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Despite the Mad Men-quality institutional image campaign the nation has so effectively waged on itself since the middle of the 20th century, we haven’t actually destroyed the sacred institution of objective American news media, without which we are lost in this presidential campaign. As the unprecedented specter of Donald John Trump, Supergenius, rises up around us like some orange fog, we are not unequipped to describe and report on him because we have traded our golden tradition of neutrality for a handful of magic point-of-view beans. It’s a simple but hidden truth: The news has almost always been like this.
After decades of purges in the newspaper industry, there still are, at this moment, 44 American dailies with the word “Democrat” in their names and 22 more that include “Republican.” They are not parts of newspaper chains named after 19th century printing moguls Stan Democrat and Donald John Republican. They are the remnants of what operated without let, hindrance or apology from the founding of the nation until the advent of the FCC (nee Radio Commission) and the equal-time rule of 1927. They are part of the 19th and 20th century partisan press that was considered “fair and balanced” because, during the presidential campaign of 1828, half of it was happily calling challenger Andrew Jackson “the mulatto son of a prostitute” while the other half was calling incumbent President John Quincy Adams a “pimp.”
A frequent ‘Today’ show guest, Trump is allowed to call in to ?the show when most political candidates must appear in person.
The enforced evenhandedness by which radio and later television had to abide or see its money-printing machines unplugged was itself unplugged by the Reagan administration between 1981 and 1987. It had barely lasted 60 years, after which we all slowly but surely went back to calling everybody pimps and sons of prostitutes — with the added color of proclaiming that it was just a darn shame news had to be this way, and it was all the fault of that Ailes guy or that Limbaugh guy or that Olbermann guy.
In fact, in our history, journalistic objectivity has been the aberration, and media advocacy has been the default position — not the other way around. Still, advocacy’s return was predicated on a larger notion, which had actually provided the genuine worth of the original golden age of American journalism. The premise was the marketplace of ideas would be so crammed with loud and distinctive voices that the best-presented and most logical would win — or at least balance — out. When that premise fails, we have destroyed a sacred institution of collectively objective American news media. And it has failed (largely, anyway) in living memory, in the fluidly dark times between 9/11 and the Iraq War.
And it may be failing again right now amid the campaign of Donald John Trump.
Trump with Kimmel on May 25.
If all the belching and bellowing voices in that marketplace are in ideological disagreement about Trump or any other candidate real or fantastic, ranging from Hillary Clinton to St. Francis of Assisi, we’re fine. It’s unintentional but entirely suitable that the phrase “polite political discourse” includes a homophone for the word “coarse.” But if these Crank-It-to-11 competitors all find themselves in agreement that Trump, and the coverage of Trump, and the blowback to Trump, and the advertising dollars spent on the coverage of the blowback to Trump, constitute a cash explosion in a dying journalistic ecosystem whose healthiest part had been broadcast and cable news until recently there came a plague of locusts called cord-cutters — then we’ve got trouble.
Because now you can ask any question about Trump, Trumpism or anti-Trumpism except the existential ones, because the existential ones could lead him to stop calling in to your morning show and providing you with your highest-rated hour for free. You can’t go meta on the perfect storm that has thrust up this Howard Beale of presidential candidates. You can’t say, “Never mind the politics, what kind of man could boast on national television that he’d just raised $6 million for veterans’ groups, then deny he’d ever said 6, then when told his boast is on tape demand that you play it for him, then make it impossible for you to play it for him?”
If he is scheduled to do 20 Trump town halls for you between now and the election, thus saving you about a month’s worth of production costs for your average cable news show (a million or two, depending on how much you pay your meat puppet), you don’t examine what’s going on inside of a man who could first pretend to be his own media spokesman, then boast about his own sexual conquests in the third person, then admit the deception to a reporter, then again admit it on the legal record, then deny it on national television, then when pressed about it by The Washington Post simply hang up the phone.
With their own jobs hanging in the balance, who in the American media of 2016 could invoke not the politics of reproductive rights but question if there’s something far more than inconsistency involved when a candidate says he believes women who have abortions should be in some way punished, then weeks later insists he meant they should punish themselves? Or in that environment, who can ask not about religious intolerance but instead what is amiss with the thought process of a candidate whose campaign pivoted from the fringes to a hateful lane in the mainstream the day he insisted Muslims be banned from entering this country, yet who could manage to later seriously claim all that was “just a suggestion”? Or ask what kind of person suggests killing the innocent relatives of suspected terrorists, then throws it away like it was a poorly timed proposal to raise rates at the Fed? Or ask not what kind of Republican would say, but what kind of human would say of the presidency (or anything else) on Aug. 18, “I wanted to do this for myself,” and then say on Nov. 20, “I don’t want it for myself”?
With the most effective form of self-censorship in play — one not based on ideology nor on a silly harkening back to a neutral past that only briefly existed, but based purely on cash — who will stand up and point at the emperor standing in only a comb-over and ask where in the hell his clothes are?
Or should I not ask that question? You know, because maybe it’s not objective. Or it’s too objective. I forget which.
Olbermann is a former MSNBC and ESPN anchor.
This story first appeared in the June 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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