Trump Campaign Exposes Crisis Facing American Journalism

I wonder how many people who watched Sunday's parody of a town-hall format, where candidates are supposed to engage with citizens, really agree with New York Times writer Michael Grynbaum's judgment that moderators Anderson Cooper and Martha Raddatz "steered the debate with sharp questions."

On the contrary, those two rudderless factota—and the producers who vetted and showcased a supposedly representative but cowed, nearly speechless American "public" as hapless props for the candidates' and moderators' own gladiatorial pretensions—enabled this Roman spectacle.

This is a crisis of American journalism, not only of American politics. Media critics should stop letting their colleagues off the hook in explaining what's happening to us. Chris Lehmann did it devastatingly well in The Baffler late last month. Neal Gabler has eviscerated the journalists' performance even more comprehensively today at Moyers & Co. Where's everyone else?

Journalism deserves a lot more blame for Trump's success as a vulgar self-marketer, because that's what so much of journalism itself has become.

The journalism that pretends it's a civic art that makes public deliberations go well is firmly in harness to publicly traded media corporations that, with increasing intensity and mindlessness, come on to us as passive (or infantile) consumers, not citizens. They bypass our brains and hearts on the way to our lower viscera and our wallets with moderators, pundits, and "reporters" who care mainly about ratcheting up drama and their own self-importance as tribunes.

Neither Cooper nor Raddatz gave any hint of wanting to stimulate and to draw out anything thoughtful and strong from "ordinary" people. Their every gesture and word demonstrated only that they don't care about that. Cooper withdrew into astonishing passivity, punctuated by little bursts of civic remonstrance, and Raddatz tried to sound both tough and balanced while hiding both her mind and her face under her bright blond helmet.

Sorry about putting it like that, but since "production values" are all that matter to these people and their producers, I'm actually not sorry at all. What I'm writing is what they deserve for forgetting how to practice journalism as a civic art, not as reality TV.

What especially galls me is the contempt with which the "ordinary" citizens who'd supposedly been recruited to ask good questions were set up and then ignored by the program's designers as much they were by Trump and, to a lesser extent, Clinton. At the very least, the producers could have vetted and enabled more astute questioners.

The truth is that they no longer knew how to do that. The few live questioners that the moderators did call on, leaving the rest to sit in silence, were decent but little prepared and intimidated by the bright lights and, undoubtedly, the Big Bully himself.

It didn't have to happen that way. I wish that one of the spectators had made history by rising from his or her seat and reminding the moderators that this was to be a "town meeting," with real back-and-forth between the candidates and people they pretend to serve. But I can't blame "the people" as much as the journalists who betrayed them by staging this farce.

It's such journalists, along with the vacillating politicians—the Ted Cruzes, John McCains, and Paul Ryans—who should be targeted and reviled henceforth for enabling this season-long debacle. Trump is only the flare that lights up the hollow ruin of our media-corporation, Citizens United-driven public sphere. J'Accuse.


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