Though I didn’t realize it at the time, I first met Donald Trump’s voters while the bully boy developer still was content to feed his grotesque ego on doses of reality television.
Since then, of course, he has decided that failing as a casino operator is precisely the preparation you need to occupy the position we used to call leader of the free world. What we’ll call it if Trump actually gets the job is anybody’s guess—but, right now, Il Duce seems like a good bet.
I began to discern the outlines of what’s come to be Trump’s base while writing a column on media for the Los Angeles Times. Interactivity was the era’s journalistic buzzword, so our email addresses were appended to the end of our pieces, as were comments from readers. I had worked an earlier stint writing a column in the early 90’s, when readers actually wrote letters in response to your work. This was during the run up to the riots and tempers were hot, but even the least civil of those letters—a distinct minority—were nothing compared to the digital reactions I received for the later work.
One of the first things that struck me was how palpably angry much of the reaction was. Name-calling of a sort I hadn’t encountered since leaving the schoolyard was unrestrained. I noticed, in particular, that I no longer ever was mistaken; I always was a “liar.” Suspicions of conspiracy and unseen forces ran through the notes like a dark thread; I was accused of being in a league with everyone except, possibly, the Zambian Patriotic Front. I lost track of the emails that began, “you Jew bastard” and finally wearied of pointing out that I’m a Catholic.
Journalism probably was the first of our national institutions and professions to suffer the sort of catastrophic loss of public confidence and regard that now has become generalized—and which is doing so much to roil the darkly chaotic politics of this election cycle. Some of what occurred to the major newspapers and broadcast networks was deserved. As newsrooms filled up with cookie-cutter graduates of a handful of better universities making upper-middle class salaries, something of journalism’s traditional diversity and working class roots was lost. The aperture through which many reporters, editors and producers viewed society became too narrow and excluded too much that mattered to many of their readers and viewers. This always was mostly a matter of culture rather than political ideology, but the highly politicized right-wing saw an opening and took it.
Many on the hard right long had chaffed because on most of the major news organizations’ editorial pages they’d lost the arguments over the major economic, social and civil liberties issues. They lost on the merits, but found that impossible to accept. So, they began a ceaseless drumbeat about how the shortcomings of reportorial journalism all could be attributed to ideological bias. Repeated over and over, the label “liberal media” became the right’s preferred epithet—and repetition granted the fallacy a credibility unsupported by facts. We had entered the era in which we still find ourselves in which political argument is almost wholly in thrall to the culture of assertion.
Into the space created by this wholesale assault on the mainstream media’s credibility and honesty, as well as on the very notion of journalistic fairness or objectivity, stepped the new media’s alternatives. Since the national press was biased toward liberalism, this new right wing press was—in the minds of its progenitors—entitled to wear its conservative politics on its sleeve. Enter Fox News and a host of websites, including Breitbart.com, which has suddenly found itself in the midst of an editorial meltdown created by its unabashed promotion of Trump. Breitbart is distinguished by its nearly super human ability to project angry outrage and, more recently, its full- throated Trumpism. (These guys aren’t just in the tank for Donald; they’ve climbed all the way in, sunk to the bottom and pulled the lid shut over their heads as they did.)
When you start tossing time-tested principles of journalistic ethics over the side—things like fairness or non-partisan reporting or the resolve never to intentionally mislead your readers—then everything goes, including the loyalty and support editors owe their staff.
Six staff members have resigned from Breitbart in the past couple of weeks, and what’s particularly interesting about their case is that they’re reacting to the malfeasance of their own editors, a misconduct grounded in ideology. The controversy began when the site’s reporter assigned to cover Trump, Michelle Fields, attempted to ask the candidate a question as he was exiting a stage. Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, grabbed her arm and nearly threw her to the floor. His grip left extensive bruising. Washington Post reporter Ben Terris witnessed the assault and confirmed Field had been manhandled by Lewandowski. “I watched as a man with short-cropped hair and a suit grabbed her arm and yanked her out of the way,” Terris wrote. “He was Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s 41-year-old campaign manager. Fields stumbled. Finger-shaped bruises formed on her arm.”
Breitbart initially demanded an apology, but the campaign manager took to Twitter, alleging that Fields had concocted the story and that she had a history of making false, self-aggrandizing statements and phony accusations of assault. Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks called Field’s account of events “entirely false” and issued this statement: “As one of dozens of individuals present as Mr. Trump exited the press conference I did not witness any encounter,” Hicks said in the statement. “In addition to our staff, which had no knowledge of said situation, not a single camera or reporter of more than 100 in attendance captured the alleged incident.”
For his part, Trump “This was, in my opinion, made up. Everybody said nothing happened. Perhaps she made the story up. I think that’s what happened. This was, in my opinion, made up.”
At that point, Fields’ support from her Breitbart editors evaporated. The site’s senior editor at large, onetime Tea Party congressional candidate Joel Pollak, posted a piece saying that a careful review of the video showed that whoever grabbed Fields, it wasn’t Lewandowski. He also ordered other staff members not to Tweet or comment on the case. It later emerged that Pollak, who also is Breitbart’s in-house general counsel, had sought a speech writing job with the Trump campaign. (We used to call that conflict of interest, but that was then and this, sadly, is now.)
According to Fields, who since has resigned, her editors knew her version of events was true from the beginning. “My editor, as soon as it happened, had spoken to Corey,” she told a Fox interviewer. “He told me that Corey had admitted to it, and I was getting an apology, so I stayed quiet. I wasn’t going to make a big deal about it. . .”
“I never got the apology,” she said. “Instead they embarked on this smear campaign against me. So they knew the truth, my company knew the truth, and they’re siding with Donald Trump.
“When this happened, my Washington editor Matthew Boyle was telling me, ‘Oh don’t worry, this is going to be great because Donald Trump’s going to give us so many exclusives now because they’re going to feel like they have to do it because of what they did,'” Fields said on Monday. “This is how my company was looking at this. Instead of saying, ‘Wow, what happened, are you okay? Let’s defend you,’ they were thinking that this was a good thing because we would get more access to Donald Trump.”
(Call me old school, but that sounds more like extortion than journalism.)
Another of those who resigned was Kurt Bardella, Breitbart’s spokesman. “I just couldn’t represent them anymore in good conscience,” he said. “I didn’t sign on to be a member of the de facto Donald Trump super PAC and, in this case, their allegiance to Trump took priority over loyalty to their own reporter.”
The problem, of course, is that when you start tossing time-tested principles of journalistic ethics over the side—things like fairness or non-partisan reporting or the resolve never to intentionally mislead your readers—then everything goes, including the loyalty and support editors owe their staff.
Meanwhile, Brietbart’s favorite son rolls along, dismissing his staff’s thuggish behavior and urging more of the same from his supporters. Wednesday morning, he told CNN “I think we’ll win before getting to the convention, but I can tell you, if we didn’t, and if we’re 20 votes short or if we’re 100 short, and we’re at 1100 and somebody else is at 500 or 400 — because we’re way ahead of everybody — I don’t think you can say that we don’t get it automatically. I think you’d have riots. I think you’d have riots. I’m representing a tremendous — many, many millions of people.
“If you disenfranchise those people and you say, well I’m sorry but you’re 100 votes short, even though the next one is 500 votes short, I think you would have problems like you’ve never seen before. I think bad things would happen, I really do. I believe that. I wouldn’t lead it but I think bad things would happen.”
With Breitbart in tow, Trump’s road to Cleveland begins to look more and more like Il Duce’s March on Rome.