Former CNN anchor, Campbell Brown, back in April wrote a piece in Politico blaming the media for the rise of Donald Trump.
I really would like to blame Trump. But everything he is doing is with TV news' full acquiescence. Trump doesn't force the networks to show his rallies live rather than do real reporting. Nor does he force anyone to accept his phone calls rather than demand that he do a face-to-face interview that would be a greater risk for him. TV news has largely given Trump editorial control. It is driven by a hunger for ratings - and the people who run the networks and the news channels are only too happy to make that Faustian bargain.It is not the first time Campbell has held her former colleagues' feet to the fire. Last December she implored the industry to try going just one week without mentioning even his name.
As many have already said, no presidential candidate in history has gotten this much free airtime. Let's stop being complicit in promoting his hateful and harmful demagoguery. Just for one week.Of course her plea went unheeded. Why? For the very reason Brown cited in the April piece. Trump, however repulsive he has been and continues to be, is good for the corporate bottom line. CBS Chairman Les Moonves said as much back in February. "It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS."
To which CBS is Moonves referring? The CBS of legends like Walter Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow? If he is, I think those two men would beg to differ with him. To them, and countless others, journalism was about a scared trust to inform the public and hold those people being interviewed accountable.
It was Murrow who, on March 9, 1954, in a broadcast seen on the very same network Moonves now runs, blasted then Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in a scathing editorial. McCarthy at the time was using his power in the Senate to conduct a witch hunt to "expose" any and all Communists within the government and entertainment industry. Below is part of the transcript of that broadcast.
This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.
The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it -- and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves."
Where are the Murrows of today concerning Donald Trump? 60 years ago a journalist with the courage of his convictions took on one of the most powerful men in the country and defeated not only him, but the forces of complacency and capitulation that were gnawing at the feet of his industry. Just as now, the networks did not want to pick a fight, especially with someone so powerful. I'm sure considerable pressure was placed on Murrow to, if not cancel the broadcast altogether, then at the very least, curtail some of his more stinging remarks. He resisted all attempts at censorship and proceeded with the broadcast in its entirety.
Were he alive today, I wonder what Murrow would have to say about Donald Trump. I also wonder what he would have to say about his beloved profession and the way in which it has descended into mediocrity. The influx of money has no doubt played an extremely large role in the decay of broadcast journalism, but it alone is not fully responsible. The truth is most journalists are just too damn lazy to do their jobs. Many of them take the road of least resistance and are more concerned with looking partisan than standing their ground.
This rot did not materialize over night. It took many years for us to get to this precarious place where the main-stream media are no better than the tabloid journalists Trump often cites at his rallies. I suspect not even the brow beating he gave them over his failure to disclose when and how much he allegedly donated to various veterans groups will provide the impetus for them to say "enough." That's the trouble with lap dogs; they're dumb, loyal to a fault and have a short memory.
But getting back to Murrow. I've thought at great length about how he would react to a Donald Trump candidacy. Like Joseph McCarthy, I believe he would've bided his time until Trump had amassed enough power before speaking out, hoping against hope that cooler and better minds than he might've prevailed. But, at the right moment, he would've said his peace. That was what made him so unique. His words were measured and always on target. And because of that, they had the authority to do what other, lesser men had failed to do. And, for that, we are forever grateful.
So, if I may, I'd like to channel my inner Murrow and have a crack at Mr. Trump. No doubt I will fall far short of his brilliance, but hopefully what I lack in skill I will more than make up for in my zeal. Here it goes.
Over the last twelve months, we have witnessed the rise of a most virulent and disturbing movement in this country. It is by no means a new movement. In many ways, it has always existed in some form or another, indeed since the very beginning of the Republic itself. One of the nation's bloodiest wars was fought over it.
At times it has flared up and reared its ugly head, only to go thankfully back to sleep. Now it has awakened anew with a vengeance and an energy not seen since the days of the Reconstruction. And what is the catalyst of this latest insurgency. None other than Donald J. Trump, the media mogul who last summer announced he was seeking the Republican nomination for president.
Those who know Mr. Trump well are no doubt quite familiar with his antics and his uncanny ability to manipulate the media to suit his ends. It has been the hallmark of his storied and quite checkered past. A past which has seen him declare bankruptcy four times and have several business ventures go belly up on him.
Mr. Trump's campaign slogan is "Make America Great," no doubt a reference to the impression he conveys to his supporters that the country is anything but. He has gone out of his way to paint a dismal picture not only of the nation's economy but of its culture, which is growing ever more diverse and threatening to the white majority. Mr. Trump has played on the fears of these people shamelessly and whipped them up into such a frenzy that some of them have engaged in violent displays at his rallies.
