Stockholm Syndrome on the Campaign Trail

It’s a rare campaign reporter who truly hopes his/her candidate loses and they can go back to adult journalism.

Jul 21, 2016 at 10:14 am

I’ve always been sorry for reporters on the campaign trails. They hear the same or similar speeches daily and have to find something — anything — to write out from one town after another. Meanwhile, as generations of politics reporters bemoaned, they’ll wonder if their laundry ever will catch up with them.

Donald Trump is red meat for jaded reporters who have to justify travel budgets.  

Even with internet access, campaign reporters rarely have the time or resources to fact check what they hear. More important than facts, audiences love what their candidates say, and that’s all that counts. 

Campaign reporters are caught between craven editors who fear missing some sensation and their own fear of being relegated to the elite corps of reporters barred from Trump events. Exile worked in the GOP primaries because even Trump’s anti-reporter tantrums were news in the media being turned away. His supporters cheered; others grumped in impotence. 

That’s a serious problem for voters and reporters. Access is the foundation of career aspirations and increasingly the key to simple survival in today’s turbulent media culture. 

It also helps explain why campaign coverage often reflects the Stockholm Syndrome, where captives begin to identify with their captors. It’s a rare campaign reporter who truly hopes his/her candidate loses and they can go back to adult journalism. In a presidential year, there always is the chance of following the winner to Washington.

When this vulgarian starred in his own narcissistic TV show, millions were entertained by watching serial humiliations. 

There was, however, no initial confusion among the news media after Trump announced his run for the nomination: Stories rarely strayed from the entertainment columns and shows.  

Huffington Post wasn’t unique when it initially announced that it was keeping Trump on its entertainment sites. HuffPost changed its mind — new facts will do that among reasonable people — and began to cover Trump as a presidential aspirant on its politics sites. 

Name recognition was something none of the other GOP aspirants could rival. Trump didn’t buy TV ads; he was the TV ad — for himself. Networks and cable couldn’t get enough. He is better than a missing jetliner for the 24/7 news cycle.  

TV news coverage of his insults and often unverifiable assertions yielded unprecedented free air/cable time. It was the ultimate example of “no publicity is bad publicity” or “say whatever you like, but spell my name right.” 

That it’s called “earned” TV coverage tells us more about TV’s value system than we really want to know.  

Meanwhile, Trump continues to benefit from perniciously incurious and almost worshipful news coverage; he is outrageous, funny, boisterous, toxic and surrounded by devotees that any cult leader would envy.

He can promise anything and Trump voters are willing to leave it to after the election to learn how he’d do it all. When news media fact check him, it reinforces followers’ shared sense of grievance against real and imagined elites.  

However, to quote Gertrude Stein in another context, “There was no there there.” 

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, is a policy wonk with a voice that would etch glass. There’s a better than even chance she’ll be our next president, but news media respond with a yawn to anything but accusations of criminal or serious candor deficits.

We’re all so accustomed to her defensiveness that even as bad news drips out, journalists are hard-pressed to find something new to say unless Republicans save them by calling for more investigations, hearings and indictments for gross negligence in handling classified material. 

Washington reporters have written it before, and only political junkies — beyond Hillary supporters and foes — seem to care.

Meanwhile, national and local journalists are renewing their quadrennial — and unhelpful — temptation to treat the campaign as a horse race. A lot of this focuses on polls. It almost doesn’t matter who sponsors a poll.

Trump’s up. Trump’s down. Hillary’s up. Hillary’s down. It defies reason. It’s a new sensation. 

Even the dimmest editor ought to be able to spot the idiocy of these snapshots of some voters’ preferences when the difference often is less than the margin of error in the poll. That’s statistics-talk for the likelihood that the real number is a little higher or lower than reported percentages. As in, “so what?”

So if Hillary is four points ahead of Trump in a poll of poorly educated and unemployed voters in Lower Slobovia and the margin of error is three percent, that’s damn near a tie if all of the numbers add up. It’s as if she’s winning by a nose — 200 yards from the finish.

Polls seem to mean something to campaign mavens — who presumably have better crap detectors than are commonly found in newsrooms — but another poll will contradict today’s by tomorrow. 

It’s sort of like “coffee is good for you, coffee is bad for you” in faux medical reporting. Wait a day. Smell the coffee. There will be a new study. 

At least, polls are something to write about that appeared to be news. 

That hasn’t been true of much of the endless speculation by politics reporters. Most was bullshit when they wrote or said it, and events — as they usually do — demonstrated how little journalists really knew. 

Finally, I don’t even want to get into TV networks hiring unemployed or failed political candidates and operatives as on-air “talent.” Will I really be better informed if failed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin or fired Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski interprets the news for me? 

Curmudgeon Notes:

Cincinnati Enquirer coverage of the recent federal civil suit claiming that the University of Cincinnati discriminates against women appears to accept the allegations as facts. 

The first headline was “Suit takes UC to task over gender bias in labs.” Not claim, not allegation, fact.   

The first sentence said, “A pre-med student is challenging the University of Cincinnati’s practice of restricting men and women from working together in physics labs.” The unproven “practice” of gender discrimination is a fact. 

An editorial said, “It’s hard to fathom why UC professors thought this type of discrimination would fly in their physics labs. Pre-med student Casey Helmicki, 19, has brought a lawsuit against UC and its professors for encouraging gender-based discrimination.” Again, the Enquirer states discrimination is a fact, not an unproven claim. 

Then the editorial writer wonders why UC  professors “thought this type of discrimination would fly in their physics labs” and encouraged “gender-based discrimination.” 

