Avishai: How The Search For ‘Narrative’ In Journalism Helps Donald Trump

July 18, 2016 5:02 p.m.

This past fall, before he died of cancer, my pal Joel Kurtzman reflected on what made its menace so fascinating. The terrible thing, he told me, was that cancer cells—clearly warped under the microscope—make themselves invisible to the immune system. The body would easily destroy cancer cells if it knew danger was there; but these cells evolve into forms that seem so ordinary, so passably normal on the surface, that they get away with growing. The body, or a subsystem of it, makes something fatal to the whole, deliberately designed (if that’s a phrase meaningful to evolution) to fool its defenses.

The jump from this insight to the body politic was natural. Donald Trump was already a thing; he seemed—given a moment’s thought—warped. Yet his campaign was growing and growing. You couldn’t say he was the first boor we had ever seen, bragging, threatening, making things up. But a boor never made such a serious run at the presidency. What, we wondered, was our equivalent immune system in national politics, and what were the deficits that could have allowed for Trump’s rise—in what sense did he seem, of all things, ordinary?

Joel did not live to see today’s Republican convention, but the answer to the first question seemed obvious enough to us. We both had careers in journalism. We supposed the press should destroy the public reputations of politicians whose ideas were venal, illogical, unwarranted, or based on cooked evidence; or expose behavior that seemed hypocritical, unmannered, or criminal. (This was not exactly a new supposition. “The only security of all is in a free press,” Jefferson wrote Lafayette in 1823. “It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”)

Yet Trump seemed to thrive on press coverage. How?

A couple of weeks ago, I tuned into MSNBC, the presumed bastion of “liberal” journalism. FBI Director Comey had just come out with the verdict on Hillary Clinton’s emails. It was 7 PM, time for “Hardball,” and I found the network devoting itself to a live broadcast of a Trump speech in Cincinnati. I watched, revolted: free association, self-aggrandizement, self-pity, faked numbers, paranoid conspiracies—all uninterrupted:

Ohio, made a lot of money, but the town went down the tubes, (shrug). Portman endorsed me, Strickland is bad. We’re doing so well in Ohio; I finance my campaigns. We have a movement, look at the overflow. Hillary, crooked; Attorney General, disgrace. Rigged system. Radical Islam, Obama’s years. TPP worse for you than even NAFTA, bad judgement. I love you, too, a guy but I love him. Chuck Todd was dying, never treated me fairly, no teleprompters, Saddam a bad guy but killed terrorists well, Hillary crooked, distorted, kill Obamacare, kill Common Core, build a wall, it just got ten feet higher, folks, stop the drugs, replace all that with something great, with me the border guards will work hard, not just stand around, great crowds, great energy—anyway, wake up, Chuck Todd, that I “love Saddam Hussein.” Liars, folks. Unemployment not just 5%, Iraq the Harvard of terror, we allow them to pour in. Nobody knows what the hell is happening to our country. Media very dishonest. A tweet, a star with money, could have been a sheriff’s star, they’re racially profiling, not me. Jewish son-in-law—these people are sick, someday I’ll tell the real story of CNN, nobody watches MSNBC, the Clinton news network.

I get it: the 24/7 cycle needs spectacle, newspapers are losing subscribers to shock radio, broadcasters have been balkanized by the web—“people are angry.” (It’s hard to improve on Arianna Huffington’s recent diagnosis of this part of the press’s vulnerabilities.) But then, after a half-hour or so, MSNBC cut to its commentators. The first to speak, Heidi Przybyla of USA Today, criticized Trump—not without a kind of condescension—for disappointing Republicans who hoped he would “stay on message” and put the shiv into Hillary. (Under the clip MSNBC put on on the web, the producers put up this caption: “Trump fails to stay on message: The presumptive Republican nominee has made little progress in staying on message, leaving many Republicans uncertain about his general election strategy.”) David Korn criticized Heidi gently for not focusing on the shame of Trump’s erratic narcissism. Yes, she said, this will “play” right into Clinton’s hands.

Last week, I heard the Dianne Rehm show. The subject was Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dismissive comments on Trump. One guest, Slate legal reporter Mark Joseph Stern, lamented how people will look back on all of her opinions and wonder if they were not “policy preferences dressed up in judicial garb.” The next day I heard The New York Times’ Nate Cohn at Dartmouth, who showed us penetrating electoral maps, and told us that if, say, Hillary put Elizabeth Warren on her ticket, she’d be sacrificing one demographic for another: “educated, more affluent white men,” while Trump is cleaning up with “uneducated white men.”

