What the media should look like now

February 10, 2020
Donald J. Trump on Nov. 27, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

We are in a political crisis, the crux of which is that not enough people believe that we are in a political crisis. Now that Donald Trump has been acquitted in the Senate, and the crystallizing, clarifying emergency of impeachment has dissipated, we are once again left with the content, but not the form, of a political disaster.

The media has its imperative: to inform, and to alert and alarm when necessary. The American people, however, also have their imperative: to go on with their lives as best they can. How, then, does the media express its alarm when it becomes convinced, despite all the powerful deniers, that the country is in crisis?

The panoptical, omnivorous, ceaselessly vigilant quality of the media works beautifully in ordinary times. Hegel once wrote that “reading the morning newspaper is the realist’s morning prayer. One orients one’s attitude toward the world either by God or by what the world is. The former gives as much security as the latter, in that one knows how one stands.” The news, in other words, clarifies a person’s relationship to life, just as religion does.

In a crisis, though, the civic virtues of the media threaten to become liabilities. The wide democratic embrace of events relativizes them. Magnified by social media, the show-stopping intensity with which news organs report a dramatic event, often trying to pump it up into A Representation of Our Time, causes us to lose sight of what is truly significant about what is happening.

Obsessed with harnessing the news cycle since his early days as a real-estate performance artist in New York, Trump understands the precarious dynamic driving the media better than anyone. He didn’t have to order the assassination of Qassem Soleimani to distract from impeachment or to discredit it as, suddenly, the commander-in-chief. Any outrage or provocation, or even tweet, would have done the trick. After cameras caught Trump speaking with Vince Vaughn for about 30 seconds at the LSU-Clemson game, you could search for “Donald Trump” and “Vince Vaughn” on Google and come up with nearly five million results. The media vigilance that, to some extent, keeps Trump in check also allows him to direct the attention in any direction he chooses.

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We are now about to enter a new phase of cognitive disruption in which the crisis staring us in the face is in stark contrast to the comfort and prosperity of our immediate lives, as well as being just another aspect of the mega-distracting universe of facts and events that the media swirls around us minute by minute.

The instant the Senate acquitted Trump–that is to say, the instant the Senate gave its blessing to a president putting national security at risk to further his political ambition, and to his success at thwarting every attempt to investigate his actions–the minute that “closure” occurred, the media should have interrupted its regularly scheduled business.

The New York Times should have run, across its home and front page, an editorial declaring a national emergency. CNN should have devoted an entire day and night to panels declaring the same. So should have every other liberal, or relatively non-partisan news entity.

Instead the news cycle sank back into its well-worn grooves. By the middle of the day after Trump’s acquittal, the Times–which has, to be fair, covered Trump with heroic focus and commitment–was running two articles at the top of its home page about the boondoggle in Iowa, and a piece about the California electoral landscape. (On my mobile app, you had to scroll down through a string of articles to get to one about the acquittal at all.) The editorial page ran a gratifying house editorial saying that under Trump “the union is faltering” and declaring that the Senate acquittal “should ring as an alarm for all Americans.” There was a powerful op-ed by the Democratic senator from Ohio, Sherrod Brown, describing how many of his Republican colleagues fearfully confessed to him that they knew Trump was guilty as charged.

On the other side of the Times homepage was a piece about Trump’s vitriolic response to the impeachment, one covering a celebration by his staff at a Washington hotel and, of course, a piece about his rivalry with Nancy Pelosi.

The Washington Post homepage was packed with articles about the acquittal, but two of them reduced the event to the personal drama between Trump and Pelosi and Trump and John Roberts. Then it was, a little further down, back to the Democratic presidential field and the primaries; it was as if democracy was still working.

Predictably, the Wall Street Journal ran at the top of its homepage a headline quoting Trump saying that during impeachment he “went through hell.” That was the only headline having to do with impeachment and the trial.

