In the early evening of last November 5, two days after the election when mail-in votes were in the process of being counted and the tide seemed to be turning in Joe Biden’s favor, Donald Trump took to the airwaves to throw a tantrum, baselessly wah-wah-ing about election fraud like an infant upset simply because he was not getting his way.
Democracy, it turns out, is suitable only for a more politically mature citizenry, while autocracy is for infantile and angry grown men who think exercising power means repressing others and getting your own way. This observation is not new; it is embodied in the oft-visible massive balloon of Trump in diapers.
A funny thing happened, though—or, if not a funny thing, at least one we have seen quite rarely over the past four years. A good portion of the media cut away.
As it turned out, the tantrum was not be televised.
Major networks such as MSNBC, NPR, CBS, and NBC all cut to cover Trump’s press conference only to cut away upon realizing he was using–or rather abusing–them to serve up to the American people a big heaping helping of unevidenced statements, of pure falsehoods, regarding election fraud.
As MSNBC’s Brian Williams put it, “Here we are again in the unusual position of not only interrupting the President of the United States but correcting the President of the United States…”
I could recall this refusal to give air time to a Trump lying spree happening only once before, during one of his COVID-19 briefings, although it could have happened more often.
This particular moment was a majestic one, a heroic one for our nation’s free press, at this most powerful yet exceedingly delicate moment in our democratic process.
Perhaps this moment was a turning point, a rite of passage for the media, when they realize their role in a democratic culture and society is not to cover every “side” of an issue, to give air time to every “perspective,” but to cover and report the truth.
Of course, some object to this view.
Ralph Nader, for example, excoriated the press for cutting away from Trump’s falsehood fest: “Trump is speaking now before the media. NPR cut off him off for a fact check. Unacceptable decision. I then scrolled through all the many commercial radio stations. They were not carrying Trump‘s remarks. Misusing our public airwaves, free.”
Really, Ralph? Come one.
Refusing to air, to feed the American public, pure and incendiary falsehoods and to participate in misleading the nation to the detriment of our democracy, is not censorship; rather, this is the free press performing its duty to responsibly inform and educate the public.
Of course the press has a responsibility to give voice and air time to many advocacies and perspectives. Speaking as one who holds political views far left of center, I wish the media would do more to create a larger conversation featuring a much broader array of political positions and possibilities.
But, the damaging vagaries of postmodern thinking aside, demonstrable falsehoods and misinformation, we must recognize, do not constitute valid perspectives deserving of air time. The truth at times may be a matter of discussion and not easily decipherable, in which case that discussion needs to be had publicly. But when the lies and misinformation campaigns are clear, the media’s role in democracy is serve as a watchdog and not give them air.
Too often over the past four years, Americans have been bombarded over the airwaves with dangerous dishonesty from Trump’s administration, largely enable by Republicans. Beyond the tens of thousands of Trump’s lies and obfuscations—from failing to release tax returns, to telling Americans to drink disinfectant, to claiming Russia’s election interference and the COVID-19 pandemic are hoaxes—his administration has followed suit. Remember William Barr standing up and baldly misrepresenting the findings of the Mueller report? What could be a more serious issue for our democracy than a hostile foreign power trying to influence who holds the presidency?
What if it weren’t amplified? Trump, unless imprisoned as he deserves, won’t go away. But he can be given less oxygen by the press, less air time.
Ignoring him just may go a long way to making him go away.
Anand Giridharadas, for example, tells the story of Don, an ardent Trump supporter, who, suffering from Parkinson’s disease, stopped trolling the internet because he couldn’t use the keyboard well, and he and his wife Katy also stopped watching Fox News in favor of CNN. His daughter Kathy reported a remarkable change of mind. As Giridharadas writes,
Maybe it was that — that unchosen unplugging from the day-long IV of untruth. Maybe it was seeing Trump go from candidate to president and not liking what he saw. Maybe it was the related switch he and Katy decided to make away from Fox News, to CNN. But Kathy again noticed a change, this time for the better. As soon as you stopped pumping their minds full of those drugs, they stopped being high.
Once Don could see Donald more clearly, he really, really didn’t like what he saw. He was especially angered by Trump’s treatment of Senator John McCain, a fellow pilot and veteran. How could Trump say he prefers the ones not captured? That Trump had been saying many such things for quite some time was immaterial to Don and Katy. They were awake now. They could see it now.
The untruth is a drug. And Giridharadas is not alone in pointing this out. Early last October The New York Times reported how many Trump supporters who deeply cared about affordable healthcare as a top voting issue, believed Trump would protect coverage for those with pre-existing conditions, despite a policy record clearly demonstrating the opposite.
One voter said: “I’ve heard from him that he would continue with pre-existing conditions so that people would not lose their health insurance. It’s made a big difference with me and my husband.”
Reporting the truth and ignoring the lies, which means ignoring the lion’s share of Trump’s verbal diarrhea, can make a difference.
It may be that a good number of Trump voters support him not because they are mean and racist like him but because they believe the lies they hear so much—because they are given air time.
If ignore Trump and stop giving him air, he just might go away.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.