There are dots to connect here: “message,” “play,” “preferences,” “demographic.” These journalists are young. Their words amount to a familiar language, presenting people as little more than bundles of socialized appetites, self-interested in the narrowest sense, liking only leaders who are like themselves—“preferences” determined by “demographics,” waiting for consistent “messages” to “play,” cloaking “preferences” with facts, like a magnet collecting iron filings. This language assumes that people make choices, but it is hardly “liberal.” Anyone from Thomas Hobbes to Don Draper could have told you that choices, in this behaviorist sense, fit just as well with authoritarian institutions. Choosing is really just picking.

What’s missing, of course, is acknowledgement of what an achievement liberal civilization is–also, how vulnerable it can be, especially when its own people fail to credit its first principles: that commonwealth guards citizenship, and citizenship requires an implicit social contract protecting our striving for pieces of the truth; that the pursuit of truth requires educated minds, practiced intuitions, rules of evidence, and the desire to live meaningful lives; that, to qualify for citizenship, we learn to make and hear arguments; that civilized standards for discourse have to be upheld if any arguments are to be made. When Bill Moyers speaks about growing inequalities, he is upholding liberalism. When Mara Liasson speaks about “the perception out there” that inequalities are growing, she is not.

I understand the source of journalism’s behaviorism and can see its utility to a point; a great many political science classes teach it. But, clearly, the language prepares journalists for an electoral game that’s spun out of a democratic commonwealth. It is hopelessly unable to justify the commonwealth or recognize threats to it. Too often these days, journalists suppose that their job is to prove, not that they know what citizens need, but that they know how to run campaigns. Their hero is not Edward Murrow but David Gergen; they look, not for truth, but “narratives.” Oh, and if the game is manipulating “the perception out there,” every demographic seems of equal worth, every idea is a kind of taste, and every “message” seems normal.

What, in other words, if journalism is designed not to expose fakery but to grade it? What if journalists take “educated” people—the people whose foundational arguments actually hold the commonwealth together—to be just another zip code among self-interested elites? (Can a stock-broker in a Cleveland suburb really not hear an argument against Wall Street fraud from a female Oklahoman Harvard Law professor?) Okay, any writer knows that you need a story, numbers, authority, endorsements (which is why I yanked in Jefferson early in this post)—that people must assume your sincerity, which endows your voice with a kind of charisma. But since when has cynicism—taking the game of manipulation for granted—become the mark of professionalism?

This is all not much of a threat when citizens of democracies are more or less content. There are times, however, when a great many are not content. That is when “keeping the waters pure” matters most. Globalization has, predictably, created losers, people who once counted on manufacturing jobs preserving their status. What if their problems are plausibly narrated but the person offering the narrative assures them that every bad thing happening to them results from foreign types, against whom we have not been “strong enough”? What if journalists are committed to a language that make self-aggrandizing “winners” seem ordinary?

In Cincinnati, Newt Gingrich introduced Trump. Let me quote from some relevant passages:

Prolonged unemployment leads to “the real distress”; a working man may sell-off assets and “descend” into “uncertainty”—also “the sense of guilt which each individual feels for having permitted the tragedy of degradation”; this uncertainty “paralyses every effort at making a serious and firm decision to act”; working people become “timid and half-hearted in putting into effect even the measures which are indispensable for self-preservation”; they fail to feel “their natural pride in being members of so favored a nation,” and need to be reminded “of the greatness” of their country”; they need to regain “that inner tranquility and outer force to cut off drastically and ruthlessly all the parasite growth and root out the weeds…the theatre and the cinema, gutter journalism…”

Actually, I did not just quote from Gingrich’s speech. I was actually lifting passages from the second chapter of Mein Kampf. No doubt, Heidi Przybyla would have been impressed by how well its author stayed “on message.” Others will be worried.

“What all forms of fascism have in common,” Adam Gopnik writes, “is the glorification of the nation, and the exaggeration of its humiliations, with violence promised to its enemies, at home and abroad; the worship of power wherever it appears and whoever holds it; contempt for the rule of law and for reason; unashamed employment of repeated lies as a rhetorical strategy; and a promise of vengeance for those who feel themselves disempowered by history. It promises to turn back time and take no prisoners.” These are not just messages. They are violations of the standards that make arguments conceivable. Once, journalism had the power to immunize us against demagogy. And today?

Like Gopnik, I grew up in a Montreal household, but without a father. I learned how to conduct myself as a citizen, writer—and man—by watching CBS-News more or less religiously. This was genuinely a “liberal” broadcast, not a behaviorist playground; it took on McCarthyism and put itself on the side of the civil rights movements. But more than this, CBS-News implicitly promoted a conception of a liberal civilization which “Murrow’s boys,” who had covered the terrifying war against fascism, knew could be lost. They had what I thought a liberal style: a prepared text, a certain tact, a dignity in addressing one another. I can still remember which correspondent was posted in London or the UN (respectively, Alexander Kendrick and Richard C. Hottelet) as vividly as who skated on either side of Jean Beliveau. Could a young man learn citizenship watching “Hardball”? Does political science teach us to care?

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