Throughout the universe of news, there was very little to even imply that the republic was in a fight for its life, aside from articles worrying in general about what an “unleashed” Trump might now do, articles that had their edge dulled by other articles about the deadly coronavirus and articles wearily detailing the usual parade of daily American horrors, followed by little marching band-like stories of peppy anti-horrors. And, of course, there was the steady flow of the Trump vs. Pelosi match-up. No one escapes the reality TV style.

As Trump Victus et Vindictus crows and gloats before the country and the world with, so it seems, nothing and no one to stop him, what does the media do? When does the regularly scheduled flood of lesser news seem too trivial to return to? Now that democratic institutions have broken down, now that Trump has, even in the eyes of some of his most loyal followers in the senate, clearly violated the constitution, how can the media effectively respond?

Right after Trump was elected, the media spent the next two years, at least, drawing hysterical connections between our moment and fascist Europe. But I don’t recall anyone in the media forcefully arguing that what most facilitated Europe’s fascist revolutions was the culture’s distracted, weak-kneed response to the threat all around it. Our media is such a monster of widespread, unfocused, omnivorous attention, where the trivial and the tragic exist comfortably side by side, that we make Germany in the 1920s look like the New Deal. Already the press is full of minute analyses of the impeachment process and the political gamesmanship of both sides–McConnell the master tactician!–thereby missing the blazing forest of our republic for super-clever commentary on, or analysis of, a multitude of trees.

So what should the media response look like? First, every outlet should designate a prominent piece of real estate to the national crisis: on the front page and homepage, as an hour long special every evening, as an entirely new and unique program centered on the national emergency. Ted Koppel’s “Nightline,” a nightly show that began as a special series focusing on the Iran hostage crisis, comes to mind. The national crisis should give birth to new venues, new places in old venues, new personalities. The Blitz introduced Edward R. Murrow to the world; Kennedy’s assassination became identified, in media terms, with Walter Cronkite.

Somewhere there is someone new who will put their face on our American crisis.

Second, the way the media covers the crisis should go beyond Trump since the condition that he grew out of and exploits will persist long after he is gone. Under the rubric of crisis and emergency, there should be coverage of the way this condition has transformed American life. How interesting it would be to take a look at the archives of (dwindling) local newspapers and compare the rhythms of life pre-Trump to our present moment. How revealing to look at culture–bestseller lists, big magazine covers, controversial events–four years ago and culture now and ask, at every turn, what happened to cause this change? Here is something the media could do with relish: lavish attention on itself as a singular barometer of history.

Finally, before you declare Trump the criminal he is, and ring the alarm alerting people to the abduction of their republic, you have to demonstrate that you are above ideology. You have to begin by admitting that the economy is sailing smoothly through the raging storm of our politics. For all the constant analogies that have been made to Nixon facing impeachment, few commentators have pointed out that the economy in 1974 was in rapid decline. Our economy–never mind the hidden factors and likely consequences–is booming. So long as people are doing well materially, or feel that they, or at least the country itself, is prospering, a change in the status quo would be perceived by them as an unwelcome disruption.

And never mind Trump’s lack of intelligence, his ignorance and impulsiveness in the realm of foreign policy. America in August 1974, when the articles of impeachment against Nixon were drawn up, was a beaten country, riven by and driven out of Vietnam. Nixon’s opening to China was several years behind him.

To make their declaration of emergency credible, the media must concede Trump’s black magic. We have all been outraged, throughout the process of impeachment, by Republicans in the House and Senate who, in effect, told us it was day when we knew it was night. Let the liberal media not commit the same assault on reality in the eyes of the other side. Reveal your dog in the race, admit to your revulsion against Trump, give him his due, give his followers their due, and then you will be free to focus on the urgent matter at hand: to rid the republic of the most dangerous figure democracy has ever spawned.

That is what a media that is not, as our democracy is, fundamentally broken, should look like in our present moment.

Lee Siegel , a widely published writer on culture and politics, is the author of six books and the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Reviews and Criticism.