He has referred to Mexicans as rapists, called for a ban of all Muslims from entering the country, proposed building a giant wall along the U.S. / Mexican border, threatened various members of the press and behaved in a most unprofessional manner. And when confronted, rather than atone for his deplorable conduct, he instead doubles down on it, like a spoiled child who needs a timeout.
It is nothing short of astonishing that this man was somehow able to win the GOP nomination and even more frightening that he is but a few short months away from possibly being elected this country's next president. At this very moment, most of the national polls show a very close race between Mr. Trump and his likely Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In all the years this country has existed, it has never come this close to electing a candidate so thoroughly lacking in qualifications as Mr. Trump. Not even the 1964 election between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater can compare. It is not just his demeanor that makes him unfit for the office, nor even how his racist, xenophobic stances have deeply polarized the country. No, his greatest shortcoming is his complete lack of intellectual curiosity in all matters. From foreign policy to domestic policy, Mr. Trump has no serious or detailed policy positions; worse, the places he gets most of his opinions about such policies are dubious to say the least. He lacks even the minutest amount of impulse control necessary to be the leader of the free world.
How did we get to this point? A fair question, to be sure, and one which demands a rigorous and honest answer. It would quite easy - and convenient, I suppose - to lay all the blame at the feet of Donald Trump. But that would be as intellectually dishonest as most of his policy proposals and stances. The simple fact is that Mr. Trump took advantage of a political system that has deteriorated to such a degree, it has become the laughing stock of most of the civilized world. So fractured is the Republican Party that many pundits have been predicting that this very thing was inevitable. All that Mr. Trump has really done is to seize upon the opportunity presented to him by the ineptitude and chaos within his own party.
The rise of the Tea Party, and the nativist elements within it, provided a fertile ground from which the seeds of discontent were sown. And that discontent is now the driving force behind Trump's candidacy. And while he certainly stoked that discontent to a fever pitch, he is hardly its architect. He is, if anything, its beneficiary. Like any astute business man, Donald Trump saw an opening and took it. The movement he now controls is nothing more or less than the love child of seven years of fear and loathing that has now come to define much of the Republican base.
I would be remiss, though, if I were to exclude from this conversation a stinging rebuke for the other major political party in this country. The Democratic Party may not have had a direct hand in the rise of extremism that is now threatening the very fabric of our society, but it can hardly be considered an innocent bystander. The party that once touted the principles of Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and Bobby Kennedy has all but abandoned its core values and formed an unholy alliance with interests that were principally responsible for the Great Recession of 2008. Its presumptive nominee is under investigation by the FBI and could well become the first party nominee in modern history to be indicted. And even if it turns out that no laws were broken, as many feel is the likely case, the cloud that hangs over her candidacy, indeed over the entire party, will cast a veil over this general election that will have lasting implications for years to come. This could be the first time since the founding of the Republic where voters will go to the polls, see two names on the ballot and look for the choice that says "None of the above."
But now we come to the protagonist in this tragedy: the media. Much has been written about the decline of broadcast journalism in this country and much of it, sadly, has been true. Where legends once stood as moral guardians over the truth, today the news rooms are filled with tabloid journalists who have been given one overriding directive: protect the bottom line at all costs. If it is true that Donald Trump was the catalyst that lit the fires of discontent in this country, then the media provided the accelerant.
In my time, there had always been an unwritten rule that governed the industry: we were loss leaders to the networks. They expected but one thing from us: to inform the public on the pressing matters of the day. That has not been the case for quite some time now. Profits are all that matter to the executives of these networks. Cable news is an oxymoron. It's real name should be cable entertainment, for that is the more fitting definition. Important issues are tossed aside so that the banal and the mundane can take center stage. And a once vaunted and proud industry atrophies right before our very eyes. My dear friend Walter Cronkite must be spinning in his grave.
How can we hold Donald Trump accountable for his actions, when our own actions are beneath contempt? It was Abraham Lincoln who, in his Gettysburg Address, said the following: "We are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure." I submit that the civil war we are engaged in today has little to do with hand to hand combat on the battlefield; rather, it is about our collective duty to fulfill that destiny for which we have been called. Who will protect the country from the falsehoods of demigods when those left in charge have abdicated their responsibilities?
To those who would call such admonishment alarmist and over the top, I would remind them that many thought the same way in Germany in 1929. A foolish-sounding, narcissistic buffoon, who nobody took seriously, rose to power and plunged an entire planet into war. To say this could not happen here is the ultimate in hubris and conceit.
We are fast approaching a point of no return. It is not too late for good men and women to stand up and make their stand. The truth has been there all along right under our noses. All it takes is the willingness to sniff it out. And while it maybe true, as it says in scripture, that the spirit is willing, but the flesh weak, we must never use that as an excuse for inaction. For in the final analysis we shall certainly be judged not for what we said we'd do but for what we actually did.
Good night and good luck.
If you're listening, Mr. Murrow, I hope I did your legacy justice.