Finally, the editorial writer says, “UC needs to publicly denounce these practices if what the lawsuit states is true…” If? It can’t be both fact and iffy. 

• Few speakers at the GOP convention will be newsworthy, but networks and national papers — as well as the Enquirer — have to say something every day. Ghastly. 

But I’ll try to figure out how well the news media did in this scripted spectacular posing as presidential politics. With that in mind, Jim Rutenberg, the New York Times’ media writer, said this on opening day: 

“It could be one of those events that we look back on as a defining moment in American media, especially for the television networks: Did they once again this year hand themselves over to a Trumpian infomercial — the ultimate Trump infomercial — and bask in the ratings?

“Or did they rediscover their vital role of providing context, perspective and truth in a contest that is not a countdown-clock-worthy sporting event or reality show, but a competition for the presidency of the United States in fraught and dangerous times?

“Truth will not come to the fore without hard work and, potentially, a fight. The robust fact-checking industry that has sprung up over the past several years will have to work overtime during both conventions. But while Mrs. Clinton’s dossier of falsehoods has increased with the FBI report contradicting so many of her statements about her private email server, Mr. Trump and his campaign have generated so many untruths that declared that in the 12 years since its founding, “we’ve never seen his match.” 

And that was before this year began.

• If we avoid “soft targets” where vulnerable crowds gather, terrorists win. We want to travel, enjoy festivals, worship and participate in our politics. 

What we need is smart policing at major local public events. That we can do. I put it that way because news media suggest it was a policing failure that enabled the assassin’s bloody Bastille Day success in Nice, France.

French police allowed a truck into the pedestrian-only zone. It wasn’t a failure to search the truck. The failure was to enforce the no-vehicle regulation. 

There is no risk-free world while domestic and foreign terrorists are willing to die to kill. That always has been true. It won’t change. 

• But the news media have to give us a sense of perspective and context when they write and speak about terrorism. Think of our acceptable risks: self-indulgent obesity; preventable infectious diseases; smoking and chewing tobacco; abusing alcohol, legal and illegal drugs; living with road fatalities; accepting homicides and suicides with handguns; wondering how to avoid murderous relatives or acquaintances, etc. 

Add this to my personal list of acceptable risks: the possibility of being shot by some street thug or maimed or killed by a terrorist I never met. I’m not going to avoid urban living or foreign travel.  

I’m not brave. I check exits in buildings and airliners. I don’t sit with my back to restaurant entrances. I wonder why CVG valets park vehicles at the arrival area where anyone could leave a bomb in a car. 

I’m reasonably cautious in crowded situations, a result of reporting too many demonstrations in too many places that could have — or did — explode into riots. 

In my mind, a crowd is just a mob without motivation. 

That’s a long way from being terrorized. 

• We recently spent two weeks in Rome. It was jammed with groups of banner-waving Jubilee Year pilgrims in addition to the usual tourists. 

It’s the Mother Lode of soft targets. In addition to the crowded airport, we joined thousands at the Sunday Porta Portese flea market; Piazza Venezia where an upstart politician once harangued worshiping mobs; Piazza San Pietro outside the Vatican; Piazza di Spagna at the foot of the popular Spanish Steps; Piazza Navona with its three spectacular Bernini Fountains; Trevi Fountain made famous by Anita Ekberg’s wet romp in the movie, La Dolce Vita; Piazza della Rotonda in front of the stunning Pantheon with its huge, unsupported dome, etc. 

If I’d been terrorized, I wouldn’t have returned to Rome. Yet, in 50-plus years of living and visiting Rome, I’ve never seen such security. This is way beyond the traditional local cops and pairs of Carabinieri strolling the streets. Military vehicles and young soldiers with assault rifles guarded every public building or embassy. 

And they unfailingly responded with a smile to my “Buona giornata.”  

• News media say that so many Dallas civil rights marchers carried assault-style rifles that police thought many snipers were shooting at them. 

“They were wearing gas masks,” Police Chief David O. Brown told The New York Times. “They were wearing bulletproof vests and camo fatigues, for effect, for whatever reason.” 

When the shooting started, “they began to run.” Brown said police initially viewed them as suspects. “Someone is shooting at you from a perched position, and people are running with AR-15s and camo gear and gas masks and bulletproof vests, they are suspects until we eliminate that.”

Texas is an open-carry law and none of this was illegal. So is Ohio. 

But I’ve missed one angle in this open-carry, concealed-carry story: Why didn’t any armed civilian shoot back at sniper Micah Johnson? 

•As NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre never tires of telling reporters, "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Unless it was Dallas police — city and transit — who ran toward shooter Micah Johnson when he began killing cops who were protecting a civil rights protest march.

• A Minnesota police officer said he killed Philando Castile because he feared Castile was reaching for a gun. Castile’s companion said Castile told the officer who stopped him for a broken taillight that he had a conceal-carry license and a pistol. She said Castile was reaching for his ID as ordered by the cop when he was shot.

Now, even the reluctant NRA is rethinking what it should say about the shooting. Some members are complaining publicly that the NRA didn’t speak loudly and quickly to defend Castile’s Second Amendment right to carry his pistol.  

• Theresa May is the UK’s new prime minister, and we’re learning more about her fashion taste than any male prime minister ever suffered. She’s given to flattering dresses appropriate to her age; no mutton dressed as lamb here. And she likes leopard-pattern shoes. All I remember about her male predecessors is boring dark suits and ties… and polished shoes. 

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: [email protected]