The Media Today

How the press can hold Trump’s enablers—and itself—to account

January 11, 2021

Last Wednesday, having spent nearly a month of vacation trying to avoid the news, I could avoid it no longer and turned on CNN. The images on the screen, of insurrectionists invading the Capitol in the name of a conspiracy theory and in service of a coup, were viscerally shocking; since then, it feels as if a dam—or what was left of one—has been breached across America’s political and media landscape, in a way that’s been somehow more surprising than the precipitating shock itself. The images of violence and vandalism, captured by brave photojournalists and embossed on our collective mind’s eye, sliced through lingering complacency about Trump and Trumpism; some among us clearly needed this to look like a coup overseas—where such things happen—before it could be a domestic one. “Trump’s America Becomes One of Those ‘Shithole Countries,’” Politico blared, referring back to an infamous Trump racism. Wednesday, CNN added, was “The day America realized how dangerous Donald Trump is.”

Much of America realized that long ago; still, the recent days have been marked by a cascade of what look like concrete consequences for a president accustomed to bucking such inconvenience. Congressional Democrats—who long resisted impeaching Trump once—look likely to do so twice, and more Republicans than just Mitt Romney are set to join in this time (even if the bulk of their ranks still aren’t sold on the consequences thing). Major corporations are pulling the financial plug on Trump’s Congressional enablers; thousands of lawyers want two of the enablers—senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley—disbarred from their profession; Big Golf has even turned on the president. Of more immediate relevance for the media, Facebook and Instagram indefinitely blocked Trump from posting, and Twitter suspended his account forever. These moves were a big deal—even if, as The Guardian’s Marina Hyde wrote of the Facebook ban, it was “not so much a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted as doping the horse, whipping it into a frenzy, encouraging it to bolt, fostering a world in which humans are subjugated by horses, monetising every snort and whinny, [and] allowing the very existence of ‘humans’ and ‘horses’ to become just one of a bunch of competing opinions.”

Related: Photographing the insurrection

All this talk of accountability begs two questions of the press. First, how might we deal it out to Trump and his coup architects? One option, of course, would be to follow Big Tech and deny them our platforms—as guests, interviewees, contributors, or even as subjects of our attention. This path is complicated: it’s our job to expose, to explain, to challenge. Still, some sort of rethink is necessary here. We need to police the currently-fine line between explaining why our leaders are doing heinous things and explaining them away as business as usual; as savvy, even. No longer should Cruz, Hawley, and their ilk (and the ilk is important here: senators Cindy Hyde-Smith, John Kennedy, Cynthia Lummis, Roger Marshall, Rick Scott, and Tommy Tuberville all voted to challenge Joe Biden’s win even after the insurrection, yet have escaped much of the ire directed at Hawley and Cruz) expect to waltz onto the Sunday shows and launder disinformation with only tepid pushback. This extends to the great many Republicans who stopped short of endorsing the coup but enabled Trump up to that point. Yesterday, several such figures—Trump’s former chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, and senators Pat Toomey and Roy Blunt—toured major networks parroting transparently nonsensical and self-exonerating talking points. (Trump has changed since the election!) The scrutiny they faced was, barring a couple of exceptions, an order of magnitude less sharp than it ought to have been. Deplatforming our leaders would be a grave step, but if we can’t ask better questions, it may be a necessary one.

In recent days, a good number of print journalists, at least, have used appropriately scathing language to couch various stunning examples of GOP hypocrisy, from supposedly-principled resignations to calls for national healing. (“Republicans in Congress are demanding ‘unity’ after 147 of them voted to try to overturn the election,” BuzzFeed’s Sarah Mimms wrote Saturday, “propping up the very lies that led a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters to violently attack the US Capitol on Wednesday.”) This should not be time-limited; going forward, we may need to add “who tried to overturn a democratic election” to the identifiers (Rep., Sen., R-Texas) that we use in our copy. Outlets in specific niches can preserve the memory of the insurrection in ways appropriate to their beat; Forbes, for instance, already pledged that if a business decides to hire a former Trump administration fabulist, its reporters “will assume that everything your company or firm talks about is a lie.” On a much bigger scale, we all need urgently to imagine futures for the media business that don’t involve death by a thousand private-equity cuts, and work toward them, especially on the local level. “Post-truth is pre-fascism,” the historian Timothy Snyder wrote in a widely-shared New York Times Magazine essay over the weekend, and “truth defends itself particularly poorly when there is not very much of it around.”

