Dear Commons Community,
Over the past week several Democrats have announced that they will be seeking their party’s nomination for president in the 2020 election. While it is still early, the media are gearing to cover the primaries and subsequent election like never before. On Sunday, the New York Times had a column written by Frank Bruni, asking whether the media will be Trump’s accomplice in his election bid. Essentially he asks whether the media will jump at Trump’s every bombast, opponent insult and twitter fit or will they focus on the issues and the needs of our country. Here is Bruni’s introduction to the column:
“Pocahontas” won’t be lonely for long.
As other Democrats join Elizabeth Warren in the contest for the party’s presidential nomination, President Trump will assign them their own nicknames, different from hers but just as derisive. There’s no doubt.
But how much heed will we in the media pay to this stupidity? Will we sprint to Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker or Mike Bloomberg for a reaction to what Trump just called one of them and then rush back to him for his response to that response? Or will we note Trump’s latest nonsense only briefly and pivot to matters more consequential?
That’s a specific question but also an overarching one — about the degree to which we’ll let him set the terms of the 2020 presidential campaign, about our appetite for antics versus substance, and about whether we’ll repeat the mistakes that we made in 2016 and continued to make during the first stages of his presidency. There were plenty.
Trump tortures us. Deliberately, yes, but I’m referring to the ways in which he keeps yanking our gaze his way. I mean the tough choices that he, more than his predecessors in the White House, forces us to make. His demand for television airtime on Tuesday night was a perfect example: We had to weigh a request in line with precedent against a president out of line when it comes to truth. We had to wrestle with — and figure out when and how to resist — his talent for using us as vessels for propaganda.
We will wrestle with that repeatedly between now and November 2020, especially in the context of what may well be the most emotional and intense presidential race of our lifetimes. With the dawn of 2019 and the acceleration of potential Democratic candidates’ preparations for presidential bids, we have a chance to do things differently than we did the last time around — to redeem ourselves.
Our success or failure will affect our stature at a time of rickety public trust in us. It will raise or lower the temperature of civic discourse, which is perilously hot. Above all, it will have an impact on who takes the oath of office in January 2021. Democracies don’t just get the leaders they deserve. They get the leaders who make it through whatever obstacle course — and thrive in whatever atmosphere — their media has created.”
“The shadow of what we did last time looms over this next time,” the former CBS newsman Dan Rather, who has covered more than half a century of presidential elections, told me. And what we did last time was emphasize the sound and the fury, because Trump provided both in lavish measure.
“When you cover this as spectacle,” Rather said, “what’s lost is context, perspective and depth. And when you cover this as spectacle, he is the star.” Spectacle is his métier. He’s indisputably spectacular. And even if it’s a ghastly spectacle and presented that way, it still lets him control the narrative. As the writer Steve Almond observed in a recently published essay, “He appears powerful to his followers, which is central to his strongman mystique.”
Bruni raises an important question. Let’s hope the media takes heed!