McCarthy Revisited?

We remember political races for their colorful personalities, and Donald Trump is trying hard to be our most recent one.

On Tuesday, Trump ravaged the news media during a 40-minute press conference, as the cable networks broadcast the event from start to finish. By the time it ended, Trump had blasted one reporter as a "sleaze" and the media with a slew of insults--"libelous," "disgusting" and "dishonest." Journalists, he said, were giving him "bad publicity for doing a good job."

Though Trump's latest affronts force the question of whether journalism serves people in the news or the public at large, they bring with them a sense of déjà vu.

US journalism has been here before.

Back in the early 1950s, when McCarthyism rolled into town, journalists behaved in much the same fashion. They were slow to recognize the impact Joe McCarthy would have on any of the institutions central to the nation, journalism included.

At first journalists belittled the Wisconsin senator, sending off disparaging missives like "dipsy-doodle ball" or "Senator McThing." When a near fist-fight in 1950 broke out between McCarthy and columnist Drew Pearson and made the news, its impact was short-lived. As late as 1955, the American Society of Newspaper Editors voted McCarthy one of the most overplayed stories of the preceding year.

Journalists gradually recognized McCarthy wasn't going to disappear, and they tried to cover his words and actions by following what were then considered journalism's standards of good practice--impartiality, neutrality and objectivity. But these rules were weak interventions and offered minimal protection against McCarthy's aggressive taunts. James Reston admitted feeling continually intimidated by the senator, and reporters described themselves as trapped by his tactics. They felt that they could do little other than report what he did and said. If it happened, noted one Washington reporter, "we wrote it."

McCarthy's successful manipulation of the media eventually prevailed, and journalists finally cowered and were clobbered. He dominated much of the US news for nearly five years, wreaking havoc on the nation's public life and the institutions it depended on.

Eventually many US journalists recognized their complicity in McCarthy's rise to power. One journalistic trade review condemned reporters decades later for having remained more "accomplice than adversary." Only after the fact did it become clear that by having followed cues that sidelined the meanings of the events they covered, journalists had failed to give the public what it needed to know about the Wisconsin senator--when it still might have made a difference.

Journalists' current coverage of Trump raises many of the same concerns.

To be sure, the McCarthy era predated today's fragmented media landscape, and news outlets today have taken up a wider range of advocacy roles than was evident then. But current news outlets have had mixed results in mitigating Trump's aggressive stance vis a vis the news media. MSNBC's Chris Matthews queried him persistently on abortion until Trump flailed, revising and reversing his position and revealing holes in his adherence to the conservative agenda. When Trump attacked Fox News' anchor Megyn Kelly, Fox News' boss Roger Ayres at first criticized him and then backpedalled his censure, leading to what was widely seen as Kelly's soft interview with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

By and large, US journalists have fallen short on the challenge to the media that Trump embodies. They have given him attention, but not of the right kind. They have provided him with coverage, but without the cues necessary for the public to make its own critical judgment of what it sees and hears.

Today journalists have the opportunity to do something other than take outrageous claims at face value. They can critically appraise Trump's words and actions, provide more informed and contextual responses to his statements and counter more decisively when he is wrong.

Ironically, Tuesday's press conference showed journalism in one of its better moments. Reporters repeated questions when they weren't getting answered. They persisted trying to secure information in the face of ridicule and insult. They retorted back when Trump belittled them.

And yet, news stories of Tuesday's event led with Trump's expansive harangue, offering a breathless tattletale of his most recent falsehoods and name-calling.

It's time for US journalism to pay heed to the implications of the coverage it offers. Journalism serves the public at large, not the people who are in the news.