Our media have a problem: they are essentially incapable of covering Donald Trump with anything less than full-on deranged hysteria.
I do not say this as an excess of rhetoric or op-ed theatrics. It is a very real, very pressing problem, only getting worse, and it poses a significant danger to the social fabric of the United States. Twenty-first century American media has the ability to shape our discourse and shift our public consciousness, and it is abusing that power in the worst ways possible. This is likely a bigger problem than any of us realizes.
The last 48 hours provided a crystal-clear example of the genuinely dangerous course upon which the media have set themselves. At Trump Tower on Tuesday, President Trump held a press conference that was initially supposed to be about infrastructure but quickly went off-script and became about the Charlottesville neo-Nazi madness.
By itself this is nothing new: Trump regularly goes off-script, if it can even be said that he has a script. But the media behavior in the wake of this conference was arguably something new, a sort of grotesque watermark of the media’s coverage of the Trump administration thus far.
The furor surrounding the press conference stemmed largely from one particular line Trump delivered. When one reporter asked about his claim that there had been “hatred [and] violence on both sides,” Trump replied: “Well I do think there’s blame. Yes, I think there is blame on both sides. You look at both sides. I think there is blame on both sides.”
Media Immediately Jets Into Astral Orbit
With that unremarkable assertion, the media were off. “HE STILL BLAMES BOTH SIDES,” CNN blared in enormous font on its front page. In a headline, The New York Times blared that Trump “again blames ‘both sides.” So did the Chicago Tribune. So did NBC News. So did U.S. News and World Report (calling it “an insane press conference” to boot).
So did NPR. So did CBS News. So did the Washington Post. So did the Wall Street Journal. So did Time. So did MSNBC. So did USA Today. NBC News later wondered: “Has Trump Lost His Moral Authority for Good?” CNN continued with the massive headlines, calling Trump’s press conference “a meltdown for the ages,” and declaring: “Trump is who we feared he was.” Vox claimed Trump “is offering comfort to racists and extremists.”
The unambiguous implication of this media firestorm is obvious: we are supposed to see it as outrageous at best and morally abhorrent at worst that Trump would claim that “there is blame on both sides.” The thing is, Trump was telling the truth. There is blame on both sides. And we have eyewitness descriptions and photograph evidence to back it up.
Truth Is Truth, People
Trump appears to separate the generalized violence of that Saturday afternoon from the vehicular homicide a white nationalist perpetrated on Charlottesville’s mall near the end of the whole affair. In the press conference, Trump stated in no uncertain terms: “The driver of the car is a murderer. What he did was a horrible, inexcusable thing.”
It is, rather, the periodic violence that occurred throughout Charlottesville’s downtown area to which Trump was apparently referring. And he’s right: both sides committed violence on that day.
We know this because people there saw it happen and have confirmed Trump’s characterization publicly. New York Times reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg, for one, attested: “The hard left seemed as hate-filled as alt-right,” she tweeted. “I saw club-wielding ‘antifa’ beating white nationalists being led out of the park.” If there were any doubt as to whether the Left were committing violence that day, Stolberg later clarified: “[I] should have said violent, not hate-filled.”
I did not notice any wall-to-wall coverage of Stolberg’s unambiguous eyewitness testimony. Did you?
Another eyewitness report comes from Isabella Ciambotti, a creative writing major from the University of Virginia. Speaking to The New York Times, Ciambotti testified that at one point “a counterprotestor ripped a newspaper stand off the sidewalk and threw it at alt-right protesters.” Photographic evidence confirms Ciambotti’s account.
Raw footage of the moment the counterprotestor threw the box is inconclusive but strongly suggests the counterprotester was unprovoked at the time. Further raw footage shows counterprotesters hurling objects at white supremacists and neo-Nazis while the latter simply stand there a good distance apart from the crowd.
Ciambotti also claims to have witnessed “another man from the white supremacist crowd being chased and beaten.” Additionally she saw “a much older man, also with the alt-right group, [who] got pushed to the ground in the commotion. Someone raised a stick over his head and beat the man with it.” Ciambotti claims to have intervened before the beating could continue further.
Ciambotti further asserts:
There were absolutely groups of peaceful protesters in Charlottesville this past weekend, many making a mature show of resistance. But what I saw on Market Street didn’t feel like resistance. It felt like every single person letting out his or her own well of fear and frustration on the crowd.
These People Don’t Have Strong Motivations to Lie
Both Stolberg and Ciambotti can fairly be seen as credible witnesses. Ciambotti, in particular, affirms she was a part of the counter-protest, yet she directly attests to the violent nature of the liberals who gathered in Charlottesville that day.
Additionally, Charlottesville police chief Al S. Thomas Jr. has affirmed that the protest saw “mutually combative” individuals on both sides. If the police chief who oversaw the mayhem is affirming Trump’s basic premise, might we assume that Trump is onto something?
It is not unreasonable to blame “both sides” of protesters that day. Yes, the neo-Nazis and white supremacists showed up preaching vicious hate, ugliness, and stupidity. Many were armed to the teeth while doing it.
But liberal protesters showed up armed, as well, and we have unequivocal testimony and footage proving that they committed unprovoked violence that day. This was not a gentle counter-protest of “passive resistance;” the Left did not show up to downtown Charlottesville to practice civil rights-style non-violent activism. They had fighting on their mind. And they fought.
There Was Plenty to Legitimately Criticize Here
The fact that our media dedicated an entire news cycle to Trump’s truthful statement on the matter is staggering. This was not necessary. There were plenty of things the media could have criticize in Trump’s press conference. He asserts, for instance, that “very fine people” marched with the white supremacists and Nazis, people “that were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue.”
Maybe this is true, but there is no evidence that the statue protest was made up of anything other than paranoid racists. Trump should not have made this statement unless he was willing to provide proof to back it up.
Yet he also told the press: “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally.” This, according to Vox, constitutes Trump “offering comfort to racists and extremists.”
Trump makes a lot of mistakes. Some are minor, some major. In that, he is like every president who has ever held the position. Sometimes he gets things right, too—-as he did blaming the Charlottesville street violence on “both sides.”
The media’s responsibility, if it even cares anymore, is to learn how to tell the difference between the things he does right, the small mistakes he makes, and the big blunders he commits. Currently the media are apparently incapable of telling the difference between all three: it’s one and the same to them, no matter what he does, no matter what he says.
This is a dismal situation for Americans to be in. We have newsmakers whose only professional function these days seems to be whipping tens of millions of people into angry, irrational frenzies. They do not seem to care about the truth. They do not seem to care about honesty, integrity, or accuracy. We are lurching from one shrieking, insane media episode to the next. And it is wearing on all of us, and weakening the bonds of fellowship and friendship between common Americans.
As I write this, the top headline on CNN’s website is: “This is a moral crisis. And it’s self-inflicted.” That’s true. So what is the media going to do about it?