America needs a ‘Murrow moment’
The headline over the lead story in The New York Times was stunning in its directness: “Donald Trump Clung to ‘Birther’ Lie for Years, and Still Isn’t Apologetic.”
Those words, and many more like them, could mark a turning point in the media’s treatment of Donald Trump. Journalists are increasingly willing to call him what he is: a lying bully who appeals to the darkest strains of racism and xenophobia in the American character.
This is an important step that carries considerable risk. If the media goes beyond the facts — and appears to be pursuing a partisan vendetta against Trump — they will undermine their own credibility. But not acting — allowing Trump to trample the truth with relentless disdain — carries large risks as well.
Remember Edward R. Murrow. The CBS broadcaster devoted his whole program on March 9, 1954, to exposing Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin, who trafficked in the same kind of scurrilous fearmongering Trump has persistently employed.
“This is no time for men who oppose Sen. McCarthy’s methods to keep silent,” warned Murrow. “There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities.”
Murrow took a huge chance, but he is revered as a man of great courage who helped save the country from a dangerous threat to its core values. Even many Republicans believe Trump represents a similar threat today.
We don’t accept the liberal theory that the mainstream media has been so intimidated by conservative critics that it’s bending over backwards to be unfair to Hillary Clinton, spreading a false narrative that she is untrustworthy and dishonest. Clinton has acquired her reputation the old-fashioned way: She’s earned it. Her repeated evasiveness on a series of issues — her emails, her family foundation, her health — fits into a long-running storyline that both Clintons play fast and loose with the truth.
But there is simply no comparison between the two candidates when it comes to veracity. Trump’s contempt for the truth is woefully and demonstrably worse. PolitiFact, the highly esteemed, independent factchecking operation, rated 53 percent of Trump’ s statements it reviewed as either“false” or“pants on fire ”( particularly egregious ). Clinton’s dishonesty score was 13 percent.
It’s perfectly fair, within the tenets of professional journalism, to say that since Trump lies much more often, he should be subject to greater scrutiny. But that’s been true for a longtime. The media, particularly television, has been slow to confront Trump for one simple reason: ratings and revenue.
A press conference Trump held in Washington turned into an infomercial for his new hotel, carried live on cable TV. Then he used the platform to advance two of his most insidious lies: that Hillary Clinton was actually responsible for the “birth er” conspiracy that questioned Ba rack Obama’s citizenship, and that he, Donald Trump, was the one to end the controversy.
As a Washington Post editorial put it: “Mr. Trump has revealed his own facility with fraud and deceit, and he has also exposed how vulnerable democracy is when confronted with a charlatan-celebrity, bereft of principles and willing to say anything to grab headlines.”
The biggest reason why the media is facing a Murrow Moment is that the polls are tightening. Trump might win. And as any candidate gets closer to the Oval Office, the spotlight on his or her record will — and should — shine much brighter.
Will it make any difference? There is no Murrow around today who can dominate the airwaves. And McCarthy was especially vulnerable because he needed TV to communicate with his followers. Trump commands countless social media channels to evade the filters and fact-checkers of the mainstream press. Moreover, his core supporters display a cult-like resistance to any criticism or contradiction of their Dear Leader.
But there are still some undecided voters out there. And there is still time for professional journalists to provide those voters with the truth about the candidates. Murrow is remembered 62 years later because he chose not to cower in the face of a” charlatan-celebrity.”