The second question the press must now face: what will we do to hold ourselves accountable for the many failures that smoothed the path to this moment, even if only at its edges? As Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, wrote last week, “Even the media people who didn’t elevate Trump’s rigged-election nonsense are going to have to grapple with their own complicity”: the “glib dismissal” of his 2016 candidacy; the false equivalence between Trump and Hillary Clinton; the free airtime; our ongoing obsession with everything he said and did as president. As Karen Attiah, global opinion editor at the Washington Post, wrote yesterday, “Every glowing profile, book deal, TV analyst gig, Harvard fellowship, Atlantic Ideas festival spots, or social media platform given to the architects of Trumpism and white supremacy helped get us here.”

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The most immediate answer to both these accountability questions is the same: to never forget what happened on Wednesday, and to use it as a point of no return. That means no more squeamishness about calling nasty truths—racism, lies, coups—what they are; no more bothsidesism; no more optics chatter; no more blinkered American exceptionalism. These persistent trends didn’t cause the insurrection, but they blinded too many of us to its potentialities. We need to lose our capacity to be surprised, while fostering our capacity to be shocked. As Astead W. Herndon, a politics reporter at the Times, put it yesterday, “There will be attempts and minimization and moral massaging so it’s important for people to keep the shock they had at the events on Wednesday close. Remember how you feel now.” Forever.

Below, more on an attempted coup:

Other notable stories:

  • First in The Media Today: Ken Klippenstein, formerly of The Nation, is joining The Intercept as an investigative reporter focused, among other things, on law enforcement, government agencies, and the Freedom of Information Act. Nausicaa Renner, senior politics editor at The Intercept (and a former editor at CJR), hailed Klippenstein’s “extensive sourcing in government and relentless focus on FOIA,” and Klippenstein said that he’s “thrilled to join forces with some of the biggest troublemakers in journalism.” (ICYMI last year, CJR’s Sam Thielman interviewed Klippenstein about his work.)
  • On Friday, various outlets reported on concern within the White House coronavirus task force that rising cases in the US could be attributable, in part, to a highly transmissible new variant of the virus that originated domestically—but there’s no evidence that’s the case. According to Apoorva Mandavilli, of the Times, the task force official Deborah Birx speculated about the supposed strain in remarks shared with governors. Scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have since publicly refuted Birx’s theory.
  • Over the weekend, Vogue previewed two versions of a forthcoming cover featuring Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, one of which met with widespread disapproval online; one critic called it a “washed-out mess.” Yashar Ali reported on Twitter that that image will feature as Vogue’s print cover, even though editors “mutually agreed” with Harris’s team that the alternative version would be used; per Ali, the latter version will feature as the digital cover instead. (Vogue sources denied Ali’s reporting to the New York Post.)
  • Later today, Voice of America, the US-funded news outlet, will host and broadcast a speech by Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state. According to Paul Farhi, of the Washington Post, a group of VOA staffers have filed a whistleblower complaint about the event, which they claim threatens both public health and VOA’s editorial independence. As I wrote before Christmas, VOA has been hit by a string of controversies of late.
  • Erik Wemple, also of the Post, reports that twenty public-radio stations that broadcast the Times’s flagship podcast, The Daily, have concerns about the way the show handled the recent controversy surrounding another Times podcast, Caliphate. Per Wemple, bosses at WAMU, an NPR affiliate in DC, have noted perceived conflicts of interest between the shows, and may even remove The Daily from its schedule going forward.
  • Activists in Wilmington, North Carolina, are running a crowdfunding campaign to “save” the Wilmington Journal, a weekly that serves Black residents and is said to be struggling financially. “It is important to have that voice,” Deborah Dicks Maxwell, president of the local NAACP chapter, said of the paper. “If the lion doesn’t tell his story, the hunter will get all the credit for the hunt.” Hunter Ingram has more for the Wilmington Star-News.
  • In March, the Courier Journal, in Louisville, Kentucky, will permanently close its printing plant; going forward, the paper will be produced by the Knoxville News Sentinel and the Indianapolis Star, both of which, like the Courier Journal, are owned by Gannett. One hundred and two staffers will lose their jobs as a result of the Louisville plant closure.
  • Last week, Dan Le Batard left ESPN after eight years with the network. According to Barry Jackson, of the Miami Herald, Le Batard now plans to launch a media company with John Skipper, the former president of ESPN; the new venture doesn’t yet have a home, but Spotify and SiriusXM look like “logical possibilities,” Jackson writes.
  • And Robert A. Caro, the historian and former newspaper reporter, has granted access to his personal archives to the New-York Historical Society, which intends to showcase them in a permanent exhibition starting in September. Dan Barry, of the Times, tagged along as a wowed curator from the society got to work on Caro’s files.

Related: The mob that stormed the capital was its own media

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.