Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Truth: the first casualty in war and in the current presidential campaign

The American media are failing in their attempt to deliver on “balanced reporting,” the mantra on which the education of journalists is based, in their coverage of the presidential race.

And the reason is obvious.

Trump has so trashed the normal definition of civility, professional deportment and even truth telling while trashing the Republican opponents in the primaries, with the help of the media who stood mouths gaping and jaws dropped, along with the rest of the world, that they have been forced into what really amounts to a “false equivalence.”

There is no way to compare, effectively and objectively, the candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, or the candidates themselves.

As Joe Scarborough put it yesterday morning on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “Donald Trump is running on the strength of his personality!” And then, Trump runs off at the mouth, yesterday afternoon in Iowa, with words that depict the precise opposite of what is really going on: Hillary Clinton is running a campaign based exclusively on fear, while I am presenting detailed policies and you can go to our website for those details.

Talk about projection: pouring onto the other precisely the contempt with which you are treating the electorate. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton remains in Chapaqua resting and suffering from bout of pneumonia, at first undisclosed, then dismissed as “being overheated” and finally acknowledged. Trump, then, in what is obviously another attempt to change the channel, announces some vague notion of reducing the costs of child care, a phrase calculated to generate at least a passing notice from the millions of young parents, especially single parents, of whom there are many. But it is only the mention of the idea, “reduced cost of child care” that the Trump campaign hopes will stick, in a campaign so overflowing with “bullet words” that really no articulate policy debate can or will occur.

Mired under the political firestorm of her uttering “basket of deplorables” that comprise “half” of Trump’s supporters, Ms Clinton has retracted the word “half” and not the rest of the mis-step. This latest brouhaha has prompted news talking heads to ask the Trump surrogates if they will use the word “deplorable” to describe David Duke, a Trump supporter and leader of the KKK. Trump’s running mate declined to use the word deplorable, preferring “civility” in political debate. Doubtless, the Pence-lipstick cannot and will not cover up the Trump “pig” of the lexicon of contemptible and contemptuous utterances that have poured out of Trump’s mouth, without causing even a mere breeze, let alone the fire storm that ensued following Hillary’s mistake. And this dynamic, of firestorm compared with silence and calm is at the heart of the dilemma facing both reporters and voters.

Trump is not Teflon. Trump is not and must not continue to be immune from the kind of public contempt for his vile mouth, and the attitudes and beliefs his mouth attests to, and President Obama is trying to make that case. As the “surrogate-in-chief” for Hillary, (topping both Bill and Chelsea) Obama scorns Trump’s appearance on Russian television, lauding Putin, as his “strong leader” role model. Obama then turns his attention to the comparison of the two candidates on foreign policy: Hillary having travelled to more countries than any previous Secretary of State, while Trump is “in no way shape or form qualified to represent this country and be its commander in chief.” And then, comparing the Clinton Foundation with the Trump foundation, the one saves hundreds of lives, the other sees Trump taking money from people and buying a six-foot portrait of himself.

It is far from a continuation of the Obama presidency that Obama is pursuing so vigorously; it is the stability and the reputation of the country itself that is at stake. And, yet, the national polls have Hillary Clinton holding only a 4-point lead over Trump, with the gap closing. And why there are any Republicans of note supporting Trump is question the party will have to answer for years.

Treating Trump as Teflon, however, rather than smothering him with his own words, as the media has Clinton, leaves many unanswered questions about the adaptability, the integrity and the credibility of the fourth estate. Each of his Republican opponents in the primary tried, and failed dismally, to bury Trump with his own words, his own attitudes, his own vacuity, and lack complete lack of any real qualifications for the White House. The media has also mounted a highly transitory and forgettable attack on his candidacy. Little wonder the president rhetorically asks his Philadelphia crowd yesterday to “let me vent” about how the media has covered the two candidates….
There is clearly a large dose of misogyny in the electorate, reflected by the Trump candidate, as well as by the media. But there is also a large dose of “convention” about how to treat anyone who has secured the nomination of his/her party for the top job. Negatively comparing the campaign for the presidency to a “reality tv show”, while accurate and compelling is still not enough. The man so exceeds even the most basic requirements for the office, that some leading Republican party members have been willing to state the obvious, on television, and those statements have been aired as pseudo- or quasi-surrogates for Clinton. However, whoever risks attacking Trump is immediately punched in the face, the mouth and the character by Trump himself, as a “loser” or as “unqualified” or as a “racist” or “low energy” or “look at that face” or “corrupt” or “dishonest” (the last two now reserved almost exclusively for Hillary.

