To quote columnist Robert Fisk in a different context, “If this wasn’t tragic, it would be farce.” The tragedy is the ease with which Republican presidential aspirants manipulate news cycles. Not long ago, it was Mexicans and Muslims. Now it’s candidates’ wives. Anything appears to be more exciting than grasping the substance of national affairs. This goes beyond shameless newsroom click-whores striving for anything that will bring eyeballs to their websites.Take, for instance, the reports of who won which state(s) in early primaries. Presidential nominations are not based on states taken. Rather, it’s delegate count after each SortaSuper WhateverDay. However, the state count reflects editors’ expectations that audiences want and reporters will adhere to the win/lose fetish of American journalism. Recognizing this phenomenon, Breitbart News Network, the Trump/Cruz-loving website, has a daily update on what it calls “the horse race.” Delegate numbers are facts. Facts matter. In their absence, we’ve been stuck with wily media manipulation by campaign apparatchiks.Meanwhile, who asks a Republican candidate how he’ll do what he promises? Even rarer is the reporter who asks — and the presidential aspirant responds — how campaign promises square with the powers granted to Congress and the federal courts. Wannabe strong men can promise anything. Only sycophantic reporters let them get away with it. Trump was so successful as a buffoon in the early days of the campaign that huffingtonpost.com vowed to cover him as entertainment, not politics. HuffPost got its comeuppance: now, Trump tops its main news/politics site. That’s no accident. A study reported by the New York Times offers an insight into this sexless obscenity of American mainstream news media being seduced. The study was done by SMG Delta, a firm that tracks television advertising. It compared Trump’s paid advertising to free attention from news media. “He spent less on television advertising — typically the single biggest expenditure for a campaign — than any other major candidate,” the Times said. “But Mr. Trump is hardly absent from the airwaves. Like all candidates, he benefits from what is known as earned media: news and commentary about his campaign on television, in newspapers and magazines, and on social media. Earned media typically dwarfs paid media in a campaign. The big difference between Mr. Trump and other candidates is that he is far better than any other candidate — maybe than any candidate ever — at earning media.”Further evidence, the Times said, comes from another survey. “No one knows this better than mediaQuant, a firm that tracks media coverage of each candidate and computes a dollar value based on advertising rates. The mentions are weighted by the reach of the media source, meaning how many people were likely to see it. The calculation also includes traditional media of all types, print, broadcast or otherwise, as well as online-only sources like Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.“Its numbers are not quite an apples-to-apples comparison to paid advertising. But they do make one thing clear: Mr. Trump is not just a little better at earning media. He is way better than any of the other candidates.”Who knows how many of those stories provided substantive information of how Trump would redeem campaign promises as president? Which promise should a reporter pursue? As politico.com put it, Trump lies every five minutes. And generally Trump gets away with it, at least among Americans who say they approve his apparent candor about shared anxieties and hates. The Economist, a British weekly that follows American politics closely, credited “right-wing radio louts who thrive on the partisanship this foments (and) the shrinkage of the media of record” as institutional failures contributing “to the gradual growth among parts of the electorate of confusion and misinformation that quickly turns to anger.”The Economist also makes a point that I haven’t encountered in all of the free publicity provided to Trump by the news media: If most Republicans really don’t want Trump to represent their party in November, all they have to do is get off their couches and vote. Citing a study by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center, The Economist said “Trump’s margin of victory in the states where he has won is dwarfed by the potential pool of voters who sat it out … the apathetic far outstripped the enthusiastic.”If the outcome of the GOP race weren’t so scary, I’d love their primary/caucus/TV battles. So far — with the exception of John Kasich — Republican vulgarians have met or exceeded all of my partisan expectations; their bloodletting is a distracting spectator sport, not unlike what many Romans must have experienced in the Coliseum. The Romans had an advantage, however; they knew the winner would not become emperor. Instead, I enjoy watching Bernie drag Hillary left of center even as her delegate count suggests a Sanders nomination is highly unlikely.I was raised in Minnesota’s Democratic Farmer-Labor Party and I’ve never been tempted by any Republican candidate. Should such a lapse occur, however, Psalm 137:5 would surely remind me, “… let my right hand forget its cunning.”I even voted for McGovern, Dukakis and Mondale, three dispirited losers who are auguries for what’s happening within the GOP today. Now, at least, some reporters have begun to grasp the core of the Trump phenomenon: The national Republican party isn’t even a player in candidate selection. Now, it’s up to angry activists, fearful voters and billionaire GOP donors. And those millions of Republicans who didn’t bother to vote in the primaries probably will be stuck with someone they say they don’t want. Curmudgeon Notes: • About the same time as Islamist bombers attacked Brussels’ airport and subway, a United Nations tribunal convicted Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. His campaign of terror against civilians during the 1990s was the most murderous in Europe since World War II. It included the slaughter of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. Serbs rounded up, hunted down, starved, tortured and killed them because they were Muslims. That genocidal, systemic massacre was the most gruesome moment in an awful Balkan civil war among Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serb Christians and Muslim Bosniaks after the breakup of Yugoslavia.Last week, I didn’t read or hear a single mention of the religious affiliations of the Srebrenica murderers or Karadzic. Think of it. When was the the last time you read or heard of murderous Christians being identified as “radical” or inspired by God’s call to kill nonbelievers? Timothy McVeigh? He blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City. What was his religious affiliation? Dylann Roof, who murdered nine churchgoers in Charleston, S.C.? What was his religious affiliation? This pervasive cultural bias — Christianity being the norm — blinds too many American news media; context goes unremarked. • A similar cultural bias favors coverage of bombings in Paris and Brussels and creates an almost dismissive treatment of similarly deadly and recent attacks in Turkey. It’s somewhere between “They’re not like us” to “What else do you expect?”
