A florid-faced bully stood on a table in a local bar and raged at my friends and me about some imagined slight. It was 1965. Although we could have prevailed if he got violent, his aggressive tirade made it clear that he was willing to go further toward a confrontation than we wished, so we sat in cowed silence until he stormed off.
I was a young man then and didn’t know what I know now. The bully on the table was confident in his ugly anger. He knew human behavior better than we did. Normal people don’t challenge a lunatic. Now I know he would have crumbled and slunk away, had anyone stood up to him.
This is Donald Trump. In the recent Commander-in Chief Forum, as in all the Republican primary debates, Trump blustered and intimidated in a similar fashion. The moderators weren’t willing to escalate the exchange, so they moved on. It is time for journalists to confront Trump, not back down when he escalates, and either reduce him to a whimper or expose him as the intemperate fraud he is.
Only 8 days from now the first of the 2016 Presidential debates will take place at Hofstra University, moderated by NBC News anchor Lester Holt. It is predicted to be among the most watched television events in American history. Here is my unsolicited advice for Holt, Martha Raddatz and Anderson Cooper.
1. Don’t allow either candidate to avoid answering your questions.
It has been standard in all recent presidential debates for candidates to either ignore a question entirely or to precede or follow a perfunctory answer with a long “talking point” prepared in advance. You must be strong enough to interrupt, repeat the question and, if necessary, cut off the microphone. It would take only one or two such instances to change the candidates’ behavior. The evasive nonsense that has characterized debates would not be tolerated in a middle school class. We have a right to expect more.
2. Be well prepared and immediately challenge statements that are patently false.
Both Trump and Clinton have made many claims that don’t pass fact-checking scrutiny. Trump’s honesty rating is particularly abysmal. The Pulitzer Prize winning website Politifact rates 87% of Trump’s statements to be “false,” with 46% “pants on fire.” Clinton’s comparable numbers are 27% “false,” with 6% “pants on fire.” Particularly in Trump’s case, the blatant lies are uttered with bravado, like the bully on the barroom table. You must be willing to say, “That’s simply not true, Mr. Trump. Would you like to retract that statement or can you provide evidence to support it?” Trump also uses innuendo or alludes to vague sources. You should hold him accountable. “Mr. Trump, you are making a serious accusation. Will you please clarify this allegation and provide a specific source?” Perhaps journalists think it’s unseemly to confront a candidate directly. I think it’s unseemly to permit a presidential candidate to lie with impunity. 10’s of millions of citizens will watch the debate. Only a small fraction of viewers will read the fact-checking article the next morning in the New York Times.
3. Don’t allow either candidate to make “I will” claims without further examination as to “how?”
It is common political practice for candidates to boldly declare, “I will . . .” Allowing this to go unchallenged renders the debate meaningless. An obvious example is Trump’s trope, “I’ll build a wall, believe me, and Mexico will pay for it.” You should be prepared to confront Trump with cost estimates for such a wall. You should point out that the Mexican president vigorously denied any intent to pay for the wall. You should ask Trump how he would appropriate the funds with a divided and recalcitrant Congress, likely with a Democrat-controlled Senate. There is no possibility that such a wall will be built and any responsible journalist knows it.
All political candidates say things like, “I’ll lower your taxes,” “I’ll abolish the Affordable Care Act,” or I’ll get rid of NAFTA.” A responsible journalist must insist that “I will” statements be rephrased as “I intend to work toward” assertions. No president can unilaterally change the tax code, repeal legislation, or invalidate United States trade or treaty obligations. Why does a responsible journalist let these declarations go unchallenged?
The discussion must focus on the fiscal and legislative ramifications of the complex issues that face our country. In Trump’s case, there is reason to question whether he even knows how these processes work. It is more than reasonable for a journalist to press him to explain how he intends to pursue his vague agenda.
Allowing these kinds of empty promises to go unchallenged has turned presidential elections into trite advertising campaigns. Even advertisers have to provide disclaimers in fine print. It is a sad state of affairs when presidential candidates are held to lower standards than pharmaceutical companies.
Although this decline in journalism has been steady over several decades, the current election is potentially catastrophic for America and the world. If Donald Trump is elected, a great deal of the blame should and will fall on the irresponsible, often fawning and cowardly performance by the major media.
The stakes have never been higher.