The lap dogs of democ­racy who don’t bark at Trump

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - OPINION - Dana Mil­bank Colum­nist Fol­low Dana Mil­bank on Twit­ter, @Mil­bank.

Don­ald Trump’s clos­ing ar­gu­ment has been to blame his fall on the dis­hon­est, cor­rupt, hor­ri­ble, poi­sonous and bi­ased me­dia.

Trump is cor­rect that there has been some­thing wrong with the cov­er­age. But the prob­lem is that the me­dia didn’t show bias against Trump ear­lier and more of­ten. I’m not talk­ing about par­ti­san bias, but a healthy and nec­es­sary jour­nal­is­tic bias against au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism.

Press treat­ment of Trump has, grad­u­ally and be­lat­edly, be­come much tougher. But we in the me­dia made Trump pos­si­ble in the first place and en­joyed the en­ter­tain­ment (and rat­ings) he pro­vided for far too long. When the elec­tion ends — if it ends — there needs to be some news­room soul-search­ing.

Jour­nal­ists for gen­er­a­tions styled them­selves “watch­dogs of democ­racy,” growl­ing at false­hoods and bark­ing at abuses in the sys­tem. David Fahren­thold, Glenn Kessler and many of my Washington Post col­leagues have up­held this proud tra­di­tion through­out the 2016 cam­paign.

But in gen­eral, watch­dogs un­til re­cently were out­num­bered in this elec­tion by those who cover pol­i­tics as horse race, prais­ing the ma­neu­vers of which­ever can­di­date is ahead in the polls. This avowedly neu­tral ap­proach — process jour­nal­ism — is apo­lit­i­cal. But it’s also amoral. a he-said-she-said ap­proach that in this case con­fused tac­tics for truth and what works for what’s right.

Con­sider Trump’s re­fusal at last week’s de­bate to say that he would re­spect the re­sults of the elec­tion, a vi­o­la­tion of the in­dis­pens­able no­tion of the peace­ful trans­fer of power.

But on MSNBC’s “Morn­ing Joe” the next morn­ing, the process jour­nal­ists had a dif­fer­ent view. “It’s the re­venge of the elites,” Mark Halperin of Bloomberg Pol­i­tics said. “Elites do not ac­cept that that was an ap­pro­pri­ate an­swer.”

Host Joe Scar­bor­ough agreed that the is­sue was only of con­cern to “peo­ple in news­rooms ... with their soy lat­tes.”

Halperin and Scar­bor­ough were wrong; a Post-ABC News poll found that 65 per­cent dis­ap­proved of Trump’s re­fusal. But that’s be­side the point: What Trump said was reck­less and dan­ger­ous — and say­ing so has noth­ing to do with soy lat­tes.

In March, Halperin de­clared on “Morn­ing Joe” that Trump is “one of the two most tal­ented pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates any of us have cov­ered.” In Jan­uary, also on “Morn­ing Joe,” he said Trump’s at­tacks on the Clin­tons were “po­lit­i­cally bril­liant.”

In June on his Bloomberg TV show, “With All Due Re­spect,” Halperin as­serted that “it’s not racial” for Trump to at­tempt to dis­qual­ify an In­di­ana-born fed­eral judge as a “Mex­i­can” be­cause of his an­ces­try. His rea­son: “Mex­ico isn’t a race.”

In an or­di­nary pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, press neu­tral­ity is es­sen­tial. But in Trump we have some­body who has threat­ened democ­racy by talk­ing about ban­ning an en­tire re­li­gion from en­ter­ing the coun­try; forc­ing Mus­lims in Amer­ica to reg­is­ter with au­thor­i­ties; rewrit­ing press laws and pros­e­cut­ing his crit­ics and po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents; black­list­ing news or­ga­ni­za­tions he doesn’t like; or­der­ing the mil­i­tary to do il­le­gal things such as tor­ture and tar­get­ing in­no­cents; and much more. In this case, at­tempt­ing neu­tral­ity le­git­imized the il­le­git­i­mate.

It’s not just a con­cern of the “elites” — nor a dis­missal of the real griev­ances of Trump’s fol­low­ers — to con­demn a can­di­date’s re­luc­tance to ac­cept a bedrock prin­ci­ple of democ­racy. There’s noth­ing “bril­liant” about a cam­paign for the pres­i­dency that makes scape­goats of women, im­mi­grants and racial and re­li­gious mi­nori­ties. It’s not “im­pres­sive” to con­sort with white su­prem­a­cists. It’s not “fair and even” to ig­nore that much of what Trump has done is a threat to demo­cratic in­sti­tu­tions.

And it is ab­so­lutely ap­pro­pri­ate to “take sides” in a con­test be­tween democ­racy and its al­ter­na­tive.

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