This disparity is no accident. Just as civilian deaths in Africa rarely draw attention from American news media, Turkish victims suffer similar disregard. Bus crashes in France and Spain get more coverage here.
• Go to NYTimes.com and read its reporters’ long interview with Trump about what passes as his foreign policy. The transcript rivals the rambling, often incoherent Unibomber Manifesto. It’s not that Trump doesn’t “sound” presidential. He has no policy. This is what a paper can do that broadcasters and cable cannot. • In the same way, Enquirer reporters James Pilcher and Carrie Blackmore Smith continue to expose incestuous relations between Cincinnati Parks Foundation and city government. Sunday, they dug further, revealing at length and in detail how “parks officials weren’t entirely truthful about the nature of their relationship.” • University of Missouri board members unanimously upheld the firing of the assistant professor who called for violence to move two student journalists covering a black student campus protest. Melissa Click ignored the reporters’ rights or the desirability of covering campus events that challenged administration policies. A white woman, she sided repeatedly with black students and made their races part of the argument, even calling on young black protesters for “some muscle” to get rid of the two white reporters. She was convicted of misdemeanor assault for pushing/shoving one of the reporters. Her firing also recognized Click’s previous run-in with police trying to keep order when black protesters disrupted the homecoming parade. She blocked and cursed an officer but escaped without arrest. Click made it a racial issue, saying she intervened in her hope that as a white woman, she’d prevent police abuse of black students. That was her fantasy. No one accused police of unjustified force at the parade or during campus anti-racism protests. • Huffington Post reports that freelance videographer Mary Moore was convicted in Ferguson Municipal Court of failure to comply with a police order.She was charged after taking video of a peaceful protest against Missouri police violence in 2014.Huffpost said Municipal Judge Donald McCullin dismissed charges of disturbing the peace and resisting arrest, but imposed a suspended sentence for her failure to comply with an officer’s order. Moore won’t be punished if she avoids trouble in Ferguson for a year.Huffpost said Moore is one of least two dozen journalists arrested or detained since the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in August 2014. Some of the journalists sued police over their arrests and at least one has won a settlement.Contrast the speed and energy the Obama Justice Department showed in forcing Ferguson police to change their behavior with the apparent lack of interest in police suppression of news coverage in Ferguson. That, however, wasn’t surprising. Obama/Justice Department hostility to news media is nothing new. • An Ontario judge acquitted Jian Ghomeshi — long the star of the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. program “Q” — of four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking. Accusers were women whom he dated or worked with. Ghomeshi lost his job when Toronto Star stories detailed women’s accusations of rough sex.Judge William Horkins said accusers’ “deceptive and manipulative” testimony created reasonable doubt. The judge said their stories were inconsistent and “tainted by outright deception. The harsh reality is that once a witness has been shown to be deceptive and manipulative in giving their evidence, that witness can no longer expect the court to consider them to be a trusted source of the truth.” Ghomeshi acknowledged his taste for rough sex, adding that it wasn’t criminal. Ghomeshi damned the news media for making what had been private public. • One of Britain’s best dailies, The Independent, turned off its press last week and went digital only. In a note to readers, publisher Evgeny Lebedev said he began the digital transition after buying the money-losing paper six years ago. Then, he said, The Independent had “just over 100,000 readers in print and under half a million readers online.” Saturday, when its final edition came off the press, “our journalism will reach nearly 400,000 readers in print, and we have around three million readers online (a third in America; over half through social media; and also more than half on their mobiles).”Lebedev added, “A newspaper has always been a collaboration between readers and writers, but never more so than now, and that collaboration will continue online. “Like our founders, I believe in high-quality reporting, writing and analysis, a global outlook, and an approach that elevates truth and integrity above gossip, lies and invasions of privacy. That is why I very much hope you will join us on the next stage of our journey, whether via independent.co.uk, the mobile app, or The Independent Daily Edition on tablet.”A personal comment. London’s newspaper competition is the fiercest in the English-speaking world. It’s generally divided between “quality” and “tabloid” papers, defined by content rather than format. I’m not surprised that The Independent has so many American readers. I’ve been among them since they went online years ago. But The Independent daily/Sunday isn’t unique. Another great London daily/Sunday is the Guardian/Observer. It’s doing so well online that it has an American staff and U.K. and U.S. editions on its website. Then there’s The Economist, a weekly news magazine that, I recall, now has more U.S. print and online subscribers — including our household — than in the U.K. In all three — Independent, Guardian/Observer and Economist — it’s thoughtful content, intelligently reported and skillfully edited, that draws readers. As the old English saying goes, “Where there’s muck, there’s brass.”
CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]