Amer­ica needs a ‘Mur­row mo­ment’

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Cokie and Steve Roberts Colum­nists Steve and Cokie Roberts can be con­tacted by email at­steve­cokie@gmail.com.

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.”

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