The national media has, thankfully, never adopted practices and policies and approaches that would be relevant and applicable to a grade nine election for class president. They have analysed the words, the ideas and the overall presentation of candidates including their gaffes, but, for example the “health of the candidate” or the source of the reporting, or the venue for the reporting (tomorrow on Dr. Oz for Trump, without any embarrassing questions) have never been so microscopically managed and discussed in any presidential debate, while the president seems the only one whose credible castigation of the Trump candidacy holds up under scrutiny.

That may be Hillary’s best campaign strategy: to let Obama be Obama, defending her character, her record, her strength, her steadiness and her “qualifications better than anyone who has run for the presidency”. Trump’s charge, “Why isn’t Obama doing his job rather than campaigning for Hillary?” acknowledges the impact of the Obama defense.

Nevertheless, as in war, where the “truth is the first casualty”, so too in especially this campaign, there are so few facts, facts on which the candidates can based their respective positions, and holding the candidates to a respect for both the fine print (literal) and the spirit of the facts, has apparently become impossible. As a result, the electorate is being fed a diet of “character assassinating bullets”. Trump obviously does not have respect for the kind of homework, the preparation that demands a command of the details over which the next president will have to preside, nor, apparently does he respect the electorate enough to  honour them through such preparation, and the accompanying commitment to an intellectual apprehension of how the mountain of information can be managed, and how the country might be led, should the candidate be successful. All of those conventional features of a presidential campaign are aspects to which Hillary Clinton has paid considerable attention, through inordinate discipline, strategic planning and policy development. So on that basis alone, along with so many others, she deserves the respect of the media, and the electorate.

Are we ironically watching one of the many impacts of our technological revolution, through the collection, compilation, storage and even the digital manipulations of data, and the drowning of public and social media and the people being served, resulting in the complete disregard for and apprehension of the meaning of that tidal wave of information? Has the digital age helped to produce Donald Trump’s candidacy, and the “reality television” foundation that has total disregard for the other, and for the facts?
It was not long ago that Senator Patrick Moynahan from New York famously said, (a statement quoted elsewhere in this space) “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts!” His expectation, even requirement of his political debating competitors, although reasonable, professional and minimal, it would seem, especially in the competition for the highest office in the United States, seems to have dissipated into the shadows of history.

It is the facts that are missing from this episode of presidential electioneering….and Hillary stands, as do we all, to lose, if this pattern continues.

Although it may seem pretentious and certainly unseemly for a Canadian to think out loud about how a minimal standard of public access and knowledge of at least a primer of basic facts, so that public debate would have some agreed-upon data and the electorate could then, at least conceivably, make judgements on both how the candidates have done their homework, and what proposals they have offered, in their pursuit of votes.

The current shouting match, essentially each candidate’s “throwing mud at the other” has brought politics itself, the media, and the competition for the world’s most powerful office down to a mere caricature of what it could be.
Ironically, perhaps both Republicans and Democrats could agree to what could be termed the “trump law” that requires all presidential candidates to submit their campaigns to a minimum standard of verifiable information, objectively and scientifically derived data, to which all candidates could and would subscribe and then any treatment of those facts could comprise the roots of the differences in debate. Spending millions on fact-checking, similar to the heavy burden of surveillance and intelligence in the national security arena, and padding the profits of private insurance companies through health care policies are all costs that impede the effective functioning of democracy.


Or course, it is a radical idea that has no chance of getting traction in the U.S.  based on its naivety, its “state control” of the facts and its “failure to support the “openness” of the liberal democracy. However, somehow, the existing agencies, and their absolute dependence on ratings and advertising dollars, in a highly competitive marketplace are not functioning in support of the long-term interests of the nation, and even of the world. And without a minimal standard of public data, the media has fallen into the trap of the “sensational extreme battering” (in pursuit of predictable ratings!) without the deployment of what was once considered some of the most exemplary thinking, imagination and rhetoric by candidates who wanted to be leaders of the world. 

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