On Saturday, as Republicans lined up to denounce Donald Trump and the pussy-grabbing candidate brooded in his tower, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, published a piece arguing that what was unfolding was not just a defeat for Trump’s image, but a victory for the established traditions of journalism. Smith wrote:
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 ™ depicted him as a liar, as a mediocre businessman, as a man who says disgusting things about women, as an ignoramus.
It was true, Smith wrote, that “[p]rimary voters chose not to believe us, or to care.” But in the end, the responsible, objective, and balanced coverage of Trump’s many misdeeds had broken through to the public, despite the persistent argument that old-fashioned journalism was not up to the task:
But there is also an impulse now among media critics to say 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...
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.
Less than 48 hours later, the scrupulously respectable New York Times landed on doorsteps with the front-page headline, “PERSONAL ATTACKS IN THE FOREFRONT AT CAUSTIC DEBATE / Tawdry Accusations Fill Second Meeting as Candidates Strike Angry Tone.” The debate—in which Trump fought back from his weekend of vulnerability by stalking and berating Hillary Clinton around the stage, pledging to throw his opponent in prison, and denying that he’d said what he had been caught saying on tape—was in the Times’ assessment “a 90-minute spectacle of character attacks, tawdry allegations, and Mr. Trump’s startling accusation that Mrs. Clinton had ‘tremendous hate in her heart.’”
Just like that, one candidate’s meltdown had become a “deeply ugly moment” involving both sides. The paper was unable to fit any examples of Clinton attacking Trump before the jump, or for a good while afterward, but eventually it pointed out that she had said “He never apologizes to anybody for anything.”
And why would he apologize? Trump was back. He had taken his supposedly disqualifying hot-mic moment and turned it into another point for two sides to dispute, with the press as referee. He had gotten debate moderator Anderson Cooper to turn the fact that neo-Nazis and the Klan openly support the Trump campaign into a question to Clinton about how divisive she had been in calling Trump’s supporters “deplorables.” He had taken his own refusal to release his tax returns, and his apparent concession that he doesn’t pay federal income tax, as an opportunity to blame Clinton for not tightening the tax code to stop him.
Trump is a professional con artist, and as long as his audience will earnestly keep listening, the con artist will always find a new pitch. When moderator Martha Raddatz pressed him on the fact that he had offered no plan to deal with the carnage in Aleppo, and on his dodging of questions about it, he settled the matter by declaring Aleppo already fallen—consigning a quarter of a million people there to the hands of their enemies—and by praising the Russian and Syrian forces that are committing war crimes there for being resolute against ISIS. On the subject of his campaign’s ongoing viciousness, he conjured from thin air the accusation that Michelle Obama had attacked Clinton in 2008 more viciously than he ever had.
By morning, Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, was explaining that his detailed promise to appoint a special prosecutor to send Clinton to prison was a “quip.”
How did the heroic and competent responsible press let its moment of advantage pass? It had never really had one. Smith was eloquent in his defense of traditional media, but he was also wrong. He described the situation on Saturday this way:
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.
It’s correct that it was an establishment newspaper, the Washington Post, that published the grab-them-by-the-pussy tape. But the relationship between the flood of prior Trump coverage and the video does not make for an inspiring story about the power of reporting.
The video originated with NBC. NBC News claims it intended to publish a story about it, but for various institutional reasons, reportedly including anxiety over the potential legal risks of publication, it had not gotten around to deciding when it might do it. So while the executives and lawyers in charge of one of America’s premier institutional news organizations sat on a history-making piece of news, mulling how to handle it, someone arranged for a copy to reach the Post’s David Fahrenthold.
Fahrenthold has been one of the best reporters on Trump, sinking months and months of work into story after story on the question of Trump’s charitable activities, or his lack thereof. His Post stories have meticulously, unambiguously documented how the Donald J. Trump Foundation evolved into a slush fund for Trump’s self-dealing, funded by other people’s donations, operating without regard for tax regulations or generally accepted principles of philanthropy. Fahrenthold’s coverage has made it clear that Trump’s boasts of generosity are backed by nothing, that he uses the mantle of good deeds to cover up fraud and lies.
And none of it really made any difference, except that it established him as a worthy recipient of the tape. The story he assembled in a few quick hours, by catching the over-the-transom materials, had more effect than everything else he had labored over all year. The world could ignore all the carefully marshaled facts about Trump’s misdeeds—indeed, the New York Times, valuing its institutional status above the mere fate of the nation, did everything it could not to acknowledge or pick up on the Post’s work—but it could not ignore a sleazy leaked video.
There has been a flood of true reporting on Trump, but it has not been damaging. Only the sleaze, pried away from the gatekeepers of a mainstream organization and released to the public, briefly made a difference—and Trump faced right into it, lied about it, and moved on. The epistemic bubble around him, so thin and wobbly the night before, settled back into place. If the pussy-grab tape has a lasting effect, it will not be because it validates all the objective reporting that went before, but because it might pry loose more and worse tapes that the press has so far failed to get. In the hour and a half of the debate, the Trump Foundation, the con job that a reporter had so fully exposed, wasn’t mentioned at all.