WASHINGTON – 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.
“Morning Joe” has come in for a large share of criticism for cheering on the rise of Trump. And contributor Halperin’s praise for Trump’s tactical genius has been particularly soulless.
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.”
When Trump named Stephen Bannon to head his campaign, coverage noted the publisher’s strong ties to the racist alt-right. Halperin argued that Bannon “should not have let himself be so defined by others. The guy’s got an impressive resume.”
Earlier this month, when a New York Times lawyer responded to Trump’s threat to sue the newspaper, Halperin said the lawyer’s letter was a “big mistake” because “we have to be fair and even in this campaign and not basically take sides.”
And when Trump was widely panned for calling on Russia to find Clinton’s missing emails, Halperin said, “There is a lot of fault on both sides.”
This is not to pick solely on Halperin, with whom I have clashed over the years. Trump exploited a profession dominated by process journalism, and the entire cable news industry irresponsibly gave Trump unfiltered coverage – the equivalent of millions of dollars of free ads.
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.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.