POLITICS

Journalist Wants To Slap Some Sense Into Reporters Covering Donald Trump

"On the Media" radio host Bob Garfield says the press is failing to convey the national emergency of Trump's ascendancy.

It's normal for Bob Garfield to critique the press — he does it every week as co-host of public radio program "On the Media."

But now, he's upping the ante exponentially, delivering strong rebukes to reporters over the airwaves and in a column for losing sight of Donald Trump's intrinsic flaws as the presumptive Republican nominee. You know -- that pattern of xenophobia, racism and misogyny that should have put Trump's candidacy on life support months ago, according to Garfield. 

"It’s about slapping a somnolent media into realizing that the stakes are extremely high," Garfield said this week. "It's a rare moment in American history where someone so fundamentally anti-democracy is in position to vie for the presidency."

Comments like that show how Garfield, at least on the subject of Trump, has leaped from press criticism to advocacy, or "agitation," as he called it. 

Trump's list of pros and cons tips heavily toward the negative in Garfield's eyes. That's why's he's so upset that the media have largely stopped challenging Trump's divisive, hateful record while instead engaging him about his tax returns and possible picks for vice president. 

To Garfield, Trump's ascendancy represents a national emergency, and journalists are asleep at the switch. 

"Why has there been no media crusade to deny him the presidency? The press jumps to warn America about missing children, tainted meat and approaching dustings of snow?" Garfield wrote this week in Mediapost. "Why are we not on high fucking alert?"

Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, co-hosts of WNYC's "On the Media."
Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone, co-hosts of WNYC's "On the Media."

But hasn't the press already shown that Trump would attack freedom of religion by banning Muslims, that he has called for killing civilians related to terrorists, that he's said "the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and Hispanics," that he waffled on whether to accept support from a white supremacist, among other positions and statements that would have hurt nearly any other human being looking for political support in this diverse country?

Not nearly enough, according to Garfield. The potency of crucial facts about Trump's statements has been weakly delivered, he said. They're drops in a shower that includes coverage of The Donald's hair and the whereabouts of his campaign plane. Even coverage of Trump's policy speeches is trifling to Garfield.

Instead, Garfield wants a laser-beam blast from the press focused on what makes Trump unfit to occupy the Oval Office. Everything else is insignificant.

In a country that expects objectivity from the press, and often confuses objectivity with neutrality, Garfield's unabashed directness might be unpalatable. 

Contrast Garfield's exhortations with the soothing voices that tend to dominate public radio and he becomes even more of an outlier. He knows it. 

"I'm taking a big personal risk," Garfield said. "I'm going beyond the personal comfort zone of journalists in the United States."

Cable news must fill 24 hours a day with content, and news websites are hungry for continuous updates, making it easy for journalists to offer up empty calories when they should be serving healthy meals. Kelly McBride, of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, (who was an early critic of Trump) said Garfield is making a rational, if animated, plea for editors and news directors to look at what they're feeding the public. 

"I'm not sure he’s telling journalists to change their standards of reporting. He’s saying, 'There’s a maniac and you’re acting like it’s normal. Use the old standards,'" McBride said.

Newsroom playbooks for covering Trump vary greatly. The Huffington Post includes an editor's note reminding readers of Trump's worst characteristics in every story about him. The Wall Street Journal editor in chief told underlings last month to be "fair" to the reality TV star, according to Politico. National Public Radio, meanwhile, had to clarify longtime commentator Cokie Roberts' role after she wrote an anti-Trump column.

WNYC, which produces "On the Media,"  says that its journalists must maintain their credibility with the public and not damage New York public radio's standing as an impartial news sources, according to a spokeswoman. 

"As co- host of 'On the Media,' Bob's job is not to report the news, but to be smart and dogged about how the media covers the news," said Jim Schachter, WNYC's vice president of news. "He has staked out a provocative position intended to make people in the media, and consumers of media, think hard about the proper role of journalists in an unconventional moment."

Garfield's wake-up call to colleagues "is probably too late," according to Ed Wasserman, dean of the University of California, Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism. That's because news outlets -- cable news in particular -- bought into the hoopla around Trump over the summer.

"They put him on because he drew a crowd and their audience numbers spiked," said Wasserman. "But at the same time, they conferred stature and credibility on his candidacy that I and other people think he didn’t deserve."

Some outlets are taking a more aggressive tack toward Trump. CNN on Thursday found a new way to point out an untrue claim from Trump, while The New York Times ran a headline Friday saying that Trump "could threaten U.S. rule of law."

That's a start. But if Garfield had his way, the media would treat Trump as if he were Vladimir Putin or another foreign despot. "Why is there a different standard for domestic bad guys?" Garfield asked.

This article has been updated to include comments from WNYC.

Editor's note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S. 

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