’t reverse globalization. Nor is he likely to save coal in an era of cheap natural gas. His gratuitous insults, evident racism, hair-trigger temper and lack of preparation suggest he would be a reckless, even perilous, choice for the Oval Office. I don’t think he is a danger to the Republic because American institutions are stronger than Trump’s ego, but that the question even arises is troubling.
In the exquisite calculus of mainstream objective journalism, Cohen’s writing so freely and drawing so clearly on his research crossed a line here, however mildly he furrowed his brow. Lest readers not recognize his article as containing such cautious, informed opinion—and bending over backwards to be fair—editors met their objective format’s standard with an “Opinion” label. All well and good, though it’s interesting that a magazine wouldn’t have done that. Newspaper reporters speak in the voice of their institution discharging its public duty; magazines hire “writers” who are expected not to hide but to evince a personality.At the unabashedly progressive New Yorker, in contrast, below a “News Desk” logo Adam Gopnik’s piece after the second debate on Sunday was headlined “DONALD TRUMP: NARCISSIST, CREEP, LOSER.” Amid this usual sincere yet entertaining outrage over Trump, Gopnik pauses to wonder, with several of us, about Trump’s vulgar tape, “Why should this previously hidden mean-minded monologue mean more than all the other countless unhidden ones, which have already shown Trump to be a brutal, vile vulgarian?” Gopnik probes and ponders this conundrum on our behalf. That’s what writers do. I admired this passage:
This was not a dominant American Mussolini asserting himself contemptuously on stage. It was, well, a loser, struggling to impress a very insignificant new acquaintance with pitiful boasts about his masculinity. What runs through the tape is, along with his one-size-fits-all brutality, Trump’s deep insecurity and desperate need for approval from other men. Even the bad language doesn’t seem like that of a native speaker of English, certainly not what the nasty sex predator he wants to portray himself as being would use. “I moved on her like a bitch!” Is that even an idiom?
That last sentence makes me laugh—it’s pure Gopnik and expresses, as well, the New Yorker’s addictively highbrow bad-boy wit. I suspect being laughed at is the one thing Trump can’t stand. Hoping for such freely expressed scorn, increasingly I tend to read the Opinion writers at the New York Times before the news columns. Lately Times columnist Frank Bruni has hit it out of the ballpark repeatedly, most recently with “Donald Trump’s Pathetic Fraternity.” We rely on such professional writers to keep score, and Bruni gives Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani the thrashing they deserve for making themselves toadies to an odious bully.
Cohen is normally walled off at the newspaper into the Opinion arena I frequent, and was just poaching on the news side. His article occurs against a backdrop of the Times’s internal soul-searching regarding its perceived impartiality or lack thereof. What is fair and balanced with a person like Trump?In “Why Readers See the Times as Liberal,” Liz Spayd, the Times new Public Editor, worries about the newspaper’s alienation of independent, conservative, and even liberal readers. “A paper whose journalism appeals to only half the country has a dangerously severed public mission,” she writes. “And a news organization trying to survive off revenue from readers shouldn’t erase American conservatives from its list of prospects.” Spayd is stuck in the middle between readers and her newspaper’s journalists. It’s got to be an exciting but tough job under any circumstances.
The Republican party has become so extreme, ceding even the broad middle to Democrats, I don’t see Spayd’s fret as easily solved. But even I notice anomalies at the Times. Why was Nicholas Kristof’s account last Sunday, “Donald Trump, Groper in Chief,” labeled a column (“OP-ED”) and not a news story? This is a sad and tawdry account of Trump’s mauling pursuit of a woman, who sued him for sexual harassment yet eventually became his girlfriend. Like Cohen, Kristof is a columnist, but his piece is a fairly straightforward news feature article, not a column.
Maybe Kristof got and kept the scoop. Maybe the news side feels it has fully documented Trump’s disrespect for women. Maybe that was what Kristof “had” for his weekly allotted space in the paper’s Sunday Review section. Maybe Times journalists can’t keep up with this kind of news, let alone decide where to put it. These are some likely commonsense explanations.
Nothing makes much sense in this political campaign, and that extends to the journalism it engenders. By virtue of their giving necessary attention, objective-format journalists and even columnists appear to treat Trump as equivalent, to some degree, to his solid opponent. This makes it seem our republic itself doesn’t know what to do. In the end, as always, America’s fate will be left in the hands of those who’ll turn out to vote.