1. Opinion

Column: Why the media blitz on Trump isn't working

Published Sep. 22, 2016

Who's to blame for the fact that November is just around the corner and Donald Trump is within shouting distance of electoral victory?

The media, of course. Journalistic institutions stand accused of facilitating Trump's rise, through reportorial lassitude or outright connivance with him for the sake of ratings.

The scapegoating reached its reductio ad absurdum in a recent blog post by Paul Krugman of the New York Times, who labeled the media "objectively pro-Trump" for allegedly ganging up on Hillary Clinton like a "high school clique bullying a nerdy classmate because it's the cool thing to do." As if her email issue had not been reported first by the decidedly not-pro-Trump Times itself, for the very good reason that it's newsworthy.

This is silly. The media have been very tough on Trump, relentlessly so. To cite just one organization, the Washington Post, and its reporter David A. Fahrenthold has been terrier-like in pursuit of the damning facts of Trump's phony philanthropy. A Post team published a critical book about the Republican nominee, for heaven's sake. The Post editorial board produced one of the first on-the-record interviews exposing Trump's disturbingly cavalier view of the United States' NATO commitments, then followed it up with a series of scathing opinion pieces.

And so on and so on; let's count the parade of anti-Trump messages served up by various Emmy winners during Sunday's award show, too. But for those indulging in it, media-blaming does have one advantage. It helps avoid a much more relevant, and sobering, question: Why do so many Americans support Trump despite months and months of negative, truthful coverage about him?

To be sure, there has been too much media puffery about Trump, whether unfiltered live coverage of his rallies by cable networks or Jimmy Fallon's sickeningly friendly tousling of the Republican candidate's hair on The Tonight Show. Journalists were slow to take him seriously at the beginning of the Republican primaries.

The fact remains, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., noted in an interview with the Times published Sunday: "Nobody is confused about the differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. ... Is she perfect? Of course not. But you've got enough information to make the choice."

What must be going on is that people — an alarmingly large number of people, it seems — back Trump even though they know, or could easily learn, that he is a charlatan, clueless about policy, bizarrely sympathetic to Russia's dictator, disturbingly prone to offending women and minorities, and a serial liar to boot.

Trump is benefiting from the political equivalent of jury nullification. This is the well-known phenomenon whereby a jury returns a "not guilty" verdict despite its awareness that the prosecution has proved its case.

Jurors do this for many reasons, but generally it's a form of protest, either against the law that the defendant is alleged to have violated, the system that the prosecution represents, the prosecution's methods — or some combination of these.

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American colonists practiced jury nullification when they stood up for press freedom by acquitting journalist John Peter Zenger of seditious libel in 1735, as law professor Doug Linder of the University of Missouri at Kansas City has noted. Nullification was at work in a Washington jury's refusal to convict the popular African American mayor, Marion S. Barry Jr., of the most serious drug-related charges against him in 1990.

In short, jury nullification happens when people regard accusations as an expression of an illegitimate institution or system and seize their momentary power to thwart it — even at the expense of truth, or, as nullifiers would put it, in service of a higher truth.

To be clear: There's no moral equivalence between a vote for Trump and the admirable instances of jury nullification in U.S. history, such as the Zenger case or the refusal of Northern juries to convict alleged violators of the Fugitive Slave Law.

There is a psychological similarity, however. Trump's campaign is fueled by a sense among his supporters that America is "rigged," as the candidate puts it, against people such as them. Like nullifying jurors, they sense a secret-vote opportunity to vent their grievance about this at little or no immediate personal risk.

Against Trump, the press is a particularly ineffective prosecutor, for the obvious reason that "mainstream media" enjoy so little legitimacy among his followers. Only 14 percent of Republicans express trust and confidence in the media, according to Gallup. The figure for independents, who also lean toward Trump, is 30 percent. In fact, sticking it to the "liberal" press is probably one of the things his backers enjoy most.

By and large, the American free press has performed its democratic function with respect to Donald Trump — and then some. Instead of carping about the alleged insufficiency of that vetting, the critics should be reflecting on its futility.

Charles Lane is a Washington Post editorial writer specializing in economic and fiscal policy.

© 2016 Washington Post


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