Presidential candidate Donald Trump reminds me of a county commissioner whom I couldn’t resist quoting.
Jerry Steele was a member of the Monroe County Commission when I was editor of the Monroeville newspaper. Commission meetings were usually short and dull (possibly because the decisions had already been made behind closed doors), but Commissioner Steele would liven them up with colorful expressions of common sense.
Well, actually, I often disagreed with what he said, but if it was entertaining or significant, I would quote it.
When he eventually lost an election and was on his way out, I wrote a feature story about him and offered a collection of his sayings titled “The quotable commissioner.” I searched for hours through the newspaper files but never was able to find my favorite quotation, which was his response when someone wanted the county to spend money that Steele didn’t want to spend. He said something to the effect that people think there is a money machine in the courthouse basement, but there is no such thing.
I know what you’re thinking: compared with the outrageous things Donald Trump has said, that’s pretty tame. But Trump is writing his own rules. And that makes him even more quotable than Jerry Steele.
Journalists cannot resist Trump. He is what they call “good copy” (“copy” being trade jargon for the text of a story). He is fun to read and watch, so he sells papers, raises TV ratings, and serves as clickbait for digital stories.
And now, some journalists who think Trump is bad for the country are kicking themselves for giving him so much ink and airtime. They are thinking they have done a disservice to the country.
Columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times that the media helped Trump succeed by not adequately checking his facts, not taking him seriously as a candidate, and being “largely oblivious to the pain among working-class Americans,” whose votes powered Trump’s rise.
My friends who think the “mainstream media” are always conspiring to slant coverage of events in favor of their political goals should pay attention. Here we have an opinion columnist for the nation’s most influential newspaper saying that he and other journalists could not resist covering a candidate whom they disliked.
CBS Chairman Les Moonves, enthralled about the revenue from the presidential campaign, said that “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” He is expecting a lucrative year. “Sorry,” Moonves said. “It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”
Let’s leave aside the question of whether Trump is good for America on the theory that the people are entitled to make that decision. Let’s think about what the media can do to make the decision smarter by being more enlightening, not just entertaining.
Journalists should not just report what the candidates say, but also ask them to explain, in detail, how they would accomplish it. If Republican Trump says he is going to force Mexico to build a border wall or his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, says she wants to let younger people buy into Medicare, the natural questions are: How is that going to work? Why would Mexico be willing to do that? What is Mexico’s response? What are the costs and benefits of Medicare (which isn’t free) to the individual, compared to other options? Where will we get the money to do these things? Is there (as Jerry Steele might ask) a money machine in the White House basement?
Journalists who ask sharp questions are not taking sides between the candidates; they are siding with the readers and the voters, who need more context and objectivity than the candidates will provide.
Asking the right questions requires journalists to get out among the people and find out their most urgent problems and concerns. Then they must publish stories that relate what the candidates are saying to what people need and want to know, and make those stories interesting enough to read. They must help people decide which candidate is really more likely to serve their needs.
That last part is a challenge. Entertainment and information are unlimited these days. If voters gravitate toward the entertainment, hear what they want to hear, and do not seek serious information, they will be hurting themselves and the country — and encouraging the media to continue to treat this campaign as a circus.
Steve Stewart is an assistant professor in the Hall School of Journalism and Communication at Troy University, and was a newspaper editor and publisher for more than 20 years.