There's a soul song Donald Trump likes to recite at his rallies, "The Snake." It recounts a fable drawn from Aesop, in which a woman finds a beautiful snake half dead, revives it. The snake bites her and she dies.
It's a fable of weakness and naïveté, and Trump applies it to the US view of Syrian refugees, Muslims, enemies, nameless dark forces out to get you.
But like most of what Trump says, this one is also about him. And as elected Republicans finally, really move to abandon their nominee this October Saturday, a passage from the final stanza — the snake's address to his dying benefactor — has been bouncing around my DMs.
"Oh shut up, silly woman," said the reptile with a grin. "You knew damn well I was a snake before you took me in."
Republicans really have no right to their shock at the five words Trump has made immortal — "Grab them by the pussy." And that is, above all, because much of the media has done an excellent job in covering Trump.
The media rooted in the American newspaper tradition — actual newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post, as well as descendants of that journalistic tradition including BuzzFeed News and Politico — have covered Trump fairly since before he entered the race. That is to say, we of the Mainstream Media (tm) depicted him as a liar, as a mediocre businessman, as a man who says disgusting things about women, as an ignoramus. Different outlets came to this at different times — at BuzzFeed News, we were lucky to have McKay Coppins lay it out back in February of 2014 and make us charter blacklist members. But newspaper reporters going back to the 1980s — great ones like Tim O'Brien and Wayne Barrett — have clearly depicted the same man we see today.
Primary voters chose not to believe us, or to care — hardly a novel feature in Republican primaries where the Times endorsement isn't exactly coveted. A bigger problem is that the path through which reporting has often reached large numbers of Americans — television picking up print and online reports — was blocked at times by Trump's compelling celebrity, which drove ratings-based decisions by television executives. Shows and entire networks made the decision to syndicate the Trump Show and feasted on the ratings it drove, with the compromises that access always entails. They are frantically rowing back to shore now.
But there is also an impulse now among media critics to claim victory over that newspaper tradition. Finally, they say, the media has discarded its mask of "objectivity" and its "view from nowhere," and is calling it like it sees it. Jay Rosen makes a strong and nuanced version of this argument; you can find blunter versions all over Twitter. In this view, reporters have finally gotten over their fantasies of balance and their timid refusal to call people "liar."
I think the opposite is true, and that this cycle has vindicated that much-maligned tradition of trying to be fair, of avoiding speculation, of sticking to what you know. The best reporters in that newspaper tradition have always been adversarial in their approach, but modest in their claims to know for certain, most of the time, whose heart is purer, which health care policy is best, or which path to take in Syria. That tradition has an appropriately high bar to calling a candidate a "liar," to printing profanity, and to invoking fascism.
I covered Kerry and Bush, McCain and Obama, and Obama and Romney, and we hack political reporters were always under pressure from the knowing commentators on both sides to reveal that what they claimed we obviously knew but wouldn't say — that they were lying about their tax plans, about their views on marriage, about their military service. (Also, that they were fascists, of course.) We hedged, described without judging, occasionally got too far out front and corrected. We were even skeptical of the mania for fact-checks, which can sometimes stray confusingly into authentic policy disputes.
And yet that tradition — if you read the Times, the Post, BuzzFeed News, Politico, and many others — gave us cause to call a liar a liar; a racist a racist; a demagogue a demagogue. Trump is facing his party's repudiation because of a document — a video recording, in this case — published first by a newspaper website, and by the flood of damaging, true reporting that preceded it.
“The structure of covering politics is you compare an apple and an orange, they have different attributes, but they’re both fruits and you can take your pick," Slate editor-in-chief Jacob Weisberg said recently. "In this case we have something more like an apple and some rancid meat.”
It's impossible, of course, to predict whether we'll ever again get a chance to compare apples and oranges while angry Twitter commentators demand that we call one or the other a fascist. But I'd like to think that when we all calm down (that's coming, right?) someone will notice that fair, careful reporting had this guy pegged all along.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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