Earlier this month, conservative blogger Matt Drudge of the Drudge Report tweeted that warnings over Hurricane Matthew were a government lie intended to make an “exaggerated point about climate change.” Ridiculous as it sounds, this was not the first time a prominent self-identified conservative had made claims about a vast conspiracy among government agencies intended to exaggerate the threat posed by climate change. Earlier this year, the chair of the House Science Committee, Lamar Smith, repeatedly attempted to intimidate and harass scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), whose findings indicated that climate change was speeding up, not slowing down, on the grounds that they were doctoring their findings to get the “politically correct answer.”
While elements of this paranoid fringe continued to point fingers over numerous fictional conspiracies, the rise of Donald Trump brought that same fringe into the mainstream. If you didn’t know who or what Alex Jones, Milo Yiannopolous, 4chan or the alt-right were before the election, you sure as hell do now. This is the scummy underbelly of American society that was the center stage of the Republican National Convention and has been the core of Trump’s campaign since it became clear he was going to win the primaries. While the actual rise to center stage of these crazies may have been an accident, the factors leading to that rise were anything but accidental.
If 2016 is going to be remembered for anything, it will be remembered as the time when the news and digital media finally faced the music for their inability to grow a backbone and stand up against Trumpism and idiocy.
It is painfully obvious that Donald Trump is anything but a conventional candidate. From the outset, his statements fell outside the norms of decency and into outright racism, misogyny and xenophobia; his rallies were marked by Nazi-inspired chants and violence; he was endorsed by David Duke, the American Nazi Party and the National Enquirer; and he himself had a history of engaging in fraudulent behaviour and sexual assault. And yet, the news media repeatedly failed to do its duty and ask him the tough questions about policy, his lack of experience and his outright racism. He was treated with kid gloves during the primary, given more airtime than any of his opponents, and at least one major news organization failed to disclose their conflicts of interest while reporting on him. And he was given $2 billion worth of free airtime before the primaries ended.
Meanwhile, The Associated Press ran a non-story about the Clinton Foundation this August that fanned flames about “corruption” with zero evidence for the assertion. This is only one example about how Clinton “scandals” turned out to be little more than hot air, or how she is taken to task for indiscretions that pale in comparison to those committed by Trump. WikiLeaks exemplifies this tactic of smearing the most qualified presidential nominee in history by releasing her campaign manager’s Social Security number but doing little to emphasize how clearly and dangerously unqualified her opponent is.
Critical coverage of Clinton or any other politician is usually a good thing. But when that coverage of minor indiscretions, badly worded statements or a general lack of forthrightness with the media is treated the same way as a blowhard talking about committing war crimes, it indicates that the news media is not, in fact, effectively fulfilling its job within a democracy. Successful democracies rely on a well-informed populace; as the conduit through which the public accumulates information about the nation, the media has a responsibility to treat con artists and conspiracy theorists as con artists and conspiracy theorists, not as conventional, serious candidates or public figures. Their failure to do so has legitimized the alt-right, the Alex Joneses and the Stormfront contributors of the world.
While Donald Trump is almost certain to lose this election, Trumpism as a phenomenon will not go away soon. It is time the news media grew a backbone and took a definitive stand against it. This not only means calling Trump out when he tells a lie; it means refusing to give conspiracy theories airtime, treating Clinton’s “scandals” for the non-stories that they are and taking politicians like Blake Farenthold and Lamar Smith to task for spewing nonsense.
Contact Arnav Mariwala at arnavm ‘at’ stanford.edu.