What the Devil won't tell you
Party lines & party lies: Blame national political media for Trump
Transcribing Ebola scares and birther lunacy has paved way for demagogues
Local columnists — in as much as anyone is local in the days of Google — approach presidential primaries by seeking out the local angle. Did Hillary eat breakfast at the Grill on Congress in 1995? Let's find the pictures and talk to the waitstaff. Did Trump open for Pollo Elastico in 1989? Let's talk to the bouncers and someone from the mosh pit.
So as Arizona's primary ... er, "presidential preference election" ... finishes up Tuesday, I find myself understanding the rejoinder "everything has been said but no one has said it." I've sat through enough Planning and Zoning meetings.
Y'all know the name of the column and the Devil has been silent on a point. Blame for the Trumpification of Republican politics belongs with the national political media.
This isn't a condemnation of any political movement. I'm not going to go into the ins-and-outs of policy no matter how much I want to call B.S. all over this column. This is an indictment of my beloved press corps. We have seen the enemy and it is on deadline.
For eight years now, the Beltway media has reduced the institutions of Cronkite, Murrow and Russert to WWE refs who had their backs turned and missed the folding chair crashing down on some unwitting combatant's head. From birthers and death panels to Ebola and a U.S. invasion of Texas, the lies have been reported and retold, stoking anger without a political price to pay.
In fact, there are days that I wish the sports media would take over political coverage just to watch the beat down when a politico tries to make an argument equivalent to: "the Panthers won the Super Bowl and here are five talking points explaining why."
The media has chosen simply to present competing talking points as news copy and let the public decide for themselves. I have a problem with that because even giving voice to a seemingly ridiculous point lends that statement credibility. The public doesn't see the craziness. It sees the imprimatur of a respected news outlet.
As a guy who has written talking points, I can tell you they are what you say when you don't want to confront an issue head on but "pivot" to what works on public opinion. They are not news.
Such a thing as a fact
Lies aren't necessary for either side. I can make the conservative argument on almost any issue without it and if I can do it, actual conservatives can do it a hell of a lot better than me (see Jon Kyl, Martha McSally and any real pro).
As we talk competing economic theories, can we agree the deficit is not exploding but has been reduced two-thirds? Hold up, now. Don't go talking about sequestration and debt; can we just agree it's not bigger than it was?
We can argue about the appropriate military response to terrorism, but can we agree that President Obama has not gutted the military but rather increased defense spending?
Can we agree there's no widespread voter impersonation?
Because all of those are objective facts.
The national political media treats facts as if they are debatable, rather than verifiable.
We can talk about immigration and border security but the border has not been ignored nor left wide open. It has been fortified and re-fortified. I remember doing a story where I spent the day at the border and we got shots of the fence. I called a founder of the Arizona Minutemen to ask him what he thought of the new bollard-style wall. He was stunned to see it. He was happy. He loved it. Until I emailed him the photos he had no idea it was there and the border was his life's work.
As for the Left: No, raising income taxes on the super rich won't balance the budget because plutocrats don't pay income taxes. They don't even get paychecks. Bush didn't plan 9/11 but those voices are marginalized by the Democrats themselves and would never survive national media scrutiny. Yet Jade Helm was a reason for worry. That's not disqualifying.
The national political media treats facts as if they are debatable, rather than verifiable. It's aided and abetted the drift toward the freakfest we see today, and worse, has kept the country ignorant about the extent of the possible. It has ill-informed the Left and the Right about how democracy works and leaves the middle feeling in limbo.
The biggest lie perpetuated by the media is that somehow one side of the American debate can rid itself of the other and 20 percent of voters get to ride herd over the other 80 percent. Occupy can't. The Tea Party can't. Neocons can't. The Blue Dog Democrats can't.
When Democrats win an election, they want it all and they want it now. When Republicans win an election, they want to dictate terms. It doesn't work that way. The problem isn't Trump. The problem is the belief that change is easy and that one branch of government can make wholesale change because the other side will be made to cower and abandon all its agenda because ... I've got nothing.
