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.

[Roger Cohen: top of his game.]

[Roger Cohen: top of his game at the Times.]

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.

[Adam Gopnik: witty bad boy.]

[Adam Gopnik: witty highbrow bad boy.]

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?


[Liz Spayd: stuck in the middle at the Times.]

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.


  • Dear Richard, The angle that really scares me in all this is that the American public is so used to sensationalism and cant that it eats up all Trump can dish out, just because it sees it as a form of entertainment. We live sadly in an era of crude and creepy reality tv shows, wherein a really shocking admission or scene wins the prize. I’m just hoping that some more of the people who were at first for some of Trump’s supposed issues and values appreciated the balanced and careful and thoughtful approaches Hillary Clinton brought to the second debate, which showed her very well, I thought.

    • Richard says:

      Great point, Victoria—it’s of course the public, or some of them, that are struggling to find reality. And maybe reality TV, of which Trump is a star, has partly paved the way for this. I agree Clinton did well and think (and pray) that because of that and Trump’s latest debacle the tide has turned.

      • I think the one thing that Trump has made the most inroads with is Clinton’s e-mails record. But when you consider that there are instructions from Powell, and e-mails from Obama, and that despite the supposed expression by the FBI that some leaked e-mails were classified, no charges have been filed against her by a system that simply would not have tolerated it if that had actually been the case, I smell a different sort of rat (sort of a lab-trained and bred rat, rather that the “real” wild article). People are always fearful about government and public officials doing things that are wrong, but when so much of the system is for Hillary Clinton, I can’t help but wonder if we’re not actually looking at some sort of 007 situation in which the actual truth is stranger than the surface fiction. For example, the 35,000 e-mails she supposedly deleted, which she insists were mostly about her daughter’s wedding and other personal issues. Maybe they were mostly about that, but even if they weren’t, what if she was given secret instruction, and not by a Democratic Congressional or DNC conspiracy, but by a government oversight for all our benefits, which instructed her to delete them and take one for the team that way? Or what if some of the leaked e-mails were actually what’s called disinformation, a deliberate leaking of false info to mislead enemy agents? I’m not saying this spy thriller mentality is what is actually the case, but I feel enough trust in the system that if she had actually strayed too far from the path, I feel she would already have been more seriously reprimanded, if nothing else. And them’s my two cents, for what they’re worth!

        • Richard says:

          I am impressed—and I am not a conspiracy theorist! You could make a novel out of that, Victoria. I had not thought about the emails that much, and what you say is totally plausible.

  • shirleyhs says:

    The op-ed form has fascinated me for a long time. I too turn to the NYT opinion section first. I enjoy all the writers there, though Maureen Dowd tests my patience sometimes.

    The news/opinion/editorial/entertainment intersections (combined with social media) are taking coverage of this political campaign into new territory. Keep probing this vein. I like how you are thinking about these things< Richard.

    • Richard says:

      Thanks so much, Shirley. Your comment reminds us that social media have had and are continuing to have an impact in many ways. I agree that may be one factor pushing journalism’s evolution, too. We’re all watching and hoping, aren’t we? Truly it is scary to think how vulnerable our nation is to betraying its ideals under certain circumstances. Maybe this will make me less high and mighty about Germany. I’ve always thought we are immune from fascism and extreme nationalism but am not so sure—one bad event on top of Trump’s peak popularity and it could have been all over.

  • J.V. Wylie says:

    I am an obstinate optimist when it come to the machinations of democracy. Consider that, most likely, Trump will continue well beyond this election, into multiple national elections as the leader of a new third party to represent the people who make up his core supporters.. What will be the long-term reciprocal effects on (1) Trump and (2) his supporters of this future relationship? I would anticipate that a predictable diet of narcissistic “food” from #2 will domesticate #1’s threatening anger tone into a parody of itself going forward, sort of like his “Apprentice” persona. At some distant future date the whole phenomenon could well be seen as a process whereby an historically very significant segment of the population had been heard, listened to, and empowered.

  • I enjoy Cohen and many of the other NYT’s columnists. Recently David Brooks wrote a column about the nature of politics itself, that it is not innately bad or good, but a necessary system for working out policy, balancing competing needs, desires and opinions, etc. He was speaking to those who seem to want change no matter what, and who feel that politics is thoroughly corrupted. I am not conservative as David Brooks is, but I enjoy his writing and appreciate that he brought balance and perspective to how we can view the political process and the tumult dividing America. I was never a practicing journalist, but I did minor in journalism in the dark ages at Marietta College, and later got a master’s in communications. I have been dismayed by what I see as the decline of journalism and the premium placed on entertainment value. I hope that this is a period of adjustment and evolution for us as we learn to use technology, new media, and social media in productive ways, and not a slippery slope to low information literacy and an uninformed public. It sometimes seems that it is, but I think that remains to be seen. I am more hopeful than pessimistic, as I see the millennials coming up and some of the excellent contributions they are making that will take our culture in exciting new directions.

    • Richard says:

      I feel exactly the same about Brooks, Valorie. He has done some of his finest work this season. He is able, as well, to criticize Hillary Clinton and not be mean or write her off.

      As you point out, the media landscape seems in flux and unprecedented. In some ways it seems a return to the earliest years of journalism, too, when people consumed partisan news they agreed with. I know I do. Yet I am nostalgic for the mainstream middle of the road “fair and balanced” news I grew up with. News groups treated their role as a public trust. I am sure if I could go back in time, though, I would find them too conservative and preserving of the status quo. But wow did it mean something when Cronkite turned against the Vietnam war. I guess that is the kind of trust, based on fairness, the New York Times hopes to preserve. And this campaign has made that so hard because the likes of Trump haven’t been seen at this level.

  • I have been thinking back to the 1960s because of the memoir I’ve been working on – I do have great nostalgia for that time, and it was a turning point when wonderful Cronkite spoke out against the war. Speaking of Brooks again, you’re right he’s been amazing lately and he’s a comfort to me when I want to get a “normal” conservative’s perspective on all this nonsense that is happening now. (not the right word but I can’t think of how to put it)

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