So when Trump says China will rip up its trade rules for the benefit of American workers and Mexico will pay for a wall, he is giving voice to the idea that global politics is as easy as saying, "knock it off." That doesn't even work on your pestering kids in the backseat of the minivan.
Politics is always about whipping up the base and then trying to calm it down after victory. The GOP has been whipping up the hatred, fear and rage to such temperatures they can't cool off. The media has watched and simply shrugged.
In a world where all opinions are valid and facts are malleable, people get pissed off. When they get pissed off, mobs form. When the mob gets riled. A guy like Trump will always rise to march in front of it. The media has fostered and rewarded ignorance with airtime and column inches. So the trick became topping yesterday's lunacy by going bigger.
Someday that hatred, fear and rage will win and then it will be in charge with its single-minded moral clarity that anyone not them is an enemy.
Golly, what could go wrong?
The job of the press
The press has a job to do and lines to draw.
It's nuclear weapon is "the roadblock," a never-ending barrage of coverage on every channel and from every platform pouring a ceaseless train of fire into the bunkers of the target until the white flag waves.
Had the press driven a stake through the heart of birtherism, it would have driven the demagoguery out of the political argument in 2009.
The media's conventional weapon is called context and it's not hard. Feel free to quote a politico saying America is drowning in red ink but follow it up immediately with the fact that the deficit is shrinking. Same with every single falsehood a political party tries to inject into the debate.
There are grown ups on both sides of the debate and there are punks. Giving the punks a platform to trumpet the lies is not journalism. It's stenography.
One party has figured out if both sides are equally to blame, one side can get way with murder, as Norman Ornstein, of the conservative (yes, conservative) American Enterprise Institute, told the Huffington Post in 2012:
If you want to use a strategy of ‘I’m just going to lie all the time’, when you have the false equivalence meme adopted by a mainstream press and the other side lies a quarter of the time, you get away with it.
The conservative publication Weekly Standard took all sorts of issue with Ornstein's take on the matter. Guess which conservative publication is now doing hard labor to make Trump go away?
In fact, the conservative media — from The Federalist to Fox News — is trying like hell to call Trump on all his lies after years of doing like the Weekly Standard did and defend one party's lies. Welcome to the fight. It would have been easier if it had been done earlier.
Both sides feel duped by "D.C. Insiders," who campaign on a wholesale change they don't deliver because they can't. One senator can give the minority a veto over any legislation moving through the august body, which is looking a lot more like a muddy October. The House speaker decides all by his or her lonesome what bill gets a hearing needed to even reach the floor. A president can veto anything that he or she chooses.
A country that can follow the Mother of Dragons' intricate throughline and can make sense of the damn infield fly rule seems baffled by the U.S. Senate's "unanimous consent" rule and "the veto." Neither are any more complicated than defensive pass interference. It remains a mystery to the masses because the press doesn't explain it.
The number one question to be answered in the upcoming election is what can both parties agree on to work toward getting something done. That goes for presidents and members of Congress. Instead, it will no doubt be a contest of polls and who is up where and what gaffe just hurt whom.
Working the news desk
You are a journalist. You walk in the newsroom on any given day immediately under the gun to produce something for tomorrow. To do that job, you have to find a daily news story, which require sources to return your phone calls.
The relationship between source and reporter is not so much confrontational as much as it is transactional. You don't just want to establish good relationships with sources. You need to establish good relationships with sources. How good will that relationship be if you are calling your source's comment a pack of lies?
Meanwhile, both sides of the issue are working you, so it's easy to fall into the trap that both sides are equally full of it. That cynicism becomes an easy excuse for not providing context or laying lumber to liars. "Hey, they all do it," you think.
If one side is perpetually chewing your ass, your editor's ass, your publisher's ass and the public's asses over how they are victims of bias, it's human nature to make sure you don't seem biased. It's like having a kid who is constantly throwing tantrums in public and claiming abuse. You are going to do what you can to shut them up.
Another cheap way out is to cover the politics and politics only. Is birtherism good or bad for Republicans? Can the Republicans lie about Ebola-covered Honduran migrants to swing a national election?
Will it work, help or hurt? That's the question. The question isn't "is it true?" and will lying hurt the party?
Of course, it's a false choice because lying and repeating the charge is neither necessary for Republicans or journalists. It's just easier. The job of a reporter with a good relationship with that source is to drive that source from the swamp of lies back to some kind of intellectual high ground. Do it with grace and a smile (hey, I'm just playing Devil's advocate) and it works like a charm. To do that, a reporter has to know the source's argument cold. "Devil's advocate, senator, the budget deficit is actually shrinking/the border has been bolstered/military spending has increased — so what are you really saying?"
Look: If I'm covering a rezoning in Marana and neighbors are opposing a 5,000-home project on 1,000 acres that's fine. If they are calling the project a "proposed casino and nuclear waste dump," I probably should not report that. If I fail to report the residential rezoning as a plan to build a glittering re-interpretation of Mount Olympus right next to a toxic stew, I am not biased in favor of the project.
What I don't do is quote the NIMBY crowd's outright lies and let The Reader figure out the lies for themselves. See, if I reported the lies side-by-side with the facts, The Reader is going to figure there has to be something to the lies — because if there is no kernel of truth what in the name of Walter Cronkite am I doing giving the lies space in the story?
Every managing editor in every newsroom in every city in the country knows this. Yet when it comes to the big boys reporting the national game we've had to wade through arguments that the stimulus made the recession worse and that the president apologized for America. Those peripheral lies have led to the whoppers.
Dudes, if fact-checking is required separate and apart from daily political coverage, there is a big, big problem. If Republicans are protecting the right to lie without blowback, then that's a whole 'nother story.
Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University, has written extensively over the years on the problem of false equivalence, the "he said, she said" parroting that too often passes for reporting.
"Any good blogger, competing journalist or alert press critic can spot and publicize false balance and the lame acceptance of fact-free spin," he wrote. "Do users really want to be left helpless in sorting out who's faking it more? The he said, she said form says they do, but I say decline has set in."
More recently, breaking down his take on Trump and the press, he said, "A public service press is one way we can hold power to account. It helps prevent lying from being raised to a universal principle in politics. That is important work. We need to figure out how it can continue."
Lying is news, not copy
But the real problem isn't Trump. He's just grabbing the spotlight on a stage long ago set.
Middle-class incomes are stagnant, but it ain't because Mexican lettuce pickers snuck across the border and took engineering jobs. ISIS is a threat, but it's not as simple as PC. China is taking jobs from America, but that's more of a move toward free markets and not because no one thought to shake a fist at Beijing.
The media's fear of losing its sources or being called "liberal" has failed repeatedly and prevented it from drawing lines and confronting lies. Lies aren't about ideology. Lies are simply behavior. And by all means, take after the Democrats when they do it but the Democrats aren't assaulting people at their rallies for infringing on their alternate reality.
This isn't that hard. It just takes balls. Do it to both sides. If one side does it more, God, that would be news. Write that story. That would seem to be news.
No, it's not about taking sides. It's about not taking sides. The only reason anyone cared that Edward R. Murrow took on Joe McCarthy or Walter Cronkite declared the war in Vietnam unwinnable was because these guys hadn't flown their personal flag. When Tim Russert called the Democratic primary over in 2008, it worked because Russert hadn't taken sides.
If liars want to complain they can't get a fair shake, they can do that in their own echo chamber. The rest of us don't need to be exposed to it other than out of curiosity. Let them live in the sideshow and don't give them tickets to the main event. The grownups have work to do.
Blake Morlock covered Arizona government and politics for 15 years, including 11 in the Tucson Citizen. He also worked on Democratic Party campaigns in the field of political communications. Now he’s telling you things that the Devil won’t.